Hernán Cortés: Cholula's Massacre at Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl

The Spanish Conquest of 1519 was motivated by Hernán Cortés and his small band of merchants’ lust for gold, glory, and God. The band of men merchants traveled into the highlands and marched further into the Mexican altiplano. Their goal was to overthrow the Aztec Empire. Cortés was able to achieve this by using the division between communities found in Mesoamerica at the time, as well as using Malintzin, his translator, to gain insider intel. Though Cholula didn’t have any connections with the Azteca Empire, the massacre that occurred Cholula’s Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, or The Great Pyramid of Cholula, is considered a foreshadowing of what was to come, as well as, the turning point of the invasion.

Cortés’s and his men made alliances with Cempoala and Tlaxcala along their way to the Aztec Empire. The Cempoala and Tlaxcala were long-standing enemies to the Aztec Empire. Both warring states were participants in the Flowery War, which lasted from the mid-1940’s to 1519. The Flowery War involved both armies capturing the other’s soldiers, then displaying them on a skull platform located in the city. The fate of these captives was either to be sacrificed to the gods or to be forced to play a popular ballgame. The Flowery Wars demonstrates the fierceness and adversity within the Aztec Empire. Cortés and his men were fighting seasoned and skilled warriors.

In fact, the Cempoala and the Tlaxcala almost defeated the Spanish. However, they settled on a peaceful pact. Some historians speculate the peaceful pact wasn’t so peaceful; Historians believe Cempoala was a tributary tribe that held an alliance with the Azteca until Cortés and Malintzin blackmailed and coerced them into serving under Cortés. It’s unclear if the same occurred with Talaxcaltecas. Though, once the peace pact was settled, Cortés was encouraged by both Malintzin and the Talaxcaltecas to advance to the Mexica capital by way of traveling through Cholula.

Cholula’s population was around 30,000 to 50,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in Mesoamerica in 1519. Cholula was a major religious center and place for legitimatizing authority figures. Within the city is a temple dedicated to a major god of Mesoamerica, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. According to H. B. Nicolson, the name itself means “feathered snake.” Nicholson describes the god as being a rattlesnake, adored with luxurious, green quetzal feathers. The god was commonly known all across Mesoamerica during the time of the conquest. However, the god’s popularity varied. The god has a great pyramid dedicated to him, which was known as the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl.
Unfortunately, when Cortés and his men enter the city, a massacre unfolds within this religious center.

There are myths that claim Cortés was depicted and regarded by the Choluteca as being the returning god of Quetalcoatl. However, during the time Cortés arrived in 1519, the religious hub remained a regularly flowing crowd that came in and out of Cholula for pilgrimage. There was no dramatic change in migration which means the Choluteca had a realistic explanation as to why Cortés and his men have arrived. A few reasons might include: 1. The Choluteca were not awestruck at the Spanish’s guns and horses, nor their newcomers. 2. In Camilla Townsend’s article, “Burying the White Gods,” she notes that, while the Choluteca valued Quetalcoatl, the god was not a “paramount god in Mesoamerica” (14). 3. Townsend emphasizes Cholula went to war with Cortés. Moctezuma and the Choluteca’s desire for war with the Spanish shows they did not believe Cortés to be their returning god. 4. It seems ironic and contradictory for this supposed returning Quetalcoatl to destroy his own monumental pyramid.

The Massacre and destruction of The Pyramid of Quetalcoatl were a turning point for the invasion because Cortés was given insider information which allowed him to strike first. The series of events is said to have started when Malintzin learned the Choluteca’s plot to turn against the Spanish by attacking them. Malintzin then informed Cortés. As a result, Cholulatecas were brought to the ceremonial square of the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl and killed by Cortés and his men. The action caused the inhabitants of Cholula to call upon their allies in the outskirts of the city. Thousands of people were killed and haphazard pillaging continued for the days that followed. Had not Cortés have struck first and been severely wounded in number—it’s hard to say due to numerous factors— but it makes one wonder if the fall of the Aztec Empire would have ever occurred.

