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Cortez The Killer


Neil Young

Songfacts™:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

This song is about Hernán Cortez, the Spanish conqueror of the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs lived in what is now considered Mexico, and Cortez had an army of 600 sail from what is now Cuba to the Aztec town of Tobasco (yes, where the hot peppers and the name of the sauce originally came from). The Aztecs thought Cortez was a god and bowed before him. They let his army roam free. Cortez, however, became wary of their good nature and took their leader hostage. He then captured and killed many of their people. He also unwittingly brought new diseases to the Americas, which the natives had no immunities towards. On top of all this, he built what is now Mexico City with slave labor. He returned to Spain a hero.
Neil Young's song brings an interesting alternative viewpoint to the history of Cortez' invasion. While not a complete history of Cortez or the Aztecs, it's title alone gives you a very good idea of how Young viewed the invasion. Young's romantic imagery near end of the track highlight the emotional toll (lost romance, etc.) of the invasion. (thanks, Joe - Piscataway, NJ, for above 2)
Peace is a theme of this song. From verse six: "But they built up with their bare hands, what we still can't do today" indicates that even in the most barbarian times there was still peace, and in present day, as sophisticated as it may be, there is anything but peace. The Aztecs were peaceful, representing sort of a utopian nonviolent society. Cortez and the Spanish brigade used trickery to beat the Aztecs, people who had never committed any offensive acts towards the Spanish. The Spanish could represent the status quo society, completely antonymic from the amicable Aztecs. (thanks, John - manhattan, KS)
Neil Young's wife Pegi is also a singer/songwriter. When we spoke with Pegi and asked how personal experiences inspired her songs, she told us: "I think there's little kernels of our lives in many of our songs, unless you're writing 'Cortez' or something. It must have been in another life my husband was an Incan warrior."
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Comments (50):

Love the sounds, have to go with .- Joe, from Baltimore, “Neil is saying he is Cortez, and in a deeper sense, all of us are." Montezuma showered the Spaniards with gifts and generously offered them complete access to the city, including his own palace. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, and two legitimate wives. Some say the last leader of the Aztec’s gave gold calendars to Cortez. Some say he melted them to lumps of metal for the Spanish queen. Moctezuma became a prisoner in his own house until he was killed. When he was stoned by his own people, and later stabbed to death, “Cortés and his captains and soldiers wept.” May God help Cindy from Houston.
- Sum, Hawaii, HI
I completely agree with Vtpcnk from India. Many people focus on just the action of sacrificing people, but they do not grasp the reason for it. It was a way of life the Aztecs followed and we should respect that.
- Omar, Somerton, AZ
Many think of Cortez as a mercy-less killer who took advantage of the Aztecs for power and recognition. Others look at the Aztecs as a blood thirsty civilization who conquered people and sacrificed many. What people are too ignorant in realizing, is that both have their reasons for doing what they do. The Spanish conquer people because they strive and live off of power. The Aztecs conquer for survival from natural resources and preform sacrifices due to religious practices. In their point of view, they were doing what they believed was right, and that's what we do today, just do what we believe is right. Although not everything might be approved by others, nobody is perfect.
- Omar, Somerton, AZ
I have to disagree with Brian from CT because with sacrifices came peace. As long as the Aztecs were given the sacrifices, they wouldn't harm the other cultures in any way. Thus, "War was never known" appeared in the song. It was also an honor to be a sacrifice. I think that the song is quite accurate in history of that wat, but it can also depend on the point of view that you have: the Aztecs or the Spanish Conquistadors.
- Caitlyn, Yuma, AZ
Hey, my first language aint english, so please have some patiens with me.
Its a mistake to view this song as a history-lesson
My view is that the images Neil projects is all in his own head, mixed up with the facts he has,, he certanly had no interest to edit it. So there is something else to the story.
To me its all about peace and questioning the way we use religion. In some aspects the scenario still exists.
Most of all its a great song
- Henrik, Knislinge, Sweden
Well as a mexican i would really like to say something about this song. What I really like about it is that finally someone is saying something nice about our culture, people just cant realize how well our society worked before the arrival of the spanish. And yes, we did sacrifice people but also did the catholic church during the inquisition, they killed innocent people in the name of their "god", the only difference is that they were not what ignorant people call "indians". I just think that before saying anything about something that really happened an finished a culture you should just know both parts of the story.
