The Meeting of Two Worlds – Short Research Assignment

Source: Todorov, Tzvetan. “Montezuma and Signs.” The Conquest of America, Harper & Row, 1984, pp. 63–97.


Different accounts of the Spanish colonization of Latin America are explored in “The Conquest of America” by Tzvetan Todorov. The section “Montezuma and Signs”, focuses on the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, showing how the Aztecs’ tendencies to rely on “communication between man and the world” (69) and their inability to “[master] interhuman communication” (70) were contributing factors in helping the Spaniards conquer the empire with relative ease.

Prior to the Spanish arrival into Latin America, the Aztec civilization was reliant on fortunetelling. The Aztecs’ calendar was cyclical, containing 13 months of 20 days” (63), and the fate of an individual was decided based on the day in which they were born, and the events of that day in the past – it was during this time that sorcerers, astrologers or soothsayers determined what was to be (64). However, unexpected events, which were not previously predicted, were explained by omens (64), a form of ‘communication between man and the world’ – Aztecs held this communication to the highest regard (66).

The Aztecs’ deep-rooted belief in the nature of the timeline initially helped the Spanish enter Mexico. Prior to the Spanish arrival, the Aztecs were reliant on fortunetelling. Their calendar was cyclical, containing “13 months of 20 days” (63), and fate was decided based on the day in which they were born, and the events of that day in the past, creating a form of prophecy. However, unexpected or unpredicted events were explained by omens (64), a form of ‘communication between man and the world’, which the Aztecs held to the highest regard (66). Montezuma II, the emperor of the Aztec Empire, searched the books of past events to predict the Spaniards’ intentions, however, the Spaniards’ arrival and behaviours could not be explained (86). Consequently, Montezuma II was unable to take adequate measures against the Spaniards, aiding in the overall ease of the Spanish conquest.

It was also the Aztecs’ inability to communicate effectively with both the Spaniards and each other that contributed to the fall of the empire. They attempted to convince the Spaniards to leave by sending them gold and offering them women (87-88), having the converse effect of giving them more reason to remain. Later, they attempted sacrificing Spanish soldiers, however, this aggravated relationships and motivated the Spaniards to be more determined to conquer the Aztecs (88). Additionally, war cries which the Aztecs used to scare their opposition (the Spanish soldiers), in reality, disclosed their proximity, giving the Spanish the advantage in battle (89). This highlights how their ineffective communication with other humans lead to their downfall.

Overall, Aztec adherence to their form of “communication between man and world” (69), inhibited their ability to successfully respond to the presence of the Spanish Conquistadors. Furthermore, they were unable to communicate effectively with each other and the Spaniards, and consequently, as Todorov concludes “[The Spaniards] were incontestably superior to the Indians in the realm of interhuman communication” (97). This superiority gave the Conquistadors the upper hand, and ultimately, helped them bring about the easily-achieved downfall and conquest of the Aztec Empire.

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