[Before you read this book review, know that I not only intend to offer my opinion on the novel, but also explore the historical events of the Mexican Conquest in some depth. If you are a complete neophyte in the topic & want to enjoy Graham’s War God without ‘spoilers’, then I suggest you close this link & open the Amazon page to order it instead, since my ultra-ultra short review is “I liked it, get the book” anyway –same goes for anyone daunted by the prospect of reading a 3000+-word-long essay, which will only reinforce your decision to buy War God. For the undecided (and the masochists) please enjoy]
Broken spears lie in the roads;
We have torn our hair in our grief
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
Are red with blood.
Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas,
And the walls are spattered with gore
The water has turned red, as if it were dyed
And when we drink it,
It has the taste of brine
We have pounded our hands in despair
Against the adobe walls,
For our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead
The shields of our warriors were its defense.
But they could not save it.
We have chewed dry twigs and salt grasses:
We have filled our mouths with dust and bits of adobe.
We have eaten lizards, rats and worms
When we had meat, we ate it almost raw.
Weep my people
Know that with these disasters
We have lost the Mexican nation
The water has turned bitter
Our food is bitter
These are the acts of the Giver of Life.
As a literary fan, I honestly don’t know which would be harder: To write a completely fictional story, or a fictionalized account of a true historical event. The open-ended freedom of pure fiction could turn into a double-edged sword in the hands of an inexperienced writer; whereas with fictionalized events, you wouldn’t be allowed to surprise the reader by deviating too much from what was actually recorded in the History books – unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, that is.
Which is why I was very interested in reading Graham Hancock’s War God, his second published work of fiction & a novelized exploration of an event I probably know better than most: The Spanish Conquest of Mexico in the 16th century.
The reason I can unashamedly state the above is simple: As a Mexican, I have been familiar with the bloody events pertaining to the clash of the Old World & the New since elementary school: as kids we were taught of the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors to the shores of Veracruz; how their leader Hernán Cortés took full advantage of their technological superiority, endowing a small force of Spanish soldiers equipped with cannons and arquebuses the power to defeat armies ten or 20 times more numerous; and how he eventually imprisoned Emperor Moctezuma and enslaved the people of Mexico, all thanks to the treacherous collaboration of La Malinche, the native woman that acted as his translator & advisor – which is why to this day ‘malinchismo’ is used as an insult to depict someone who refuses their Mexican heritage in favor of foreign values (no doubt many could accuse me of being a malinchista, seeing how 99% of what I write is in English).
But the thing is that as you grow older, it becomes clear how what was taught to you in grade school is only one version of the Conquest; one devised as a nationalistic propaganda, in order to infuse a sense of pride for our ancient roots – ‘our glorious past’ as it were – in the minds of young Mexicans. And as with all propaganda, that version is rather biased…
Later in life, if your initial curiosity doesn’t get quelled by the dryness of official curricula – and their annoying insistence to memorize dates & geographic locations – you end up realizing that propaganda is as old as History itself. Indeed, perhaps most of the greatest historical monuments were erected as a way to promote the great deeds and virtues of some ancient king or queen, while conveniently white-washing their failures & defects.
With the Conquest of Mexico it was no different. From the beginning Cortés sought to sugarcoat his actions before emperor Charles V – while at the same time secure his legal status as legitimate conqueror of ‘the New Spain’ – through the Cartas de Relación. Letters he himself wrote and sent to the king, in which he gives his personal interpretation of all the events and circumstances surrounding the fall of the Aztec empire; it doesn’t take a History degree to presume the missives paint a rather subjective version of the facts, like for example the reasons Cortés provides to justify his insurrection from Diego de Velázquez, the governor of Cuba who had initially organized the expedition to the new lands.
A much more objective account was provided by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Cortés’s soldiers who later in life wrote his memories of the Conquest. Bernal was a first-hand witness in the fall of Tenochtitlán, the ‘floating’ capital of the Aztecs, which he judged to be as beautiful & organized as any city in Europe.
