Montezuma, Moctezuma, Moteczoma, Motecuhzoma, Moteuczomah, and Mwatazuma are variant spellings of the Mexica leader most associated with collapse of Empire. In early Nahuatl texts he is referred to as Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (Moctezuma the Young) and properly described he was the ninth tlatoani or ruler of Tenochtitlan, reigning from 1502 to 1520.
One of the few eye witness accounts we have of the famous Montezuma as a person comes to us from the testimony of Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1490 – 1584), a Spanish conquistador who participated as a soldier in the conquest of Mexico alongside Hernán Cortés. Montezuma is described as tall, lean, cultured and bearded, attributes – particularly the tall and bearded – not normally associated with the Indigenous:
The mighty Motecusuma may have been about this time in the fortieth year of his age. He was tall of stature, of slender make, and rather thin, but the symmetry of his body was beautiful. His complexion was not very brown, merely approaching to that of the inhabitants in general. The hair of his head was not very long, excepting where it hung thickly down over his ears, which were quite hidden by it. His black beard, though thin, looked handsome. His countenance was rather of an elongated form, but cheerful; and his fine eyes had the expression of love or severity, at the proper moments. He was particularly clean in his person, and took a bath every evening.
His complete account follows.
The magnificent and pompous reception which the powerful Motecusuma gave to Cortes and all of us, on our entrance into the great city of Mexico.
The following morning we left Iztapalapan accompanied by all the principal caziques above mentioned. The road along which we marched was eight paces in breadth, and if I still remember ran in a perfectly straight line to Mexico. Notwithstanding the breadth, it was much too narrow to hold the vast crowds of people who continually kept arriving from different parts to gaze upon us, and we could scarcely move along. Besides this, the tops of all the temples and towers were crowded, while the lake beneath was completely covered with canoes filled with Indians, for all were curious to catch a glimpse of us. And who can wonder at this, as neither men like unto ourselves, nor horses, had ever been seen here before!
When we gazed upon all this splendour at once, we scarcely knew what to think, and we doubted whether all that we beheld was real. A series of large towns stretched themselves along the banks of the lake, out of which still larger ones rose magnificently above the waters. Innumerable crowds of canoes were plying everywhere around us; at regular distances we continually passed over new bridges, and before us lay the great city of Mexico in all its splendour.
And we who were gazing upon all this, passing through innumerable crowds of human beings, were a mere handful of men, in all 450, our minds still full of the warnings which the inhabitants of Huexotzinco, Tlascalla, and Tlalmanalco, with the caution they had given us not to expose our lives to the treachery of the Mexicans. I may safely ask the kind reader to ponder a moment, and say whether he thinks any men in this world ever ventured so bold a stroke as this?
When we had arrived at a spot where another narrow causeway led towards Cojohuacan we were met by a number of caziques and distinguished personages, all attired in their most splendid garments. They had been despatched by Motecusuma to meet us and bid us welcome in his name; and in token of peace they touched the ground with their hands and kissed it. Here we halted for a few minutes, while the princes of Tetzcuco, Iztapalapan, Tlacupa, and Cojohuacan hastened in advance to meet Motecusuma, who was slowly approaching us, surrounded by other grandees of the kingdom, seated in a sedan of uncommon splendour. When we had arrived at a place not far from the town, where several small towers rose together, the monarch raised himself in his sedan, and the chief caziques supported him under the arms, and held over his head a canopy of exceedingly great value, decorated with green feathers, gold, silver, chalchihuis stones, and pearls, which hung down from a species of bordering, altogether curious to look at.
Motecusuma himself, according to his custom, was sumptuously attired, had on a species of half boot, richly set with jewels, and whose soles were made of solid gold. The four grandees who supported him were also richly attired, which they must have put on somewhere on the road, in order to wait upon Motecusuma; they were not so sumptuously dressed when they first came out to meet us. Besides these distinguished caziques, there were many other grandees around the monarch, some of whom held the canopy over his head, while others again occupied the road before him, and spread cotton cloths on the ground that his feet might not touch the bare earth. No one of his suite ever looked at him full in the face; every one in his presence stood with eyes downcast, and it was only his four nephews and cousins who supported him that durst look up.
