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503 years since the meeting of Moctezuma and Cortés. Death, destruction, and a plumed serpent.

Cortes meets Moctezuma

It was 503 years ago this spring when the Spanish conquistadors landed on the Mexican coast. In 1519 Cortés left the Spanish colony of Cuba with around 500 men and a dozen horses on a fact-finding mission to the area of what would go on to be named Veracruz. In those days the Spanish were the global super-power, and they did what they wanted. No permits, visas or of course certified translations were needed. Cortés was not the boss, however, he was under strict instruction from the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, to stick to the coastal area and not to head inland. Cortés, being an ambitious and rebellious individual who had seen his opportunity for fame and fortune, had other plans of course.


​Cortés and his men spent four months on the coast founding towns and fighting and trading with the locals while hearing tales of the magical golden city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. When they eventually set off, the trip of approximately 400 kilometres took the Spaniards three months thanks to the mountainous terrain, disease and skirmishes with hostile local tribes. The voyage would of course have been impossible if it weren’t for the other local groups that Cortés and his men had made alliances with. Many of these peoples had been vassal states or downright enemies of the Aztecs for years, and were happy to gain the support of a powerful new force by allying themselves with it. Without this knowledge, guidance and support with regards obtaining food, finding the way to the Aztec capital, and communication, the Spaniards would have been lost, both figuratively and literally. Cortés’ famous translator, slave and the future mother of his child, was, of course, La Malinche. You can read more about her role as translator in another recent blog post in our Mexico series, here. This local support that the conquistadors received is often forgotten in the legendary tales of how a mere 500 Spaniards and 12 horses supposedly managed to bring down the mighty Aztec empire and take control of a city of perhaps 250,000 people; larger than any city in Europe at the time. Of course, it was in fact a Spanish-led coalition that was made up mainly of indigenous warriors. A timely smallpox epidemic didn’t do the Spanish any harm either, since they had immunity from back in Europe while the locals dropped like flies in the face of this newly introduced disease. It didn’t start out with fighting though. The Spaniards were initially welcomed into Tenochtitlan by the emperor, Moctezuma. Cortés exchanged gifts with the Aztec leader, and all was going swimmingly until the tactile Spaniard went in for a hug and was warned off by the great man’s security team. Cultural misunderstandings may start off small but can end in tears, as we will go on to see. For the moment however, the strange bearded men from the East were treated as honoured guests and housed in the Palace of Axayacatl, with Moctezuma telling Cortés: “You are in your own country and house”.


As is well known, history is told by the victors, and Cortés’ writings on the matter certainly suited his own agenda. The meeting was all he could have wished for, and Moctezuma’s attitude smoothed the way for and even justified the ultimate brutal destruction of the city and its people. According to Cortés’ own description of his discussion with Moctezuma, the emperor explained the Aztec belief that an ancient chieftain of the region had once left for the East, “and we have always held that those who descended from him would come and conquer this land and take us as their vassals. So because of the place from which you come, namely from where the sun rises, and the things you tell us of the great lord or king who sent you here, we believe and we are certain that he is our natural lord.” It seemed too good to be true for Cortés, and we must take his report with a large grain of salt. Could the translator also have been at fault? It’s likely that it would have been to La Malinche’s benefit to put a positive spin on things and tell the boss what he wanted to hear. You'll find no such bias with our certified translations of course! Cortés' report that Moctezuma was happy for the Spanish to take over and to submit to their “lord” - since it tied in with Aztec beliefs about an ancient leader who had headed to the East - seems to tie in very neatly with the related ideas of the Aztecs seeing the Spanish as gods, and perhaps Cortés as the famous Quetzalcoatl himself.


As myths go, the story of the plumed serpent is about as good as it gets in my opinion. Quetzalcoatl was the Aztec god of, among other things, thieves and gambling. One story features Quetzalcoatl seeing himself in Tezcatlipoca, the smoking mirror god, and being so horrified by his face that he took up her offer for it to be painted. Tezcatlipoca then also dressed him in feathers and a turquoise mask and fed him an alcoholic potion. This tipple led to him getting involved in a drunken orgy with his own sister, leaving him later so disgusted with himself, his appearance and his actions, that he left the Aztec homeland, sailing off towards the east. So, it can be seen how the sight of strange men arriving from the east in huge floating castles was linked to the return of Quetzalcoatl. Much has been written on this legend that Cortés was believed to be a god by Moctezuma and the Aztecs. Cortés’s supposed deification however seems to have come about though mistranslations and bold exaggeration. And who can resist such a good story? Tall tales get repeated like Chinese whispers, and an extraordinary happening can soon develop into a legend of fantastic proportions. Don’t let something similar happen with your translation. Our certified translations come with a guarantee of accuracy from an experienced and qualified translator, so you can rest assured that we’ll produce a true-to-life English version of the documents you need. We love incredible stories such as the above, but when it comes to certified translation, we are deadly serious.

Stamping a certified translation

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