- Mariela, Querétaro, Mexico
It is a song...spend more time analyzing your local politicians!
- bo, atlanta, GA
It's a song! I think it's saying, "spend more time in analyzing your politicians and their views".
- bo, atlanta, GA
Joe from Baltimore - I love your interpretation of this wonderful song/piece of music. Thanks.
- David, Liverpool, United Kingdom
I really like Neil Young, but I agree with David from El Paso. Even if Neil Young was an ignorant teenager when he wrote this, it was irresponsible to publish it. Ideas matter, and this one poisonous. My guess is that, among the young people who listen to this song, more have learned their history from it than have from their school books -- even if that's not what Neil intended. I won't buy Dave Rawlings' "Friend of a Friend" CD because he covers this song. Whatever artistic setting is used to justify it, it is ignorance and intellectual perversity. Ideas not only matter; they also have consequences.
- Anthony, Maple Hill, KS
Wow! This is really a great song. It reaches the side of the soul which is in turmoil. Just read the comments. Artistically, its emotionally gripping. Is not music supposed to bring you into that particular level of consciousness. Neil in this song did.
just to get the facts right, neither cortez nor the aztecs were innocent. the aztecs believed in human sacrifice and so fought regular wars amongst themselves so that the prisoners captured between them could be offered as sacrifice - it was considered a honour! cortez was a thieving explorer who with his lust for gold savaged the aztecs. apparently the mistake was due to monteczuma who with a way larger army could have easily overpowered cortez. but he failed to do that and cortez manipulated the situation to his advantage. whatever the truth of neil young's lyrics, still the song with the droning guitars has a magical effect.
- vtpcnk, chennia, India
You can almost taste the blood in this song, it's so heavy.
- Doug, Strafford, VT
This song was banned in Spain because it offended General Franco's regime. In Spain, Hernando Cortez is considered a national hero as the conquistador who conquered Mexico's Aztec Empire for Spain.
- Evan, San Clemente, CA
David from Texas you have no f--king idea what you are talking about. Neil Young never meant this as a history lesson. The lyrics are great because they sweep along with the music so perfectly and they are such a great showing of romanticism. "Young has stated in concert that he wrote the song while studying history in high school. In Jimmy McDonough's biography of Young, entitled Shakey, the author asked Neil if his songs were autobiographical. Young replied, '...What the f--k am I doing writing about Aztecs in [Cortez the Killer] like I was there, wandering around? 'Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta s--t I just made up because it came to me.'" Hopefully that shuts people up already.
- David, huntington beach, CA
When Cortez landed in what is today present-day Mexico, he came across a savage empire of cannibalistic and hostile native "Mejicans." Cortez did everything under the sun to keep from going to war with these people, but in the end they destroyed themselves. Neil Young is an ignorant hick who has probably never read a book in his life, especially in light of these lyrics:

Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.

How far from the truth this is-is astounding. If you to know the truth about the conquest of Mexico, read Diaz' "Conquest of New Spain." Let us remember that the Aztecs used to cut out the living hearts of human beings upon their bloody altars and then eat the remaining extremities. Is an empire with this religion at its heart doomed for anything else but a crash? Cortez is a historical hero and will always be known as one of the greatest men in history.
- David, El Paso, TX
I live in spain and owned this record ever since I can remember. Franco died 1975, Yes, Cortes was indeed a cold blooded killer and he is thankfully so regarded in our history books. If being a hero for you means a statue in some village, well we should then probably bring down every statue around the world, which is probably what Neil Young is saying.
Thank you Joe from Baltimore for really listening and understanding this song.
- J, Bilbao, Spain
A great song. And a great guitar solo.

Neil may not have all of his historical facts absolutely correct, but close enough for the broad message that the European "exploration" of the period was all about greed; greed for gold, greed for power, greed for glory back home. The various "explorers" were little more than ambitious mercenaries with the blessing of one monarch or another. Of course the Aztecs were not faultless, as their own expansionism and atrocities against their neighbors gave Cortes the allies he needed.
- BazzaMan, Johnson, VT
Cortez and Columbus were both terrible human beings and should be recorded as such in the history books. They, like many in their time period, hid behind the 'guise of righteousness and under a banner of religion only to impose their terrible will upon many innocent people instead of truly doing God's work, which would be spreading His teaching's and word.