During the morning, we arrived at a broad causeway and continued our march towards Iztapalapa, and when we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level Causeway going towards Mexico, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell of in the legend of Amadis, on account of the great towers and temples and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream.
But in this epic clash of civilizations, what of the fallen? Those ‘heathen barbarians’ Cortés and his men came to save with the cross in one hand and the sword in the other? In 1959 the book The Broken Spears was published (Spanish title: Visión de los Vencidos), which is a compendium of original native chronicles of the Conquest, gathered and translated by the anthropologist Miguel León Portilla (1926 -). In these texts the reader can not only find the point of view of the conquered Aztecs and the stupor caused by the irruption of the ‘white gods’ into their world, but also a faint glimpse of all the ‘bad omens’ preceding the arrival of the Spanish fleet – strange lights observed in the heavens, and the appearance of a comet in the night sky – which had a great deal of influence in the impressionable mind of emperor Moctezuma, convincing him that the old prophecies had been fulfilled, and the legendary god Quetzalcóatl had finally returned as it was long foretold – a mistake that cost him his kingdom… and his life.
It is almost as if a string of weird circumstances all conspired to create the ‘perfect storm’, which brought down the empire controlling most of Mesoamerica. And HERE is where Graham’s book offers a unique interpretation of this fascinating moment in History.
The best way to describe War God is that it is a Gnostic novel – a label I’m sure he’d rather appreciate, since it follows his own personal philosophy. At the risk of offending scholars & theologians alike with my crude summary, the main gist of the Gnostic cosmovision can be boiled down into 2 basic notions:
What we call ‘Reality’ is nothing but a veil preventing us from perceiving the true nature of the world.
That veil was put before our eyes by entities seeking to manipulate us, for their own devious purposes.
In the case of War God, that deceiving entity is Huitzilopochtli: the highest deity in the Aztec pantheon, and the one they believed led their people on their pilgrimage from the mythic region of Aztlán, to the little island in the Texcoco lake where they founded Tenochtitlán in 1325. In Graham’s novel he portrays the god as a demonic being – or a ‘demiurge’, in the proper Gnostic lingo – using Moctezuma as a puppet who subserviently tends to its insatiable hunger for blood and human hearts; but the demon also manipulates Cortés, to whom he appears as the figure of St. Peter in his dreams, filling his head with promises of glory and endless riches.
The true meaning of the Náhuatl name of the War God is a matter of some debate among scholars; some translate it as “left-handed hummingbird” or “southern hummingbird”, but the fact that the Aztecs linked their hungry god of war with a cute little bird, has always fascinated me due to its apparent incongruency. Lately I’ve been thinking however, that perhaps the key in the name of the word lies in the humming caused by the quick flapping of the wings of these tiny creatures.
Is there some connection between the god Huitzilopochtli, and the buzzing sound that is so characteristic in ‘paranormal encounters’, as related by our own Greg Taylor in his Darklore essay “Her Sweet Murmur”? And then what of other ancient deities adored in other regions of the world? I often think of how Baal, the god of the Canaanites, was later transformed into a demon by the Hebrews after they finished invading the Holy Land, and given the mocking appelative of Beelzebub, which is often translated as ‘the lord of flies’ – buzzing yet again… maybe Graham is onto something…
Since I’ve mentioned the Hebrews, I’d also like to point out some interesting parallelisms between them and the Aztecs: Not only did both cultures view themselves as ‘the chosen people’, and had their own Exodus story in search of ‘the promised land’, as we have already stated – 40 years with the Hebrews, 261 years with the Aztecs but the legends of their pilgrimage are rather similar; according to friar Bernardino de Sahagún, a priest or leader among the Aztecs named Mezitli or Mexitli was the only one who would ‘speak’ with Huitzilopochtli, the same way Moses would get in contact with Yahweh. Other chronicles report that Huitzilopochtli was an actual warlord who led the Aztecs out of Aztlán; as with many aspects of ancient Mexican history, there are huge gaps in the records causing a lot of confusion… gaps, one should point out, caused by the burning of the old codexes at the hands of Sahagún’s colleagues during the ‘Autos de Fé’…
Different legends also relate how Huitzilopochtli would provide the Aztecs with food during their more arduous part of their pilgrimage – Mana, anyone? In the book of Exodus it is stated how Yahweh appeared in front of the Israelis as a ‘pillar of cloud’ during the day and a ‘pillar of fire’ in the night; with the Aztec chronicles, it is sometimes mentioned how Huitzilopochtli would guide them in the shape of a ‘resplendent eagle.’
