White Gods



Jose Chávez Morado mosaic mural El Retorno de Quetzalcóatl, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico of Mexico City. Photo by Eva Leticia Ortiz.

“We were superior to the god who had created us,” Adam recalled not long before he died, age seven hundred. According to The Apocalypse of Adam, a Coptic text from the late first century CE, discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945, Adam told his son Seth that he and Eve had moved as a single magnificent being: “I went about with her in glory.” The fall was a plunge from unity into human difference. “God angrily divided us,” Adam recounted. “And after that we grew dim in our minds…” Paradise was a lost sense of self, and it was also a place that would appear on maps, wistfully imagined by generations of Adam’s descendants. In the fifteenth century, European charts located Eden to the east, where the sun rises—an island ringed by a wall of fire. With the coordinates in their minds, Europe’s explorers could envisage a return to wholeness, to transcendence, to the godhood that had once belonged to man. 


A fleet of ships appeared on the horizon, swarming the boundary between heaven and earth. After five weeks on the open sea, sailing in the wrong direction to reach the east, Christopher Columbus and his companions anchored off an unknown coast. Crowds of curious islanders gathered on the shore. “They threw themselves into the sea swimming and came to us,” Columbus wrote in his diary on October 14, 1492. “We understood that they asked us if we had come from heaven,” he claimed, although he did not know a word of their language. A week later, disembarking on an island so densely flocked by parrots that they concealed the sun, Columbus reported he was again hailed as a deity by natives who “held our arrival to be a great marvel,” wearing gold nose rings that he found disappointingly small. 

Every time he stepped off the ship’s rowboat and onto the soft sand, exploring places later known as Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas, Columbus seemed to walk on the clouds. On December 13, he wrote that a chieftain had informed a crowd of two thousand fearful, trembling kinsmen that “the Christians were from heaven.” The people put their hands on their heads, in “a sign of great reverence,” and made offerings of yams and fish. Approached by an envoy of hundreds of islanders several days later, Columbus again recorded their belief in his celestial status, although he noted that the chief and his advisers “were very sorry that they could not understand me, nor I them. However,” he continued, “I knew that they said that, if I wanted anything, the whole island was at my disposal.” Conquest followed apotheosis: every island he found, filled with people allegedly mistaking him for divine, the mariner took possession of for Spain. He would read an indecipherable declaration, then pause for a refusal that could not occur. “No opposition was offered to me,” Columbus wrote. 


In 1519, temples were sighted drifting off the coast of Xicalango. According to the Universal History of the Things of New Spain, also known as the Florentine Codex, a sixteenth-century text long held to be an authoritative account of the Spanish conquest, the emperor Moctezuma sent messengers in canoes to greet a fleet of Spanish ships: “They thought it was the god Quetzalcoatl who was returning.” This deity, whose name means “feathered serpent,” was said to have created the earth in an act of discovery: Quetzalcoatl had lifted up the sky and revealed the world beneath, then sailed east on a raft made of snakes, promising to return. When the emperor’s emissaries climbed aboard one of the ships and saw the stout commander Hernán Cortés, they fell to their knees and kissed the ground. “May the god, whom we come to worship in person, know from his servant Moctezuma, who rules and governs his city of Mexico for him, that he says the god has had a difficult journey,” they said. They dressed the weary Quetzalcoatl in the gifts they had brought: a turquoise serpent mask with a crown of parrot feathers, gold medallions and jaguar skins, a shield and scepter of precious stones, a breastplate of seashells and obsidian sandals. They laid out three more outfits before him. But when they had finished, Cortés asked, “Is this all you’ve brought?” 

Within days, according to the history, recounted as always by the aggressors, Cortés had managed to bind Moctezuma in chains. Holding the emperor prisoner in his own home, the captain consolidated his rule over the fallen kingdom.    

