We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. — Winston Churchill

Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober




The Beginning of the End

[A. D. 1507.] A strange campaign was undertaken by the Aztec Emperor, in 1506, against the Lord of Malinalli, in the Miztec country. It seems that this lord had in his possession a very precious plant,—and it must have been very precious to have had such a long name,—called the tlapalizqui-xochitl, that is, the "red flower." He refused to give up to Montezuma this tlapalizqui-xochitl, and so that emperor sent for it, and got it; and also numerous captives, who were sacrificed at the dedication of the Tzompantli, or place of skulls, and at the festival of the tying-up-of-the-cycle.

At the very beginning of the new cycle occurred an eclipse; this was followed by an earthquake; seventeen hundred soldiers were drowned in the Miztec country; the inhabitants of Anahuac were terrified at these manifestations of divine displeasure. "With the new cycle began a period during which, down to the appearance of the Spaniards at Vera Cruz, every event was invested with a mysterious significance. . . . An army, sent to the province of Amatlan, perished with cold, and by falling trees and rocks; a comet with three heads hung in the sky above Anahuac; a great pyramid of fire was visible for forty days inn the east, reaching from the earth to the sky." It was only too evident to Montezuma and the allied kings, as ell as to their people, that great disasters were impending. It is not unlikely that unusual importance was given to these mysterious events, owing to the arrival of Europeans on the coast of Central America. Can we doubt that the obedient subjects of Montezuma had failed to inform him of the arrival of Columbus on the coast of Honduras in 1502? Four years later his army had invaded Guatemala. When they later returned, with prisoners for the priests, did they not report, what they could not have failed to have heard from the Guatemala Indians, that a white man's vessel had touched their shore and bartered with the natives? In 1506 De Solis and Pinzon, Spanish navigators, had coasted the eastern shore of Yucatan. Is it possible that Montezuma should not have heard of one of these arrivals? At the opening of the sixteenth century, when these omens first began to agitate the minds of the Mexicans, the islands of the Caribbean Sea had been ten years visited by Europeans. The currents of that sea set up directly against the eastern coast of Yucatan and Mexico from the southernmost of these islands. Is it not probable that some article belonging to the white strangers should have been washed upon these shores? One of the early historians, Herrera, says that the king had in his possession "a box containing wearing apparel, and a sword of a style unknown to the natives."

Guatemalan Idol.
GUATEMALAN IDOL.


The appearance of the comet terrified them exceedingly; the superstitious Montezuma consulted his astrologers, but they could give him no satisfactory explanation. Then he applied to Nezahualpilli, King of Tezcoco, who, of late years, had given so much attention to the study of astronomy and astrology. Between the two monarchs a coldness had existed for some years, owing to the public execution, by Nezahualpilli, of one of his wives, a sister of Montezuma, and of a son, for whose life the Mexican king had interceded in vain. But in this extremity the disasters which threatened, seeming not to be confined to one nation, but to be universal, the kings were reunited. Nezahualpilli, being invited to Mexico, and there put in possession of all the facts, concluded "that the comet predicted the future disasters of those kingdoms by the arrival of a new people." Montezuma did not relish this interpretation, and they agreed to settle it by a game of football between themselves. As Nezahualpilli came off victorious, it seemed conclusive that his interpretation was the correct one; but still Montezuma was not satisfied. He resolved to consult a famous astrologer of his own kingdom, who was justly considered as an oracle. Much to the chagrin of the monarch this diviner confirmed the prediction of the King of Tezcoco, and Montezuma, in a great rage, caused his house to be pulled to pieces and tumbled about his ears. No doubt he would have liked to serve Nezahualpilli in the same manner, but he dared not; he retired to his palace in disgust, and filled with apprehension.