When it was announced to Cortes that Motecusuma himself was approaching, he alighted from his horse and advanced to meet him. Many compliments were now passed on both sides. Motecusuma bid Cortes welcome, who, through Marina, said, in return, he hoped his majesty was in good health. If I still remember rightly, Cortes, who had Marina next to him, wished to concede the place of honour to the monarch, who, however, would not accept of it, but conceded it to Cortes, who now brought forth a necklace of precious stones, of the most beautiful colours and shapes, strung upon gold wire, and perfumed with musk, which he hung about the neck of Motecusuma. Our commander was then going to embrace him, but the grandees by whom he was surrounded held back his arms, as they considered it improper. Our general then desired Marina to tell the monarch how exceedingly he congratulated himself upon his good fortune of having seen such a powerful monarch face to face, and of the honour he had done us by coming out to meet us himself. To all this Motecusuma answered in very appropriate terms, and ordered his two nephews, the princes of Tetzcuco and Cojohuacan, to conduct us to our quarters. He himself returned to the city, accompanied by his two other relatives, the princes of Cuitlahuac and Tlacupa, with the other grandees of his numerous suite. As they passed by, we perceived how all those who composed his majesty’s retinue held their heads bent forward, no one daring to lift up his eyes in his presence; and altogether what deep veneration was paid him.
The road before us now became less crowded, and yet who would have been able to count the vast numbers of men, women, and children who filled the streets, crowded the balconies, and the canoes in the canals, merely to gaze upon us? Indeed, at the moment I am writing this, everything comes as lively to my eyes as if it had happened yesterday; and I daily become more sensible of the great mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he lent us sufficient strength and courage to enter this city: for my own person, I have particular reason to be thankful that he spared my life in so many perils, as the reader will sufficiently see in the course of this history: indeed I cannot sufficiently praise him that I have been allowed to live thus long to narrate these adventures, although they may not turn out so perfect as I myself could wish.
We were quartered in a large building where there was room enough for us all, and which had been occupied by Axayacatl, father of Motecusuma, during his life-time. Here the latter had likewise a secret room full of treasures, and where the gold he had inherited from his father was hid, which he had never touched up to this moment. Near this building there were temples and Mexican idols, and this place had been purposely selected for us because we were termed teules, or were thought to be such, and that we might dwell among the latter as among our equals. The apartments and halls were very spacious, and those set apart for our general were furnished with carpets. There were separate beds for each of us, which could not have been better fitted up for a gentleman of the first rank. Every place was swept clean, and the walls had been newly plastered and decorated.
When we had arrived in the great courtyard adjoining this palace, Motecusuma came up to Cortes, and, taking him by the hand, conducted him himself into the apartments where he was to lodge, which had been beautifully decorated after the fashion of the country. He then hung about his neck a chaste necklace of gold, most curiously worked with figures all representing crabs. The Mexican grandees were greatly astonished at all these uncommon favours which their monarch bestowed upon our general.
Cortes returned the monarch many thanks for so much kindness, and the latter took leave of him with these words: “Malinche, you and your brothers must now do as if you were at home, and take some rest after the fatigues of the journey,” then returned to his own palace, which was close at hand.
We allotted the apartments according to the several companies, placed our cannon in an advantageous position, and made such arrangements that our cavalry, as well as the infantry, might be ready at a moment’s notice. We then sat down to a plentiful repast, which had been previously spread out for us, and made a sumptuous meal.
This our bold and memorable entry into the large city of Temixtitlan-Mexico took place on the 8th of November, 1519. Praise be to the Lord Jesus Christ for all this. If, however, I have not exactly related every circumstance that transpired at the moment, the reader must pardon me for the present.
