Aztec Eve

For four years anthropologist Nahum Megged followed in the footsteps of Malinche, an Indian who helped the conquistador Hernan Cortes take over 16th-century Mexico. Megged pored over archival documents and met a mysterious shaman, who claims she is the reincarnation of the controversial Aztec woman

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

On this particular winter's day he admits that she conquered his heart. 'She has been on my mind for more than 20 years,' the anthropologist Prof. Nahum Megged says. 'She clings to me'

On the walls around him are dozens of photos of monkeys and tigers, their teeth bared and seemingly watching his every move. 'From the moment I started to investigate the culture of Mexico, I was drawn to this marvelous figure, so very wise. She is fashioned from the material of true cultural heroes. But it took courage to write about her. It wasn't easy. It took a long time before I felt I was ready to embark on a quest for her.'

For the past four years Megged, 72, was on the trail of the Indian bondswoman accused of betraying her people as the interpreter for Hernan Cortes, the 16th-century Spanish conqueror of Mexico. Unable to shake off the image of the woman who helped determine the fate of the American continent; an image which has been burned into the consciousness of the Mexican people; Megged set out on a journey that took him across the length and breadth of Mexico. His new book, 'Malinche: The Indian Woman Who Toppled an Empire' (in Hebrew), is the compelling account of his odyssey.

'I wanted to find out whether traditions and stories had been preserved that could shed light on her life,' Megged explains, sinking into an armchair in the living room of his home in Jerusalem's Arnona neighborhood. 'Today in Mexico the term malinchista is the worst curse there is. It is synonymous with traitor, with someone who is enthralled by everything that is foreign and disdains his nation?s culture. That is what remains of her. To this day she is blamed for bringing about the onset of servitude to Spain. I think she has been terribly wronged. From a heroine she has been transformed into a dirty word. I had to find out why she became such a negative personage and right the historic injustice that was done her. In my journey I tried to discover what truly drove the woman who, in her 29 years of life, changed the face of the American continent and to a degree the history of the entire world.?

Megged takes us back to the period in which the Spanish conquistadors dreamed of gold and abundant riches: That is the point of departure, he says.

Until the Spanish conquest, the area of Mexico was divided into dozens of small and large kingdoms,? he explains animatedly. ?The Aztec empire ruled all these principalities. They were very cruel rulers. They believed, for example, that the sun was thrust out of the earth as in the birth process, and thus lost blood at dawn every day. To ensure that the sun would not disappear, the Aztecs believed it was necessary to replenish its blood and therefore sacrificed vast numbers of people. They fought wars aimed solely at obtaining prisoners for sacrifice.?

The Aztec empire ruled with a high hand until the arrival of the Spaniards. The future conqueror of Mexico, Cortes, set out from Cuba, already an established Spanish colony, in 1519 in search of the route to Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec kingdom.

The city lay in the middle of a lake and rumors abounded about its vast riches,? Megged relates. ?In one of Cortes? first battles on the way to the city, he defeated the king of the Maya Indians, who as a token to mark their peace alliance gave him 20 slave women, one of whom was a 19 year old named Malinche,? also known as Dona Marina.

Not much is known about her early life,' he continues, 'but thanks to the writings of Bernal Diaz, who accompanied Cortes and took part in the battles for the conquest of Mexico, we do have some documentation. I started my journey on the basis of what he wrote. The other sources are few in number and meager in content. It was a Sisyphean task to pore over library archives in Mexico, to examine documents of sales and marriages from hundreds of years ago and extract from them scraps of information. It was not easy to put the pieces of the puzzle together.'

But in the end, the details added up to a clear if bitter picture. 'I discovered the world of a girl victimized by fate, who was born in a small principality,' Megged says in a sorrowful tone. 'She was a very special girl and apparently also very beautiful. After her father's death she was sold by her mother and stepfather to a Mayan ruler as a bondswoman and a mistress. Eventually she found herself in the hands of Cortes. He married her and she bore his first son. She was a gift from heaven for him. It is clear that he would not have been able to conquer Mexico without her help. She paved the way for him. We have to remember the extraordinary fact that Cortes set out on his campaign with only 500 soldiers. He had no chance against the Aztec empire, which had an army of 80,000.'

How did Malinche help him? Megged: 'In one of his first battles, Cortes freed a Spaniard who had been captured by the Maya. He became Cortes? interpreter, translating from Spanish to the Mayan language. But Cortes had no one who was able to translate the language of the' [Aztec?] empire, Nahuatl [the lingua franca of central Mexico]. Malinche became the missing link in the chain of communication, because Nahuatl was her native language. He understood immediately the power she possessed. He made her his confidante, and because she picked up Spanish very quickly, she became his sole interpreter; his 'tongue,' as he called her.'

