The practice of human sacrifice was widespread in the Mesoamerican and in the South American cultures during the Inca Empire. Like all other known pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice. The extant sources describe how the Aztecs sacrificed human victims on each of their eighteen festivities, one festivity for each of their 20-day months. It is unknown if the Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice before they reached the Anahuac valley and started absorbing other cultural influences. The first human sacrifice reported in the sources was the sacrifice and skinning of the daughter of the king Cóxcox of Culhuacán; this story is a part of the legend of the foundation of Tenochtitlan. Several ethnohistorical sources state that under the guidance of Tlacaelel the importance of human sacrifice in Aztec history grew. The Aztecs would perform a series of rituals on nearby tribesman, sacrifice them using an obsidian knife, and then donate their blood to the Aztec god Acolnahuacatl. They would end the sacrificing when he had finished drinking and he was no longer thirsty. This ritual would go on for a whole weekend so as to please the gods. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_sacrifice_in_Aztec_culture).
Sacrifice was a common theme in Mesoamerican cultures. In the Aztec “Legend of the Five Suns”, all the gods sacrificed themselves so that mankind could live. Some years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, a body of Franciscans confronted the remaining Aztec priesthood and demanded, under threat of death, that they desist from this traditional practice. The Aztec priests defended themselves as follows:
|“||Life is because of the gods; with their sacrifice they gave us life…. They produce our sustenance… which nourishes life.||”|
What the Aztec priests were referring to was a central Mesoamerican belief: that a great, on-going sacrifice sustains the Universe. Everything is tonacayotl: the “spiritual flesh-hood” on earth. Everything —earth, crops, moon, stars and people— springs from the severed or buried bodies, fingers, blood or the heads of the sacrificed gods. Humanity itself is macehualli, “those deserved and brought back to life through penance”. A strong sense of indebtedness was connected with this worldview. Indeed, nextlahualli (debt-payment) was a commonly used metaphor for human sacrifice, and, as Bernardino de Sahagún reported, it was said that the victim was someone who “gave his service”.
Human sacrifice was in this sense the highest level of an entire panoply of offerings through which the Aztecs sought to repay their debt to the gods. Both Sahagún and Toribio de Benavente (also called “Motolinía”) observed that the Aztecs gladly parted with everything: burying, smashing, sinking, slaying vast quantities of quail, rabbits, dogs, feathers, flowers, insects, beans, grains, paper, rubber and treasures as sacrifices. Even the “stage” for human sacrifice, the massive temple-pyramids, was an offering mound: crammed with treasures, grains, soil and human and animal sacrifices that were buried as gifts to the deities. Adorned with the land’s finest art, treasure and victims, these temples had become buried offerings under new structures every half a century.
The sacrifice of animals was a common practice for which the Aztecs bred dogs, eagles, jaguars and deer. Objects also were sacrificed by being broken and offered to the gods. The cult of Quetzalcoatl required the sacrifice of butterflies and hummingbirds.
Self-sacrifice was also quite common; people would offer maguey thorns, tainted with their own blood and, like the Maya kings, would offer blood from their tongue, ear lobes, or genitals. Blood held a central place in Mesoamerican cultures. The Florentine Codex reports that in one of the creation myths Quetzalcóatl offered blood extracted from a wound in his own genital to give life to humanity. There are several other myths in which Nahua gods offer their blood to help humanity.
Much like the role of sacrifice elsewhere in the world, it thus seems that these rites functioned as a type of atonement for Aztec believers. Their sacrificial hymns describe the victim as “sent (to death) to plead for us”, or “consecrated to annul all sin”. In one such poem, a warrior-victim announces that “I embrace mankind… I give myself to the community”. Aztec society viewed even the slightest tlatlacolli (‘sin’ or ‘insult’) as an extremely malevolent supernatural force. For instance, if an adulterer were to enter a house, it was believed that all turkey chicks would perish from tlazomiquiztli (“filth-death”). To avoid such calamities befalling their community, those who had erred punished themselves by extreme measures such as slitting their tongues for vices of speech or their ears for vices of listening, and “for a slight [sin they] hanged themselves, or threw themselves down precipices, or put an end to themselves by abstinence”.
A great deal of cosmological thought seems to have underlain each of the Aztec sacrificial rites. The most common form of human sacrifice was heart-extraction. The Aztec believed that the heart (tona) was both the seat of the individual and a fragment of the Sun’s heat (istli). To this day, the Nahua consider the Sun to be a heart-soul (tona-tiuh): “round, hot, pulsating”. In the Aztec view, humanity’s “divine sun fragments” were considered “entrapped” by the body and its desires:
- Where is your heart?
- You give your heart to each thing in turn.
