September 23, 2009 / 3:16 PM / 9 years ago

Moctezuma show examines man behind Mexica myths

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A new exhibition at London’s British Museum attempts to get to the truth about Moctezuma II, the last elected ruler of the Aztecs, and explain why his legacy is still so divided.

To many Europeans, the man who successfully led a sizeable civilization in what is Mexico today is an idealized, semi-mythical figure who combined military and political prowess with the primitive savagery of ritual human sacrifice.

Mexicans, the show argues, tend to be more ambivalent toward Moctezuma, largely because he opened his arms to Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortes and so set in motion a bizarre series of events that would lead to the downfall of the Mexica empire.

“Moctezuma is a very ambivalent figure in Mexico,” said Colin McEwan, the exhibition’s curator, at a press preview on Wednesday. “He is seen as a tragic figure who ceded his empire to Europe.”

“Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler,” which runs from September 24 - January 24, 2010, seeks to demonstrate how Europeans’ exposure to Spanish accounts of his reign and eventual defeat have shaped our view.

It also attempts to balance that view by building a biographical narrative of Moctezuma, introducing him through his coronation stone and examining his rule and relationship with the gods and his subjects.

The show is the fourth and final installment in the British Museum’s series of crowd-pulling exhibitions about great nation-builders. The others focused on China’s first emperor, Roman emperor Hadrian and Persian ruler Shah Abbas.


Moctezuma is portrayed as a formidable warrior, who from the moment of his coronation was looking to extend his empire and establish his reputation in battle, as well as secure captives required for sacrifices to the gods.

He built a large palace in the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan, which was five acres in area and was said to have housed up to 1,000 nobles, guards, courtiers and servants.

When in his early 20s, he married Tezcalco, his “principal” wife, although he went on to wed many more as his status rose and he had 19 children in all.

One of several Codices on display in the exhibition depicts Moctezuma sitting in a secluded upper chamber, and because he was considered a sacred being, citizens would lower their eyes in his presence and any physical contact was forbidden.

Artifacts gathered from Mexico, Europe and the museum’s own collection include intricate jewelry, sculptures designed to hold the hearts of sacrificial victims and ghoulish masks, one with turquoise mosaics stuck to a real human skull.

Among the highlights is the Teocalli of Sacred Warfare, a large stone monument in the style of a pyramid that featured an image of Moctezuma standing alongside the sun in what the museum calls “a glorious song of praise to warfare and conquest.”

The show concludes with the conflicting versions of the fall of Moctezuma and his empire.

On the one hand, he is portrayed as a turncoat who naively allowed the Spanish to enter Tenochtitlan in 1519, who was captured and then stoned to death by his own people infuriated by his perceived capitulation and betrayal.

But the alternative view is that Moctezuma believed Cortes to be the personification of the deity Quetzalcoatl and was secretly murdered by the Spanish.

Editing by Steve Addison

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