It was completely besmeared with blood, which trickled down over their ears, for they had been sacrificing that very day

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

Discovery and Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz Del CastilloI was recently reminded of Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s first-hand account of the discovery and conquest of Mexico. I read a paperback copy years ago, soon after reading about it in Guns, Germs, and Steel, but I was able to relocate one memorable passage in seconds by searching the e-text for “matted” (which stuck with me):

The hair of their heads was long and matted together, so that it would have been an impossibility to have put it in any shape or order without cutting it off: besides this, it was completely besmeared with blood, which trickled down over their ears, for they had been sacrificing that very day. The nails of their fingers were uncommonly long, and they held down their heads on approaching us, in token of humility. It was told us that these men were greatly revered for their religion.

Searching for “blood” is oddly rewarding:

I have myself heard the very pious Franciscan brother Toribio Motelmea say that it would certainly have been better if we could have avoided spilling so much blood, and the Indians had not given us the cause to do so; but it had this good effect, that all the inhabitants of New Spain became convinced that their idols were nothing but deceitful demons, and they experienced how much happier they were when they discontinued to worship them or sacrifice to them; and it is a fact, that the inhabitants of Cholulla, from that moment, cared very little about their idols: they took down the large one from the principal cu, and either hid it somewhere or destroyed it altogether: we, at least, never saw that one again, and they placed another there in its stead.


Before we mounted the steps of the great temple, Motecusuma, who was sacrificing on the top to his idols, sent six papas and two of his principal officers to conduct Cortes up the steps. There were 114 steps to the summit, and, as they feared that Cortes would experience the same fatigue in mounting as Motecusuma had, they were going to assist him by taking hold of his arms. Cortes, however, would not accept of their proffered aid. When we had reached the summit of the temple, we walked across a platform where many large stones were lying, on which those who were doomed for sacrifice were stretched out. Near these stood a large idol, in the shape of a dragon, surrounded by various other abominable figures, with a quantity of fresh blood lying in front of it. Motecusuma himself stepped out of a chapel, in which his cursed gods were standing, accompanied by two papas, and received Cortes and the whole of us very courteously. “Ascending this temple, Malinche,” said he to our commander, “must certainly have fatigued you!” Cortes, however, assured him, through our interpreters, that it was not possible for anything to tire us. Upon this the monarch took hold of his hand and invited him to look down and view his vast metropolis, with the towns which were built in the lake, and the other towns which surrounded the city. Motecusuma also observed, that from this place we should have a better view of the great market.

Indeed, this infernal temple, from its great height, commanded a view of the whole surrounding neighbourhood. From this place we could likewise see the three causeways which led into Mexico,—that from Iztapalapan, by which we had entered the city four days ago; that from Tlacupa, along which we took our flight eight months after, when we were beaten out of the city by the new monarch Cuitlahuatzin; the third was that of Tepeaquilla. We also observed the aqueduct which ran from Chapultepec, and provided the whole town with sweet water. We could also distinctly see the bridges across the openings, by which these causeways were intersected, and through which the waters of the lake ebbed and flowed. The lake itself was crowded with canoes, which were bringing provisions, manufactures, and other merchandise to the city. From here we also discovered that the only communication of the houses in this city, and of all the other towns built in the lake, was by means of drawbridges or canoes. In all these towns the beautiful white plastered temples rose above the smaller ones, like so many towers and castles in our Spanish towns, and this, it may be imagined, was a splendid sight.


Cortes then turned to Motecusuma, and said to him, by means of our interpretress, Doña Marina: “Your majesty is, indeed, a great monarch, and you merit to be still greater! It has been a real delight to us to view all your cities. I have now one favour to beg of you, that you would allow us to see your gods and teules.”

