Scents of conquest

On 8 November 1519, Hernan Cortez, the intrepid Spanish conquistador, met the legendary Moctezuma II face to face. That first-ever encounter was not only visual, it necessarily included one other faculty intrinsic to human beings, the olfactory one, the sense of smell.

As soon as Moctezuma heard that the Spaniards were marching to Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), he sent messengers to spy on them, to see what they looked like. The messengers who had befriended some of Cortez’s men reported that the Spaniards were also curious about “the great tlatoani” – Emperor Moctezuma. They wanted to know if he was young or old (Moctezuma was then aged 40), tall or short, or if he had white hair. The great Aztec ruler also had a barrage of questions, for he regarded the arrival of those white men with foreboding. Apparently, there was an ancient prediction that their god, Quetzalcoatl, would return as a bearded white man. Could that be Hernan Cortez?

The messengers reported that Cortez was no taller than Moctezuma. (According to Mexican archaeologist Eusebio Davalos, Cortez was no more than 1.58 meters and about 34 years old.) but he and his soldiers had a terrible weapon that sounded like thunder, spewed fire, and exuded an infernal smell (gun powder) — the harquebus. And speaking of smells, they made comments about the stench of the white foreigners, the smell of burnt wood, stale smoke, and body odor impregnated their unruly hair, beards, clothing, armor, footwear. The Aztecs did not know that after an interminable sea voyage the conquistadores had to traverse valleys, high plateaus, deserts, with inconstant weather, searching for their final destination — Tenochtitlan. As they journeyed, on foot and horseback, Cortez and his troops had to set up camp, cook and sleep around bonfires, in battle gear and with their weapons, ready for any eventuality. They probably had only one set of clothes left, soaked in sweat, infested with gnats and bacteria. Who wouldn’t stink to high heavens?

The Aztecs, like the natives of our archipelago now called Philippines, bathed at least once a day in their rivers and lakes; Moctezuma took two baths. Many of them had hot water springs running through their homes. They rubbed themselves with fragrant herbs, petals, and fruits as bathing was not only for personal hygiene; it was a kind of ritual. Wearing garlands of fragrant flowers was a custom shared by both men and women.

So, when Cortez and Moctezuma were finally at arm’s-length, the Spanish grandee wanted to give the Aztec tlatoani the customary embrace of his culture. But horrified at what they considered an olfactory affront, Moctezuma’s aides stopped the ritualistic clasp and adroitly placed nice-smelling garlands around Cortez’s neck. The Spaniards never knew why, they were probably so used to their “herd” smell to find it offensive.

However, the Aztecs must have exuded their own inexplicable aroma. The conquistadors had very strong words about the stench of dried blood in the sacred places of those palatial structures where the Aztecs offered human sacrifices. There are extant drawings of battle-worn Spanish soldiers, no strangers to carnage, wrenching their guts out at traces of human sacrifice (Enrique T. Esquivel, 2019). Eventually, they must have gotten used to each other’s olfactory attributes.

According to Patrick Suskind, author of the riveting novel Perfume, in the 16th century, no one knew about bacteria and their corrosive effects on animate and inanimate matter. As a result, any kind of human activity, no matter how inconsequential, was always accompanied by a certain smell, pleasant or not.