2016-06-30
The documentaries of Michael Wood don't do much to break the public-television mold. As we discover him on remote mountainsides and modern urban parking lots, Wood sketches out climactic scenes of discovery and desperation that occurred in that very spot some hundreds of years before.

But as a historian, Wood has a great sense of the apt detail--the conquistadors' drinking cactus juice reserved for victims of human sacrifice as they tramped inland toward the Aztec capital; a cabbie who warns Wood that the Mexico City neighborhood where Montezuma and Cortes first met is a bit rough today. In each of his films, there's sure to be a passage that sticks with you. "Conquistadors" airs on public television stations beginning May 9. Beliefnet's Paul O'Donnell talked with Wood about the making of the film.

As schoolchildren, we're taught that when Cortes and his men arrived, the Aztecs believed their gods had come back. What's the reality of that?
Of course, this has been a major arguing point among scholars. There's been a huge amount of discussion about whether that story is true, or whether it's a rationalization for the conquest, bending Aztec traditions to make sense of their history on the Spaniards' terms. Is this a real Aztec account by a real eyewitness, or has it been contaminated in the two or three decades after the conquest by European constructions of history and mythology? But it's pretty convincing that there was uncertainty about the nature of these newcomers. Cortes in one of his letters written from Mexico says they took us as returning gods.

In any collision of worlds like this, there is the problem of categorization. You can compare it with the kind of stories dramatized in "Star Trek" or "Close Encounters." What happens when you come into contact with a world you had no idea existed before you met it?

Some of the Conquistadors had probably fought against the Moors. They knew about the existence of ancient Egypt, about ancient Greece and India, even if they hadn't been there. So, astonishing as it was to discover, not just tribes as Columbus did, but civilizations, with law and writing, it was nothing like the shattering blow to their cosmos that the Native Americans must have suffered.

The Incas weren't as easily fooled, it seems. What gave them an advantage?
There is a interesting comparison to be made. The Aztecs had gained dominance as outsiders to the Valley of Mexico with this mythology. It was very particular in saying that at some point in the future the god who departed would come back. So the very thing that provided the glue to their rule had a Catch 22. When you have an extremely loaded mythology like that, it's less easy for you to break out of it and look at what's happening to you in a cooler light.

Pizarro was in a different position when he encountered the Incas. The Incas he meets near Tumbes, the governor and the locals there, immediately ask questions about where he's come from. And when he says he's come from a land over the ocean, that's pretty plausible to them. The Incas had had contact with a lot of different cultures, stone age societies in the south and jungle societies in the Amazon. The Mayans, who were in the Yucatan and Central America, had little doubt at all that Spaniards were international terrorists.

Cortes, though, from the very beginning had his men in full armor. He fired cannons to intimidate the Aztecs and had them ride their horses along the beach. They played tricks to unnerve the Aztecs. But in the end, you probably have to say the Aztecs were simply a more superstitious culture. You have to conclude that the priests of the Aztecs, or at least one clique, were trapped by their political mythology.

All this is a major political football in Mexico. There's no public monument to Cortes surviving--everybody wants the Aztecs to be the real ancestors.

On the other hand, the Spaniards were also often scandalized by the civilization they found in the New World. It's fascinating to watch. It was quite likely Cortes wasn't just an opportunist. He was horrified by the human sacrifice. When they took Cortes to the temple of the war god, Huitzilopochtli, the conquistador immediately tries to put a Catholic image, a picture of the Virgin, in there. Even one of the priests who is with him says we've got to slow down or you're going to get us killed.

The film seems to show that this back and forth between the ancient religion and Christianity is still going on.
Absolutely. Jesus is an Apu, which was the great spirit of the Incas, and the Lord's Prayer uses the word today. Five hundred years is not a long time in history, and no matter what effort the Spaniards put into eradicating the native religion--they could eradicate the royal cults, but they couldn't eradicate the ordinary faith on the ground. In all these countries there is a mixture of the ancient and the modern. It's no longer the ancient religion, nor is the religion you have down the road. It's a conflation.

For instance, you have a segment in the film about how chocolate, which the Aztecs used for sacred purposes, is still used in religious rituals.
At the saints festival in the town we visited in that segment, they make the same warm, frothy chocolate drink they used to make in ancient times--they drank this chocolate with chiles before they fought ritual battles.

After the Inca have fallen, you talk about this moment being "the end of sacred time." What are the components of sacred time?
That's shorthand used by anthropologists for traditional societies in the ancient world. They believed they lived in sacred time. They believed that the order of the universe was governed by rituals and beliefs that maintained human beings' relationship to the cosmos. Time was not linear and historical, it was sacred and cyclical. There's an idea that since we've emerged as a civilization, the goal has been to somehow get back to the original sacred time. You have this impetus in Sufism and Taoism, this desire to return to sacred time.

I wasn't using the phrase in that specific scholarly sense, but I wanted to point out that the Incas still lived in a sacred time. They greeted the sun disk every day. Even the Aztecs believed that the actions of humanity were essential to preserving this relationship to the universe. They lived in a different mental universe. The Christians, even though they believed in a Christian God and resurrection, were motivated by the profane, by conquest, the desire to reshape the world.

And they brought an end to that cyclical sense of time. The Christian religion after all is historically based. It depends on the reality of historical events. Its chief text is a resource book of historical events.

How was it making this film? Some of it must have been hard going in these very remote places.
The remote places weren't a hardship. It's much more difficult to film in Mexico City. It's a beautiful place, and the people are very welcoming, but it's very difficult to draw magic out of the biggest, most polluted conurbation on earth. You've got to work very hard. In the countryside, the physical hardships are outweighed by what a privilege it is to film there and how beautiful it is. It was a wonderful place to be marooned. Sometimes, you realize that if the helicopter doesn't come to get us out, we're going to have to hike out for days with no food. But the compensations are so fantastic.



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