There is little room to debate the general outcome of the interactions between the Spaniards led by Hernando Cortés and the Aztecs in the first quarter of the 16th century, but there is good reason to suspect that the story long associated with the Spanish conquest is more myth than true story. Examining and comparing a range of different narratives from around that period quickly reveals significant evidence that the belief that the Europeans were gods did not exist at the time of the conquest and was perpetuated both by Europeans and indigenous Americans in the centuries that followed the conquest. The myth long associated with Hernando Cortés and the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs involved the belief of the Aztecs that Cortés and his men were gods, with Cortés specifically being named as the god Quetzalcoatl (659). According to the myth, the date of Quetzalcoatl’s arrival and the direction from which he arrived were the same as that of Cortés and other omens also foretold of the unfolding events.
Limited accounts, especially from the indigenous perspective, and conflicting accounts from the Spaniards confuse the situation. The conquerors burned books in Mexico City and while the indigenous produced sources on the topic, none were dated from the years of the conquest or decades immediately following the conquest. Interviews were conducted in the 1550s about the conquest in 1520. The old men interviewed decades after the conquest were young warriors at the time of the conquest and would understandably give fairly accurate accounts of battles and fighting, but the close advisors to Moctezuma were killed during the conquest and regardless any survivors from Moctezuma’s inner circle privy to his thoughts on the Spaniards would have been very old or dead by the time by the time that interviews were conducted. Additionally, Townsend raises questions about the students responsible for the writings. These students had access to Greek and Latin texts with omens that aligned with the omens that came to be associated with the arrival of the Spaniards. The students were also from families of priests and nobles, a class concerned about being blamed or discredited if they acknowledged that they had no idea that the Spanish were to arrive.
Cortés had to justify his journey to Mexico, which he made without the permission of the king, and also had to pay heed to the fine points of his political relationship with Moctezuma to ensure that he could obtain land for King Carlos V without violating laws. The myth that the Aztecs were so quick to yield to the Spaniards may have sprung partly from this. Throughout the centuries, Europeans may have continued to perpetuate the story that Aztecs believed the Spaniards were deities because it was included in the Florentine Codex and made the conquerors seem cleverer and the Aztecs gullible. It is also an interesting story from the perspective of the conqueror, even if it is accepted that it is, in the very least, an extreme exaggeration.
It is more likely that several other factors contributed to the defeat of the Aztecs at the hands of the Spaniards and their indigenous allies. Most importantly, the Spanish had greater technological advancements, largely related to weaponry and armor. They also had navigational knowledge and sailing ships, which permitted communication with Europe and the arrival of reinforcements (679). Horses made another important contribution to the conquest, allowing the Spaniards to steal food supplies and dominate battles fought out in open fields. Diseases like smallpox that were unfamiliar and especially damaging to the indigenous population may also have played a role in the conquest.
Townsend, Camilla. “Burying the White Gods: New Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico.” American Historical Review108.3 (2003): 659-687. Electronic.