How Motecusuma, accompanied by several caziques, pays us a visit in our quarters, and of the discourse that passed between him and our general.
After Motecusuma had dined, and was informed that we had likewise left table, he set out from his palace in great pomp, accompanied by a number of his grandees and all his relations, to pay us a visit. Cortes, being apprized of his approach, advanced to the middle of the apartment to receive him. Motecusuma took him by the hand, while others brought in a species of chair of great value, decorated, according to Mexican fashion, with gold beautifully worked into various shapes; the monarch then invited our general to seat himself next to him.
Motecusuma then began a very excellent discourse, and, first of all, expressed his delight to entertain in his kingdom and city such courageous cavaliers as Cortes and all of us were. A couple of years ago he had received intelligence that some other officer had made his appearance in the province of Champoton; and a year later, of a second, who had been off the coast with four vessels. He had long desired to see Cortes, and, since his wishes were now fulfilled, he was ready to render us any services, and provide us with everything we might require. He was now convinced that we were those people of whom his earliest forefathers had spoken,—a people that would come from the rising of the sun and conquer these countries. After the battles we had fought at Potonchan, Tabasco, and those against the Tlascallans, which had been represented to him by pictures, all further doubt had vanished from his mind.
To which Cortes answered, that we should never be able to repay him for all the kindnesses he had shown us. We indeed came from the rising of the sun, and were servants and subjects of a powerful monarch, called Don Carlos, who had numerous distinguished princes among his vassals. Our monarch had received intelligence of him, Motecusuma, and of his great power, and had expressly sent us to his country to beg of him and his subjects to become converts to the Christian faith, for the salvation of their souls; and that we only adored one true God, as he had previously, in some degree, explained on the downs to his ambassadors Teuthlille, Cuitalpitoc, and Quintalbor, all of which, however, would be more fully explained to him at some future period. When this discourse was ended, Motecusuma presented to our general various kinds of valuable gold trinkets, and a smaller portion of the same kind to each of our officers, with three packages of cotton stuffs, splendidly interwoven with feathers; and to every soldier two similar packages. All this he gave with every appearance of delight, and in all he did he showed his excellent breeding. He likewise inquired, after the presents had been distributed, whether we were all brothers, and subjects of our great emperor? To which Cortes replied in the affirmative, assuring him we were all united in love and friendship towards each other. In this way a pleasant discourse was kept up between Motecusuma and Cortes, though it was of short duration, as this was the monarch’s first visit, and he was unwilling to be too troublesome thus early. He then ordered his house steward to provide us the necessary provisions, consisting in maise, fowls, and fruits, and also grass for our horses; to furnish women to grind our corn with stones, and bake the bread: after which the monarch took leave of us with great courtesy, Cortes and all of us conducting him to the door.
Our general now issued strict commands that no one should stir from head-quarters until we had gained some certain knowledge as to how matters really stood.
How our general, the day following, paid a visit to Motecusuma, and of the discourse that passed between them.
The next day Cortes determined to visit Motecusuma in his own palace. He therefore first sent to inquire after his health, and whether it would be agreeable to the monarch to receive a visit from him. Our general took with him four of our principal officers, namely, Alvarado, Leon, Ordas, and Sandoval, besides five soldiers, of whom I was one.