With each crossing of the sea, the pantheon grew: men who went in search of profit and found godhood. Thirteen years later, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro was reportedly mistaken by the Incas for their own vanished and bristly god. The sixteenth-century chronicler Juan de Betanzos wrote that a white, bearded deity was said to have risen from Lake Titicaca to create the earth, the sky, and mankind, then set off walking on the sea and disappeared. The navigator Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa noted that because the god moved over the water, they called him Viracocha, meaning “sea foam.” When Pizarro and his sailors landed on the beach, the people watching from afar assumed they had risen out of the sea. Messengers carried the news to the Incan king Atahualpa that Viracocha had returned. They described the Spaniards: white and bearded, mounted on improbably large sheep, able to kill from a distance. King Atahualpa, declaring himself “happy that in his age and time gods would come to his land,” invited Pizarro to his encampment deep in the mountains of Cajamarca, and was soon captured. 

Much like Cortés and his men, Pizarro’s forces swiftly dispelled any illusions of godliness. Rather than creating springs and rivers wherever they went, they carried water in gourds; they raped women and peeled gold from the temple walls. Yet the conquistadors’ texts were widely read and so the stories lingered. Over the following century, nearly sixty million inhabitants of the New World would be killed—enough to cast a chill across the earth, as the forest crept back over once-inhabited lands, cooling the globe and blanketing Europe in snow. The altar of white divinity was the sand.  


By their own account, Sir Francis Drake and his men, landing on the coast of northern California in the summer of 1579, tried hard to demonstrate their humanness to the tribe who rushed down from the hills to greet them, attired with bows, arrows, spears, and little else. Drake’s nephew, in The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, based largely on the journals of the mission’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher, wrote that on seeing them the locals froze, “as men ravished in their minds.” The captain and his crew could not understand the Miwok language, yet Fletcher confidently recalled: “Nothing could persuade them, nor remove that opinion, which they had conceived of us, that we should be Gods.” The English gave the prelapsarian natives shirts and linen, advising them that “we were no Gods but men, and had need of such things to cover our own shame,” and they ate and drank heartily in their presence, but to no avail. The chieftain placed a crown upon Drake’s head, beseeching him to “become their king and patron: making signs that they would resign unto him their right and title in the whole land.” Despite his “Protestant scruples,” Drake felt he could not refuse: momentary godhood was a trial he would have to bear, a necessary misstep in the transfer of their affections from the wrong Almighty to the right one. The Indians let loose “a song and dance of triumph,” for “the great and chief God was now become their God.” Before departing, Drake erected a wooden signpost so that all who came after him—specifically Spaniards—would see that the territory belonged to the queen. He proclaimed the land Nova Albion, the first English colony in the Americas.

In 1585, Thomas Harriot, a young Oxford mathematician and astronomer, arrived at the English settlement of Roanoke Island. He had brought gadgets—spring clocks and compasses, magnets and mirrors, rifles and books—and delighted in astonishing the Algonquians he met by demonstrating their functions, as he reported in his Briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia. Observing these charmed objects, Harriot wrote, the Algonquians gathered that “the truth of god and religion” was “rather to be had from us.” Harriot swore a double oath: that the Indians would find salvation in God, and that the English would have absolute power over them. This vow contained a paradox the Spanish had also encountered. How can you seek supremacy through a faith that teaches the universal brotherhood of man? One mark of divinity is that it can withstand its own contradictions. 

When the Algonquians suddenly began to drop dead, Harriot interpreted this “marvelous accident” as a sign that the newly planted English colony was under divine protection. In each village he passed through, a strange disease struck the Indians, while the English remained unscathed—“some people could not tell whether to think us gods or men.” 

Several hundred miles north along the same coast, in 1609, Henry Hudson reached the river that now bears his name. The captain disembarked the Dutch ship The Half Moon, filled a cup with wine, and offered it around to the Lenape chieftains there. In 1819, John Heckewelder, an evangelist with the Moravians, the earliest Protestant mission in the Americas, recorded the best-known version of this encounter. He wrote that the Lenape assumed Hudson’s ship must house “Mannitto (the Great or Supreme Being).” Everyone was too afraid to drink the wine until one warrior, fearing the wrath of Mannitto, downed the entire glass, staggered, and collapsed to the ground unconscious, a sacrifice “for the good of the nation.” After the man awoke unharmed and begged for more, the other chieftains also drank themselves into a stupor—and so it was, Heckewelder recounts, that Manhattan got its name: Mannahatanink, meaning “the island or place of general intoxication.” It was a moment of riotous communion; a drunken Eucharist before the conquest of what became New York. 

