Aztec Belief System
Aztec Belief System
Throughout the history of mankind civilizations have trusted in the existence of a higher power. Although the existence of a higher power doesn’t bear as large of an impact on societies like the United States today, it was the focal point of life in many civilizations of the past. A great example of a civilization that was extremely reliant on the connection between humans and higher powers was the Aztecs. The Aztecs believed that they were connected to the universe by a sacred energy. They believed this energy was the source of all natural events and if it were unbalanced, they would suffer.
In order to maintain the balance, the Aztecs performed ceremonial sacrifices, bloodletting, and other forms of violent cultural behavior. The connection between the Aztecs and the universe is evident among their myths about how humans were created. One creation myth is the story of the goddess Tlaltecutli. In the story Tlaltecutli was ripped apart by the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca and her body parts were used to create the earth and the other gods. This event caused Tlaltecutli to desire human hearts and she would not be quiet until they were brought to her.
Nor would she bear fruit until she had been drenched in human blood. Another creation myth, and the most common legend amongst the Aztecs, was that the god Quetzalcoatl descended into the underworld and retrieved the bones and ashes of previous human beings in order to recreate humanity because the universe had been destroyed after the fourth Sun went out. Quetzalcoatl ground the bones into powder and used his blood to fertilize it and create humans. The Aztecs also had a myth that explained how the Sun and moon were created.
According to legend, the gods Nanautzin and Tecuziztecatl sacrificed themselves by jumping into a fire, which turned them into the Sun and moon. The other gods also sacrificed themselves to provide nourishment for the Sun. However the Sun and the Earth still had an insatiable craving for human blood, therefore war was created to satisfy the Sun’s needs. What’s interesting about these creation myths is that they all included some form of death, sacrifice, or blood shed in order to create something. The creation myths shaped the foundation for why Aztecs placed so much emphasis on violent cultural behavior.
In the Aztec society, human sacrifice was extremely common. This is because sacrifices were the main method of creating cosmic order between humans and the universe. Pubic sacrifices took place at the beginning of each of the 18 twenty-day months. The sacrifices consisted of mostly captured warriors, but in rare cases included children and young women. The purpose of public sacrifice was to acquire the divine forces embedded in the physiology of human beings in order to nourish the Sun, Earth, and rain.
Aztec ceremonies consisted of days of ritual preparation, ceremonial sacrifice, and acts of nourishing the gods and the community. Priests carried out the sacrifices, which included many forms such as decapitation, burning, hurling from great heights, strangulation, and arrow sacrifice. The most common was the removal of the heart. The heart and the head were the two most important body parts to the Aztecs. Tonalli was a type of energy that came from the head and determined the shape of one’s temperament and destiny. Tonalli was first acquired as an embryo in a female uterus.
The Sun was the most powerful way to increase tonalli. It was believed that hair prevented tonalli from leaving the body. Therefore hair was a major prize in warfare. When heads were decapitated during ceremonies, the city as a whole gained tonalli. Teyolia, or “diving fire”, was the energy that came from the heart and determined a person’s sensibilities and thinking patterns. When a person died his or her tayolia traveled to the world of the dead, or “sky of the Sun”. Tayolia gives energy to the Sun, which is why heart sacrifices were so popular.
Giving hearts and heads wasn’t the only donation made to the higher powers. Bloodshed was also seen as a type of nourishment. The Aztecs believed that spilling blood was vital to please the gods and to ensure natural forces such as strong harvests. Another Aztec creation myth, the story of Tezcatlipoca, gives strong insight into the importance of bloodshed. In the story the body of Tezcatlipoca was cut into pieces and divided over the four directions of the world, with his blood flowing into the center.
The divine blood redistributed energy to animals, body parts, vegetation, and the calendar. Although The Aztecs believed that by giving the hearts and heads of their victims to the gods and the universe, they would be blessed with gifts like bountiful harvests, strength in war, and healthy lives, they didn’t practice sacrifice just to receive blessings; they also feared that the universe would be destroyed. The Aztecs believed that there had been four previous ages that the universe passed through prior to the present age, the Fifth Age.
At the end of each age, the Sun went out and caused a catastrophic event that destroyed all life on Earth. In the Second Age, for example, it was believed that the beings that lived there were carried away by the wind. (AD1, p. 4) The fear of the Sun going out again and ending the Fifth Age is one the main catalysts for explaining why the Aztecs placed so much importance on human sacrifice, warfare, and other violent cultural behavior. In order to ensure that the Sun wouldn’t go out again, the Aztecs participated in what is known as the New Fire Ceremony.
It took place once every fifty-two years and was used to ensure that the Sun would last for another fifty-two years. The rebirth was achieved by the heart sacrifice of a brave, captured warrior specifically chosen by the king. The ceremony began at the top of a mountain with a priest cutting out the warrior’s heart and throwing it into a fire. The people in the village would then cut themselves and splatter their blood in the direction of the fire. The fire was then brought down the mountain and the people blistered themselves with fire.
The Aztecs believed that if they did not perform the ceremony properly to nourish the Sun, it would go out and the demons of the darkness would descend to eat all human beings. The New Fire Ceremony is a great example of how the Aztecs viewed the connection between human beings and the cosmos. The role of humankind in the Aztec society was very pre-determined. Men were devoted to warfare and females were devoted to the household. Warfare was extremely important to Aztec men because it was used as a way to appease the gods with the hearts of prisoners of war.
It was also used a way to rank the importance and worth of a man. Men higher up in the military rank received more luxuries and entitlements than men of lower ranks. For example, a top war commander, or “quauhpilli”, was given land by the ruler and could run schools for commoners. Military service was a compulsory obligation by all free men. The Aztec’s innate desire for combat is a direct impact of the believed connection between conflict and nourishment for the universe.
When a male child was born, he is dedicated to the Sun, and “the flowery death” of the warrior in battle or on the killing stone. This shows that the Aztecs believed that the only honorable death for a male is on the battlefield or being sacrificed on another tribes killing stone. The Aztec devotion to the universe was so strong that they not only believed that they had to sacrifice others in battle to please the gods; they had to sacrifice themselves as well. The culture and beliefs of the Aztec civilization were much different than the culture and beliefs of society today.
Human sacrificing no longer occurs because it is considered cruel and unusual punishment. Humans do not believe that sacrifices and bloodshed are necessary to please a higher power. Although there are certain religions that believe that the way humans act bear some consequence on things like karma and where we go in the afterlife, it is rare to find a society in today’s world that believes wholeheartedly that there is a direct connection between human’s actions, the divine, and natural forces, like the Aztecs believed.
Science and technology have allowed humans to understand that we can control all aspects of processes such as growing crops and that the gods have no effect on it. Warfare, although still important, does not have nearly as strong of an impact on humans today. Warfare is only needed for protection, to defend other countries, or in certain areas of the world, to attempt to settle religious differences like the Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Today, men and women have the choice to grow up and become whatever they want.
Men are not required to serve in the military and women have the ability to do more than just take care of the household. The main difference between the Aztecs and humans today is that for the Aztecs, the connection to the universe was the most important aspect of life, while today creating a family, treating others fairly, and having proper morals are the most important aspects of life. The majority of people just want to make the most of their lives on Earth while they still have time, and depending on their beliefs, if they do it right they will reach an afterlife when they die.
The Aztecs were one of mankind’s most interesting civilizations. They devoted their lives to pleasing the universe and believed that sacrifice and bloodshed were the best ways of doing it. They attempted to control every aspect of their lives in order to keep the connection between humans and the universe in balance. The Aztec belief system was very extreme. No other civilization has put so much emphasis on sacrifices, and more than likely, no civilization ever will again.