[A. D. 1509.] Some of the Spanish historians speak of an occurrence that happened at this time in confirmation of these gloomy predictions. In the year 1509, Papantzin, a Mexican princess, a sister to Montezuma, died, apparently, and was buried with great honors in a cavern in the garden where she was wont to go to bathe in a fountain. It seems, however, that she was merely in a trance, and when she recovered she groped her way out of the cave and sent for her relatives, Montezuma and Nezahualpilli, declaring she had a message of great importance to communicate. When they had arrived, and had convinced themselves that It was truly Papantzin, sister of Montezuma, whom they had buried a few days before, they sat down and listened to her story. She said that after the trance had seized her, she found herself wandering upon an extensive plain. "In the middle of it I observed a road, which afterwards saw was divided into a variety of paths, and on one side ran a great river, whose waters made a frightful noise. As I was going to throw myself into the river, to swim to the opposite bank, I saw before me a beautiful youth, clothed in a long habit, white as snow and dazzling like the sun, with wings of beautiful feathers, and the mark of the cross upon his forehead. He laid hold of my hand and said to me, 'Stop, for it is not yet time to pass this river.' He then led me along by the river-side, upon the borders of which I saw a great number of human skulls and bones, and heard most lamentable groans, that waked my utmost pity. Turning my eyes towards the river I saw some large vessels upon it, filled with men of a complexion and dress quite different from ours. They were fair and bearded, and carried standards in their hands and helmets on their heads. The youth then said to me, 'It is the will of God that thou shalt live to be a witness of the revolutions which are to happen to these kingdoms. The groans which thou hast heard among these bones are from the souls of your ancestors, which are ever and will be tormented for their crimes. The men whom you see coming in these vessels are those who by their arms will make themselves masters of all these kingdoms, and with them will be introduced the knowledge of the true God, the Creator of heaven and earth. As soon as the war shall be at an end, and the means made known by which sins shall be washed away, be thou the first to receive it, and guide by thy example the natives of thy country.' Having spoken this, the youth disappeared, and I found myself recalled to life."

It is said, that Montezuma was so shocked by this melancholy prediction of the downfall of his empire that he immediately retired to one of his palaces devoted to occasions of grief, and refused ever after to see his sister. It is also related that she was the first, in the year 1524, to receive baptism from the Spanish priests, and was called Dona Maria Papantzin. There is nothing to cause us to doubt the occurrence of the other signs and events related, but there is every evidence in this tradition of the work of the priests. It is a very pretty fable which they used to relate, in those years following the conquest, to induce the unsuspicious Indians to turn from their old religion and embrace the new.

Though visibly affected by these prognostics of coming woe, Montezuma continued to urge war, relentless war, against tribes yet unconquered by Mexico.

[A. D. 1310.] In 1508 and the year following he made 5000 prisoners, which were reserved for sacrifice in 1510. This was the year in which he had brought to Mexico a new sacrificial stone. Instead of acting upon the advice of the King of Tezcoco, and desisting from further bloodshed, he listened to the counsel of his priests, who declared that only blood, shed in copious streams, could avert the threatened punishment of his gods. Then he sought for a stone large enough to form a fitting addition to his magnificent temple. It was found in the quarries near Cojoacan, and after it was hewn to the required size it was brought to Mexico. A vast concourse attended it, and the high-priest marched before it, muttering prayers and scattering incense. In crossing one of the wooden bridges over a canal, this immense mass broke through and fell into the water. The miserable priest and many of the men engaged in drawing it were drowned, or crushed to death, and the people rendered very unhappy by this event. They drew it out again, after incredible exertions, and finally deposited it near, or on, the temple. This stone may he seen to-day, in the Museum of Mexico, an elaborately chiseled block of basalt, nine feet in diameter and three feet in height. Those Mexican sculptors patiently carved its sides and upper surface, the sides representing a procession of victors despoiling or slaying their captives. The upper surface is cut in symmetrical designs, and in the centre is a hollow with a gutter leading to the edge of the stone. This was to receive the blood of their victims, after they had been thrown upon the stone and their breasts cut open—as described on a preceding page.

This memorial of Aztec barbarity was discovered in 1790, in the great square where the temple formerly stood, which was demolished during the siege of the city, Twelve thousand prisoners, were, it is said, sacrificed upon this stone at its dedication, in the year 1510.

All the nobility of the kingdom were invited to be present at the ceremonial, and departed laden with presents; for the king, Montezuma, was a generous king, giving away the products of earth with as unsparing a hand as he took the human lives entrusted to his keeping.