To which Motecusuma answered, that he must first consult his chief papas, to whom he then addressed a few words. Upon this, we were led into a kind of small tower, with one room, in which we saw two basements resembling altars, decked with coverings of extreme beauty. On each of these basements stood a gigantic, fat-looking figure, of which the one on the right hand represented the god of war Huitzilopochtli. This idol had a very broad face, with distorted and furious-looking eyes, and was covered all over with jewels, gold, and pearls, which were stuck to it by means of a species of paste, which, in this country, is prepared from a certain root. Large serpents, likewise, covered with gold and precious stones, wound round the body of this monster, which held in one hand a bow, and in the other a bunch of arrows. Another small idol which stood by its side, representing its page, carried this monster’s short spear, and its golden shield studded with precious stones. Around Huitzilopochtli’s neck were figures representing human faces and hearts made of gold and silver, and decorated with blue stones. In front of him stood several perfuming pans with copal, the incense of the country; also the hearts of three Indians, who had that day been slaughtered, were now consuming before him as a burnt-offering. Every wall of this chapel and the whole floor had become almost black with human blood, and the stench was abominable.

On the left hand stood another figure of the same size as Huitzilopochtli. Its face was very much like that of a bear, its shining eyes were made of tetzcat, the looking-glass of the country. This idol, like its brother Huitzilopochtli, was completely covered with precious stones, and was called Tetzcatlipuca. This was the god of hell, and the souls of the dead Mexicans stood under him. A circle of figures wound round its body, resembling diminutive devils with serpents’ tails. The walls and floor around this idol were also besmeared with blood, and the stench was worse than in a Spanish slaughter-house. Five human hearts had that day been sacrificed to him. On the very top of this temple stood another chapel, the woodwork of which was uncommonly well finished, and richly carved. In this chapel there was also another idol, half man and half lizard, completely covered with precious stones; half of this figure was hidden from view. We were told that the hidden half was covered with the seeds of every plant of this earth, for this was the god of the seeds and fruits: I have, however, forgotten its name, but note that here also everything was besmeared with blood, and the stench so offensive that we could not have staid there much longer. In this place was kept a drum of enormous dimensions, the tone of which, when struck, was so deep and melancholy that it has very justly been denominated the drum of hell. The drum-skin was made out of that of an enormous serpent; its sound could be heard at a distance of more than eight miles. This platform was altogether covered with a variety of hellish objects,—large and small trumpets, huge slaughtering knives, and burnt hearts of Indians who had been sacrificed: everything clotted with coagulated blood, cursed to the sight, and creating horror in the mind. Besides all this, the stench was everywhere so abominable that we scarcely knew how soon to get away from this spot of horrors. Our commander here said, smilingly, to Motecusuma: “I cannot imagine that such a powerful and wise monarch as you are, should not have yourself discovered by this time that these idols are not divinities, but evil spirits, called devils. In order that you may be convinced of this, and that your papas may satisfy themselves of this truth, allow me to erect a cross on the summit of this temple; and, in the chapel, where stand your Huitzilopochtli and Tetzcatlipuca, give us a small space that I may place there the image of the holy Virgin; then you will see what terror will seize these idols by which you have been so long deluded.”

Motecusuma knew what the image of the Virgin Mary was, yet he was very much displeased with Cortes’ offer, and replied, in presence of two papas, whose anger was not less conspicuous, “Malinche, could I have conjectured that you would have used such reviling language as you have just done, I would certainly not have shown you my gods. In our eyes these are good divinities: they preserve our lives, give us nourishment, water, and good harvests, healthy and growing weather, and victory whenever we pray to them for it. Therefore we offer up our prayers to them, and make them sacrifices. I earnestly beg of you not to say another word to insult the profound veneration in which we hold these gods.”

As soon as Cortes heard these words and perceived the great excitement under which they were pronounced, he said nothing in return, but merely remarked to the monarch with a cheerful smile: “It is time for us both to depart hence.” To which Motecusuma answered, that he would not detain him any longer, but he himself was now obliged to stay some time to atone to his gods by prayer and sacrifice for having committed gratlatlacol, by allowing us to ascend the great temple, and thereby occasioning the affronts which we had offered them.

