- Historic Sites
The City Of The Living God
From a long-obscure life of Cortés, written by his own secretary, comes a narrative of the incredible splendors of Moctezuma’s Axtec capital
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
The coat of arms above the palace doors (where the banners of Moctezuma and his ancestors were hung) was an eagle in combat with a tiger, its claws extended as if to capture its prey. Some say it is a griffin and not an eagle, for there are griffins in the mountains of Tehuacân that depopulated the valley of Ahucatlán by consuming the people. They base their argument on the fact that these mountains are named Cuitlachtépetl, from cuitlachtli , which is to say, a griffin resembling a lion. I do not now believe that there are such, for no Spaniard has seen them. …
M OCTEZUMA HAD ANOTHER HOUSE with many fine apartments and several galleries resting upon pillars of jasper (these cut from a single piece), opening upon a spacious garden, in which there were ten or more ponds, some of salt water for sea fowl, others of sweet water for birds of the rivers and lakes. The ponds were frequently emptied and filled, to keep the feathers clean. So many birds lived there that they overflowed the place, and they were of such different plumages and kinds that the Spaniards were astonished, for most of them they had never known or seen before.
Each species of bird was fed the things it had eaten in its wild state: if herbs, it was given herbs; if grain, maize; if beans, these and other seeds; if fish, fish, of which the ordinary ration was ten arrobas [one arroba equals twenty-five pounds— Ed. ] a day, caught in the lakes of Mexico. They were even fed flies and other vermin, if such was their diet. Three hundred persons were assigned to take care of the birds: some cleaned the ponds; others caught fish for them; others fed them; others deloused them; others guarded the eggs; others threw out the brooders; and still others had the most important duty of plucking them. Of the feathers, rich mantles, tapestries, shields, plumes, flyflaps, and many other things were made, adorned with gold and silver, of exquisite workmanship.
M OCTEZUMA HAD ANOTHER HOUSE with very large rooms and apartments which was called the bird house, not because there were more birds in it than in the first, but because they were larger, or, perhaps, being birds of prey, they were held to be better and nobler. In the many upper rooms dwelt men, women, and children who were white in body and hair from birth, and who were considered unusual to the point of being almost miraculous, so seldom did they occur. Dwarfs, hunchbacks, cripples, and monsters were also kept there in large numbers for the king’s amusement. It is said even that they were broken and made crooked in babyhood as if for the glory of the king. Each of these monsters had an apartment to himself.
In the lower rooms were many cages of stout timbers: in some, lions were kept; in others, tigers; in others, lynxes; in still others, wolves. In short, there was no kind of four-footed beast that was not represented, and all for the purpose of Moctezuma’s being able to boast that, however fierce they might be, he [dared] to keep them in his house. They were fed turkeys, deer, dogs, and game. In other rooms, in great eathenware jars, pots, and vessels … filled with water or earth, reptiles were kept, such as boa constrictors ( muslos ), vipers, crocodiles (which they call caimanes , that is to say, water lizards), lizards of other kinds, and such-like vermin, as well as land and water snakes, fierce and poisonous, and ugly enough to frighten the beholder.
In another apartment and in the courtyard, in cages with round perches, were kept all manner of birds of prey, such as lanners, hawks, kites, vultures, goshawks, nine or ten varieties of falcons, and many kinds of eagles, among which were some fifty a great deal larger than our red-tails. At one feeding each of them would eat a turkey of the country, which is larger than our peacock. There were many birds of each kind, and each kind had its own cage. They consumed some 500 turkeys every day. They had three hundred servants to wait on them, not counting the hunters, who were numberless. Many of these birds were unknown to the Spaniards, but it was said they were all good hunting birds, as was manifest by their aspect, size, talons, and the prey they caught. The snakes and their mates were given the blood of men killed in sacrifice, to suck and lick, and some even say they were fed on the flesh, which the lizards devoured with great gusto. The Spaniards did not witness this, but they did see the ground all encrusted with blood, as in a slaughterhouse, which stank horribly and quaked if a stick was thrust into it.