When our arrival was announced to Motecusuma, he advanced to the middle of the apartment to meet us, being solely attended by his nephew, as the other grandees were only allowed to enter his apartments upon very important occasions. After the first compliments had passed between the monarch and our general, they shook hands, and Motecusuma conducted Cortes to an elevated seat, and placed him at his right hand. The rest of us were also desired to sit down on chairs which were brought in for us. Cortes then, by means of our interpreters, addressed Motecusuma at considerable length: “He said that all his and our wishes were now fulfilled, as he had reached the end of his journey, and obeyed the commands of our great emperor. There only now remained to disclose to him the commandments of our God. We were Christians, believing in one true God only, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for our salvation. We prayed to the cross as an emblem of that cross on which our Lord and Saviour was crucified. By his death the whole human race was saved. He rose on the third day, and was received into heaven. By him, heaven, earth, and sea, and every living creature was formed: and nothing existed but by his divine will. Those figures, on the contrary, which he considered as gods, were no gods, but devils, which were evil spirits. It was very evident how powerless and what miserable things they were, since in all those places where we had planted the cross, those gods no longer durst make their appearance. Of this his ambassadors were fully convinced, and he himself would, in the course of time, be convinced of this truth. He begged he would also pay particular attention to something else he had to communicate.” Here Cortes very intelligently explained to him how the world was created, how all people were brothers, and sons of one father and mother, called Adam and Eve; and how grieved our emperor was to think that so many human souls should be lost, and sent to hell by those false idols, where they would be tormented by everlasting fire; for this reason he had sent us hither to put an end to so much misery, and to exhort the inhabitants of this country no longer to adore such gods, nor sacrifice human beings to them; and also to abstain from robbery and committing unnatural offences. In a very short time our emperor would send to this country men of great piety and virtue, of whom there were numbers in our country, and who would explain these things more fully to them. Of all this we were merely the first messengers, and could only beg of them to support us in our labours, and assist us in their completion.
As Motecusuma was about to answer, Cortes stopped short, and, turning to us, said, “Verily, I am determined they shall comply with this, and let this be the commencement of our work!”
Motecusuma, in reply, expressed himself as follows: “Malinche! What you have just been telling me of your God has, indeed, been mentioned to me before by my servants, to whom you made similar disclosures immediately upon your arrival off the coast. Neither am I ignorant of what you have stated concerning the cross and everything else in the towns you passed through. We, however, maintained silence, as the gods we adore were adored in bygone ages by our ancestors. We have, once for all, acknowledged them as good deities, in the same way as you have yours, and therefore let us talk no further on this subject. Respecting the creation of the world, we likewise believe it was created many ages ago. We likewise believe that you are those people whom our ancestors prophecied would come from the rising of the sun, and I feel myself indebted to your great emperor, to whom I will send a present of the most valuable things I possess. It is now two years ago that I received the first intelligence of him by some vessels which appeared off my coast belonging to your country, the people on board of which likewise called themselves subjects of your great emperor. Tell me, now, do you really all belong to the same people?”
Cortes assured him we were all servants of the same great emperor; that those vessels were merely sent out in advance to explore the seas and the harbours, to make the necessary preparations for our present expedition.
Motecusuma likewise remarked that then even he had contemplated allowing some of those men to penetrate into the interior of his country, from his great desire to see them, and had intended to pay them great honours. Since the gods had now fulfilled his greatest desires, and we now inhabited his dwellings, which we might look upon as our own, we could rest from our fatigues, and enjoy ourselves, and we should not want for anything. Although he had sometimes sent us word not to repair to his metropolis, he had done so with great reluctance. He had been forced to act so on account of his subjects, who stood in great awe of us, and believed that we whirled fire and lightning around us, and killed numbers of men with our horses; that we were wild and unruly teules, and such like nonsense: as he had now gained personal knowledge of us, and convinced himself that we were likewise formed of flesh and bone, and men of great understanding, with great courage, he entertained even a more elevated opinion of us than he had previously, and was ready to share all he possessed with us.
Upon this, Cortes assured him that we felt ourselves vastly indebted to him for the very kind feeling he evinced on our behalf.