And as for the war-like nature of Yahweh when compared to Huitzilopochtli, well… not only do we have the Biblical passages in which the god of the Israelis demanded the utter extermination of all the enemies of ‘his people’, but there are plenty of references in the book of Exodus and other parts of the Ancient Testament that, quite simply, portray Yahweh as a real dick – there, I said it.
Getting back to the novel, I found Graham’s depiction of the main historical characters to be interesting and entertaining: Moctezuma as this irascible king showing a facade of confidence to his subjects, while at the same time trembling with joy and fear every time he had visions of Huitzilopochtli; Cortés as a brave leader of men and a bold strategist who was obsessed with his desire to prove he was worthy of a higher station in Spanish society; Pedro de Alvarado as an equally brave warrior, yet consumed by a lust for gold and an even greater lust for violence.
Granted, Hancock took liberties with some of the characters in order to make the plot more interesting, portraying Cuauhtémoc (the last Aztec emperor & the one who eventually surrendered to Cortés) as Moctezuma’s nephew and the son of his brother Cuitláhuac – in reality Cuauhtémoc was Moctezuma’s cousin and the son of the emperor before him; ascendancy to the throne among the Aztecs was different than in European kingdoms, and instead of directly inheriting the crown the new emperor was chosen by a council of elders from a small group of candidates of royal blood. Personally I didn’t mind those historical discrepancies at all, and felt they added dynamism to the story.
Where it was easier to take liberties was with the figure of Malinal (Malinche) and that’s because – surprisingly – we know so very little about this key figure in Mexican history. We know she joined the Conquistadors as part of a gift of 20 slave women offered by the natives of Tabasco, who were among the first to know the might of the Spanish army. Bernal Díaz del Castillo tells in his chronicle of her grace and beauty, which is why in the end Cortés kept her as his personal companion, and the other thing we can infer from the original chronicles was her keen intelligence, which she used to act as a translator between Moctezuma and Cortés –with the help of Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish sailor who had been shipwrecked on the Yucatán coast on a previous expedition, survived and learned to speak Maya before being rescued by Cortés. Yet again the weird chain of circumstances…
In the end Malinal not only became a ‘language’ bridge between the Spanish and the Aztecs, but the first biological bridge between the Old World and the New, when she gave Cortés the first son of Mestizo origin. Whether we like it or not, Malinal is the true mother of Mexico and Latin America, so it’s high time we started addressing her differently; for starters, we should stop viewing her as a traitor, since she didn’t have ANY reason whatsoever to show allegiance to the Aztecs, who kept demanding a tribute of material goods – along with slaves for sacrifice – to all the native nations they kept in submission.
