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ConquistadorsThe Fall of the Aztecs

Pizarro
Cortés

Orellana

Cabeza de Vaca
Aztec EmpireCortés' ExpeditionMontezuma's Messengers
From Explore to ConquerSpaniards in TenochtitlánCortés Seizes Power
War Breaks OutSiege of TenochtitlánFall of the Aztecs
More on Cortés in the Learning Adventure

A Fragile StateHernán CortésYucatan Expedition
 
1517-1519
First Contact

In the decade before the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Aztec Emperor Montezuma II and his people were filled with a sense of foreboding. A series of evil omens had foretold of calamities to come. A fiery comet crossed the sky. The temple of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, burst into flames. The Lake of Mexico boiled and rose, flooding into houses. A weeping woman passed by in the middle of the night, crying "My children, we must flee far away from this city!" Fishermen discovered a bird that wore a strange mirror in the crown of its head. Montezuma looked into the mirror and saw a distant plain, with people making war against each other and riding on the backs of animals resembling deer.

An agitated Montezuma demanded that his soothsayers explain the meaning of these dire signs and was told that they prophesied the destruction of his kingdom. In fact, Montezuma had reason to be fearful - the Spanish had settled in Hispaniola and Cuba and were making their way toward his empire.

The Spanish had made several expeditions to the nearby Yucatan in 1517 and had returned with wonderous tales of a high-cultured Mayan civilization and gold riches. The news of these discoveries made an electrifying impression on the Spanish colonists in Cuba. Among these was Hernán Cortés, Chief Magistrate of Santiago. The Spanish governor of Cuba, Diego de Velásquez, told Cortés that he would provide two or three ships if Cortés would find the rest of the money, and lead the army. Cortés agreed and on October 23, 1518, Velásquez appointed him "captain-general" of a new expedition to the Yucatan.

 

Aztec Scroll Feature
A Tongue of Fire
Every night there arose a sign like a tongue of fire.

A Woman Weeping
A woman was heard weeping,"My children, we must flee far away from this city!"

A Strange Bird
Montezuma sees fighting men in the distance, riding the backs of deer.
Credit: "General History of the Things of New Spain" (Florentine Codex), Books I-IX and XII, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Santa Fe, New Mexico and Salt Lake City: The School of American Research and the University of Utah Press. Used courtesy of the University of Utah Press.
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