- Rob, Wilkes-Barre, PA
Actually the correct name is Cortes instead of Cortez, but spanish-speaking people in America often mistake it.
- Teresa, Cordoba, Spain
Sorry bout that rant. Anywho, I think this is a good song. It would seem, to me, that it's mostly a love song, but undeniably also about said event.

I personally prefer the Dave Matthews Band w/ Warren Haynes to the Neil Young version.
- Tom, leadville, CO
Just a quick response to Cindy from Texas.
It annoys me to no end that you are turning this into a debate about god. First of all, they are not satanic if they worshipped a sun-god they are only satanist if they worship satan. This is where the word comes from.
Second, wouldnt it be against the christian god to claim oneself to be god for any reason?
In the end of your rant you said the schools are brainwashing children. First, all the schools are to afraid to do anything concerning religion because of people like you. Second this is a song, not a school.
I do not mind you expressing your opinion but that comment was rude, and pisses me off to no end. Noone has the right to insult another people, especially over something so trivial as religion.
- Tom, leadville, CO
Anyone who thinks Neil Young was even attempting some kind if History are idiots. This song is a metaphor of love by a poet. He's using the Aztecs and Cortez for that purpose, but has never implied that this is a history lesson. The 2nd to last verse tells you all: "And I know she's living there and she loves me to this day, I still can't remember when or how I lost my way..."
- David, huntington beach, CA
Don't get your history from Neil YOung, at least not for the Aztecs and don't get it from this board either. I read most of these comments and where they comment on the history, they're mostly wrong. As a song, only so - so. "Ordinary People" is much better and is. in general, similar in presentation and feel.
- Bon, Boston, United States
Love this song, hate the sob cortez, too bad he died a nice peaceful death instead of getting thrown down pyramid steps. Brian; the song's not a history lesson, but it does say "they offered lives in sacrifice so that others could go on". No , Cortez was a sob, even burnt his own ships to goad his men on, he was truly a son of a bitch in his goal of raping the new world.
- kelmark, Jackson, MS
This is a killer song about Cortez. No matter what you think of him, Neil Young wrote a hell of a tune. WSP performs a great cover of this.
- Bubba Zanetti, Austin, TX
Wow!! Ignorance is truly a powerful action! As I read these posts I found myself amazed at the anger and extremely harsh criticism towards Hernando Cortez,(RE:Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" song). In all, only (1) named Brian from Old Lyme, CT hits the nail right on the head. This song definitely describes the Aztecs as a peaceful and innocent people overlooking the very facts and details of how they gruesomely murdered others to satisfy their "idol gods" because they were pagan, or (sun)worshippers. Today, we know this to be satanic worship. Sure Cortez was very dishonest in "allowing" them to believe that he was a returning god,(which by the way is the strategy he used to keep himself alive). This was a prophecy that had to be fulfilled. The Aztec's obtained limited information from the supernatural spirits which they often contacted for guidance. They would even become possessed by these spirits overtaking their bodies to perform these horrific sacrifices. The spanish even witnessed many of these ritualistic ceremonies and although they were far from perfect, they knew that this was extremely immoral and an abomination to GOD. I just can't imagine very many people not using the very same strategy that Cortez used to survive knowing very well that they too would die such a horrible death! As a Hispanic/Mexican/native Texan, I'm grateful that Cortez brought Christianity to the "New World". This has enabled millions, (including myself),of people who have lived from that time in the 1520's until the present day to come to know Jesus Christ. On August 13, 2007, it will be 486 years since the Aztec civilization was conquered by Cortez. Facing that kind of danger, and with the odds stacked against him, it is nothing short of a true miracle that Cortez survived each of those encounters. People have forgotten that America was founded on the principles of Christianity. Had this event not taken place, many of us would have not had the opportunity to know our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and very likely would have been sacrificed ourselves due to their beliefs.
