The Arrival of a New Tribe: An alternative interpretation of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico

Reference & EducationCollege & University

  • Author Alessio Pimpinelli
  • Published August 19, 2022
  • Word count 2,287


Geertz (1973, 101) argued that narratives are essentially symbolic texts which should be ‘interpreted’ rather than read. In analysing the primary sources related to the Spanish Conquest of Mexico I have noticed that it is possible to interpret and narrate the events in an alternative way. Although the idea of the Conquest disguised as the ‘mythical’ migration of a tribe to a new land has never been proposed before, I believe that there are some interesting elements that will need further attention and discussion in the future. In this essay I will only investigate some key events and features of the Conquest that present similarities with those related to the Mexica ‘mythical’ migration: the departure; the presence of a patron deity; the symbolism related to victory and defeat and to political legacy.

What matters is not much the historical chronology of the Mexica migration but rather the symbolism encapsulated by certain key events, which was collected and re-used by the survivors as a ‘language’ to interpret the Spanish Conquest and the subsequent end of their political and religious world. Indeed, as Burkhart (1989, 6) stated, such historical narratives sometimes tell us more about the people who reformulated them and the way these individuals conceived the past rather than the protagonists of the narratives them-selves.

The core idea of my interpretation has the Spaniards disguised as a new tribe which moves into the Basin of Mexico, where there already existed an established socio-political order at the time of their arrival: the dominion of the Triple Alliance/Tenochtitlan. The over-throw of the latter coincides with the institution of a new order and its downfall is narrated by adopting the same set of symbols that are used for the Mexica migration. It is important to stress here that such an interpretation is only a Mexica product. Indeed, it is them who principally lost their political dominion and authority and had to give an explanation to it. Therefore, the following analysis will mainly focus on Mexica accounts.

The natives’ adoption of local and traditional symbols to explain the unexplainable thus ‘founds’ – in Brelich’s terms (1966, 7-8) – the new reality, the new order established by the Conquest and, most of all, it ‘founds’ their new condition of ‘defeated party’.

  1. Departure

In the Florentine Codex the Spaniards are said to arrive in “one boat” which is located amidst the sea (Sahagún 1950-1978, Book 12, 13). Such an image highly resembles mythical places of departure such as Aztlan and Coatepec. Such mythical spots were usually represented as islands by using the glyph for hill surrounded by water (figure 1). Curiously enough, friar Durán records that the Spanish boat was defined by the first native who had seen it as a “round hill” or “house” (Durán 1994, 495; Tezozómoc 2010, 684; figure 2). Friar Sahagún (1950-1978, Book 12, 6) later emphasises the boats’ position “in the midst of the water”.

The assimilation of Aztlan as a mythical place of departure with the Spanish boat (the departure point of the Spanish ‘migration’ to the Basin of Mexico) may be also strengthened by its etymology. Aztlan is often translated as “Place of Whiteness”. In friar Durán’s Historia (Durán 1994, 496) the messengers related to Motecuhzoma that “white men” had appeared from the house in the middle of the water; Tezozómoc (2010, 685) records how the same messengers informed Motecuhzoma that the newcomers’ skin was “very white, more than ours”; friar Sahagún’s informants described them as “very white” beings with “chalky faces” (Sahagún 1950-1978, Book 12, 19).

In its essential description as a hill amidst the waters, the Spanish boat also resembles the hill of Culhuacan/Aztlan, located in the middle of a large lake and reached by Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina’s (or Motecuhzoma I) priests through Coatepec in order to meet the goddess Coatlicue (Durán 1994, 215).

Chronology too is important at this point. Gillespie (1989, xxiii) showed how cyclical time played a fundamental role in Mexica life and shaped their conception of the events and of history itself. Whereas the date 1 Flint is the usual date used for departures, the canonical arrival of the Spaniards in the year 1 Reed coincides with both the birth and the departure of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, a date which is usually associated with a new beginning (Nicholson 2001, 251-252).

  1. Presence of an ‘active’ Patron Deity

The Mexica migration is dominated by the figure of Huitzilopochtli, the tribal patron god who guides the group throughout their journey and constantly commands them where to stop, what to do and when it is time to leave again. Moreover, not only does the patron deity guide the group but it also protects his subjects (Durán 1994, 19; Tezozómoc 2010, 224).

In codices Huitzilopochtli is depicted in key moments of the journey such as the departure from Chicomoztoc (figure 3) and the division among the several Aztec tribes (figure 4). Curiously, Codex Boturini shows four priests that were famous for carrying the bundles of the god and for being the interpreters of his commands (figure 5).

We may argue that, in the natives’ eyes, Christian icons such as the Cross and the Virgin with the Child exerted (for the Spaniards) the same function that Huitzilopochtli’s bundles had for them. Indeed, the Lienzo de Tlaxcala depicts such icons in two occasions: in the first, Cortés is shown while giving the Cross to some Tlaxcalan chiefs (figure 6); in the second, the same Tlaxcalan leaders are shown while being christened in front of the icon of the Virgin with the Child while Cortés watches the scene with a Cross in his hand (figure 7).

