Sunday, February 8, 2015

Movies and History - El Dorado

Hello Everyone,

So unlike my Wednesday posts which are usually super serious and stuff, Mondays are working out to be my time to just express what's on my mind. So here is another fun post for Monday. I hope you all enjoy.

Currently I am taking an online class on the History of Latin America. I'm not that far into the course but I'm already having a lot of fun. And the other day I realized that there was a movie that sorta went along the same lines as what I was learning in my History class.


Does anyone remember "The Road to El Dorado" from Dreamworks studios? Released in 2000, this film follows the misadventures of con-men Miguel and Tulio of 15th century Spain. Through a stroke of luck they get their hands on a map to the fabled city of gold: El Dorado. Though another stroke of luck/misfortune they find themselves stowing away on the ship carrying Hernan Cortes to the New World. A horse, an escape, and a shipwreck land the two on the trail to adventure and the ultimate con-job: stealing all the gold from El Dorado. This movie is a swashbuckling adventure set in an historical setting. Like other movies set in a similar time period (Pocahontas anyone?) this film is littered with historical inaccuracies. But that doesn't stop me from enjoying it! And after enjoying the movie I can connect it with some historical facts I'm learning in my online class.


(Quick Disclaimer: I'm not going to delve into who was more wrong, the Spanish or the natives. And I'm not going to split hairs over details. All I want to do is use these movies to share some media fun and some fun facts about history.)

(Second Quick Disclaimer: My main textbook for this class is the 'Penguin History of Latin America' by Edwin Williamson. So most of my facts will come from that textbook in case you wanted to read up on it yourself, which I always reccomend. Granted in every record of history there are biases so please don't yell at me for it. Thanks!)


So let's start this fun with history off with a question. Why were Cortes and others so concerned about Gold in the New World in the first place?


The Rush for Gold

  • In the early 1300's Europe was experiencing a 'gold famine' and they desperately needed a fresh supply.
  • Spain and Portugual dealt with the effects of this european depression (accompanied by the Black Death in the middle 1300's) until the middle of the 15th century.
  • This spurred a boom in maritime exploration and expansion to find new trade routes to secure more resources. These resources were namely gold, slaves, and corn.
  • It was in the middle of this surge that Columbus participated in to find a westward sea passage to the Indies.
  • In October of 1492, Columbus landed on a small island in the Bahamas and named it San Salvador.
  • He later sailed to and names "Colba" (Cuba), "Hispaniola" (what would become Haiti and the Dominican Republic)
  • Twenty years after Columbus's first exploration, the Spainards hadn't found much of worth besides what was on Cuba and Hispanola. They wanted to expand and find more.


In the El Dorado movie Miguel and Tulio manage to stow away on Cortes's ship as it departs from Spain in 1519. First off, as you'll see in a second, Cortes didn't exactly leave directly from Spain in such a formal fashion. And Secondly, he wasn't even looking for El Dorado in the first place! That would be Gonzalo Pizzaro some 30 years later. Anyway, so Cortes in this movie is a decoration really. Here are some facts about his career.

Enter Cortes!

  • Rumors had reached a Spainard called Diego Velazquez in Cuba that there were riches in the interior of what we known as the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Velazquez sent word to Spain to ask permission to further explore the area.
  • While he was waiting, an upstart known as Hernan Cortes jumped the gun and left with his own men before anyone could stop him.
  • Hernan Cortes had come to the Caribbean from Spain when he was only 19 and had worked as both a soldier and an administrator in Hispaniola and Cuba. He was 33 years old when he launched his exploration of the mainland.
  • Cortes was a gutsy guy for sure. He planned on faceing the unknown with only 600 men, 16 horses, 14 cannons, and 13 muskets.
  • In 1519 Cortes entered the capitol city of the Aztecs: Tenochtitlan.
  • Tenochtitlan had been built on a lake and was regarded as the Venice of the New World. It would have been a truly awe-inspiring sight to behold.
  • There Cortes met Montezuma, the Aztec Emperor. The fate of Mexico would hinge on the outcome of these two men meeting.
  • Long story short Montezuma was taken captive by Cortes in Tenochtitlan and later died from mysterious injuries. Blood was spilled on both sides within the city and the Spainards were driven out in 1520 only to return later that year with reinforcements. Cortes besieged the city until surrender was forced on August the 13th of that year.
  • Cortes became Marquis of the Valley of the Oaxaca. He continued to explore and harvest the abundant fruits of conquest until his death in 1547 at the age of 62.
  • Cortes wrote his personal account of his conquest of Mexico within five letters to Charles V. Called the "Cartas de Relacion", these letters are his only surviving writings.

