During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the dominant force in Western civilization. As the Dark Ages came to a close, the monarchies of Europe began to consolidate power; providing an alternative power base. With the Protestant Reformation came another blow to the influence of the Church. Spain, the forerunner in the Age of Discovery, was a fervently Catholic country. During the 16th century, the monarchy combined the forces of "cross and crown" in its imperial policy; much to the dismay and ultimate destruction of the indigenous peoples of the New World. Through an examination of Aztec polytheism and the Catholicism of the conquistadors, comes the central role of religion in the successful conquest of New Spain.
When the Spaniards arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in 1519, they encountered the advanced society of the Aztecs. With Tenochititlan at its capital, the Aztec empire was vast. The Aztecs had substantial wealth from trading and extensive payments of tribute from conquered peoples. Bernal Diaz in his The Conquest of New Spain comments, "We were dazzled at the richness of the country that we passed through" (282). The Spaniards encountered a powerful, advanced people in the New World, making Cortes and his crew of approximately 600 seemingly ensured of defeat. The Aztec religion lends much to Spanish success in conquest.
A major element of Aztec life was religion, as often is in the case in ancient civilizations. The Aztecs were a polytheistic people, and they often made use of human sacrifice to please their gods. Diaz often makes reference to the blood-stained walls of the Aztec temples in his account of the conquest. In reference to the success of Cortes and his soldiers, an ancient Aztec legend is of grave importance. The Aztecs, and especially their leader Montezuma, believed that one of their gods, characterized by light skin and light eyes, would someday return to Earth. Cortes fit this description quite well. According to Diaz, Montezuma told the Spanish that they,"must truly be the men about whom his ancestors had long ago prophesized, saying they would come from the direction of the sunrise to rule over these lands" (220).
Since the Aztecs considered the Spanish gods, they welcomed the conquistadors into Mexico City, the city which the Spanish were repeatedly cautioned not to try and conquer. Furthermore, the Spanish were well cared for and...