Fifth Sun by Camilla Townsend review – a revolutionary history of the Aztecs


The Aztec water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue. PHOTO/Benoît Tessier/Reuters

A famous narrative turned on its head – how the Spanish conquistadors, not the Aztecs, were driven by bloodlust

In the summer of 1520, the artist Albrecht Dürer viewed a sampling of the treasures the conquistador Hernán Cortés had recently shipped to Europe from the land that would later be called Mexico. In his diary, Dürer enthused about a golden sun “a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size”, plus “all kinds of wonderful objects”. “All the days of my life,” he wrote, “I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things.”

The awe with which Europeans at first beheld the civilisation of the people who would be known as the Aztecs – they called themselves the Mexica – would not last long. They would later be remembered mainly through images of hearts torn from living bodies with obsidian blades and corpses tumbling down bloody-stepped pyramids, as a people ruled by ritualised bloodlust, trapped in a rigid fatalism, easily conquered by more agile newcomers from across the sea. Moctezuma, the story goes, mistook Cortés for a god whose return had long been prophesied, and surrendered his empire without a fight.

In Fifth Sun, the historian Camilla Townsend points out that even Cortés, a figure hardly known for his modesty, did not mention being welcomed as a god in any of the letters he wrote at the time. Would he have neglected to include such a detail? The story only began to circulate decades later, and it is no surprise that it took hold: “In such a scenario,” Townsend writes, “the white men had nothing to feel remorse about … The Europeans had not only been welcomed, they had been worshipped.” Most of the enduring myths about the Aztecs perform the same function, flattering the conquerers by expelling the conquered from the realm of the rational. It did not help that until recently most of the textual sources on the Aztecs were accounts prepared by the Spanish.

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