The legend can be dated back to 1552. It was Francisco López de Gómara who first said that the Spaniards conquered Mexico because the indigenous people had seen the conquistadors as gods. While he had never been to Mexico, López de Gómara was chaplain and secretary to the retired Hernando Cortés, the one who lead the conquistadors. But is the story true?
Cortés own letters during the conquest make no mention of being mistaken for or interpreted as a god. Nonetheless, López de Gómara’s version quickly became the accepted story, writes the historian Camila Townsend, even among the post-conquest indigenous peoples. The fleshed-out version of the story had it that “a god named Quetzalcoatl, who long ago had disappeared in the east,” had promised to return on a certain date. By extraordinary coincidence, Cortés appeared out of the east in that very year. Seduced by their religious credulity, the Mexica—“Aztec” was a post-conquest term—were ripe for conquest by their “white gods.”
Historians of early Mexico have buried the myth of the “white gods,” but this news hasn’t filtered into general knowledge. The story is clearly potent. After all, how else could just a few hundred Spaniards bring down a state with a capital city larger than any in Europe at the time?
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