The massacre is well documented; There are eleven Colonial accounts and three hieroglyphs remain. Cortés’s personal letters to the King of Spain served as a means of justifying his illegal invasion. As a result, there are some manipulations used to ensure a good standing with the Spanish Crown when we went to court. There are speculations and differences between Cortés’s account and that of Bernal Dias del Castillo’s account, Francisco Lopez de Gomara’s account, and Fray Francisco de Aguilar’s account. Each one differs in how the Spanish were received by the Choluteca; if Cortés led his troops with consultation with a committee or not; the role of Malintzin; how fierce the Choluteca were in battle. Also, McCafferty notes that archeologist began excavations in 1931 and only 650 bodies have been found so far. The intensity in combat, causes of death, warrior demographics, and more are still being studied. Despite these differences in each account’s detail and the evidence that’s still being studied, the massacre was a sign of what would come in the Azteca Empire.

Images

The Great Pyramid of Cholula

The Great Pyramid of Cholula

The Great Pyramid of Cholula, or The Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl was originally believed to be a mound at Cholula until archeologist began to excavate the site. The small mound hid a massive temple. Arceologists have determined the site™s construction dates back to the 1 A. D. to 8 A. D. The Great Pyramid of Cholula was one of the largest constructions in Mesoamerica. It consists of seven layers. The volume of the Pyramid is 4.5 cubic meters of stone. The height is about 73 meters, which is about half the height of the Egyptian pyramids. The base is massive; It is roughly 380 by 439 meters. This makes the base the largest in the world. | Source: Photo taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Cholula Site Museum | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Tunnels at Cholula

Tunnels at Cholula

In the 1930s, archeologist began digging tunnels at Cholula as they excavated what they had originally thought to be a small mount. They found the site was a massive temple known as The Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. Once archeologist began digging tunnels and starting excavations, they discovered the temple has seven layers of the construction. Unlike other sites in Mesoamerica, the layers were not lost as layers were constructed. The reason for the construction's impeccable preservation is mud. The Choluteca used mud to coat each layer™s construction. However, like many sites in Mesoamerica, the site did experience looting. Luckily, since the deeper layers of the construction were unknown and preserved in mud, there were many valuables saved and untouched. One of the most famous items found at this site is the Mural of the Drinkers. The painting depicts a ceremony. One can see the importance of cacti in the painting. Archeologist finished their excavations during the 1950's. The painting, tunnels, and temple can be visited. | Source: Photo taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Cholula | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

The Pyramid of Cholula

The Pyramid of Cholula

This picture first appears as a grassy hillside. However, it's actually the base of The Great Pyramid of Cholula. In Nahuatl, the temple is called, Tlachihualtepetl, which means "a mound built by hand." The Great Pyramid of Cholula is the largest pyramids in the New World. The picture shows how massive the base is; it's about 380 by 439 meters. The grassy hillside hides seven layers of construction. The open area around the base holds the patio of altars. Another interesting detail that can be seen in this photo is that on the top of the temple is a Catholic Church. The Spanish had a habit of building churches over unorthodox churches. In this case, the Pyramid of Cholula honored and brought glory to Quetzalcoatl. | Source: Photo taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Cholula. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

The Church of Our Lady of Remedies

The Church of Our Lady of Remedies

During the time of the conquest, Cholula was a well-known religious center. Cholula hosts the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. When Hernan Cort©s arrived in the city, he went to war with the natives and their allies. Eventually, the Spanish built a Catholic church on top of the great temple. Archeologists have found 650 bodies from the Cholula Massacre, all of which were uncovered near the Catholic church, or The Church of Our Lady of Remedies. The church was completed in 1954. Before Archeologist began to excavate it in 1931, the church was considered to have been built on a mountain. | Source: Photo was taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Cholula. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Savanah Nicole Burns , “Hernán Cortés: Cholula's Massacre at Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl ,” HistoricalMX, accessed November 24, 2017, http://historicalmx.org/items/show/47.

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