Deification can happen when a man is on his knees or flat on his face, but also through history-writing and footnoting, through edits and omissions. Roger Williams, in his bestselling 1643 Key into the Language of America, translated Mannitto as “God,” yet there is no evidence that it meant anything resembling the Christian concept. Williams observed “a generall Custome amongst them, at the apprehension of any Excellency in Men, Women, Birds, Beasts, Fish, &c. to cry out Manittóo, that is, it is a God, as thus if they see one man excell others in Wisdome, Valour, strength, Activity &c. they cry out Manittóo A God.” Perhaps Manittóo was a compliment taken too seriously: new gods were found in translation. 

When Lenape scouts first sighted The Half Moon with Hudson at its helm, they noted that the captain wore red, a color that signified vitality and warfare, joy and anger. According to Heckewelder, they marveled, “He, surely, must be the great Mannitto, but why should he have a white skin?” Here Heckewelder, writing two centuries later, was projecting his contemporary racial sensibility onto their first impressions. It seems unlikely (as the historian Evan Haefeli has argued) that to Lenape eyes the strangers would have appeared “white,” the color of wampum shells and flint. The Dutch, when they controlled the New Netherlands, did not identify themselves as “white” but as “Christians.” And the Lenape’s own early accounts fixate on the peculiar hairiness of the Europeans rather than their skin color—to a society of men who did not grow beards, the new arrivals seemed more akin to otters or bears. Or else the Lenape commented on their eyes, for where they lived, only wolves had blue or green irises. 

According to records from the early eighteenth century, natives and new arrivals in the English colonies rarely remarked on skin color or identified one another in such terms. Yet within a few decades, the division of peoples into a trinity of white, black, and red had become common. Barbados, England’s first plantation colony, was the first to witness the transition from “Christian” to “white,” as the colonists sought to separate themselves from their slaves, the islanders, and the small but growing caste of people with mixed ancestry. Like a wind, whiteness travelled north and into the Carolinas, as colonialists from Barbados emigrated there. It took a decade to reach the northeast. Around the early 1720s, indigenous people in the South began to appropriate the label “red.” Long before it became a slur, it was a term of empowerment, evoking ardor and prowess in war. When Carl Linnaeus, in 1740, classified the peoples of the New World as “red” in his Systema Naturae, red skin became enshrined as a scientific category, though it is no more grounded in biology than in the air. The Lenape, for their part, called the sunburned strangers Shuwanakuw. The modern Delaware-English dictionary defines this as “white person.” Yet Shuwanakuw derives not from the word for white, waapii, but from shuwanpuy, meaning “ocean, sea, or saltwater.” White people were those who had emerged from the sea. 


It was Eve, according to Genesis, who first fell prey to the serpent’s temptation. “Ye shall be as gods,” he advised, with a hiss on the simile. In the New World, too, a woman is usually held to blame for the original mistake. The enslaved woman Malinche, whom Cortés chose as his interpreter and concubine, and who, like a Mexican Eve, would become mother to the first mestizo, is often said to have been the first to call the Spanish men “gods.” Ordinarily, in Anahuac, a person was given a name based on where he came from or what social function he fulfilled. But the strangers who washed up on the beach in 1519 had appeared out of nowhere, and their purpose was unknown. Malinche had to find a word for these inscrutable arrivals. According to the friar Diego Durán, she informed the Indians, “These teules say that they kiss your hands and that they will eat.” Teules, or teotl, translated into Spanish as dios, became the first name the Nahuas would use to denote the strangers. 

