This paper is about the practice of human sacrifice in Aztec culture. Archival research was employed as a methodology to gather the information relevant to the topic. Libraries were visited and books discussing the topic were used as references. Books about the Aztec people and Mesoamerican history were consulted to provide the details of the human sacrifice ritual and what it meant for the Aztec people. Aztecs are known today as the people of an ancient civilization with rich culture and high forms of knowledge.
One widely known aspect of their culture however, is human sacrifice. Aztec warriors are known to capture opponents in the battlefield and slaves and use them as offerings to the gods. A priest would carry out the ritual which involved the extraction of the beating heart of the human sacrifice. Experts have different interpretations of this ritualistic practice of the Aztecs, but the most widely accepted explanation is that it was done for religious purposes. Human Sacrifice in Aztec Culture and its Meanings
Most experts use the term “Aztec” to refer to the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan, a Nahua city-state in the Valley of Mexico, the highland basis where the Aztecs and other Mexica groups lived. Peoples of nearby highland valleys who spoke the Nahuatl language may also be considered Aztecs because they spoke the same language as the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan. In addition, all these people traced their origin to a mythical place in the north called Aztlan, which adds to the evidence that they shared the same culture.
The Aztecs were politically and militarily dominant in Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th century (Smith, 2003, p. 3-4). The Aztec civilization was located in Mesoamerica, a cultural area that extends from north-central Mexico to Pacific Costra Rica. The fundamental beliefs and practices of Mesoamericans were not completely destroyed by Spanish conquest and civilization. Today, the region’s peoples speak many native languages, including Nahuatl, the Aztec language. The different Mesoamerican cultures today share many characteristics which could be traced to their origins thousands of years ago (Smith, 2003, p.
5). The Aztecs had a rich culture and many sculptures, tools, and other works of art made during their time survive today in museums. One popular and controversial aspect of Aztec life is human sacrifice. Evidences indicate that human sacrifice was common in Aztec life, from self-sacrifice as drawing blood from legs, tongue, ears, and other body parts as penance or offerings, to rituals involving the extraction of the beating hearts of victims (Palmer-Fernandez, 2004, p. 29). Although the Aztecs are today known for their rituals of human sacrifice, they were not the first people to practice such rituals.
People of Mesoamerica have practiced human sacrifice from the early period in their history. For instance, in Tlatilco, a site in the Central Valley in pre-Classic times, several tombs with dismembered bodies and decapitated skulls have been found by researchers, which suggests ritual killing was done there (Berghaus 20). In Aztec civilization, most rituals began with a preparatory period of fasting by the priestly class called “nezahualiztli” which lasted for about four days.
Year-long partial feasts involving priests and priestesses called “teocoaque” (god-eaters) and “in iachuan Huitzilopochtli in mocexiuhzauhque” (the elder brothers of Huitzilopochtli who fasted for a year) were also held by the Aztecs. Periods of preparation were extravagant, involving offerings of food, flowers, paper, rubber, poles with streamers, and incense to the gods. Temples were also embowered, libations poured, and participants performed in ceremonies. Participants in the human sacrifice ritual first have to go through a dramatic procession while wearing elaborate costumes and dancing to music and sacred songs.
They had to pass through the ceremonial precinct before they could go to the temple where the sacrifice was held. Major participants in the ritual were called “teteo ixiptla” (deity impersonators) and all significant rituals involved sacrifices of human beings or animals (Carrasco & Sessions, 1998, p. 188). Autosacrifice or offering oneself was the most common form of sacrifice in Aztec civilization. The practice involves the use of maguey thorns and other sharp objects to pierce the tongue, arms, thighs, and earlobes of a person.
Priests and sinners are also known to pierce their genitals to draw blood to offer to the gods. While animals like quails were regularly sacrificed, the most valued sacrifices were captured slaves and warriors. Human sacrifices had to be bated first, costumed, then taught to dance ritual dances before they were slain. They were also either slimmed down or fattened during the period of preparation. Since they were impersonators of deities, they were dressed to look like the deities to whom they were offered (Carrasco & Sessions, 1998, p. 188).