Motecusuma, who was always of a merry disposition, though never, for an instant, forgetful of his high station, now continued in a more humorous style, as follows: “I am perfectly well aware, Malinche, what the people of Tlascalla, with whom you are so closely allied, have been telling you respecting myself. They have made you believe that I am a species of god, or teule, and that my palaces are filled with gold, silver, and jewels. I do not think, for an instant, that reasonable men as you are can put any faith in all their talk, but that you look upon all this as nonsense: besides which, you can now convince yourself, Malinche, that I am made of flesh and bone as you are, and that my palaces are built of stone, lime, and wood. I am, to be sure, a powerful monarch; it is likewise true that I have inherited vast treasures from my ancestors; but with regard to anything else they may have told you respecting me, it is all nonsense. You must just think of that as I think of the lightning and burning flames which you are said to whirl about in all directions.”
To this Cortes answered, likewise laughingly, “We knew, from old experience, that enemies neither tell the truth nor speak well of each other. We had, however, long ago convinced ourselves that there was not another such a noble-minded and illustrious monarch as himself in this quarter of the world, and that the great idea our emperor had formed of him was well founded.”
During this discourse, Motecusuma secretly desired his nephew to order his house-steward to bring in some gold trinkets and ten packages of fine stuffs, which he divided among Cortes and the four officers who were present. We five soldiers obtained each two gold chains for the neck, in value about ten pesos each, besides two packages of cotton stuffs.
The gold which Motecusuma gave away upon this occasion was estimated at above 1000 pesos. But what was more, everything he gave away was given with the best of good will, and with an air of dignity which you might expect in so great a monarch.
As it was already past noon, Cortes began to fear that any longer stay might be troublesome to the monarch, and said to him, in rising from his seat, “We are daily becoming more and more indebted to your majesty for so many kindnesses; at present it is time to think of dinner.”
The monarch, in return, thanked us for our visit, and we took leave of each other in the most courteous manner imaginable. We now returned to our quarters, and acquainted our fellow-soldiers with the kind reception the monarch had given us.
Of Motecusuma’s person, disposition, habits, and of his great power.
The mighty Motecusuma may have been about this time in the fortieth year of his age. He was tall of stature, of slender make, and rather thin, but the symmetry of his body was beautiful. His complexion was not very brown, merely approaching to that of the inhabitants in general. The hair of his head was not very long, excepting where it hung thickly down over his ears, which were quite hidden by it. His black beard, though thin, looked handsome. His countenance was rather of an elongated form, but cheerful; and his fine eyes had the expression of love or severity, at the proper moments. He was particularly clean in his person, and took a bath every evening. Besides a number of concubines, who were all daughters of persons of rank and quality, he had two lawful wives of royal extraction, whom, however, he visited secretly without any one daring to observe it, save his most confidential servants. He was perfectly innocent of any unnatural crimes. The dress he had on one day was not worn again until four days had elapsed. In the halls adjoining his own private apartments there was always a guard of 2000 men of quality, in waiting: with whom, however, he never held any conversation unless to give them orders or to receive some intelligence from them. Whenever for this purpose they entered his apartment, they had first to take off their rich costumes and put on meaner garments, though these were always neat and clean; and were only allowed to enter into his presence barefooted, with eyes cast down. No person durst look at him full in the face, and during the three prostrations which they were obliged to make before they could approach him, they pronounced these words: “Lord! my Lord! sublime Lord!” Everything that was communicated to him was to be said in few words, the eyes of the speaker being constantly cast down, and on leaving the monarch’s presence he walked backwards out of the room. I also remarked that even princes and other great personages who come to Mexico respecting lawsuits, or on other business from the interior of the country, always took off their shoes and changed their whole dress for one of a meaner appearance when they entered his palace. Neither were they allowed to enter the palace straightway, but had to show themselves for a considerable time outside the doors; as it would have been considered want of respect to the monarch if this had been omitted.