But in Nahuatl the word did not originally mean anything like God in the Christian sense. It was a principle of divinity that could manifest in anything, from idols to images to human impersonators of gods, sometimes destined for sacrifice: a teotl could be a goddess, a sorcerer, a priest, anyone commanding respect; or the word could be an adjective qualifying something as powerful. The Franciscan Toribio de Benavente, also called Motolinía, wrote that the natives referred to the Spanish as teotl for several years, “until we friars gave the Indians to understand that there is only one God.” In 1524, Motolinía was one of the first twelve missionaries to journey from Spain to the nascent colony, where they erected makeshift classrooms. For them, indigenous Aztec deities were not harmless figments of a pagan imagination but literal minions of Satan. They grew preoccupied by the question of how to kill a god.  

One method was baptism: it was said the demons clinging to you would drown in holy water. But water was not enough—the missionaries also had to redefine words like teotl, sifting good from evil, breaking open the very syllables so that whatever was hallowed inside would perish. In the 1530s, the friars selected an obscure word to mean “devil” or “demon,”—tlacatecolotl, Nahuatl for “human owl,” or a malignant, shape-shifting shaman—which they began using to categorize all the indigenous deities in the hope that it would desacralize them. Where for the Nahua divinity existed along a spectrum, the friars sought to impose a binary: man and God, whom they made singular, omniscient, all-powerful, masculine. “His will” was manifest everywhere yet somehow detached from the world. He was One and yet also three—this last concept proved especially complicated for the friars to explain in Nahuatl. 

Another enslaved interpreter, named Felipillo, is alleged to have been the first to identify the Spanish in Quechua as viracochas, the sea-foam spirits—a suitable name for mysterious beings who arrived by sea. The word only became singularized in the narratives of early Spanish chroniclers such as Betanzos, Gamboa, and the Jesuit missionary José de Acosta, who identified Viracocha as the Incan prime mover, a white, bearded god who formed humanity out of clay, modeling it after himself. The name would become so closely associated with the new religion brought by the conquistadors that in the first Quechua dictionary, from 1560, viracocha was translated as “Christian.” It came to be used as a general term for “white men” or those of privileged status. Yet originally it had connoted a plural category of primordial, ancestral beings, the founders of cities and villages across the Andes. Viracocha and teotl became vessels for the Europeans’ own monotheism—two words for god, made in their own image. Among the Taíno who first sighted Columbus, to describe a thing as “from heaven,” or turey, was merely to mark it as exotic, unusual, or valuable. For other peoples who found Europeans appearing on their shores, to say that a thing “came from the sky” was just a way to call it something you could neither understand nor explain. 

What dangers lie in giving a thing the name that belongs to something else? The first friars in New Spain, messengers from a kingdom in the grip of the Inquisition and its prosecutions for heresy, would not have dared invent a claim that the Spanish were gods. Yet, perceiving that this mistake had been made, they seized on it as proof that their arrival in the New World had been providential. Motolinía argued in the 1530s that the natives mistook the Christians for gods because they had anticipated that Christ’s emissaries would arrive—it was a sign that their conversion was preordained. The Indians, though living in a state of primitive darkness, were correct in sensing that the Spanish had a privileged access to God. The entire project of the Spanish conquest was contingent upon this: in 1493, Pope Alexander VI had issued a papal bull decreeing that the right to annex territory in the New World rested upon the conversion of its natives to the Catholic faith. 

When the friars began to teach that the Spanish were not teules, and there was only one God, “some foolish Spaniards took offense at this and complained,” Motolinía recorded. “The fools did this in all seriousness, not considering that they were usurping a name that belongs to God alone.” Their indignation masked a deeper anxiety: If the Spanish were no longer gods but men, and if the Indians had now joined them as fellow Christians, then on what grounds could a distinction between the two populations be maintained? If all belonged to a brotherhood of man under Christ, as Saint Paul had preached, what right did the Spanish have to exploit indigenous labor and land? It was a question famously debated in Valladolid in 1550, when Bartolomé de Las Casas challenged Juan de Sepúlveda over Spain’s moral obligations toward the peoples of the New World. By what other means could European supremacy be preserved in the young colony? It would require a new kind of superpower. 


