I’ve spent the summer writing 16 hours a day 7 days a week completing Volume 3 of my War God series of novels about the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It has been a VERY intense writing experience. To celebrate I’m offering a short extract, hot off my desk, below.
It concerns the expedition’s friar, Father Bartolomé Olmedo and an adventure with the psilocybin mushrooms that the Mexica (the Aztecs) knew as teonanácatl, ‘the flesh of the gods’.
Volumes 1 and 2 of the War God series are already published, info and links here:
Extract from War God: Night of Sorrows, by Graham Hancock
Father Bartolomé Olmedo, Mercedarian friar and Chaplain to the expedition to the New Lands of Don Hernan Cortés, strove at all times to be happy. What after all was the point of life without happiness? It defied common sense to imagine that God had put us on this earth to be miserable! Each one of us, each human soul, was here to celebrate joy – and in Olmedo’s case joy meant a bottle of good red wine, or preferably several bottles to be had one after the other accompanying an excellent dinner. It was most unfortunate, therefore, that no such joy was to be found anywhere in the New Lands since the expedition’s limited supply, including the special barrels earmarked for Mass, had run out. The only plausible substitute was a fermented local drink called pulque that had happily crossed his path. Being milky white in colour it wouldn’t do for Mass and it had a sour, yeast-like taste that made him shudder at first, but the effect after a few bowls was pleasant enough so he’d persisted with the experiment and was now even beginning to appreciate the flavour.
A flagon of Olmedo’s best pulque, with his drinking bowl half empty beside it, stood on the table before him attracting worried glances from the servants in the dining hall of Iztapalapa’s lakeside palace. He could understand their dilemma; they believed the sacred beverage was forbidden to him as a foreigner but did not dare to question his right to drink it. He lifted the brightly painted ceramic bowl with its imagery of crescent moons – for some reason the Mexica associated pulque with the moon – drained it, belched, and filled the bowl again from the flagon.
A portly, rugged friar of perhaps forty, Olmedo had a strong jaw which he’d recently taken to shaving clean, and a Roman nose, giving him a somewhat fierce, uncompromising look, greatly softened by twinkling brown eyes. Despite a full tonsure, out of which rose the smooth and deeply tanned dome of his skull, his hair was unruly, reddish-brown in colour, thick and shaggy at the nape of his bull-like neck and somewhat overhanging his brow. His shoulders and chest were massive, and an ample stomach thrust comfortably forward through his habit.
He surrendered to another gulp of pulque; really, the more of the stuff he drank the better he liked it! Just as well he’d brought along a few flagons as he had no idea how long he might be sitting here or whether dour, grey-bearded, cold-eyed, utterly humourless Ordaz sitting opposite him, with whom he’d run out of conversation some dreary hours before, might be transformed into a more entertaining companion if he could get some pulque into him.
Not that there was any hope of that! Ordaz had claimed to be disgusted by the single sip he’d tried earlier and had spat it out explosively on the floor.
That was when Olmedo remembered what was in his satchel. He was something of a herbalist, and it was his practise to collect specimens of interesting plants and fungi wherever he travelled. After coming to Tenochtitlan he’d heard rumours about certain mushrooms that the Mexica called teonanácatl, ‘the flesh of the gods’, said to be intoxicating, and one of his scouts had recently skulked up to him with a linen bag containing a dozen fine large examples. Olmedo had selected one at random and insisted that his scout eat it in his presence, which he did willingly. Observing no ill effect on the man after three hours, other perhaps than some mild disorientation, and having had him return the next day when he proved still to be in good health, Olmedo had concluded that these mushrooms were not poisonous.
With what he hoped was a casual air, he reached into his satchel, found the linen bag with the eleven remaining mushrooms, and transferred it to the sleeve of his white Mercedarian habit. It was the work of an instant, unnoticed by Ordaz who sat twiddling his thumbs, his gaze fixed on the door.
‘Excuse me, Don Diego;’ Olmedo now said, rising. I’m going to pay a visit to the kitchens and find out how they’re doing with the banquet for the men we’re meeting…’
‘Bah! Complete folly that we are here to meet them at all, let alone fretting over a banquet for them!’
‘I understand your point of view Don Diego,’ Olmedo replied in soothing, sermon-like tones, ‘and most of the other captains share it. Still, we are here to carry out the Caudillo’s wishes and we must accept, I think, that he knows what he’s doing.’
