Alternative and fringe authors have been arguing that white people dominated the Americas for hundreds of years, beginning with the clergymen who first visited the New World in the wake of the Conquistadors. A lively debate emerged in the 1500s and 1600s about whether the Americas had been visited by apostles of Christ, European priests, or various saints. St. Thomas was one of the most popular candidates for the great white civilizer of the Americas, and of course Gerónimo de Mendieta’s account of Quetzalcoatl in Historia eclesiástica Indiana 2.10 is the most important foundation for claims that Native Americans worshiped Caucasians as deities.
As far as I know, Mendieta’s account from 1596, which is frequently cited, is rarely presented in full translation. He is likely citing the earlier work of Andrés de Olmos, who began studying Mesoamerican culture in 1533. Here is what he said:
The god or idol of Cholula, called Quetzalcoatl, was by universal account the most celebrated and had the greatest and most worth among the other gods. According to their histories, he came from the parts of Yucatan (although some said from Tula) to the city of Cholula. He was a white man, of portly person, broad brow, great eyes, long black hair, and large round beard; of exceedingly chaste and quiet life, and of great moderation in all things. The people had at least three reasons for the great love, reverence, and devotion with which they regarded him: first, he taught the silversmith’s art, a craft the Cholulans greatly prided themselves on; second, he desired no sacrifice of the blood of men or animals, but delighted only in offerings of bread, roses and other flowers, of perfumes and sweet odors; third, he prohibited and forbade all war and violence. Nor were these qualities esteemed only in the city of his chiefest labors and teachings; from all the land came pilgrims and devotees to the shrine of the gentle god. Even the enemies of Cholula came and went secure, in fulfilling their vows; and the lords of distant lands had in Cholula their chapels and idols to the common object of devotion and esteem. And only Quetzalcoatl among all the gods was preeminently called Lord; in such sort, that when any one swore, saying, By Our Lord, he meant Quetzalcoatl and no other; though there were many other highly esteemed gods. For indeed the service of this god was gentle, neither did he demand hard things, but light; and he taught only virtue, abhorring all evil and hurt. Twenty years this good deity remained in Cholula, then he passed away by the road he had come, carrying with him four of the principal and most virtuous youths of that city. He journeyed for a hundred and fifty leagues, till he came to the sea, in a distant province called Coatzacoalco. Here he took leave of his companions and sent them back to their city, instructing them to tell their fellow citizens that a day should come in which white men would land upon their coasts, by way of the sea in which the sun rises; brethren of his and having beards like his; and that they should rule that land. The Indians always waited for the accomplishment of this prophecy, and when the Christians came they called them the sons of the gods and brothers of Quetzalcoatl, although when they came to know them and to experience their works, they no longer took them for heavenly.
From this account, more claims that Native Americans worshiped white men as gods emerged. Several Spanish accounts apply the same description to the Peruvian deity Viracocha, though as in Mexico no pre-Conquest sources support the claim. In the 1800s, Ignatius Donnelly asserted that Native Americans worshiped white men from Atlantis as gods. In the 1920s James Churchward followed suit, replacing Atlantis with Mu. In the 1990s Graham Hancock repeated the claim yet again, replacing Atlantis with a more nebulous “lost civilization” that he identified as “white” no less than twelve times in Fingerprints of the Gods. Frank Joseph has published claims about the lost white colonizers from Atlantis with clockwork regularity since the 1980s. Other fringe writers would assert that the Mi’kmaq worshiped a white man, Earl Henry I Sinclair of Orkney, as the god Glooscap. It’s rather a theme in fringe history that authors believe Native Americans worshiped white people because their gods were (in Euro-American accounts) described as white.
Why doesn’t this work the other way?
Those are primary sources. Among secondary observers of varying quality, the equivalent of the Spanish missionaries, we find more extreme claims. Bernard de Montfaucon, the seventeenth century French antiquarian, recorded instances of several black-skinned statues of the pagan gods. Godfrey Higgins in his 1836 study Anacalypsis (4.1.10) asserts that all the Greek gods were black in color and that Roman Catholics worship the black-skinned Krishna under the guise of Christ.