Sacrificial Stone
SACRIFICIAL STONE


[A. D. 1515.] Up to the year 1515, the armies of Montezuma were constantly engaged in different parts of the empire, in quelling riots and in extending its limits. At this period they had acquired all the territory they held at the coming of the Spaniards. If you would ascertain the extent of Aztec dominion at this time, and will turn to a map of Mexico, you will find that territory comprised in the modern states of Mexico, Puebla, San Luis Potosi and some of Tamaulipas, Queretaro, Vera Cruz, Guerrero, Western Oaxaca and Chiapas. South of Chiapas the Mexicans had penetrated even to Guatemala, and perhaps to Nicaragua, but had acquired no permanent foothold there. The Aztec empire thus extended from Gulf to Ocean, not directly across, but touching both coasts at different points; it comprised a large area, though not altogether entirely subjugated. During the reign of Ahuitzotl it had attained to the zenith of its power and glory; although territory had been added since, yet the empire was sensibly weaker. As an ancient historian truly says: "Every province which was conquered created a new enemy to the conquerors, who became impatient of the yoke to which they were not accustomed, and only waited an opportunity of being revenged and restoring themselves to their wonted liberty. It would appear that the happiness of a kingdom consists, not in the extension of the dominions; nor the number of its vassals, but, on the contrary, that it approaches at no time nearer to its final period than when, on account of its vast and unbounded extent, it can no longer maintain the necessary union among its parts, nor that vigor which is requisite to withstand the multitude of its enemies."

Nezahualpilli, King of Tezcoco, was greatly depressed by the forebodings of the oracles, and retired to his pleasure-retreat of Tezcosingo, where he shut himself up with his favorite wife, Xocotzin. Six months later, he returned to his palace in Tezcoco, and there died in seclusion, wishing, perhaps, that his subjects should think he had been translated to the kingdom of his ancestors, Ameque-mecan, like his worthy father before him. Nezahualpilli resembled his father, Nezahualcoyotl, in his love of justice and inflexible administration of his own laws. Having commanded that no person in his kingdom should repeat certain indecent words, on pain of death, he caused the penalty to be carried out against his own son for having addressed them to one of his mistresses. He was the last of that glorious line of Chichimec kings that sat undisturbed upon the throne of Acolhuacan. Through discordant elements, directly traceable to his own sins, his kingdom was divided against itself, one portion taking part with the Mexicans and the other with the Spaniards, in the coming contest.

[A. D. 1516.] Cacamatzin, the first-born of the late king's sons by his first marriage—to the Mexican princess—was the choice of the electors to fill the throne. This was violently opposed by Ixtlilxochitl, the son of the second princess married by Nezahualpilli, though Coanocotzin, the second son, acquiesced in the wisdom of the choice.

Cacamatzin was twenty-two, Coanocotzin twenty, while Ixtlilxochitl was only eighteen. But the latter was the most given to fighting of the three, and, though he may not have been the bravest, was the most quarrelsome. When only three years of age he pushed his nurse into a well, and threw stones upon her. At seven he raised a company of boys, which was the constant torment of peaceful citizens, not even considering their lives. One of the royal council having, very wisely, counselled the king to put to death such a disgraceful wretch, was assassinated by the boy himself. Old Nezahualpilli looked complacently upon the doings of this little imp, being the son of his favorite wife,—though he put one of his sons to death for speaking disrespectfully to one of his mistresses, and another for having commenced a palace without his royal permission.

Cacamatzin was favored by Montezuma, and was crowned King of Tezcoco, while the fiery Ixtlilxochitl withdrew in a rage to the mountains. He was followed by a large force, and raised an army of nearly one hundred thousand men, with which he marched southward against Tezcoco. He took Otompan, and made it his capital, and his brothers were glad to send him word that they would divide the kingdom with him, he taking the mountains and they the plain. Ixtlilxochitl returned, that he had no further design against Tezcoco, but that he should maintain his army as a safeguard against the ambitious designs of Montezuma, of whom he warned them. He annoyed the Mexicans greatly, by appearing suddenly at different points in the valley. He burned alive a general of Montezuma's, who had gone out to capture him, and even had the temerity to dare his uncle, the great Montezuma, to personal combat! We cannot be less amazed than amused at this youth's audacity; his courage seems to have been equal to that of his grandfather, Nezahualcoyotl.