Above 300 kinds of dishes were served up for Motecusuma’s dinner from his kitchen, underneath which were placed pans of porcelain filled with fire, to keep them warm. Three hundred dishes of various kinds were served up for him alone, and above 1000 for the persons in waiting. He sometimes, but very seldom, accompanied by the chief officers of his household, ordered the dinner himself, and desired that the best dishes and various kinds of birds should be called over to him. We were told that the flesh of young children, as a very dainty bit, was also set before him sometimes by way of a relish. Whether there was any truth in this we could not possibly discover; on account of the great variety of dishes, consisting in fowls, turkeys, pheasants, partridges, quails, tame and wild geese, venison, musk swine, pigeons, hares, rabbits, and of numerous other birds and beasts; besides which there were various other kinds of provisions, indeed it would have been no easy task to call them all over by name. This I know, however, for certain, that after Cortes had reproached him for the human sacrifices and the eating of human flesh, he issued orders that no dishes of that nature should again be brought to his table. I will, however, drop this subject, and rather relate how the monarch was waited on while he sat at dinner. If the weather was cold a large fire was made with a kind of charcoal made of the bark of trees, which emitted no smoke, but threw out a delicious perfume; and that his majesty might not feel any inconvenience from too great a heat, a screen was placed between his person and the fire, made of gold, and adorned with all manner of figures of their gods. The chair on which he sat was rather low, but supplied with soft cushions, and was beautifully carved; the table was very little higher than this, but perfectly corresponded with his seat. It was covered with white cloths, and one of a larger size. Four very neat and pretty young women held before the monarch a species of round pitcher, called by them Xicales, filled with water to wash his hands in. The water was caught in other vessels, and then the young women presented him with towels to dry his hands. Two other women brought him maise-bread baked with eggs. Before, however, Motecusuma began his dinner, a kind of wooden screen, strongly gilt, was placed before him, that no one might see him while eating, and the young women stood at a distance. Next four elderly men, of high rank, were admitted to his table; whom he addressed from time to time, or put some questions to them. Sometimes he would offer them a plate of some of his viands, which was considered a mark of great favour. These grey-headed old men, who were so highly honoured, were, as we subsequently learnt, his nearest relations, most trustworthy counsellors and chief justices. Whenever he ordered any victuals to be presented them, they ate it standing, in the deepest veneration, though without daring to look at him full in the face. The dishes in which the dinner was served up were of variegated and black porcelain, made at Cholulla. While the monarch was at table, his courtiers, and those who were in waiting in the halls adjoining, had to maintain strict silence.
After the hot dishes had been removed, every kind of fruit which the country produced was set on the table; of which, however, Motecusuma ate very little. Every now and then was handed to him a golden pitcher filled with a kind of liquor made from the cacao, which is of a very exciting nature. Though we did not pay any particular attention to the circumstance at the time, yet I saw about fifty large pitchers filled with the same liquor brought in all frothy. This beverage was also presented to the monarch by women, but all with the profoundest veneration.
Sometimes during dinner time, he would have ugly Indian humpbacked dwarfs, who acted as buffoons and performed antics for his amusement. At another time he would have jesters to enliven him with their witticisms. Others again danced and sung before him. Motecusuma took great delight in these entertainments, and ordered the broken victuals and pitchers of cacao liquor to be distributed among these performers. As soon as he had finished his dinner the four women cleared the cloths and brought him water to wash his hands. During this interval he discoursed a little with the four old men, and then left table to enjoy his afternoon’s nap.
After the monarch had dined, dinner was served up for the men on duty and the other officers of his household, and I have often counted more than 1000 dishes on the table, of the kinds above mentioned. These were then followed, according to the Mexican custom, by the frothing jugs of cacao liquor; certainly 2000 of them, after which came different kinds of fruit in great abundance.
Next the women dined, who superintended the baking department; and those who made the cacao liquor, with the young women who waited upon the monarch. Indeed, the daily expense of these dinners alone must have been very great!