“If that is the case,” returned Cortes, “I beg your pardon, great monarch.” Upon this we descended the 114 steps, which very much distressed many of our soldiers, who were suffering from swellings in their groins. The following is all I can communicate with respect to the size or circumference of this temple; but previously reckon upon the reader’s kind indulgence, if I should make any misstatement; for at the time when all these things were going on, I was thinking of anything but writing a book, but rather how best to fulfil my duty as a soldier, and to act up to the commands of our general Cortes. However, if I remember rightly, this temple occupied a space of ground on which we should erect six of the largest buildings, as they are commonly found in our country. The whole building ran up in rather a pyramidical form, on the summit of which was the small tower with the idols. From the middle of the temple up to the platform there were five landings, after the manner of barbacans, but without any breastworks. A perfect idea of the form of this temple may be gained from the pictures which are in the possession of several of the Conquistadores, (I have one myself,) which every one must have seen by this time. The following is what I learnt respecting the building of this temple. Every inhabitant had contributed his mite of gold, silver, pearls and precious stones thereto. These gifts were then buried in the foundations, and the ground sprinkled with the blood of a number of prisoners of war, and strewed with the seeds of every plant growing in the country. This was done in order that the gods might grant the country conquest, riches, and abundant harvests. The reader will here naturally ask the question: how we got to know that its foundations were thus filled with gold, pearls, silver, precious stones, seeds, and sprinkled with human blood, as this building had stood there for the space of one thousand years? To this I answer, that subsequent to the conquest of this large and strongly fortified city, we found it to be a positive fact; for when new buildings were being erected on the place where this temple stood, a great part of the space was fixed upon for the new church dedicated to our patron Saint Santiago, and the workmen, on digging up the old foundations to give more stability to the new ones, found a quantity of gold, silver, pearls, chalchihuis stones, and other valuable things. A similar discovery was made by a citizen of Mexico, to whom also a portion of this space had been allotted for building-ground, but the treasure was claimed for his majesty; and parties went so far as to commence a lawsuit about it, I cannot however now recollect how it terminated. Besides all this, the accounts of the caziques and grandees of Mexico, and even of Quauhtemoctzin himself, who was alive at that time, all correspond with my statement. Lastly, it is also mentioned in the books and paintings which contain the history of the country.

With respect to the extensive and splendid courtyards belonging to this temple I have said sufficient above. I cannot, however, pass by in silence a kind of small tower standing in its immediate vicinity, likewise containing idols. I should term it a temple of hell; for at one of its doors stood an open-mouthed dragon armed with huge teeth, resembling a dragon of the infernal regions, the devourer of souls. There also stood near this same door other figures resembling devils and serpents, and not far from this an altar encrusted with blood grown black, and some that had recently been spilt. In a building adjoining this we perceived a quantity of dishes and basins, of various shapes. These were filled with water and served to cook the flesh in of the unfortunate beings who had been sacrificed; which flesh was eaten by the papas. Near to the altar were lying several daggers, and wooden blocks similar to those used by our butchers for hacking meat on. At a pretty good distance from this house of horrors were piles of wood, and a large reservoir of water, which was filled and emptied at stated times, and received its supply through pipes underground from the aqueduct of Chapultepec. I could find no better name for this dwelling than the house of satan!

I will now introduce my reader into another temple, in which the grandees of Mexico were buried. The doors of which were of a different form, and the idols were of a totally different nature, but the blood and stench were the same.

Next to this temple was another in which human skulls and bones were piled up, though both apart; their numbers were endless. This place had also its appropriate idols; and in all these temples, we found priests clad in long black mantles, with hoods shaped like those worn by the Dominican friars and choristers; their ears were pierced and the hair of their head was long and stuck together with coagulated blood. Lastly, I have to mention another temple at no great distance from this place of skulls, containing another species of idol, who were said to be the protectors of the marriage rights of the men, to whom likewise those abominable human sacrifices were made. Round about this large courtyard stood a great number of small houses in which the papas dwelt, who were appointed over the ceremonies of the idol-worship. Near to the chief temple we also saw an exceedingly large basin or pond, filled with the purest water, which was solely adapted for the worship of Huitzilopochtli and Tetzcatlipuca, being also supplied by pipes underground from the aqueduct of Chapultepec. There were also other large buildings in this neighbourhood, after the manner of cloisters, in which great numbers of the young women of Mexico lived secluded, like nuns, until they were married. These had also two appropriate idols in the shape of females, who protected the marriage rights of the women, and to whom they prayed and sacrificed in order to obtain from them good husbands.

