The Aztecs: Relation Over Religion


18 March 2022

Of all of the stories regarding the conquistadors entering the New World, one is the most well-known: the Aztecs mistaking Hernán Cortés as one of their gods, Quetzalcoatl, which allowed Cortés to take advantage of them, overthrow them, and lead to the downfall of the Aztec Empire.

However, despite how widespread this tale is, there is considerable evidence to suggest that this account may not be as true as we are led to believe. While the Aztecs made religion an important part of their daily lives, they were, first and foremost, a war-focused society. If someone or some group was in a position to overthrow them, they would do whatever they could to ally or defeat them and keep their power across Mexico. 

Unlike the narrative we are told, it’s probable to conclude that the Aztecs didn’t welcome Cortés and his men because he resembled Quetzalcoatl, but because the Aztecs were trying to negotiate peaceful relations with them.

History, or a Fairytale?

One discrepancy that puts the god-narrative into doubt is who made the initial claim. While it is true Cortés happened to arrive in the same location and the same year Quetzalcoatl was prophesied to return, there seems to be no actual primary sources that states Cortés was mistaken as a god.

It is important to make clear that Cortés never made any mention in his letters about being mistaken for a god. The claim was made by his chaplain and secretary Francisco López de Gómara, who never went to Mexico

Further, López de Gómara first wrote the claim in 1552, over 30 years after Cortés first met the Aztecs and 5 years after his death. Given that López de Gómara was never in Mexico and therefore never met the Aztecs, as well as the person who experienced this meeting firsthand was dead, this claim is not a primary source and it is likely that he either made up the claim or greatly exaggerated it in order to fit the narrative we know today.

The Córtes Triangle

Speaking of Cortés, his actions and circumstances seem to have inspired the Aztecs’ desire for an alliance. 

When Cortés and his forces landed in Tabasco in March 1519, they learned of the Aztecs through the local natives. Sometime after this, Cortés established Veracruz and struck an alliance with the Tlascalans, who were at war with the Aztecs.

Obviously, it would irk the Aztecs that their enemy has a new ally previously unknown to others in the New World. It did not help that, according to historian Camila Townsend, the Aztecs “immediately became aware of the technology gap.”

Luckily for them, as she puts it, the Aztecs knew that technology was the key to keeping their power across Mexico and responded with what they, at the time, assumed would work. In their mind, creating some sort of treaty or alliance with the Spanish was their key to success.

The Final Plan

The Aztecs’ plan to form an alliance with Cortés can be pieced together based on their past foreign relationships. The Aztecs have a long history of alliances. According to, one of their most notable alliances occurred in 1428, where the Aztecs formed a three-way alliance with the Texcocans and the Tacubans in order to defeat the Tepanec, their greatest rival, and conquer their capital.

In general, when the Aztecs declared war, they often would give the enemy weaponry gifts and 20 days to respond, with this repeated once if no agreement was reached. As we know, when Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519, the Aztec emperor Montezuma and the rest of the people treated him and his men as esteemed guests (

Based on these alliances and customs, the Aztecs would often create alliances or bribe enemies to surrender in order to gain more power and strength over Mexico, spreading their overall influence in the region. It would, therefore, be reasonable to assume that a similar thought process went over in Montezuma’s head when Cortés and his men first arrived and he realized how much of a threat they were to the Aztecs’ dominance throughout the region.

What’s the Truth?

Of course, since most primary accounts of the Aztecs were destroyed by the conquistadors and by time, it is difficult to know for sure what the Aztecs were thinking when they welcomed Cortés into their empire. However, based on what we do know about Aztec culture and the events before and after Cortés’ arrival, it is clear that the Aztecs treated Cortés with high-esteem because the Aztecs were trying to establish peaceful relations with him.

They knew, based on the Spanish’s advanced weaponry and alliance with a major enemy at the time, that they would not stand a chance against this new group of people. If they wanted to come out on top like they always have, they would have to ally themselves with the Spanish with welcoming arms and gifts, as they have with previous enemies. 

Of course, we know this plan did not work in the end, as Cortés partially led the empire to its downfall. However, the Aztecs should not be remembered as a misguided, religion-obsessed empire that mistook Cortés as one of their gods. Instead, they should be remembered as a strategic and powerful empire that would do whatever it takes to always come out on top against their enemies.