Besides these servants there were numerous butlers, house-stewards, treasurers, cooks, and superintendents of maise-magazines. Indeed there is so much to be said about these that I scarcely knew where to commence, and we could not help wondering that everything was done with such perfect order. I had almost forgotten to mention, that during dinner-time, two other young women of great beauty brought the monarch small cakes, as white as snow, made of eggs and other very nourishing ingredients, on plates covered with clean napkins; also a kind of long-shaped bread, likewise made of very substantial things, and some pachol, which is a kind of wafer-cake. They then presented him with three beautifully painted and gilt tubes, which were filled with liquid amber, and a herb called by the Indians tabaco. After the dinner had been cleared away and the singing and dancing done, one of these tubes was lighted, and the monarch took the smoke into his mouth, and after he had done this a short time, he fell asleep.
About this time a celebrated cazique, whom we called Tapia, was Motecusuma’s chief steward: he kept an account of the whole of Motecusuma’s revenue, in large books of paper which the Mexicans call Amatl. A whole house was filled with such large books of accounts.
Motecusuma had also two arsenals filled with arms of every description, of which many were ornamented with gold and precious stones. These arms consisted in shields of different sizes, sabres, and a species of broadsword, which is wielded with both hands, the edge furnished with flint stones, so extremely sharp that they cut much better than our Spanish swords: further, lances of greater length than ours, with spikes at their end, full one fathom in length, likewise furnished with several sharp flint stones. The pikes are so very sharp and hard that they will pierce the strongest shield, and cut like a razor; so that the Mexicans even shave themselves with these stones. Then there were excellent bows and arrows, pikes with single and double points, and the proper thongs to throw them with; slings with round stones purposely made for them; also a species of large shield, so ingeniously constructed that it could be rolled up when not wanted: they are only unrolled on the field of battle, and completely cover the whole body from the head to the feet. Further, we saw here a great variety of cuirasses made of quilted cotton, which were outwardly adorned with soft feathers of different colours, and looked like uniforms; morions and helmets constructed of wood and bones, likewise adorned with feathers. There were always artificers at work, who continually augmented this store of arms; and the arsenals were under the care of particular personages, who also superintended the works.
Motecusuma had likewise a variety of aviaries, and it is indeed with difficulty that I constrain myself from going into too minute a detail respecting these. I will confine myself by stating that we saw here every kind of eagle, from the king’s eagle to the smallest kind included, and every species of bird, from the largest known to the little colibris, in their full splendour of plumage. Here were also to be seen those birds from which the Mexicans take the green-coloured feathers of which they manufacture their beautiful feathered stuffs. These last-mentioned birds very much resemble our Spanish jays, and are called by the Indians quezales. The species of sparrows were particularly curious, having five distinct colours in their plumage—green, red, white, yellow, and blue; I have, however, forgotten their Mexican name. There were such vast numbers of parrots, and such a variety of species, that I cannot remember all their names; and geese of the richest plumage, and other large birds. These were, at stated periods, stripped of their feathers, in order that new ones might grow in their place. All these birds had appropriate places to breed in, and were under the care of several Indians of both sexes, who had to keep the nests clean, give to each kind its proper food, and set the birds for breeding. In the courtyard belonging to this building, there was a large basin of sweet water, in which, besides other water fowls, there was a particularly beautiful bird, with long legs, its body, wings, and tail variously coloured, and is called at Cuba, where it is also found, the ipiris.
In another large building, numbers of idols were erected, and these, it is said, were the most terrible of all their gods. Near these were kept all manner of beautiful animals, tigers, lions of two different kinds, of which one had the shape of a wolf, and was called a jackal; there were also foxes, and other small beasts of prey. Most of these animals had been bred here, and were fed with wild deers’ flesh, turkeys, dogs, and sometimes, as I have been assured, with the offal of human beings.