See? He had nothing to do with El Dorado. If you think about it, while Miguel and Tulio were busy conning the natives out of their gold, Cortes was off trying to conquer the actual Aztec Empire.

Now we can get on to the fun stuff!


Aztec Life

I loved the color and vibrance the El Dorado movie brought to this ancient people. If you've never seen the movie, I would really reccomend it if for no other reason than to bring some color to history. From what I have independantly studied I found the buildings, paint, clothing, and even their jewlery very accurate. I think I even spotted some cranial deformation on a few. Did anyone else spot that?


There was also a fair representation of the Aztec's religious beliefs. "Fair" being different from "spot on" because a "spot on" rendention of Aztec religion is closer to Apocolypto and that my friends is what's called TMI on the movie screen. But that's a rant for another blog post. Moving on.

All in all I thought Aztec life, at least the possibly nice side of it, was well told on screen by this film. I would consider this a good introduction for young students interested in this period of history or this ancient people. Yes, I know about the historical inaccuracies. But if I look back on the points from my "5 Reasons History is Boring (and 3 ways to change that)" article I see this as a tool to pique interest and stir up curiosity.



Some More Cool Stuff

One thing that both the Road to El Dorado and Cortes's actual encounter with the Aztecs had in common was the assumption that these white visitors were gods! In the El Dorado movie Miguel and Tulio are taken for gods because they resemble the two figures riding a beast on the stele (the great big rock) in one of the movie's scenes. Exactly which gods they are supposed to be are never specified. However, in Tzekel-Kan's (the movie's bad-guy priest) religious codex (aztec book), the gods he's expecting take the form of blood-thirsty monsters that are supposed to cleanse the city of unbelievers.

Conversely, the specific deity that the Aztecs temporarily mistook Cortes and his men for was the Feathered Serpent god Quetzalcoatl. If that name doesn't sound familiar then check out my article "Snapshots of Serpent Deities: The Feathered Serpent" for more info. This deity was supposed to have taken the form of a man at one point and had come from across the sea to bring civilization and order to the native peoples. He was said to have been a white, bearded man accompanied by swift-footed messengers. He later left and sailed back east on a boat made of serpents. Legend said the deity would return in the year Ce Acatl (One Reed). 1519, when Cortes came face to face with Montezuma, happened to be a One Reed year. That's more than a little cool.


So Yeah...

Just some fun from mixing a movie and my Latin American History class together! Even though movies don't always have all their facts straight it doesn't mean we can't enjoy them and use them as tools to get people interested in history. If you have any thoughts on what I pointed out here please let me know. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks so much for stopping by, and have a great day!




Monday, February 2, 2015

Snapshots of Serpent Deities: The Water Serpent

Painting by Margarete Shaw

For the Tewa Indians living near the Rio Grande in New Mexico, as well as other Pueblo people of North America, the "mythical" Avanyu was believed to be a very powerful god. According to their ancient religion, this deity can supposedly cause both earthly and supernatural events. Like other serpent deities of ancient North America, the beliefs about Avanyu seem to be similar to those found in Meso-America, leading many archaeologists to lump them together under the same term: "Feathered Serpent". (Meso-America is the economic name for the geographic area called Central America. It includes Mexico, Guatemala, El Savador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, and Belize). Here is a brief snapshot of who Avanyu was to his ancient worshippers, and how people explain this myth today.