- Carrying, you do not carry it…
- You destroy your heart on earth
It also seems that at least in some cases, the strong emphasis given to human sacrifice may have stemmed from the great honour Mesoamerican society bestowed on those who became an ixiptla – that is, a god’s representative, image or idol. Ixiptla was the same term used for wooden, stone and dough images of gods. Interestingly, Aztec texts rarely differentiate between human ixiptla and wooden or stone ixiptla. Both types were so elaborately costumed and painted that even the congregation was unsure which were human ixiptla and which were stone or wood (Duran, Book of the Gods and Rites, 102). Thus when a victim appeared in full regalia before the congregation, it was said that the divinity had been given ‘human form’- that the god now had an ixitli (face) (Duran, Book of the Gods…, 72-73). Duran says such victims were ‘worshipped… as the deity’ (Duran, Book of the Gods and Rites, 42,109,232) or ‘as though they had been gods’ (Sahagun, Florentine Codex Bk 2: 226, 238-239) (-the original Nahuatl term being nienoteoti’tzinea, literally, ‘I consider him a god’) (Clavigero, 98). Even whilst still alive, ixiptla victims were honoured, hallowed and addressed (like gods) as ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ (Duran, Book of the Gods and Rites.., 189) Posthumously, their remains were treated as actual relics of the gods which explains why victims’ skulls, bones and skin were often painted, bleached, stored and displayed, or else used as ritual masks and oracles. For example, Diego Duran’s informants told him that whoever wore the skin of the victim who had portrayed god Xipe (Our Lord the Flayed One) felt he was wearing a holy relic. He considered himself ‘divine’ (Duran, Book of the Gods and Rites..176).
Finally, according to the Aztec (and Mesoamerican) world-view, the circumstances in which people died determined the type of afterlife they enjoyed. The Aztecs had meticulously organised death into several types, which each led to specific “heavenly” and “underworld” levels. In the levels Sahagun records, passing away quietly at home was the lowest, as it required the unfortunate soul to undergo numerous torturous trials and journeys, only to culminate in a sombre underworld. By contrast, what the Aztecs termed “a good death” was sacrifice, war (which usually meant sacrifice) or — in the case of women — death whilst giving birth. This kind of end procured for the deceased the second-highest heaven (death in infancy being the highest). Persons who had died sacrificially or in war were called Teo-micqui (“the God-dead”) and were said to “go pure… live hard by, nigh unto the Sun… [who] always forever … rejoice … [since] the House of the Sun is … a place of joy.”
The 52-year cycle
The cycle of fifty-two years was central to Mesoamerican cultures. The Nahua’s religious beliefs were based on a great fear that the universe would collapse after each cycle if the gods were not strong enough. Every fifty-two years a special New Fire ceremony was performed. All fires were extinguished and at midnight a human sacrifice was made. The Aztecs then waited for the dawn. If the Sun appeared it meant that the sacrifices for this cycle had been enough. A fire was ignited on the body of a victim, and this new fire was taken to every house, city and town. Rejoicing was general: a new cycle of fifty-two years was beginning, and the end of the world had been postponed, at least for another 52-year cycle.
Most of the sacrificial rituals took more than two people to perform. In the usual procedure of the ritual, the sacrifice would be taken to the top of the temple. The sacrifice would then be laid on a stone slab by four priests, and his/her abdomen would be sliced open by a fifth priest with a ceremonial knife made of flint. The cut was made in the abdomen and went through the diaphragm. The priest would grab the heart and tear it out, still beating. It would be placed in a bowl held by a statue of the honored god, and the body thrown down the temple’s stairs. The body would land on a terrace at the base of the pyramid called an apetlatl /aˈpet͡ɬat͡ɬ/.
Before and during the killing, priests and audience (who gathered in the plaza below) stabbed, pierced and bled themselves as autosacrifice (Sahagun, Bk. 2: 3: 8, 20: 49, 21: 47). Hymns, whistles, spectacular costumed dances and percussive music marked different phases of the rite.
The body parts would then be disposed of: the viscera fed the animals in the zoo; the bleeding head was placed on display in the tzompantli, meaning ‘hairy skulls’. Not all the skulls in the tzompantlis were victims of sacrifice. In the Anales de Tlatelolco it is described that during the siege of Tlatelolco by the Spaniards, the Tlatelolcas built three tzompantli: two for their own dead and one for the fallen conquerors, including two severed heads of horses.
Other kinds of human sacrifice, which paid tribute to various deities, approached the victims differently. The victim could be shot with arrows (in which the draining blood represented the cool rains of spring); die in unequal fighting (gladiatorial sacrifice) or be sacrificed as a result of the Mesoamerican ballgame; burned (to honor the fire god); flayed after being sacrificed (to honor Xipe Totec, “Our Lord The Flayed One”), or drowned.