Several shades of god arrived in the New World at the same moment. Often omitted from histories is the fact that men from West Africa, kidnapped and enslaved, also participated in the Spanish conquest. A well-known passage from the Florentine Codex says of Cortés and the Spaniards: “They were called and given the names of gods who have come from heaven.” The awkward second half of the sentence is rarely quoted: “and the blacks were called soiled gods.” In the century that followed, over two hundred thousand Africans survived the Middle Passage to toil largely as servants in Spanish homes. The population of enslaved Africans soon vastly outnumbered that of the conquistadors, and threatened to overturn the precarious balance of power in the colony. On both sides of the Atlantic, the legend of European divinity grew, yet any notion that the Africans may also have been mistaken for deities was erased from the myth.  

The idea of clean blood, or limpieza de sangre, flowed from Inquisition Spain to the New World. By the end of the fifteenth century, Muslims and Jews had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula or forced to convert to Catholicism; Spanish officials, in order to exclude the new converts from the institutions of power and prestige—universities, guilds, ecclesiastical positions—implemented a system of access through ancestry, relying on archival records and the testimony of neighbors to determine a candidate’s genealogy. Even a drop of Jewish or Muslim blood was said to confer raza, or race, a word used primarily for breeds of horses and dogs. Any Spaniard hoping for permission to travel to the Eden of the New World had to prove the unsullied contents of his veins. 

In the Americas, two separate republics were established—with segregated villages and churches—one for the Indians and one for the Spanish and the enslaved. A legal fiction emerged defining three types of bloods that must not mix: “pure Indian,” “white Spanish,” and “black.” Yet as the mestizo population grew, the boundaries of each sphere became more difficult to police. The nascent colony was fragile, for it was built on fictions, as all societies are. As the minority, the Spanish were fearful that an alliance of Indians and black laborers could easily overpower them. They made access to education and nonmenial jobs dependent on purity of blood, as it was in Spain. In the New World, limpieza de sangre shifted in meaning from a notion of blood based on theological lineage to a biological concept, based on skin tone. Race ceased to lurk in the obscurity of whatever one’s great-grandparents had believed, and became visible, for all who were taught to see it. 

In his classroom, Fray Alonso de Molina spoke of sins before they are purged in confession as motliltica, mocatzahuaca, “your blackness, your dirtiness.” Revelation 21:27, translated into Nahuatl and then back into English, comes out as, “Nothing black, nothing dirty will enter heaven.” The friars discovered that in Nahuatl, moral values were often expressed in terms of hygiene, so they began preaching about sin as squalor and framing the Christian sacred as clean, pure, white. Fray Juan de la Anunciación, the author of Christian hagiographies in Nahuatl, described how God revealed the devil to Saint Anthony in his true form: ce tliltic piltontli, “a small black child.” 

By the eighteenth century, a fashion had developed for casta oil paintings (the word, like raza, was used for animal breeds), depicting every possible combination of human fauna, with names inspired by the zoo. The various family types, dressed up for their portraits, were presented in hierarchical quadrants. There were the white-skinned Spanish, and then the complex taxonomies of everyone of mano prieta, or “dark hand.” When a white and a semi-white person produced a darker baby, it was called a “return backwards”; a child born to two mestizos was tente en el aire, “suspended in the air,” for they were neither moving toward nor away from whiteness. Blackness would never entirely disappear, the paintings proposed, even after generations of breeding. 

Racial difference had become divinely sanctioned, inevitable, as intuitive as the idea, for Europeans, that savage peoples should mistake them for gods. Columbus was lowered from the heavens, Cortés grew scales and feathers, and Pizarro glided over the white foam of the sea. With each retelling, the stories justified European conquest. The mark of a god is the ability to conjure things into existence that did not exist before. With the arrival of the foreign deities, a new concept came into the New World. Forged in flesh and blood and language gone astray, it became indelible, a fiction that deified whiteness—this thing we call race.


Anna Della Subin is a writer, critic, and independent scholar born in New York. Her essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times, and the London Review of Books. A senior editor at Bidoun, she studied the history of religion at Harvard Divinity School. The above is adapted from Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine.