I was going to write a post about how some of the lyrics in Neil Young’s song “Cortez the Killer” always bothered me a bit in their historical inaccuracy. But, a search of the Internet reveals that someone else beat me to it. An article by a Mathew Davis (the founder of something called the Core Knowledge Reading Program) on the American Educator website sums it up fairly well. The problem lies mainly in some lines early in the song:
“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
People worked together
And they lifted many stones.
They carried them to the flatlands.
But they died along the way.
And they built up with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today.”
Davis states in his article:
“The romanticizing of the Aztecs begins in the opening lines, when Young claims that all of these native peoples were beautiful and healthy, a condition which has probably never prevailed in any civilization at any time.
Young also glides over the subject of human sacrifice. It is true that the Aztecs “offered life in sacrifice / So that others could go on.” They believed that such sacrifices would appease the gods. But the lives they sacrificed were human lives: sacrificial victims were tied to an altar, whereupon their chests were sliced open and their still-beating hearts offered to “the angry gods.” By avoiding the fact that the Aztecs killed human beings and emphasizing the unselfish motives behind these sacrifices, Young puts a cheerful face on a terrible practice and presents a one-sided view of the Aztecs.
“Hate was just a legend, / And war was never known,” is more of the same kind of romanticizing, all too common today. The residents of pre-Columbian Mexico were well acquainted with hate and war. In fact, the Aztecs stand out in the annals of history as an exceptionally belligerent civilization: In order to keep their altars supplied with a steady diet of sacrificial victims, the Aztec emperors kept up a perpetual war with neighboring peoples. It would be more accurate to say that “peace was never known.”
Young again claims too much for the Aztecs when he declares that modern engineers could never build things as grand as the Aztecs built. But it certainly is true that “they lifted many stones.” And here is another unexpected benefit for the culturally literate: 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. “
In a later song called “Inca Queen”, Neil sings “Once there was an Inca queen / She gazed at her sundial / All around her workers raised/ Golden idols to her smile”. Now, is she gazing at her sundial because she’s trying to tell what time it is and she can’t quite figure it out? (Maybe it’s a cloudy day…). And the workers – one would assume they were under orders from said queen. So, the queen is having them build golden idols in honor of her smile? She sounds a little conceited, doesn’t she?
Later in the song, he sings “Out in the jungle the drums were heard / From the biggest elephant to the smallest bird”. Last I heard, there were no elephants in South America (homeland of the Incas).
Neil was a little fixated on the Mesoamericans it seems. He has another song (from his 1982 album Trans) called “Like An Inca” which includes the lines:
“Well I wish I was an Aztec,
Or a runner in Peru
I would build
such beautiful buildings
To house the chosen few
Like an Inca from Peru.”
Why would a “runner in Peru” be constructing buildings? Unless he was an architect, too, I guess. And the “chosen few” only get to live in beautiful buildings? That’s a little elitist, isn’t it, Neil?
Don’t get me wrong, I write all the above as a Neil Young fan. And I can appreciate the songs for what they are without analyzing them. It’s just after hearing them so many times (especially in the case of “Cortez”), once starts to listen a bit more closely. And I was an English major in college – so literary criticism is part of my background. For the record, I think “Inca Queen” is one of the most beautiful songs Neil Young has written, and the guitar in “Cortez the Killer” ranks among his most inspired and haunting. “Like An Inca” has a pretty cool riff, too.
But, wait, what’s that on the album cover of “Zuma” (the album “Cortez the Killer” was originally on) – an Egyptian pyramid? I thought all the Aztec and Mayan pyramids had flat tops…. [fade out]