Various techniques were employed to kill human sacrifices, including burning, drowning, decapitation, starvation, entombment, strangulation, throwing them from heights, shooting them with arrows or darts, and gladiatorial fights. Ceremonies often lasted for about 20 days and peaked when the captors and captives performed songs and dances in procession to the temple. At this point, the captives were escorted up the stairway to the “techcatl” (sacrificial stone) often by force. Once a captive is pushed down onto the stone, a priest cut through his chest with a ritual flint knife called a “tecpatl.
” The priest then tore the beating heart called “precious eagle cactus fruit” from the chest of the human sacrifice, offered it to the sun for nourishment and vitality, and placed it in an ornamented circular container called the “cuauhxicalli” or eagle vessel (Carrasco & Sessions, 1998, p. 190). The corpse now termed “eagle man” was rolled down the steps of the temple to the bottom where ritual participants dismembered it. The body was decapitated and the brain taken out. The skull is skinned, and then placed on a skull rack called “tzompantli” which consisted of long poles horizontally arranged and filled with skulls.
Sometimes, the captor of the human sacrifice was decorated with chalk and presented with gifts. He then celebrated a ritual meal which consisted of a bowl of stew of “tlacatlaolli” or dried maize. Each person who participated in the ritual meal got a piece of the human sacrifice’s flesh (Corresco & Sessions, 1998, p. 190). There is evidence though, that the captor himself was not permitted to eat the flesh of his captive (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, p. 264). The festivity of the ceremonial ritual before the actual human sacrifice helped to relax the victims.
Some who were accustomed to the practice of human sacrifice even went willingly and proudly to their deaths. Aztecs used other means to make sure that human sacrifices were docile, however. Victims were kept awake for four days before the sacrifice through music and dance, which means they were already exhausted once the killing ritual began. In addition, they were also given “teooctli” to drink, an intoxicating substance that further clouded their perception of reality. Inhalation of aromatic perfumes and fumes also achieved this effect for the victims.
The combined effects of all these ceremonial activities made the victims too exhausted and intoxicated to realize what was really going to happen (Van Tueranhout, 2005, p. 188). Experts have different views on why Aztecs needed human sacrifices during their time. One popular explanation is that the Aztecs were following their beliefs based on their creation myth. According to the myth, after the world had been created and destroyed four times, the gods met and built a bonfire. One god called Nanahuatzin threw himself in the fire, was consumed, and emerged as the sun.
The sun though would not rise in the east, cross the sky, and set in the west if the other gods wouldn’t offer it their own blood. Aztecs believed that the gods depended on them to provide the blood from human sacrifices that Nanahuatzin needed to rise and set. Thus, as the Aztecs needed the gods for their existence, so too did the gods needed the Aztecs to sustain them. This creation myth was supposedly the main reason behind the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice, warfare, and their quest for captives (Palmer-Fernandez, 2004, p.
29). Aside from religious purposes, human sacrifice was also done by the Aztecs to display their political power, which explains why they choose captured warriors and slaves. People who witnessed the sacrifices were sent a clear message: the power of the Aztec empire should not be challenged. Another widely dismissed theory regarding human sacrifice is that Aztecs were forced to slay people on a massive scale for cannibalism. According to the theory, Aztecs killed people because they did not have access to enough protein in their diet.
Most experts dismiss this theory now however, because it had already been discovered that while Aztecs did not have access to a lot of animal protein, their diet had more than ample amounts of protein from processed beans and maize (Van Tueranhout, 2005, p. 264). Another evidence that further discredits the “protein theory” is that it appears the captor of the human sacrifice was not permitted to eat portions of the body. The reason for this is that the captor could also have been a captive himself. In fact, just before the ritual meal begins, the captor would say the words, “Shall I perchance eat myself (Van Tueranhout, 2005, p. 264-265)?
” This sentiment is shared by both captor and captive in war. When a warrior captures another warrior, describing the captive, he would say, “He is as my beloved son (Van Tueranhout, 2005, p. 264-265),” and the captive would reply, “He is my beloved father (Van Tueranhout, 2005, p. 264-265). ” Looking at this evidence, if the Aztecs only ate well-defined parts of their captives, then they clearly did not eat human beings simply for dietary purposes. Had the main reason been the lack of protein in their diet, then the Aztecs would have ate the whole body of their victims rather than just well-defined portions of it (Van Tueranhout, 2005, p.
