Among the diverse band of mercenaries, sailors, and seekers of adventure in Cuba that signed up for Hernán Cortés’ expedition into Mexico was a peculiar figure by the name of Botello. No one knew much of the man’s background, but he was evidently a well-educated, well-read, and well-traveled individual. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a fellow follower of Cortés, recalled that Botello was “remarkable for his honesty and great intelligence” and that he “seemed a very decent man, and knew Latin and had been in Rome” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 128). There was, however, a twist to Botello’s erudition that gave the man an occult vibe. Evidently, everyone on Hernán Cortés’ expedition suspected Botello of wielding otherworldly knowledge. At the least, Botello was considered an astrologer, yet many of the other conquistadors believed that the man was actually a sorcerer.
At the core of the rumors was Botello’s fondness for fortune-telling and prophecy. Through astrology, casting of lots, or sorcery, he prolifically produced fortunes and horoscopes for Hernán Cortés and other members of the expedition. In addition to foresight and prophecy, the conquistadors also apparently thought that the man possessed a demon or familiar spirit and that Botello could even reanimate the bodies of the dead—although he never publicly did the latter feat.
Due to his supposed wisdom and abilities, Botello was reportedly an influential member of the expedition whose predictions could sometimes sway Hernán Cortés. His greatest role in the expedition occurred in the middle of the year 1520, when the hostility against the Spaniards was beginning to boil over in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. One of the climactic events of this period was the violent death of the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, which caused the anti-Spanish fervor in Tenochtitlan to burn ever higher. Around the time of Montezuma’s death, Botello proclaimed that he had an urgent prophecy to deliver to his comrades. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Botello announced, “by means of his secret art, he had discovered that every one of us would be killed if we did not leave Mexico on a certain night” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 128).
At the time of Botello’s prophecy, the Spanish quarters in Tenochtitlan were undergoing a multi-day siege by Aztec forces and the Spaniards did not need much encouragement to decide that it was time to leave. On the night of June 30-July 1, the Spaniards heeded Botello’s advice and fled Tenochtitlan during the night. Hostile Aztec forces around the Spanish quarters caught on to the escape attempt and attacked the fleeing Spaniards, reportedly killing over eighty of the conquistadors before Cortés’ forces made it out of the city limits. As for Botello, Bernal Díaz mused, “His astrology did not help him, for he too died there with his horse” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 128). The Aztecs continued to chase the conquistadors for several days after the night flight from Tenochtitlan. This pursuit came back to bite the Aztecs on July 7, 1520, when Hernán Cortés went back on the offensive and defeated a pursuing Aztec army at Otumba.
Once the Spaniards gained some breathing room and no longer had to run for their lives, the conquistadors apparently amused themselves by rifling through the belongings of the late Botello. As the story goes, what they found among the deceased man’s effects corroborated the rumors that Botello dabbled in the occult. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, “after we got to safety some papers, bound together like a book, were found in his box, marked with figures, lines, notes, and symbols” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 128). In addition to the bizarre book, they also found strange objects which they thought were used for fortune-telling or magic.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (An Alchemist In His Laboratory, by David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.