Fifth Sun | Camilla Townsend

Summary of: Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs
By: Camilla Townsend


In ‘Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs’, Camilla Townsend offers a fascinating and vivid account of the rise and fall of the Mexica people, who went on to create the Aztec Empire. Drawing upon the native Nahuatl language, the book sheds light on the process of xiuhpohualli, the annals of history, the origin stories of the Mexica, and their thriving city of Tenochtitlan. The summary provided takes a closer observation of the Aztec religion and their belief in the era of the ‘Fifth Sun’, as well as their ingenious cultivation methods, political strategies, and important figures like Malinche and Moctezuma.

Origins of the Aztec Empire

Before Spanish colonization, the Mexica people practiced xiuhpohualli, an annual gathering and recording of history through pictographic symbols. Their migration to the Valley of Mexico led to the establishment of their Tenochtitlan village. As they expanded into a thriving city, the Mexica employed various political strategies, including polygamous marriages, to exert power over neighboring regions. Their empire grew, reaching a population of around five million people. However, the impending arrival of the Spanish would lead to unforeseen challenges for the Aztec Empire.

The Mexica people had a tradition of recording history long before the arrival of the Spanish. An important ceremony called xiuhpohualli, meaning “yearly collecting of history into annals,” served as a way to preserve and recount historical events. During these annual gatherings, people shared their accounts of the previous year’s happenings, which priests then archived using pictographic symbols to represent significant events such as changes in leadership, wars, and natural phenomena.

In addition to recent history, the xiuhpohualli provided an opportunity for communal storytelling about their ancestors’ ancient journey. Elders spoke of their people’s origins in distant northern lands and recounted their ancestors’ long trek across mountains and deserts to reach the Valley of Mexico, where they currently resided.

Having arrived late to the fertile Mexico Valley, the Mexica settled on a small island in Lake Texcoco, naming their village Tenochtitlan. To compensate for the lack of fertile land, the Mexica ingeniously used mud and silt to create mounds of earth above the water, forming the foundation of the village that would eventually become a thriving city. As Tenochtitlan grew, its floating gardens and vibrant community began attracting attention and influence throughout the region.

The Mexica then turned to astute political strategies to further establish power in the area. By forming polygamous marital alliances with the noble families of neighboring city-states, the Mexica managed to prevent, or ignite, wars while also merging economic interests and uniting ruling dynasties.

Tenochtitlan eventually emerged as a spectacular city with painted pyramids visible from miles away. It housed a library containing hundreds of books that recorded Mexica history through intricate pictographs. Music, dance, and bustling marketplaces filled its streets, drawing tens of thousands of people daily.

However, the Aztec Empire’s growth was not without oppression. It relied on collecting tributes from conquered peoples and conducting public human sacrifices, which the Spanish would later label as barbaric acts. In truth, these sacrifices carried political motives, as they sent a powerful message of control to neighboring regions and helped maintain order.

By the early sixteenth century, the Aztec Empire had achieved stability throughout the Mexico Valley, with a population of approximately five million people living in relative peace. Unbeknownst to the Mexica, their prosperous world was about to face a significant challenge as the Spanish Empire began making plans to cross the ocean, eventually altering the Mexica’s lives forever.

Malinche Among Conquerors

Malinche, a native daughter taken by the Mexica as a slave, finds herself in the clutches of Spanish conquerors after they defeat her captors. Using her linguistic talents to bridge communication gaps, she becomes a vital link between the Spaniards and the native Mexica people. Despite her historical portrayal as a traitor, Malinche had personal reasons to resent the Mexica and did not conceive of herself as betraying her native kin.

The Mexica Empire’s political stability came at a price, as resentment brewed among the nobility of conquered lands. These nobles’ daughters were often split: some married Tenochtitlan princes, and others, like Malinche, were sold into slavery. Malinche’s life took a dramatic turn when Spanish forces led by Hernán Cortés arrived on foreign shores and defeated her masters’ warriors.

Captured by these new conquerors, Malinche found herself among unfamiliar faces. However, she befriended Jerónimo de Aguilar, an interpreter taken prisoner by the Mayans years prior. Thanks to his captivity, Aguilar easily communicated with Malinche in Mayan. He explained the Spanish’s impressive weaponry and the formidable horses they rode – all products of their Eurasian heritage. Technologically superior, the Spanish were not, however, the Mexica’s political or cultural inferiors.

Driven by ambitions of conquest and wealth, Cortés sought a rich nation rumored to lie west of Mayan lands. When his party entered Mexica territory, they encountered resistance. Since Aguilar had no knowledge of the Mexica language, Nahuatl, tensions soared. It was then that Malinche demonstrated her linguistic prowess by offering to interpret Nahuatl for Aguilar.

While Malinche is often seen as a traitor for aiding Spanish conquerors, her decisions were not borne from the desire to betray a united indigenous front. To her, the Mexica were the enemy – the ones who had subjugated her people and sold her into slavery. No other indigenous American of that era would have questioned her motives for assisting the newcomers.

Moctezuma’s Calculated Hospitality

Moctezuma, the Mexica emperor, begrudgingly granted the Spanish access to his city to learn about their strengths and weaknesses. He treated them like honored guests, all while gathering intelligence. Upon discovering additional Spanish ships arriving in the region, Moctezuma prepared for war. His people chose to starve the Spaniards out, ultimately leading to a massacre when the Spaniards attempted escape. While the Mexica celebrated victory, they were unaware of the invisible threat the Spanish had unintentionally left behind.

Moctezuma was an intelligent and strategic ruler, faced with a seemingly impossible decision: how to handle the strangers who turned his neighbors against him and threatened his empire’s stability. Realizing an opportunity, Moctezuma invited the foreign leader, Cortés, and his men into the city of Tenochtitlan. This allowed the emperor to study his new adversaries up close and search for any exploitable weaknesses.

Cortés and his men were thrilled by the lavish hospitality and the riches that seemed within their grasp. Moctezuma’s plan was effective, with his people providing him information on the Spaniards’ movements, tactics, and vulnerabilities. However, when Moctezuma learned that even more Spanish reinforcements were on the way, he believed it was time to strike. Moctezuma prepared his people for war, but Cortés, acting swiftly, abducted the ruler before the Mexica could react.

Mexica warriors attempted to rescue Moctezuma and repel the Spanish from their fortress, but their efforts were unsuccessful. The imprisoned emperor pleaded with his people to lay down their arms, knowing that further Spanish forces would overwhelm them. He warned against the insurmountable technological imbalance they faced, but his people did not heed his words.

Instead, they devised a plan to starve out their Spanish captors—destroying all access to the mainland and placing the foreign invaders in an increasingly desperate situation. This tactic forced Cortés, with no other option, to plan a hazardous escape at night using makeshift bridges. As part of this gambit, Cortés ordered the execution of Moctezuma to eliminate unified Mexica leadership.

During their attempted late-night escape, the Spaniards were ambushed by Mexica forces in canoes. The brutal assault left two-thirds of Cortés’s men and their horses dead, while many others drowned, weighed down by their armor and stolen gold. The native allies suffered significantly higher casualties in the ensuing chaos.

In Tenochtitlan, the Mexica mourned the loss of Moctezuma as they attempted to rebuild what had been destroyed, unaware that the Spanish had unintentionally unleashed an invisible enemy within their midst.

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