[A. D. 1517.] The year 1517 had been ushered in during the transactions narrated above,—a year big with the fate of the Mexican empire, for in it landed the first Spaniards on the shores of the Mexican Gulf. Let us not forget the condition of things at this time: the constant decrease in strength of the Mexican empire through its repeated acts of aggression, and the position taken by its most important ally, the kingdom of Tezcoco.

Do not lose sight of these three Tezcocan princes, two of whom perished at the hands of the Spaniards, while the wickedest was rewarded with riches and honors. It will appear, when we reach the account of the Conquest, that the great army of the active prince, Ixtlilxochitl, was of the greatest service to the Spanish conqueror, Cortes, second in importance only to that of the brave Tlascallans. Had the Spanish commander known of the condition of things in Anahuac at the time of his coming, he could not have chosen a more auspicious season than that in which he invaded the country.

Montezuma exerted himself to the utmost to appease his incensed gods. One historian tells us that he even ordered the great pyramid-temple of Huitzilopochtli to be covered with gold, feathers, and precious stones, from the ground to the summit platform, and put to death his minister of finance for representing that his subjects could not endure the necessary increase of taxation.

[A. D. 1518.] The last great sacrifice in Mexico appears to have been in the year 1518, at the dedication of the temple of Coatlan. "But," says a learned writer, "almost before the groans of the dying victims had died away there came to the ears of the Aztec sovereign the startling tidings that the eastern strangers had again made their appearance, this time on the coast of his own empire." Perhaps nothing had so startled Montezuma as this intelligence, for here was positive confirmation of the truth of the predictions of the oracles. Here at last were those strangers whose corning had been so long expected; they could be no others, for they came from the East. And what was the significance of this? Could they not have come from the West and yet not prove unexpected?

One element of disturbance in the mind of Montezuma was the prophecy of Quetzalcoatl, the "Plumed Serpent" (see pages 39 and 40), who had declared at his departure that he would return from the direction in which he went—from the land of the rising sun. Centuries had passed since then; the Aztec nation had risen from the obscurity of the marshes of Aztlan to be the greatest empire in the western world. To the inhabitants of this country there was no other world. The two seas bounded it—the Pacific and the Gulf; beyond its shores they not only could not look, but they could not even send their thoughts! These new arrivals, then, could be no others than the children of Quetzalcoatl; they were white, like Quetzalcoatl, and they were bearded, like him, and they came in great canoes that were swept over the water by broad white wings!

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober
AZTEC PICTURE-WRITING


The officials of the king on the watch on the coast caused accurate paintings to be made of the Spanish ships of Grijalva—who arrived on the coast in this year—and transmitted a full account of these wonderful strangers to Montezuma. At a royal council, hastily assembled, it was decided that these arrivals were the followers of Quetzalcoatl, and an embassy with rich presents was despatched to propitiate them. They arrived at the coast too late, for Grijalva had sailed for Cuba, leaving the promise of an early return.

Priests and rulers seemed united now in the belief that the Spaniards were the messengers of the prophet, and from this time on the neglected deity, the "Plumed Serpent," was supreme. Upon his altar were deposited various relics of the Spaniards, that had been picked up from time to time, and "his peaceful rites prevailed over the bloody ones of Huitzilopochtli."

Painful must have been the feelings of the proud Montezuma, as he recalled what Mexico had been in the past, and reflected what it was likely to be in the future! Menaced by the brave and wary Ixtlilxochitl, who was constantly drawing surrounding tribes into alliance with him; hated by his own people, whom he had kept so long in bondage; forsaken even by his gods, to whom he had sacrificed thousands of human victims, what gloomy thoughts must have possessed him!

He had abandoned the peaceful worship of Quetzalcoatl for the horrid practices of Huitzilopochtli—the offerings of corn and fruits for those of human hearts—was it possible that the great prophet would regard him with favor at his coming? He must have been, though dimly, conscious that the end of the Aztec Empire was nigh!