Latter-day incarnation

Nahum Megged attributes a critical role to Malinche in the Spanish conquest of Mexico: ?Her role did not end with translation. She conducted complex negotiations between Cortes and the local kings. During the period in which she was with him, he forged alliances with tribes who placed thousands of soldiers at his disposal and became the spearhead of the campaign against the Aztecs. She promised quid pro quos for the alliances and told the tribes, who suffered under the Aztecs, that this was their opportunity to take revenge on their oppressors.'

She used a highly sophisticated technique to obtain her master's wishes. 'Every kingdom had a myth of the civilizing god Quetzalcoatl, who took the form of a bearded white man and was beneficent toward the Indians. Malinche was familiar with this figure. Legend had it that before he disappeared, he promised to return from the sea. He was a messianic figure, for whom the people waited. Malinche saw the resemblances between Quetzalcoatl and Cortes. She grasped the meaning of the myth and knew how to market it. She persuaded Cortes to play the part of the civilizing god, and was able to persuade the local tribes that the god had returned. In the end, the Aztec king did not even fight Cortes; believing Cortes was a god, he abdicated the throne in his favor in 1521.'

Megged's quest, via ancient documents, also took a surprising turn. While trying to fill in the gaps in the historical account, he was put in touch with a shaman woman named Sochital.

'While I was immersed in collecting the materials I met with a friend, the president of an academy in Mexico,' Megged says. 'He told me he was going to meet with a woman who was said to be Malinche?s reincarnation, and asked if I would like to come along. I immediately said yes.'

The meeting took place in the village of San Pedro, at the foothills of the sacred volcano in central Mexico.

'She wasn't home,' he recalls. 'Her eldest son answered the door. Judging by the son, I expected an older woman. But soon an energetic young woman in traditional garb appeared. I couldn't believe she was the woman we were looking for. At the time I didn?t know she was only 14 when she had given birth to her first child. Without knowing how it happened we found ourselves embracing ... ?We will communicate even without words,' she told me.'

They went to a grove near the village, where chickens were running free. The air was freezing. Megged already felt that Sochital was going to be his window to the world of the woman who, he says, 'clung to him.' Megged: 'Astonishing things happened in my meetings with Sochital. She went into trances in which she saw visions that took her back to Malinche's time. Without even minimal education, unfamiliar with all the historical complexities, she told me stories bearing historical continuity and filled with astonishing details.'

The first vision took place in her home, a rickety wood shack. 'She gave me her hand to hold, closed her eyes and related how at the age of 13 she was raped near the volcano,' Megged recalls in a quiet voice. 'She said: 'She [Malinche], too, was raped at the same age and neither of us knew it was rape. My parents made me marry the rapist. Neither of us knew how to be mothers. As girls we were both happy; her father pampered her and my father did the same. When Malinche's father was alive he would always tell her: My daughter, life is hard. Our forefathers said that there is no joy in the land here, no happiness, only grief and concern.'

Like the writer Carlos Castaneda, Megged takes readers on an anthropological journey in which the writer himself is a central, concrete element in the unfolding tale.

'I knew Castaneda late in his life,' Megged says, adding that he rejects any similarity between his writing and Castaneda's. 'We had the same publisher in Mexico and he introduced us. In his first book, Castaneda wrote about a shaman named Don Juan who taught him the wisdom of life. He developed this theme and became the priest of a new religion. He invented a myth for the West, gave people a recipe, a way to lead their lives. That has nothing to do with my world: I make no pretensions of teaching people how to live. It is not clear whether his books are fact or fiction; unlike him, my journeys are real, not fictitious.'

The white shaman

Born in Argentina, Megged says that shamans in Central and South America call him 'eight snake' and describe him as ?an Indian and shaman under white cover.' Until the age of 16 he lived with his family in the Jewish town of Moises Ville in Santa Fe province. He was considered a child prodigy.

'I grew up in the period of Juan Peron,' he relates. 'At the age of 13 I was already lecturing to respected forums. It all started when the head of the Peronist party in Buenos Aires visited our town library. I remember that we sat and talked, in part about poets, and he was very impressed with my knowledge. He asked me to repeat what I had told him at a party meeting. In due course I did in fact appear before the party's 'who?s who,' and delivered a talk, wearing shorts. Some in the party thought I should be raised with the aim of being sent to parliament when the time came. I remember being very frightened of that.'

That option was rendered moot in 1953, when Megged immigrated to Israel with his family, who settled on Kibbutz Miflasim in the Negev. There, too, his abilities were immediately identified, and after his army service(in the Artillery Corps?) he was sent to university. 'The kibbutz, too, decided to bring me up,' he says angrily. 'The truth is that I did not want to study. I was then a follower of A.D. Gordon's philosophy and believed that man's redemption would come through the redemption of the soil. But the kibbutz thought otherwise. I had no choice. I studied Hebrew literature and Bible at the Hebrew University [of Jerusalem].'

