White Gods?

In Burying the White Gods, Camilla Townsend argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Mexica did not worship Cortes and his men as gods, but saw them as mere men with more advanced technology and weaponry.

Native primary sources, like the ones found in Chapter 3 of Mesoamerican Voices, were all written several decades after the Spanish conquest of the Mexica. The only contemporary sources are those written by the Spanish themselves, and none of these, not even those of Cortes, suggest that the Mexica viewed the Spanish as anything men with better technology. It is true that the Florentine codex does say that the Mexica associated the Spaniards with the return of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, but this codex was not started until 1540 and was only completed around 1570. Book 12 of the codex, which deals with the conquest, was probably written sometime in the 1550s. Since the Spanish arrived in 1519, it seems unlikely that many of the Nahuatl nobility who assembled the codex would have been eyewitnesses to the reception of the Cortes and his men, especially given that those very close to Moctuezuma were killed during the invasion.

Aside from the problem of the source, Townsend presents other problems with the supposed deification of Cortes. First, Quetzalcoatl was not particularly important in the Mexica pantheon, and in fact, Cholula, the only city for whom he was important, attacked Cortes as he moved to attack Tenochtitlan. Moreover, Cortes arrival did not coincide with a prophecy of Quetzalcoatl’s return, as is commonly believed; on the contrary, an explorer who arrived in 1518 was, according to the codex, also hailed as Quetzalcoatl. Finally, and perhaps most damningly, the myth of Quetzalcoatl’s return does not appear until the 1540s.

Townsend’s article raises interesting questions about the role of technology and the acceptability of asserting that one culture is in any way superior to that of another. She differentiates between technological superiority and intellectual or moral superiority. To me, this is an important though often neglected distinction. The fact that the French are further along in clean energy, for instance, does not by extension make the French culture superior to that of the United States. Instead of shying away the assertion that one culture has more advanced technology than another as racist, historians should recognize that better machines do not make better men. If they do not, the often complex reasons for historical happenings will remain buried under myths of the White Gods.

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