Although this temple on the Tlatelulco, of which I have given such a lengthened description, was the largest in Mexico, yet it was by no means the only one; for there were numbers of other splendid temples in this city, all of which I am unable to describe. I have to remark, however, that the chief temple at Cholulla was higher than that of Mexico, and was ascended by 120 steps: also the idol at Cholulla stood in greater repute; for pilgrimages were made to it from all parts of New Spain, to obtain forgiveness of sins. The architecture of this building was also different, but with respect to the yards and double walls they were alike. The temple of the town of Tetzcuco was also of considerable height, being ascended by 117 steps, and had broad and beautiful courtyards, equal to those of the two last mentioned, but differently constructed. It seems indeed quite laughable that each province and every town should have its own peculiar idols, which, however, never interfered with each other, and the inhabitants severally sacrificed to them.

Cortes, and the whole of us at last grew tired at the sight of so many idols and implements used for these sacrifices, and we returned to our quarters accompanied by a great number of chief personages and caziques, whom Motecusuma had sent for that purpose.

While discussing books that have influenced me, I noted that this real history is less like textbook history and more like a swords-and-sorcery novel: evil priests, hair matted with blood, commit human sacrifices atop pyramids amidst a city built on a lake inside a volcanic crater; frenzied fighting ensues.

The Aztecs’ floating gardens, or chinampas, are fascinating, but it’s hard to ignore stories of conquistadors sacrificed and eaten.

Bernal Diaz Del Castillo mentions smallpox specifically five separate times, but the main germs portion of the Guns, Germs, and Steel might have been salmonella.

One last thing, the iconic Spanish conquistador helmet wasn’t worn by Cortez or Pizarro. The morion helmet came later.


  1. Kirk says:

    Only the Aztecs could make the conquista look like a humanitarian act.

    Just like the way that only the Nazis could make something like Dresden look even remotely acceptable.

  2. Graham says:

    Good times.

    I’m sure if I had been an Aztec, and not a sacrificial candidate, I’d have been fine with all this. One usually goes with the flow, at least for the most fundamental elements of one’s society.

    Looking from outside, though, I’m glad they never developed wheels, steel weapons, or ocean-going ships and navigation. Or immunity to old world diseases.

    At least the Inquisition thought it was punishing “crimes”, typically poo-poohed the worst charges leveled by one’s neighbours, famously gave you a better standard of trial than the secular courts, and so on.

    I don’t know why, death and pain being death and pain all over, but something about making ongoing ritual human sacrifice part of your act of worship seems worse. Bigotry on my part, no doubt.

    And there is this:

    If my cosmology taught me that the entire universe was balanced on a razor’s edge and a constant stream of human blood was needed to sustain it, whether the gods were villains asking to be slaked or for fuel to fight entropy, I guess I’d be on board. The Aztecs lived in a terrifying, Lovecraftian universe and even the most benevolent of their gods are nightmares. Consider Coatlicue.

  3. Graham says:

    For an entertaining compare and contrast in a fictional context, John Maddox Roberts’ novel “King of the Wood”.

    It includes a take on Norse human sacrifice in the ‘sacrificial king’ mode, and also vivid descriptions of life in Aztec Mexico. Probably describes the matted hair, too.

    Spoiler alert:

    When a combined army of Mongols and Vikings sacks Tenochtitlan [this is not even the end of the book...] one of the Norsemen comments that they are what amounts to an outside context problem for the Mexicans [I paraphrase], and that what they are doing amounts to destroying the Aztecs’ entire world.

    Another replies, “I’ve never destroyed a world before. It’s like Ragnarok.” I always imagined the character saying it with a mix of awe and joy. The right attitude, if one ever finds oneself in such a historic role.

  4. Buckethead says:

    Thank god we’ve not had to fight Aztec Nazis. Or worse, Aztec Space Nazis.

