Historical relativism is an important convention of Anthropological thought and it is vital when attempting to understand the Aztec worldview.
There is much debate in the anthropological and historical community regarding the relatively quick and decisive conquest of Mexico by the Spanish. How did it happen so quickly and why were the Mexica incapable of effectively resisting it? Is the oft-told story of a superstitious Moctezuma true and if so, did he believe that the Spanish were gods?
Both sides of the debate are keen to jump to conclusions, either suggesting that the Aztecs were foolish enough to believe that the Spanish were divine, or suggesting that their concerns were entirely pragmatic and not at all involved in mysticism. The latter is a more common narrative in modern times, but it is equally disappointing as it is divorced from any kind of reality. Many modern scholars seem keen to extrapolate today’s religious, philosophical, and ethical worldviews onto societies of the past (the otherwise enjoyable film Kingdom of Heaven is an unfortunate example of this).
Today, many of us have the luxury of attending years of basic and advanced schooling in addition to our access to the vast network of data and socializing tools known as the internet. Education as we know it did not exist until very recently, and the internet even more so. During the time of the Spanish conquest, humanity’s knowledge of the world and beyond was far behind what we know today, meaning that the strong majority of people at that time turned to religious institutions for answers.
When the Spanish landed on the coast of what is now Veracruz, those who received them were confronted with a situation that was far beyond anything they had ever seen or heard of before. They had never been exposed to large ships with masts and sails, nor had they seen steel armor and weapons, horses, gunpowder, cannons, crossbows, or war-dogs.
This is analogous to a spaceship carrying a small militia of blue men wielding laser guns landing in Utah. How would we even begin to react to an extraordinary event like that? Many would claim the rapture had come, others would spin theories about a long lost human colony that had returned, some would violently oppose their landing out of fear, and many would immediately submit to their every whim for the same reason. In moments of panic, human beings are extremely unpredictable and that unpredictability is a catalyst for chaos.
It’s impossible to know what most of the Aztec population thought about the Spanish landing, but it is both possible and intriguing to try and guess. By no means do I have concrete evidence to support the following claims. It’s simply an interesting thought experiment.
The first pieces of information regarding the Spanish landing were likely incomplete and tainted by hearsay. News would have spread relatively quickly through the empire, as their efficient system of messengers and networks of travelling merchants would have informed the nearby regions. Superstitious men and women would quickly create a religious narrative to explain the event, while other, more pragmatic individuals might attempt to hypothesize more reasonable explanations. How many individuals believed in each explanation? I have no idea. Regardless of which category Emperor Moctezuma might have fit into, he lacked the information necessary to make a decision about the Spanish landing and (understandably) hesitated to respond. His continuous hesitation in the face of an unknown foreign party ultimately cost him his life and his empire, but given the circumstances leading up to this, he had few choices.
Many people vehemently defend the Mexica by essentially suggesting that their way of viewing the world was the same as ours. In spite of this, it appears that both the Spanish and the Aztecs heavily incorporated religious themes and narratives into their worldviews. For example, some Spaniards claimed that Saints appeared on the battlefield to help drive the Aztec armies back. There’s nothing wrong with this, as they did not understand the world as rationally as we currently do, forcing them to turn to religious interpretations.
Five hundred years in the future, our ancestors will likely say the exact same thing about us, but that’s perfectly fine because, in all likelihood, we don’t currently understand the world as much as they will.