But getting back to War God, by far the most interesting characters are the completely fictional ones, and standing above all of them is Tozi, a young indian ‘witch’ endowed with incredible abilities who plays an important role in unfolding the train of events that culminates in the fall of Tenochtitlán. Whether Tozi’s powers are the result of Graham’s imagination, or rather a tantalizing taste of things he’s actually witnessed during his many adventures, remains an open question…
The portions of the book the reader will probably enjoy the most are Graham’s vivid depictions of the battles between the Spaniards and the Chontal Maya. Here he recreates the military superiority of European warfare: the disciplined formations they inherited from the Romans; their advantage given by fire weapons and crossbows over bows and arrows, not to mention Spanish steel over obsidian-tipped wooden clubs; the terror inspired by the giant war dogs hungry for indian flesh; and the armored cavalry which endowed Cortés and his knights with a supernatural appearance in the eyes of the native warriors. But above all, the huge differences in the way the two cultures practiced ‘the art of war’: to Europeans battles were fought to win territories and obliterate the enemy, whereas Mesoamericans sought to capture as many live prisoners as possible, for these would later be offered to their gods in sacrifice.
At the end the reader is left both horrified and inspired by the boldness & brutality of the Conquistadors, who fought in close quarters against endless swarms of fierce enemies at the cry of “Santiago and at them!”
It’s also worth pointing out how Graham, ever the promoter of the forgotten splendour of ancient civilizations, doesn’t miss the opportunity of reminding his readership that the Mayans confronting Cortés were but the descendants of the great builders who erected the wondrous cities of Tikal, Palenque, Uxmal, etc, hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spaniards; by then the Chontal Maya kept the glory of their forefathers only as vanishing legends, while their old temples and palaces were crumbling under the jungle canopy.
But speaking about Graham’s other interests, particularly his activism in defending the sovereign right of responsible adults to explore their own consciousness through the use of psychoactive substances, another reason I found War God a valuable read is because it serves as a cautionary tale to our present times. Many people in the left-wing political spectrum – and also members of the New Age community – have this doe-eyed notion that the eventual legalization of Marijuana and other drugs is by itself going to bring about the Age of Aquarius, with flying unicorns coming down from the sky, shooting singing rainbows out their asses… or something.
Meanwhile, in the novel Graham shows the Aztecs as a culture of blood-thirsty fanatics, who happily indulged in the use of entheogens to commune with their gods; just look how nicely THAT turned out for them.
Members of the alt-thinking community should *always* keep in mind that these psychotropics substances are incredibly powerful tools that command respect, and that they’re only useful to boost that which is already inside of you. As I wrote in my essay The Mushroom Eucharist, LSD was the key which helped both Ram Dass and Charles Manson become who they really were – same experience, different results.
So in the end, what do we make of this notion of some multi-dimensional 5th columnist, playing both sides of the conflict for its own obscure motives? Could it be Huitzilopochtli deliberately sought the fall of Tenochtitlán, because it marked the dawn of one of the greatest genocides in the history of humanity? By 1519, the year in which War God starts, there was probably 1 to 1.2 million humans living in the Central Valley of Mexico. By 1595 the entire Indian population was decimated, with some historians giving figures of a 90% decline in numbers. And after Mexico, almost the totality of the continent fell under the control of the Spanish crown, who let their priests and friars destroy the blood-stained heathen temples, and set up the Inquisition’s acts of penance against anyone who refused to convert to the ‘true religion’ – a human sacrifice, by any other name.
What of Quetzalcóatl’s return as predicted by the ancient legends, then? Was this a ruse exploited by the demiurge, or was the legend a metaphor symbolizing a ‘restore of balance’ from the Aztec domain, in the same confusing – and disappointing – manner we Star Wars fans were confronted with after watching the last of the prequels?
Overall I enjoyed this book even after knowing the topic so well beforehand, so I’m confident our pal Graham Hancock will be able to finish up his historical trilogy better than George Lucas did. I eagerly await getting my hands on the next instalment of the War God series to find out what happens with Malinal, the beautiful slave-turned-councilor; with Pepillo, the young scribe accompanying Cortés who exchanged the cloistered walls of a Cuban monastery for the dangerous jungles of New Spain; and especially with Tozi, the young witch who seeks to use her powers to topple an entire empire.
And I’m also eager to see if my suspicions will turn out correct regarding where the story might culminate…