Respecting the abominable human sacrifices of these people, the following was communicated to us: The breast of the unhappy victim destined to be sacrificed was ripped open with a knife made of sharp flint; the throbbing heart was then torn out, and immediately offered to the idol-god in whose honour the sacrifice had been instituted. After this, the head, arms, and legs were cut off and eaten at their banquets, with the exception of the head, which was saved, and hung to a beam appropriated for that purpose. No other part of the body was eaten, but the remainder was thrown to the beasts which were kept in those abominable dens, in which there were also vipers and other poisonous serpents, and, among the latter in particular, a species at the end of whose tail there was a kind of rattle. This last-mentioned serpent, which is the most dangerous, was kept in a cabin of a diversified form, in which a quantity of feathers had been strewed: here it laid its eggs, and it was fed with the flesh of dogs and of human beings who had been sacrificed. We were positively told that, after we had been beaten out of the city of Mexico, and had lost 850 of our men, these horrible beasts were fed for many successive days with the bodies of our unfortunate countrymen. Indeed, when all the tigers and lions roared together, with the howlings of the jackals and foxes, and hissing of the serpents, it was quite fearful, and you could not suppose otherwise than that you were in hell.
I will now, however, turn to another subject, and rather acquaint my readers with the skilful arts practised among the Mexicans: among which I will first mention the sculptors, and the gold and silversmiths, who were clever in working and smelting gold, and would have astonished the most celebrated of our Spanish goldsmiths: the number of these was very great, and the most skilful lived at a place called Escapuzalco, about four miles from Mexico. After these came the very skilful masters in cutting and polishing precious stones, and the chalchihuis, which resemble the emerald. Then follow the great masters in painting, and decorators in feathers, and the wonderful sculptors. Even at this day there are living in Mexico three Indian artists, named Marcos de Aguino, Juan de la Cruz, and El Crespello, who have severally reached to such great proficiency in the art of painting and sculpture, that they may be compared to an Apelles, or our contemporaries Michael Angelo and Berruguete.
The women were particularly skilful in weaving and embroidery, and they manufactured quantities of the finest stuffs, interwoven with feathers. The commoner stuffs, for daily use, came from some townships in the province of Costatlan, which lay on the north coast, not far from Vera Cruz, where we first landed with Cortes.
The concubines in the palace of Motecusuma, who were all daughters of distinguished men, were employed in manufacturing the most beautiful stuffs, interwoven with feathers. Similar manufactures were made by certain kind of women who dwelt secluded in cloisters, as our nuns do. Of these nuns there were great numbers, and they lived in the neighbourhood of the great temple of Huitzilopochtli. Fathers sometimes brought their daughters from a pious feeling, or in honour of some female idol, the protectress of marriage, into these habitations, where they remained until they were married.
The powerful Motecusuma had also a number of dancers and clowns: some danced in stilts, tumbled, and performed a variety of other antics for the monarch’s entertainment: a whole quarter of the city was inhabited by these performers, and their only occupation consisted in such like performances. Lastly, Motecusuma had in his service great numbers of stone-cutters, masons, and carpenters, who were solely employed in the royal palaces. Above all, I must not forget to mention here his gardens for the culture of flowers, trees, and vegetables, of which there were various kinds. In these gardens were also numerous baths, wells, basins, and ponds full of limpid water, which regularly ebbed and flowed. All this was enlivened by endless varieties of small birds, which sang among the trees. Also the plantations of medical plants and vegetables are well worthy of our notice: these were kept in proper order by a large body of gardeners. All the baths, wells, ponds, and buildings were substantially constructed of stonework, as also the theatres where the singers and dancers performed. There were upon the whole so many remarkable things for my observation in these gardens and throughout the whole town, that I can scarcely find words to express the astonishment I felt at the pomp and splendour of the Mexican monarch.
In the meantime, I am become as tired in noting down these things as the kind reader will be in perusing them: I will, therefore, close this chapter, and acquaint the reader how our general, accompanied by many of his officers, went to view the Tlatelulco, or great square of Mexico; on which occasion we also ascended the great temple, where stood the idols Tetzcatlipuca and Huitzilopochtli. This was the first time Cortes left his head-quarters to perambulate the city.
Source: Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo written by himself Containing a True and Full Account of the discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain, translated by John Ingram Lockhart.
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.