  5. Graham says:

    That movie would bet better than anything Disney Star Wars is putting out.

  6. Sam J. says:

    This book is great in some places and some parts you just have to wade through.

    There’s an sci-fi book where the history is different. The Aztecs take over Europe and temples are built all over for sacrifices. Time travelers go back and give Christopher Columbus a vision to go to the Americas to stop it. I can’t remember the name it was a long time ago I read it.

    Speaking of plagues and sci-fi, I’m rereading “The Stand” by Stephen King.

  7. Graham says:

    I don’t know that one- the time travel element is missing from the similar book I remember, IIRitC.

    And nowadays such a story would almost inevitably feature a European protagonist inexplicably travelling back to stop the Conquest rather than give Columbus a tip. I’d change the word liberal to progressive now, but the ruling principle was captured by Chesterton when he said a liberal was a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.

    I do remember this novel which involved Cortez switching sides and taking charge of the Aztecs, a point of divergence that led to them catching up with Europeans.

    Just how much he and his men could do to alter the path is not so clear to me, but the Aztecs would have been in a far better position to take up metalworking and gunsmithing, if they could get the resources somewhere, than the Indians of North America would have been, who could use European kit very well, just not reproduce it. Plus, Aztecs already knew about cities and such.

    There’d still be the disease factor.

    But when you consider Cortes’ poor relations with the Spanish authorities in the Caribbean, and their not having supported his expedition to the mainland in the first place, this particular point of divergence is less insane than it appears.

    Interlopers have set themselves up as kings over alien peoples before.

  8. Sam J. says:

    “…Nowadays such a story would almost inevitably feature a European protagonist inexplicably travelling back to stop the Conquest rather than give Columbus a tip…”

    HAHA it did! I didn’t go into that because the plot got too Byzantine and this is just just a comment. It started with a group trying to stop Columbus and finding the “other” group trying to egg him on. It turns out the group pushing Columbus lived in a time line WORSE than ours where the Aztecs has temples of mass sacrifice all over the world. I can’t remember all of what happened as it had a few twist and it was long ago. The Aztecs were EVIL. Cortes was a ruthless greedy bastard but…he was not at even remotely the same level of evil as the Aztecs. It’s hardly his fault that diseases that the Americans had not been exposed to decimated them in vast numbers.

    “…Our commander here said, smilingly, to Motecusuma: “I cannot imagine that such a powerful and wise monarch as you are, should not have yourself discovered by this time that these idols are not divinities, but evil spirits, called devils….”

    Te above quote is most excellent. Impressive. Could this not be true? Look at the drawings of the Aztecs and tell me these people did not do a shit load of psychedelics. People doing a lot of DMT or Ayahuasca have commented on demonic agents in some cases driving people insane.

  9. Buckethead says:

    I don’t know if you’re thinking of Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch. That one had a scenario where in our future, they’d developed a tech where they could view but not interact with the past. Life was getting steadily worse to to environmental issues and resource depletion.

    They discover that another timeline had redirected Columbus west, because in their world, Columbus had led a renewed crusade against Islam, which allowed the Aztecs to take over thanks to Europe being weakened by fighting the Muslims.

    So they go back in time to create a new timeline where things turn out better. They immunize the Indians, introduce a pseudo Christianity, and the Europeans aren’t able to despoil the earth.

  10. Graham says:

    I’ve never been able to figure out Card’s worldview.

    But in this case, I can’t quite figure out what if any scenario produces a world of modern science and technology and wealth, without some or all of the deleterious consequences. Especially if, in the absense of Euro diseases, the starting population of the world circa 1600 is much larger.

    Perhaps the premise is that a poorer Europe never manages the industrial revolution at all, and neither India nor China does either.

  11. RLVC says:

    Sam: “The above quote is most excellent. Impressive. Could this not be true? Look at the drawings of the Aztecs and tell me these people did not do a shit load of psychedelics. People doing a lot of DMT or Ayahuasca have commented on demonic agents in some cases driving people insane.”

    There are other reasons to think that demons are real. For instance, the latest cultural works of Babylon-on-the-Sea.