The Water Serpent

The name Avanyu, or Awanyu, literally means "water serpent" in the language of the Tewa Indians.[1] Avanyu was the deity of rain and lightning, of the river ways and water sources. His symbolic representation is found on pottery as early as A. D. 1000[2] in the form of a zigzagged horned and feathered serpent that shoots lightning from his mouth. Archaeologist Polly Schaafsma, author of the essay "Quetzalcoatl and the Horned and Feathered Serpent of the Southwest", has this to say about Avanyu:
"The horned serpent continues to be revered as an important deity among the Pueblos and is known by various names among the different linguistic groups, including Kolowisi (Zuni), Paaloloqangw (Hopi), and Awanyu (Tewa)..."[3]
If these descriptions are sounding familiar, it is because there are many serpent deities in ancient North and South America that share common traits.
In our "Serpent Sanctuary" article we focused on the serpent deities that were associated with fire, the heavens, and wisdom. But there are just as many serpent deities that are associated more with water.

A Comparison

Earlier we mentioned that Avanyu is often lumped together with the pagan Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl. Both were "feathered serpents" that probably have their roots in the counterfeits of Babel however, they have differences as well. According to myth, Quetzalcoatl imparted wisdom to the people by appearing in the form of a man whereas Avanyu and other serpent deities of North America did not. In contrast the Pueblo serpent worshippers believed their deity was an actual living creature that resided in the waters of the Rio Grande River, lurking in underwater passageways.[4]
Is it possible that the identity of Avanyu was bestowed on an actual creature living at that time in ancient America? And that the reputation of the snake only continued to grow and grow until it was legend? After all, the fearsome dragons of legend were most likely based off of living dinosaurs of the time. The myths of Avanyu could be much the same.

The Physical Avanyu

It has been speculated that the physical form of the deity Avanyu was really based on a real serpent that inhabited the waterways of the region at that time. The snake could have been a relative of the anaconda in South America, or some other sort of constrictor snake.[5] The Titanoboa, for instance, is an extinct constrictor that could have measured over 40ft in length![6] This gives us a picture of how big these ancient snakes could have been and it would be no surprise if the ancient people revered them.
As to the "plumes" or "horns" said to characterize Avanyu, this is not too far-fetched – in the Sahara there exists the Desert Horned Viper, which has two very literal horns on its face.[7] It is not impossible that a real creature inspired the stories of this pagan god.
Another theory presented by Peter Faris in his work on Native American Paleontology is that fossils actually gave birth to the idea of a horned water serpent. He suggests that discovery of mammoth skulls or other horned animals in the proximity of rivers could have looked like the remains of an underwater beast.[8]
We may not know for sure what the ancient water serpent looked like, but modern day Pueblo Indians believe the creature, worshiped in the past as Avanyu, is still alive today.[9]

Commonalities and Connections

The more we study serpent deities the more commonalities appear to connect them all. The same goes for many topics of the ancient world. This is no surprise because we know that mankind once gathered together at Babel and shared one goal and one purpose. Their common beliefs and interests are still discernable today. The prominence of pagan serpent worship reminds us of the first two people who were drawn away from the true God by a serpent in the Garden. Humanity is fooled again and again as they continually reject God’s authority.

Keep looking

Maybe this brief look at the pagan deity Avanyu also renewed an interest in the now extinct, yet fantastic creatures that lived in the ancient world. Never stop questioning and looking for answers! God’s creation is incredible and always proclaiming His glory!
Have you come across any commonalities in your own research? Let us know in the comments or send us an email!

[1] "Avanyu: Spirit of Water in Pueblo Life and Art". Rosemary Diaz. 2014. Web.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] "Awanyu." Ryan Roller-Kha-Po Owingeh. Web.
[5] Ibid.
[6] "How Titanoboa the 40 foot long snake was found". Guy Gugliotta. Smithsonian Magazine. April 2012. Web.
[7] "The Desert Horned Viper." Jay Sharp. Web.
[8] "Native American Paleontology". Peter Faris. Web.
[9]"Awanyu." Ryan Roller-Kha-Po Owingeh. Web.