After completing his studies he and his wife went to Colombia. 'We were a penniless couple who dreamed of buying an apartment, so we went to Colombia to make a little money. I taught in a Jewish school in Medellin. All kinds of good things happened to us there. We went on treks and were possibly the first Israeli backpackers in South America. The Colombian encounter brought back the Spanish language, which I had repressed in the course of my effort to become an Israeli. I embarked on my first jungle journeys.'

In Colombia Megged was an unusual and visible social activist. 'With the chutzpah of a 24-year-old kid I founded the Institute for Cultural Relations between Israel and Colombia, as well as an interfaith organization. Although I only lived there for two years I was already writing for the local press. I was very energized. Because I was known I also became a kind of mediator between guerrilla groups and the army. They called me to mediate in crisis situations. Guerrilla leaders came to me, and then the military came. At the time I was closely acquainted with the governor, who afterward became Colombia?s foreign minister. After I returned to Israel he wrote a letter to Golda Meir, who was then the foreign minister. He asked for me to be sent back to Colombia, which was sinking into civil war. Only I could make peace between the sides, he wrote.'

But in Israel the trajectory of Megged's life was about to change. While looking into the possibility of M.A. studies at the Hebrew University, Prof. Moshe Lazar, the head of its Department of Latin American Culture, suggested that he embark on a direct-doctorate track, provided his subject would be the Indian writer Miguel Angel Asturias '(1899-1974?), from Guatemala, the 1967 Nobel literature laureate. Megged agreed and began his research immediately.

'Asturias actually opened all the gates for me,' he explains. 'I realized that in order to study his work, I would have to learn the Indian languages. Afterward we met and became soul mates. Through him I started to enter deeply into the Indian world.'

In time, Megged became one of the world's leading authorities on the ancient civilizations of Central and South America. He has written many books on the Indians' cultural heritage, thanks in no small part to the fact that tribal chieftains opened their vanishing world to him. The Mexican government acknowledged his contribution by awarding him its Order of the Aztec Eagle; the highest decoration conferred upon non-Mexicans.

'In all these cultures you can find your own culture,? Megged says, ?but without all the sophistication. One can see things as they are. Every such journey was for me a venture into something wonderful.'

He says he was enthralled by the ecstatic experiences he witnessed: 'I was flabbergasted when Malinche started to speak through Sochital. In one of her trances she said: 'One day it happened. Mother dressed me in servant's clothes. My second father, the one who never loved me, was standing next to her. Opposite them was a fat man, one of the Mayan people who came to the palace. The fat man looked at me as though he were about to devour me. Then he grabbed me and shouted, 'Now we're going.' I turned around to catch Mother's eyes, but she turned her head and did not look at anything, certainly not at me.'

What was your reaction to this? Megged: 'I could not understand where it came from. She gave me many details about how Malinche was sold and about her rape, about the period before the Spanish conquest, the conquest itself and its aftermath. I asked myself why I should not add her stories, too, which were told with pain and feeling, to the scholarly accounts I had collected about Malinche?s life? When Sochital described her vision of a burning city, which I knew about from my research, it was incomprehensible to me how she could know all that. But I gave up trying to understand. It was totally beyond me how she could tell me things I had discovered only by poring through archives.'

As a researcher, can you accept such testimony? 'Obviously, one's ability to reason goes on the defensive, but who am I to be skeptical' I say with humility: Just because I do not understand something does mean it does not exist. Who can say whether her story is less truthful than all the mythologizing of Malinche' All I did is add her voice, with all the necessary reservations.

'But deep down I am astounded, I surrender to her story. Through Sochital we have acquired a riveting description of the period and of a woman with such an amazing and unusual life story, who made Mexico what it is. I found historical documents that support the many revelations in her descriptions. I doubt that my study would have gone ahead if I had not found Sochital.'

Did you discover what happened to Malinche after the Cortes conquest? 'er role ended the moment Cortes became the unquestioned leader. She lived in the home that Cortes built for himself in a small principality. She did not raise her son, because Cortes sent him to a school in Spain. That is Malinche?s tragedy: She emerged on the stage in a storm and faded away quietly.'

When did she become a symbol of treason? 'At first she was described as the leader of the country's enemies, but not as a traitor. That notion took root in 1812, when Mexican independence fighters against the Spaniards adopted the Aztec culture as their ?mother civilization.' It is odd that neighboring kingdoms that fought the Aztecs were not excoriated, but this woman was accused of treason. Like Eve, like Medea who betrayed her father and murdered her brother in order to win her man, Jason all the problems were attributed to this one woman.'

Do we know how she died? 'The testimonies shed no light on the exact time or on what happened to her after Cortes left for Spain. The unknown engendered stories, rumors and legends. Some say she died of a disease, others that she ended her days in a hostel. Some link her death to her heartbreak after her son was taken from her. Another theory is that she was murdered by her second husband and her body was thrown into a canal. I was unable to solve all the mysteries surrounding her, but the truth is that her whole life is made of dreams and legends that were woven about her. So she died in several places and was buried in several places, as befits a mythic figure.'



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