    The alternative is that these satanic patterns recur across time and space for absolutely no reason.

  12. RLVC says:

    Kirk, what do you think that the Germans did so as to deserve a holocaust?

  13. Graham says:

    I couldn’t watch the last of those videos in Canada but the first two look, in their different ways, about right for the times.

    At least Taylor continues to be nice to look at most of the time. That Miley Cyrus video is as stupid and ugly as music videos get.

  14. Sam J. says:

    I watched the videos. I like a bit of, remote voyeuristic
    ,degeneracy. I mean we all slow down to look at car crashes but we don’t really WANT car crashes. We wouldn’t order one up. I see look at these degenerates the same way. What bothers me about these things is that some people believe this is normal and a promising path. Sure I like to look at some of it occasionally but I know that it’s a bad path. I’m hardly a huge bible thumper so that’s not the reason. It’s certainly no way to run a country. Wide spread degeneracy will eventually destroy a country. To make things work you have hold this sort of degeneracy down to a low level.

    I have no solid proof but there’s a shit of people that say the Jews that run Hollywood worship demons. We know for 100% fact that people worship Jesus as the son of God is it so hard to believe that some people invest the same attitude towards Satan? I know for a fact that they have sex with underage kids. There’s just way to much solid data on that. I expect the whole thing is built on the massive hatred Jews have for…damn near anyone and some times even themselves.

    I just got through watching Taylor.Swift.Miss.Americana.2020 like a few hours ago[hmmm...coincidences???]. They try to make it uplifting[Taylor good, stupid rednecks bad] as it’s a sort of documentary. The whole time I’m thinking about how she is obsessed with being adored and the center of attention. I also can see her morphing over time where she is slowly losing touch with the average person and turning into a Hollywood person. I bet she has no idea and doesn’t even see it herself how harmful what she is doing to herself and other little girls. As she’s making this stuff I can see her thinking,”it’s just a lark”[my Jews agent told me it would be edgy and great!!!] but to some it’s not. Most people for all history that want to be actors, singers and that sort have been fucked up people who are degenerate. Fine I don’t care but they shouldn’t pretend that they are not.

    Miley Cyrus…she’s just fucked up, period. I wonder if she will kill herself. If she doesn’t her Jew agents will to suck the last bit of coin out of her and pretend that she killed herself.

    There’s a shit load of psychopaths in Hollywood. Look at this clip where a guy was making a movie about Kurt Cobain and Courtney and ran across this guy. These people are sick as fuck. They are seriously evil.

    Kurt & Courtney – El Duce Interview

    El Duce of the Mentors talks about Kurt Cobain & Courtney Love 8-30- 96 Before his Murder,

    Of course El Duce is…no more. Fell asleep on a railroad track and got cut in two. Wink, wink.

  15. Sam J. says:

    Buckethead says,”I don’t know if you’re thinking of Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch.”

    That’s got to be it. I’ve read a lot of, maybe all of, Orson Scott Card. I like his stuff.

    I like Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow [really good] best.

    The Formic wars are OK too.

  16. Graham says:

    I don’t have a religious framework for it either, and I don’t think that’s exactly necessary to see degeneracy for what it is.

    I’m an Xer, so I guess my perspective is that a lot of things that used to be too much repressed got liberated a bit just before I was born and through my youth, and now have slipped the reins. Comedy sarcasm culture, postmodern art, normalization and elevation of exotic sexual habits, stoner culture. That last I’m not sure of- I always found stoner culture annoying but based on the last year or so, legalized pot in Canada seems to have not expanded its reach- just smug middle class occasional toker values. Interesting that some of the moralizing backlash now comes from the left, albeit only very selectively.

    Still, I feel I must protest on behalf of the spirit of the times, so here goes:

    “No, No, No. all the stuff in Miley’s video is a healthy expression of sexuality and individualism informed by the latest wisdom from the philosophers. Degeneracy is a hetero married couple living in a detached suburban home with their 2-3 legitimate naturally conceived and born children. Obviously the father is sexually assaulting them all and the mother is an drunk and an enabler.”

    There, that should cement my bona fides with the 21st century.

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