My forefathers who lived before me have had such a terrible time of breaking free from the old customs and beliefs that have held them in bondage for centuries, and many were never able to break those chains and eventually died with those very customs and beliefs. The Aztecs sacrificed children between the ages of 3 to 8, as well as their young virgin women. I just don't believe for one minute that these children or young women were extremely eager to die such a painful and horrible death. If you won't feel bad for the men who died this way, at least feel bad for the women and children who did. Today, I strongly believe what others meant for bad, GOD turned these things around for the good. As sad as it is to so many regarding the destruction of this civilization, this change had to take place to save millions of souls, even to the our present day. UNDERSTAND THAT THE AZTECS AND MAYANS WERE ONLY IGNORANT, NOT INNOCENT. In the end, God did provide a way for them to live on, only no longer by the sacrificing of human blood to idols...
C.C.Turcios, Houston, Texas
- Cindy, Houston, United States
Dave Matthews and Warren Haynes do an amazing version of this song on Dave Matthew's Band Central Park album. Both this and the original versions are amazing, even for Young's standards, although, as a performance, the Central Park version is a bit superior to the two.
- Michael Ferry, Wheat Ridge, CO
Resistance from Seattle: Cortes was blamed for the massacre of a whole civilization of the Aztecs, but it is believed by many historians that the Spaniards under his control turned against the command of Christopher Columbus, who insisted that they came in peace, only for Cortes and his assistant De Havarilland (not sure about the spellling) to go against Columbus' orders. The Spaniards did not understand the ways and culture of the Aztecs, though destroying their civilisation was inexcusable all the same
- Dave, Cardiff, Wales
Some people are judging Cortes with XXI century eyes. Hernan was as savage as other ancient conquerors were (english, french...). He was a man of his time. Remember the slaves trade in modern times, led by some european and american countries, or the american native civilization destruction, or the introduction of alcohol in Skimo areas, leading to the collapse of their societies...
Anyway, the song is not banned in Spain (we live in democracy, freedom of speech is granted).
Finally, it's a great song (musically)that transmits a feeling of despair. The solo is awesome, no need for speed, slow and easy, almost mesmerizing.
- Jose, Madrid, Spain
The Guitar Solo is damn great,his next best to Like A Hurricane,the lyrics ar quite good to.
- Joakim, Jönköping, Sweden
In the beginning, the Aztecs were actually overall a very peaceful people. They did do human sacrifice, but at first it was with a volunteer, and was considered a great honor. The sacrifice was made to Huitilopochtli the Sun god - they removed the heart of the man, and tried to build a fire in his chest - if they were able to do so, it meant 52 more years (an Aztec century) of sunlight. Basically, the man who offered himself to be sacrificed was a hero, in that he essentially offered his life so that the world could continue to live. Near the end, as their population grew and they needed more land, they became warlike and invaded neighboring lands. Also, instead of sacrificing their own people, they started killing prisoners, and more of them. When Cortez came to the "New World", the Aztecs mistook him for their god Quetzelcoatl, who was prophesized would come from the East, taking the form of a bearded, pale skinned man (his true form was a plumed serpent). When Cortez came, believing he was a god, the Aztecs welcomed him with open arms, and presented him with lavish gifts, and lots of gold.
So, I guess in a way both Young and the history books are correct.
- Shayne, Missoula, MT
Great song. The only inaccuracies i see is in the part he says "Hate was just a legend, and war was never knwon," as the Aztec's enemies from war were part of their downfall. However, I would have to agree that it is about a relationship, where they never fought, and everything was wonderful, until....
- Reprise, Lox, FL
I remember Young´s concert in Madrid (Spain) in 80s and when he play this song almost everybody begins to shout ´cause he tried to insult us. Poor silly boy. Aztecs weren´t as he says and Cortez probably was an assasin, but Spain it is not a country of assasins, as the Wolrd Knows pretty well in this days. EEUU and UK couldn´t say the same. Every couple of years they do a new war.
- baldo, Lugo (Spain), United States
Young wrote this at the age of sixteen. I don't think this story is in McDonough's book. The way I heard it, he had eaten about six not-very-good hamburgers and was up all night with his stomach. His high school history class had been studying the Spanish invasion of South America, so he wrote the song out of that. Young is well known for romanticizing and idealizing the ancient South American cultures -- he does it again in Inca Queen and Like An Inca.
- Ekristheh, Halath, United States
this song is so peacful and has the power to conquer and mixed or bitter emotions. cortez makes me slow down my life and look at it through pacifist eyes..meaning i have no desire for violence. this song makes me think of ancient civilization, giving me the image of a surreal land with dramatic sunsets. i don't know why i feel all of this but i guess it is my perceptual set. juliette monet, armow ontario
- Malgorzata, Warsaw, Poland
Wes, from Springfield...if you listen to the song, Young mentions those sacrifices. In a positive way, I might add.
