Use and Abuse

Villain or hero? | Neil Young | Image through time | Literature | Other

Villain or hero?

Mark vs. Hernando Cortez from Mark Kreutzer's blog. Playing Scatagories, Kreutzer gave Cortés as an example of a "villain" and was shot down. He takes his blogger's revenge.

Student essay by Freshman Ricky Howe, lusting after mixed metaphors and malapropisms like Cortés for gold. Howe divines the Puritans' motives by digging into Cortés' letters ("a piece of historiography, or historical literature") and counting occurences of the word "gold," subsequently identified as a "hypnotizing catalyst in colonization and conquest of the West." Hypnotizing as the catalyst was, "The embryonic stage of Colonial America was used mainly for financial purposes." (Didn't Bush pass a law against that?) Sadly, "[T]he modern world power is paralleled with the moneymaking lust that the nation was first founded on."

Neil Young

"Cortez the Killer" lyrics by Neil Young. Finding this on a site without junk advertisements was hard, but here it is on an academic site.

Blogger Jonathan Clark , who lives in Mexico City, recounts some bloody Aztec practices, and relative to "Hate was only a legend, war was never known" notes:

"Neal Young writes some good songs, but his Mesoamerican scholarship leaves a little to be desired."
Clark tells a funny story. I enjoyed particularly the telephone bill.

"Cultural Literacy Rocks: How Core Knowledge Can Help You Understand and Enjoy Rock Music ... and Much, Much More" by Matthew Davis, from American Educator (Spring 2004). Author shows how cultural literacy can help you understand (and take apart) rock music lyrics, with "Cortez the Killer" as the final example. He notes the distortions ("It would be more accurate to say that 'peace was never known'") but pictures the benefits that would acrue to a properly-educated 5th grader:

"Young doesn't tell us what the Aztecs 'built up' when they 'lifted many stones,' and a culturally illiterate listener might be left envisioning a nondescript pile of rocks. A Core Knowledge fifth-grader, on the other hand, should have visions of an Aztec pyramid dancing in her head. To my way of thinking, that's the best possible argument for Core Knowledge—it makes things happen in your head that wouldn't happen otherwise."

"Neil Young's Use of North American History" by Kyle Bichan. College essay explains Neil Young's song "Cortez the Killer" and others. He doesn't offer much analysis, failing to locate Young's revisionism in any kind of 70s political context. Worse, he simply misunderstands the song. For example, the lines:

"They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on"
is not an allusion to Aztecs fighting Spaniards "so that the future generations of Aztecs could live on without Spanish oppression," but a clear reference to (and defense of) Aztec human sacrifice. Bichan sees Malinche in the final lines:
"And I know she's living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can't remember when
Or how I lost my way"

Blogger "Professor Bunyip" Stanley Gudgeon on Young's politics, then and now.

After 11 September, Young penned a fair song with marvelous lyrics, "Let's Roll." If even the author of "Southern Man" and "Cortez the Killer"—that Cultural Studies 101 misrepresentation of heart-ripping Aztecs as pacific innocents—could figure out that some people need killing, there was hope that democratic governments might be able to set about the business with minimum distraction.
Gudgeon charts the decline.

Song Facts. Claims the song was and is banned in Spain. I very much doubt the latter.

Debate on the song. One correspondent claims Neil's sound "is almost like a German rock band singing on the holocaust." Another writes:

"I agree that the first line is very powerful, and that's the kind of ominous ambiguous feel he should have tried to keep in the rest of the song, instead of nonsense like 'Hate was just a legend/War was never known.' I think what Cortez did was evil but idealizing the Aztecs does them no service. And the way it turns into a love song in the last verse seems completely inappropriate."

Description of the band "Built to Spill's" 20-minute+ cover of Cortez the Killer. Apparently the Dave Matthew's Band jams on it too.

Image through time

Covers from the early 1900s series "Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano." Illustrated by José Guadalupe Posada.

William Smyth, 1841: General comments on the conquest of Mexico and Peru. Smyth is sees the downfall of the Aztecs the "impolicy of such harsh government, and of such unprincipled ambition."

"The wonder is rather that the Mexicans defended their empire so well, when we consider the nature of the Spanish soldiery, and the unfortunate description of the character of Montezuma."
The passage from Smyth comes from a Houghton Mifflin College unit on American exploration. This also assembles mid-20th and late 20th century analyses. Revealingly, the latter, from Europe by Norman Davies, back-dates "Europe overseas" to the Crusades.[1]

"The Conquerors' First View of Mexico" from 1851 edition of the The Ladies' repository "a monthly periodical, devoted to literature, arts, and religion." What did Antebellum American women think of Cortés? Enquiring minds want to know. Warning: Thoughts finding "lodgment" in intrepid breasts.


Amazon. Montezuma's Daughter by H. Rider Haggard, described as "The strange adventures and escapes of Thomas Wingfield, half English and half Spanish, in the years after Cortés's conquest of Mexico."

Poem by Hector Martinez , "Cortez the Killer." No obvious references to Neil Young, so it may be a coincidence. Malinche was not found in Tenochtitlan.


"'The Columbus Effect' Columbus, Cortez, & The NSA" by Jim Hickman. As a general rule, when you see the National Security Administration, Cortez and UFOs in the same paragraph, run! That said, his point is when an advanced civilization meets a not-so-advanced ones, they generally wipe it out, even if they say they come in peace (he quotes from an account of Cortez and Moctezuma). Since UFOs are likely to be more advanced than us, we should fear "contact."

LibraryThing: Catalog your books online.

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