The Spanish and mestizos’ accounts are also full of references to the Christian ser-mons that Cortés is recorded to have given to the natives in every city that he visited. However, one particular event may have impressed the natives’ mind more than others. Díaz (1963, 123) and Alva Ixtlilxochitl (2008, 193) record that when the Spanish were among the Totonacs of the eastern coast they decided to smash the native idols and to roll them down the temple staircase in order to replace them with a Cross and a Christian altar. Later in the narrative, Motecuhzoma is threatened by the Spanish had he refused to grant his permission to remove the statues of the gods from the Great Temple and to substitute them with Christian icons (Díaz 1963, 277). As Huitzilopochtli had guided the Mexica into the Basin of Mexico, so do the Christian icons seem to have the same function for the Spaniards. In addition, the Christian ‘Word of God’ that Cortés used to repeat constantly to the natives (Ixtlilxochitl 2008, 193) highly resembles the orders and commands that Huitzilopochtli gave to his priests. That is how the natives may have interpreted the presence and the role of the Christian images carried by the Spaniards.

  1. Defeat and Victory

The image given by Díaz (1963, 123) – casting the native idols down the staircase of the temple – encapsulates a powerful symbolism. In Aztec eyes such a gesture symbolised defeat (Broda et al. 1987, 136; Graulich 1983, 93). The most famous example of such kind is the killing of Coyolxauhqui by Huitzilopochtli at Coatepec, when the patron god of the Mexica decapitates his sister and casts her dismembered body down the slope of the hill (figure 8).

Such a symbolism was also adopted in codices to depict the subjugation of enemies. For instance, in Codex Azcatitlan Axayacatl’s conquest of Tlatelolco is illustrated by painting the Tlatelolco ruler Moquihuix as a dismembered body lying on the staircase of the Temple (figure 9). Likewise, Moquihuix is depicted as being cast down from the top of the Great Temple of Tlatelolco in Codex Mendoza (figure 10).

The same symbols are found in the depiction of some of the events of the Conquest. For instance, in the Florentine Codex a painting shows a native being cast down from the summit of the Great Temple by a Spaniard during the so-called ‘Massacre of the Great Temple’ (figure 11). A similar image can be found in Codex Azcatitlan, probably depicting the same event (figure 12). Also, the use of dismembered bodies to symbolise defeated enemies is widely employed in the Florentine Codex (figure 13), by friar Durán (figure 14) and in Codex Telleriano Remensis (figure 15).

The mythical birth of Huitzilopochtli and his struggle with and murder of Coyolxau-hqui is emblematic of the instauration of a new order. The Moon, defeated and dismembered, is overrun by the victorious Sun, the powerful warrior (Graulich 1983, 93; Scolieri 2004, 93-94). Likewise, Motecuhzoma (and, by extension, the Mexica) represents the declining lunar power, whereas Cortés symbolises the new Sun and the instauration of a new order.

The symbol used in codices to mark the ultimate subjugation of a city is the image of a burning temple. In the Florentine Codex the final conquest of Tenochtitlan is represented by the Great Temple on fire (figure 16). The event is even recorded by Cortés (1999, 233); the sight of their temple on fire must have had a powerful impact on the Mexica survivors.

  1. Heritage and Continuity

In order to complete the establishment of a new order, the migrating tribe must undertake two final steps. First, the migrants must intermarry with locals (especially with women) to claim the political authority to govern at the locals’ place. Second, the newcomers must overthrow the local hegemonic power and replace it with their own.

When the Mexica first entered the Basin of Mexico, they married people from Culhuacan, a city which, at the time, was considered the centre of the Toltec cultural and political legacy in the Valley (Durán 1994, 36). In so doing, the Mexica could later claim their legitimacy to govern over the people of the Basin as heirs of the ancient ‘civilised’ Toltecs. During the Conquest the Spaniards were offered to marry some noble Tlaxcalan women (Díaz 1963, 175-176; figure 17) and some also married Mexica noblewomen after the fall of Tenochtitlan (Nicholson 2001, 7-8 for the Juan Caño Relaciones, a document written by a Spaniard married to a daughter of Motecuhzoma).

What is behind such marriages is the establishment of political alliances between the two parties. The Mexica (especially under the rule of Huitzilihuitl, about 1396-1417 AD) used such connections to ultimately form an alliance between their city, the exiled Acolhua party of Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan in order to overthrow the hegemony of Azcapotzalco (Duràn 1994, 73-83; Tezozómoc 2010, 245-247; figure 18). Likewise, the Spaniards exploited their Tlaxcalan allies to finally destroy Tenochtitlan and to overthrow the Mexica supremacy in Central Mexico, thus becoming the new dominant par-ty.


With this paper I wanted to demonstrate how the narrative of the Spanish Conquest was actually re-shaped by the Mexica survivors in a way that resembled their mythical migration into the Basin of Mexico. By adopting their own ‘symbolic language’, they could ex-plain to themselves why happened what had happened – that is, why and how their political dominion and authority had been suddenly wiped out by the arrival of strangers. That is the reason why parallels can be drawn between the Mexica mythical migration and the Spanish Conquest, especially when it comes to key moments of the journey – e.g., departure – and core features of the narrative, such as the presence of a patron deity and the symbolism related to victory/defeat and to political heritage. The Conquest can thereby be read and interpreted as the arrival of a new ‘tribe’ into the Basin of Mexico (the Spaniards), who in the end overcomes the existing socio-political order (the dominion of the Triple Alliance/Tenochtitlan) to create a new reality (New Spain), which marks the dawn of a new age – in the same way as the Mexica had overthrown the dominion of Azcapotzalco one century earlier to found their own empire.


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