- Blake, Rock Island, IL
I don't know if I'm way out in left field about this song, but I never thought that the lyrics were ever really talking about the Aztecs or the Spanish Conquistador. I know literally it is simply a bad history song, but figuratiively, which is how Young intended it, I think, it is simply about love, with Young being Cortez and his lover (who he must have done something terrible to) as Montezuma. Am I crazy?
- Erik, Hudson, NH
The built to spill version, which is live and 20 minutes long, is very very good.
- Chris, Murfreesboro, TN
this song is not banned in spain and never was. we don`t remember hernan cortes as a national hero. he`s only in history books. it was a long time ago..
- migue, sevilla, Spain
I think Neil is doing something different with the song, the real meaning seems to come in the last 2 stanzas that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the song. In the beginning of the song Neil is setting up a dichotomy between Cortez and Montezuma. Cortez is a greedy killer that destroys paradise. Montezuma is the opposite, he is the peaceful creator of the paradise that Cortez destroys. In the next to the last stanza Neil starts talking about a woman "living there" meaning the woman is part of this paradise, she is to be equated to the innocence and beauty of the Aztecs. This woman "loves me (Neil) to this day." She loves Neil, but somehow he "lost my (his) way." In other words Neil is saying he screwed up a wonderful relationship, he ruined paradise. In other words, Neil is saying HE is Cortez, and in a deeper sense, all of us are, because all of us, like Cortez and like Neil, have destroyed love at some point in our lives.
- Joe, Baltimore, MD
I guess I am a "Anglo-American", but I and any one with a knowledge of history would not feel sorry for a greedy, little, Spanish zealot. Allthough it should be noted that the Aztecs like any other culture has participated in wars of conquests and mindless violence. That's the story of history. I think Neil Young was simply using it as an example of tyrrany and greed of the elite.
- Nathan, Defiance, OH
So you anglo-americans feel sorry for poor cORTEZ the Killer, who put dogs on the Aztec people, threw infants in the air spearing them, burned people alive, THIS is the mass murderer you protect.For WHAT the "glory" of spain, consequently DESTROYING a civilization.Poor Cortez.
stole, Raped and murdered a civilization.
And in your miopic defense you use the fact the sacrificed humans, well guess WHAT it wasn't up to COrTez to invade, steal their resources, murder thousands and improve their cultures by imposing his at the end of a sword.
Cortez become "wary of their good nature" is this suppose to be a joke, so he "imprisoned their leader"Damn those INDIANS and their good nature.
He did it propably to take final control of the Aztec people and force them into slavery, read about how the streets ran red with blood .....
at least Cortez saved them their ill conceived culture, BY DESTROYING IT.
- Resistance, Seattle, WA
Neil Young is a great songwriter, but needs to crack open some history books. The historical fact of human blood sacrifices do not exactly invoke the image of a blissfully innocent native population...
- Wes, Springfield, VA
Excellent song. Ranked # 39 on Guitar World magazine's 100 greatest guitar solos.
- Dan, city, CA
Dave's version is pretty wicked, with his and Haynes' guitar solos, the interpretation is brilliant.
- Brendon, Paxton, IL
Warren haynes has done this song many times over the past few years ( with may guests) and really does have an emotional feel to it.
I know that warren ( as well as neil young) have a facination with the "conquer, hero" type legends of the history books.
- rich, east lyme, CT
This is a sad, stirring, soulful song. But historically, it is far from accurate. The line "War was just a legend/Hate was never known" in reference to the Aztecs is a particularly tough one to swallow, since the Aztecs regularly murdered their enemies in cold blood and offered them as sacrifices to their gods. At one point under Montezuma, they had dozens of Priests working non-stop for days to slaughter thousands of people at once. That being said, the song is still amazing. Just not quite fair to Cortez.
- Brian, Old Lyme, CT
On the Dave Matthews Band Live in Central PArk disc 3, Dave along w/ Warren Haynes sing this song.
- Alex, USA
the band Built to Spill recorded this for their Live album in 2000, streching the song many more minutes.
- Ingrid, Huntington, WV
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