Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rethinking Cortez the Killer

Recently, I've been listening to a song by Neil Young called "Cortez the Killer." I've always loved the song. Sometimes I come back to a song and listen to it over and over. When that happens, I know there's something there that I need to pay attention to.

Historically speaking, the song is very inaccurate. Neil Young tells the story of Hernan Cortez and his exploits in the New World. Let's look at the lyrics and see what unfolds...

He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
In that palace in the sun.

On the shore lay montezuma
With his coca leaves and pearls
In his halls he often wondered
With the secrets of the worlds.

And his subjects gathered ’round him
Like the leaves around a tree
In their clothes of many colors
For the angry gods to see.

And the women all were beautiful
And the men stood straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on.

Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.

They carried them to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today.

Ok...let's try to unpack this. When Cortez arrived in the New World, the Aztecs were very much the dominant civilization in Mexico. However, the historian in me cries foul when the song goes on to say that "hate was just a legend" and "war was never known." The Aztecs were imperialists. They conquered many civilizations and tribes throughout Mesoamerica. Their practice of human sacrifice was horrific and brutal. During the Aztec reign, thousands died upon the spectacular heights of blood-stained pyramids.

There, I've had my say. My inner historian has been satisfied. However, I'm starting to think that Neil Young may have been talking about something else, something wearing an Aztec guise. I think he may have been lamenting the loss of paradise.

There's something inside us all that has this vague sense that things are not as they are supposed to be, isn't there? It's hard to put your finger on though. It's not as if I can look back on my life and say there was a time when everything was perfect (i.e. hate was just a legend, war was never known). I'm guessing you can't either.

When I see a friend struggling because a loved one was just diagnosed with a terminal disease or when I watch someone's marriage self-destruct, I think to myself, this isn't supposed to turn out like this. When I see a fellow human being who has obviously been living on the streets, unwashed, and babbling incoherently, a part of me cries far we have fallen from our previous glory! When I see a childhood stolen by parental neglect or alcohol, my heart breaks. Things are not they way they should be!

How do we know that...deep down?

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.

Something at least to wrestle with this holiday season.

He came dancing across the water
Cortez, cortez
What a killer.

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. - Genesis 3:4
What a killer.

You can listen to Cortez the Killer here. I'd like to hear your thoughts or comments.

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