Through until the summer of last year when he’d taken part in a failed conspiracy at Villa Rica, Ordaz had been – more or less openly – a ‘Velazquista’, as Cortés termed the supporters of his rival Diego de Velazquez, the Governor of Cuba. The conspiracy, which had involved stealing a ship and attempting to make off in it to Cuba, had involved some fifty of the men. Their leader, Juan Escudero, had promptly been hanged, as had the ship’s pilot Diego Cermeno, ten of the conspirators had been flogged, and one had the toes of his left foot cut off as an exemplary punishment, but Cortés had generously spared Ordaz, along with all the rest, after which the grizzled old Captain had never again faltered in his loyalty.
That was good, Olmedo thought. Unswervingly devoted to the Caudillo himself, he valued the same sentiments in others. Nonetheless the fact could not be escaped that Ordaz was a crashing bore and if the train of tamanes bringing the envoys up from Villa Rica was delayed for any reason – by no means impossible on such a long and difficult road – then he might be obliged to wait here in the old fart’s tedious company for hours longer.
The prospect of such ennui, Olmedo decided, could not be tolerated.
He made his way to the palace kitchens, returning after an interval with a serving girl carrying two steaming plates.
‘Look here Don Diego,’ Olmedo said as the plates were set down on the table. ‘I had them make us a snack. I do hope you might be partial to a rib or two of venison, nicely smoked? Oh, and these very fine fresh mushrooms, sliced and lightly sautéed on the side?’
Ordaz straightened his back, growled with appreciation – a remarkable change from the sullen mood he’d projected all afternoon — and smacked his lips. ‘Now you’re talking,’ he said.
At some unknown interval after eating the mushrooms, which he had divided equally with Ordaz, Olmedo began to notice that he was feeling somewhat strange. In fact, he realised, he had probably already been feeling strange for a while, but time no longer seemed to have any meaning and besides this mushroom feeling was unfamiliar and insidious, and had rather crept up on him.
He’d been excited when his informants had told him of the teonanactl’s intoxicating properties, which they even described as a kind of drunkenness and which he hoped might prove as enjoyable as wine. Unfortunately, however – he shook his head violently from side to side to clear it – this didn’t feel like alcohol intoxication at all!
It felt like something quite other.
And that something… Was it not slightly sinister?
Why, for example, were the walls of the palace dining hall in which they sat actually breathing? Walls did not breathe! Walls were not alive! Olmedo knew this and yet he could swear that the whole huge room was expanding and contracting around him, expanding and contracting like some vast womb about to give birth… To what?
He looked down at his hands. They glowed, surrounded by a foggy nimbus of diffused white light. He remembered his mother Adelmira, in the brief, sunny almost forgotten years before he’d been taken into the monastery. He sobbed. Widowed, too poor to raise him, she’d given him up. Suddenly it was brought home to him with the force of a revelation that there was so much sadness in the world. How could the purpose of life be the pursuit of happiness when there was so much sadness! His long-lost mother’s, and his own, were but tiny fragments of an incomprehensibly larger whole – all these human beings, so many of them misguided, afraid, ill informed, foolish, and all of them present together in the joyous garden of the earth and making themselves and everyone else thoroughly miserable.
‘None of us have any idea what we’re doing here,’ Olmedo said suddenly. He spoke so loudly that he startled himself – and Ordaz.
‘What? What’s that?’ muttered the Captain who had slumped forward wordless over the table soon after finishing his plate, falling into a state of withdrawal far deeper than his previous morose silence – an outcome quite the opposite of Olmedo’s intentions for this experiment with a novel intoxicant. Now, however, the other man abruptly sat upright, his eyes darting wildly from side to side. ‘What? Who?’ He half rose to his feet, calloused fingers falling to the pommel of the ridiculous two-handed longsword, known as a montante, that he insisted on always wearing, stumbled, tripped between the table and the chair, and fell sideways to the floor with a tremendous clatter of metal and leather.
Rushing to his aid, Olmedo lost his own footing. Goodness! He hardly had his legs under him, an effect that would have taken several bottles of wine to produce! He also felt faintly sick. With much grunting and manhandling, assisted by several servants – why did they all have green skin? – he lifted Ordaz and levered him into his chair where he promptly slumped forward, seemingly unconscious, over his own folded elbows.