264-265). Some anthropologists though question the preference of most experts of the religious purpose of Aztec human sacrifice. They wonder whether the religious explanation obscures more mundane functions of the practice. Sherburne Cook, a physiologist and a pioneer of population studies and archaeology of the Mesoamerican peoples, suggested that human sacrifice was done by the Aztecs unconsciously to control their population. Aztecs raised the death rate of the region by 15 percent by ritually killing 15,000 people annually. An additional 5 percent increase in the death rate was also gained from the wars waged to acquire captives.
Cook contended that the 20 percent increase in the yearly mortality was an important factor in controlling the growth of a population that the region is nearly unable to sustain (Fiedel, 1992, p. 313). Anthropologist Marvin Harris rejected Cook’s explanation however, pointing out that the majority of casualties in the battlefield and captives were male adults. The death of this demographic could easily be offset by a boost in birthrate. Harris argued that had the main reason for human sacrifice been to control the population of the region, then the Aztecs would have been better off if they killed women (Fiedel, 1992, p. 313).
Human sacrifice had other purposes as well. Some sacrifices were done to maintain the strength of significant structures such as pyramids and other religious buildings and sites. In some cases, slaves of a dignitary or a nobleman were sacrificed so that they could accompany their masters in the underworld as they did in the world of the living. Messengers were also sacrificed to send messages to the underworld citizens who were either gods or dead relatives (Aguilar-Moreno, 2007, p. 174). One reason why Aztecs are widely known for their human sacrifice rituals is the large numbers of people that they actually sacrificed.
Today however, the real extent of Aztec human sacrifice is still being debated in intellectual circles. Some experts cite a population of 25 million people in Precolumbian Mexico. Of this number, 250,000 human sacrifices were supposedly slain in Central Mexico alone. Proponents of the cannibalism theory claim that the population is around 300,000 with 15,000 human sacrifices done per year. Some experts have rejected these numbers, saying that they are much too high for Central Mexico (Van Tueranhout, 2005, p. 266). Captured warriors and slaves were not the only ones Aztecs sacrificed however.
Archaeologists uncovered skeletal remains from investigation sites at Tlatelolco, another Nahua city-state in the Valley of Mexico. Some of the children were small infants and were included in offerings such as bird bones, wood, obsidian, shells, and copper rattles. Experts have tried to explain Aztec child sacrifice in different ways. One explanation is that children were considered pure, so they were the best messengers to the gods of the underworld. Another explanation rests on the observation that some of the skeletal remains had signs of disease.
It’s been suggested that sacrificial children were selected because their poor health meant that they were about to pass on. Aztecs may have believed that their untimely death would upset the balance of energy in the universe, so it would be more beneficial to kill them than allow them to live (Van Tueranhout, 2005, p. 266). Conclusion We believe that the practice of human sacrifice in the context of the Aztec culture was justifiable, but it would be absurd to accept any part of it today. Killing people for irrational purposes should not be tolerated even if it is done within a society that does not recognize the flaws in its own logic.
Moreover, it is wrong to kill anyone because of premature judgments about their worth or health, especially children. Aztec human sacrifice and other aspects of their culture are now only valuable as means to understand the way of life and the psychology of ancient civilizations. There is a need to understand the lives of these people, even the most gruesome practices, because these have relevance to our understanding of ourselves today. By correctly interpreting the meanings they put into their practices, we can learn much about our own use of meanings in modern times, which could in turn, instruct us how to live our lives better.
References Aguilar-Moreno, M. (2007). Handbook to life in the Aztec world. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Berghaus, G. (1998). On Ritual. New York: Routledge. Carrasco, D. , and Sessions, S. (1998). Daily life of the Aztecs: people of the sun and earth. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group. Fiedel, S. J. (1992). Prehistory of the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Palmer-Fernandez, G. (2004). Encyclopedia of religion and war. London: Taylor & Francis. Smith, M. E. (2003). The Aztecs. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. Van Tuerenhout, D. R. (2005). The Aztecs: new perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
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