Now this evidence is every bit as good as Mendieta’s claim that Quetzalcoatl was “white,” yet we do not hear alternative and fringe authors proclaim on that basis that a lost, matriarchal high culture from sub-Saharan Africa colonized Europe and India or that Europeans or Indians mistook them for goddesses. Why the double standard?
A few academics have tried to connect the statues to Africa, notably Lucia Birnbaum, who sees them implausibly as a survival of Paleolithic African shamanism. As a Sicilian-American and a feminist, she unsurprisingly finds the Black Madonna figures crossed from Africa to Europe in the Stone Age via Sicily as part of a proto-feminist goddess cult. However, it is primarily among the Afrocentric writers that we find an inversion of white fringe writers’ claims for Quetzalcoatl. Ivan Van Sertima, for example, saw the Black Madonnas as evidence that Europeans borrowed their religion from an Egyptian (read: Black African) original, substituting Mary for Isis.
Fringe writers of the past went to ridiculous lengths to try to avoid the implications of their own claims. In his Atlantis the Antediluvian World (1882) Ignatius Donnelly, for example, was adamant that the presence of “white” people in the legends and iconography of the Americas meant that they were the ruling race of ancient Atlantis. But when confronted with the “Negroid” features of the Olmec stone heads (for Donnelly knew nothing of what Native Mexicans actually looked like), he contorted himself into knots to avoid giving credit to black people:
As the negroes have never been a sea-going race, the presence of these faces among the antiquities of Central America proves one of two things, either the existence of a land connection between America and Africa via Atlantis, as revealed by the deep-sea soundings of the Challenger, or commercial relations between America and Africa through the ships of the Atlanteans or some other civilized race, whereby the negroes were brought to America as slaves at a very remote epoch.
At any rate, the conclusion was this: Native Americans were so stupid they even deified white people’s slaves because white people were just that awesome.
But lest you think that this is an obsolete racist idea from Victorian times, recall this: David Childress as recently as 2007 said almost the same thing in The Mystery of the Olmecs, though he gave the Africans a slight promotion:
These ancient sea kings were mixed group that included bearded and mustachioed Caucasians, and people with African, Oriental, and classic “Chinaman” features. On top of this were dwarves and hunchbacks (both considered good luck), who often served as musicians and storytellers to amuse the crew and keep them entertained. No one was a slave on the ship, though there was a strict hierarchy.
Guess who was on top of the “strict hierarchy.” Yes, the whites, as we know from his references to the “White Gods” in 1996’s Lost Cities of Atlantis and 1992’s Lost Cities of North and Central America, citing the race-based claims of Harold T. Wilkins and Pierre Honoré. The masters of the “Atlantean League,” Childress wrote, had “blond hair.” By contrast, the “Negroids,” Childress says, were the lower-ranked “warrior-caste” from an Atlantis ruled by white priest-kings, or else they were Muvians, whom James Churchward said had a white ruling class and black laborers. At any rate, the implication given in Childress is that the Olmecs were so in awe of the white men and their black underlings that they memorialized all of them in their art to the exclusion of depictions of any Native Americans at all.
What is interesting is that Ivan Van Sertima, who was himself Black, viewed history from the perspective of someone who was not part of a privileged class and therefore was willing to imagine a multipolar world where ancient peoples of all races mutually cross-pollinated. Thus he had no problem with Native Americans in Roman Europe or, in theory, a white Quetzalcoatl. (Childress personally favors St. Brendan as Quetzalcoatl, despite the impossibility of the dating.) But Childress, who quotes Van Sertima extensively, sticks with his “strict hierarchy.” And that hierarchy bears an uncanny resemblance to nineteenth and twentieth century racial hierarchies and stereotypes: at the top a spiritual and beneficent white ruling class, followed by an Asian merchant class, a Black laboring class, and at the bottom a weak and impressionable Native American underclass waiting for enlightenment at the hands of their Great White Fathers.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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