Oh dear! Olmedo though as he unsteadily returned to his seat. The room simply would not stay still!
And what was that music?
Ah! A flute player. An old, old man, green skin like the rest of them, huge wen on the side of his nose, was piping out a haunting tune. Then a tall, ethereal, imperious, Greek-looking woman floated by wearing a long diaphanous robe, lightening darting from her eyes, and stood over the table staring fixedly at Olmedo. The odd thing – quite bizarre really – was that she was completely transparent and he could see the flute player through her.
Fascinating! How could this be? These mushrooms clearly contained some far from ordinary intoxicant. While aware that he was falling ever more completely under its spell with each passing moment, Olmedo found he still had enough of his reason left to suspect that he had perhaps begun with too strong a dose before he had discovered his measure. Next time – and there would be a next time! – he would start the experiment with just one mushroom, carefully assess its effects on him, then the following day try two, and the day after, if necessary, three. But almost six each in a single serving as he’d dished out to Ordaz and himself in his fit of boredom earlier this evening was obviously too many.
As though in confirmation of this, the transparent women now spoke to him in excellent Latin. ‘Olmedo,’ she said, her voice, rich and warm, sending chills down his spine and electrifying the hairs on his arms, ‘I have work for you to do.’
It was distinctly peculiar that her lips did not move and yet her words rang like a peal of bells inside his head!
More peculiar still, this angel, this vision – this goddess? – was changing shape before Olmedo’s eyes, not the work of an instant but a complex, amazing, beautiful and numinous process. He could only think of it as a kind of unfolding, like the emergence from the bud of the petals of a flower.
What came forth, however, was no flower but an immense serpent the colour of rust and mould, a serpent fifty feet long that towered over him, its mouth gaping, its fangs exposed like unsheathed daggers. A ruff of bright feathers adorned its sinuous neck extending up into a crest that ran the full length of its great head.
‘I have work for you to do,’ it repeated.
Olmedo had liked the look of the woman but this nightmarish phantasm was an altogether different proposition. Might it not even be the very serpent that had tempted Adam and Eve in the garden? Was some great temptation about to be offered to him here? ‘
What work?’ he asked suspiciously.
‘You’ll know when the right time comes.’
The serpent’s form shimmered, grew indistinct, returned for an instant in almost complete solidity, blurred again, then vanished. Beyond it the elderly musician was still in place, still playing his little ceramic flute.
Not at all understanding what had happened, but suddenly feeling more or less normal, and that the accustomed balance of the world had in some mysterious manner been restored, Olmedo’s eyes and thoughts refocused on Ordaz who he’d entirely forgotten in the past moments but who had, nevertheless, remained in his chair on the other side of the table throughout.
The Captain’s manner was far from normal, however. Previously slouching, propped on his elbows, he now sat rigidly upright, mouth gaping, wide-eyed and staring – but apparently seeing nothing. Olmedo leaned across and waved, whispered some encouragement, barked a command and finally reached out with both hands and shook Ordaz mightily, but with no discernable reaction.
‘Poor man!’ the friar clucked. He felt sorry for the old soldier and a little guilty to have inflicted this intoxication on him without informing him. To have endured the storm of visions unleashed by the mushrooms without any preparation whatsoever, or any notion at all of why he was having those earthshaking experiences, must have been quite devastating. Indeed, apparently it continued to be devastating! The usually stolid and expressionless Ordaz now gave a great shuddering yell, leapt to his feet, again stepped around the table – but this time with remarkable agility – and stood glowering down at Olmedo.
‘What Ho, Don Diego?’, the friar asked, attempting to sound cheerful when in truth he was afraid – and for two reasons.
First, to his horror, the room was again contracting and expanding around him like a womb and he could feel the power of the mushrooms, which had only retreated he now understood, rushing back with renewed vigour and threatening to undo him utterly.
Secondly there was the terrible aspect of Captain Ordaz looming over him, sweating beneath the stinking chain mail he seemed never to take off, his face contorted with fury, but also with stark, unabashed terror, his eyes liquid with hatred and fear.
Ordaz’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed, his thin lips making an absurd sound – clack! – whenever they touched. ‘YOU!’ he now roared – clack! ‘YOU!’ – clack! – ‘ARE THAT BEAST’ – clack! – WHOSE NAME IS LEVIATHAN.’ His voice had suddenly cleared, recognition seemed to dawn, and he stooped lower to peer directly into Olmedo’s eyes as though searching for some message there, at last emitting a shuddering roar and announcing: ‘YOU ARE THE DEVIL. YOU CANNOT HIDE FROM ME! I HAVE SEEN THROUGH YOUR DISGUISE!’
Your lips aren’t clacking now, Olmedo thought randomly, but what he said was: ‘Come come Don Diego! Get a grip. This is all intoxicated nonsense you’re spouting and you’ll be ashamed of yourself tomorrow.’
‘YOU ARE THE DEVIL I SAY!’
Ordaz was literally beside himself with loathing and fury, Olmedo realised, big veins popping out on his forehead, staring around insanely, so completely in the grip of the mushrooms that he seemed capable of anything.
Could he even be dangerous?
Yes! Because the Captain was armed with an enormous sword that he knew how to use and had obviously lost his wits.
‘YOU ARE THE DEVIL,’ Ordaz repeated, as though in confirmation of something long believed though never before admitted to be true. He hauled the montante from its scabbard with a horrible, whispering sussuration, and raised it two-handed above his head, but such was Olmedo’s faith in his fellow man that only at the last moment did he realise a strike was coming. He squealed and – more by accident than design – ducked out of the way. The blade of the great sword whistled down and embedded itself in the heavy table. Bellowing like a bull, Ordaz struggled mightily to free it and while he was thus occupied Olmedo darted forward and dealt him a terrific blow to the head.
‘Nicely done!’ came a familiar voice as Ordaz slumped unconscious to the floor. The voice of Cortés! ‘Not often I get to see one of my captains knocked cold by a friar.’
Cortés was somehow here! Malinal was with him. Behind them Alvarado and Brabo, too, and some of his toughs, were crowding through the door.
Olmedo reeled. ‘Caudillo… I… I…’ He wanted to explain – although God’s blood! How could any of this be explained? – but the power of the mushrooms had now risen to a previously unimagined crescendo. ‘I…’ he tried again. ‘I…’
‘And not often I find you lost for words Bartolomé,’ added Cortés with a smile. It was particularly difficult to watch this smile since the familiar, bearded face upon which it was fixed was disturbingly mobile, rippling in fact, compressed in some directions and stretched in others, with the teeth rather snaggled and long.
Seemingly oblivious to his own process of transformation, Cortés looked down at Ordaz, still senseless, and at the gleaming montante still trapped in the table. He raised a quizzical eyebrow: ‘Would you like to tell me what happened here, Bartolomé?’
Olmedo hung his head: ‘Hernan’, he managed to say, ‘I cannot.’ Some instinct told him to keep the whole matter of the mushrooms to himself.
Out of nowhere, a scheme appeared fully formed in Olmedo’s mind. He made the gesture of a man drinking from a bottle and gave a bleary wink: ‘Not in my present condition.’
End of Extract
The Subject matter of War God: Night of Sorrows covers the period from November 1519 to 1 July 1520 during which Cortés and his conquistadors:
(1) enter Tenochtitlan as ‘guests’;
(2) take Moctezuma hostage in his own palace;
(3) defeat a hostile Spanish army (3 times larger than Cortés’ little force) sent from Cuba to snatch the conquest away from them;
(4) There’s an uprising in Tenochtitlan while Cortés is away defeating the enemy Spaniards at the coast; the tiny Spanish garrison left holding Moctezuma hostage in Tenochtitlan is under siege.
(5) Cortés marches from the coast to break the siege with his army now greatly enlarged by incorporating the defeated Spanish invaders, but becomes besieged in the island city himself;
(6) Six days of hellish fighting in Tenochtitlan follow.
(7) On night of 30 June 1520 the Spaniards break out. Around 600 are killed on a 2-mile long causeway across the lake as they attempt to make their escape on this “Night of Sorrow”.
(8) Less than 400 Spaniards survive the battle on the causeway and all are wounded, broken, and demoralised. They are pursued by the Mexica and again under attack. Their only hope is to retreat across a hundred miles of mountains to Tlascala where their ally Shikotenka offers them sanctuary.
War God: Night of Sorrows, the third volume of the War God series, will be published in 2017. Volumes 1 and 2 are already published: http://grahamhancock.com/wargod/