Estimates of the scope of the sacrifices
Some post-conquest sources report that at the re-consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs sacrificed about 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days,. This number is considered an exaggeration. According to Ross Hassig, author of Aztec Warfare, “between 10,000 and 80,400 persons” were sacrificed in the ceremony. The higher estimate would average 14 sacrifices per minute during the four-day consecration. Four tables were arranged at the top so that the victims could be jettisoned down the sides of the temple. Nonetheless, according to Codex Telleriano-Remensis, old Aztecs who talked with the missionaries told about a much lower figure for the reconsecration of the temple, approximately 4,000 victims in total.
Michael Harner, in his 1977 article The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice, estimates the number of persons sacrificed in central Mexico in the 15th century as high as 250,000 per year. Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl, a Mexica descendant and the author of Codex Ixtlilxochitl, estimated that one in five children of the Mexica subjects was killed annually. Victor Davis Hanson argues that a claim by Don Carlos Zumárraga of 20,000 per annum is “more plausible.” Other scholars believe that, since the Aztecs often tried to intimidate their enemies, it is more likely that they could have inflated the number as a propaganda tool. The same can be said for Bernal Díaz’s inflated calculations when, in a state of visual shock, he grossly miscalculated the number of skulls at one of the seven Tenochtitlan tzompantlis. The counter argument is that both the Aztecs and Diaz were very precise in the recording of the many other details of Aztec life, and inflation or propaganda would be unlikely. According the Florentine Codex, fifty years before the conquest the Aztecs burnt the skulls of the former tzompantli. Mexican archeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma has unearthed and studied some tzompantlis.
Sacrifices were made on specific days. Sahagún, Juan Bautista de Pomar and Motolinía report that the Aztecs had eighteen festivities each year, one for each Aztec month. They clearly state that in those festivities sacrifices were made. Each god required a different kind of victim: young women were drowned for Xilonen; children were sacrificed to Tláloc; Nahuatl-speaking prisoners to Huitzilopochtli, and a single nahua would volunteer for Tezcatlipoca. The Ramírez Codex states that for the annual festivity of Huitzilopochtli more than sixty prisoners were sacrificed in the main temple, and prisoners were sacrificed in other large Aztec cities as well.
Not all sacrifices were made at the Tenochtitlan temples; a few were made at “Cerro del Peñón”, an islet of the Texcoco lake. According to an Aztec source, in the month of Tlacaxipehualiztli (from February 22 to March 13), thirty-four captives were sacrificed in the gladiatorial sacrifice to Xipe Totec. More victims would be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli in the month Panquetzaliztli (from 9 November to 28 November) according to the Ramírez Codex. This would mean a figure as low as 300 to 600 victims a year. There is little agreement on the actual figure due to the scarcity of archeological evidence.
Every Aztec warrior would have to provide at least one prisoner for sacrifice. All the male population was trained to be warriors, but only the few who succeeded in providing captives could become full-time members of the warrior elite. Those who could not would become macehualli, workers. Accounts also state that several young warriors could unite to capture a single prisoner, which suggests that capturing prisoners for sacrifice was challenging.
There is still much debate as to what social groups constituted the usual victims of these sacrifices. It is often assumed that all victims were ‘disposable’ commoners or foreigners. However, slaves – a major source of victims – were not a permanent class but rather persons from any level of Aztec society who had fallen into debt or committed some crime (see Duran, Book of the Gods and Rites, 131, 260). Likewise, most of the earliest accounts talk of prisoners of war of diverse social status, and concur that virtually all child sacrifices were locals of noble lineage, offered by their own parents (compare Cortes, Letters 105 with Motolinia, History of the Indies 118-119 and Duran, Book of the Gods, 223, 242).
Likewise, it is doubtful if many victims came from far afield. In 1454, the Aztec government forbade the slaying of captives from distant lands at the capital’s temples (Duran, The Aztecs: History of the Indes, 141). Duran’s informants told him that sacrifices were consequently ‘nearly always… friends of the [Royal] House’ – meaning warriors from allied states (Duran, The Aztecs: History of the Indies, 141, 198). This probably meant that the average Aztec warrior stood as much chance of procuring a victim as he did of himself becoming one – as the Aztec Emperor reportedly told all captives about to be sacrificed: ‘today for you, tomorrow for me’ (Tezozomoc Vol.2).
Early Spanish accounts mention the sacrificial practice of the Aztecs as well as other Mesoamerican cultures in the 16th century. There are numerous depictions of sacrifices in the Mexica statuary, as well as in codices such as the Ríos, Tudela, Telleriano-Remensis, Durán, and Sahagún’s Florentine. On the other hand, the pre-Columbian, indigenous codices that depict the rites were not written texts but pictorial and highly symbolic ideographs—the Aztecs did not have a true writing system such as that of the Mayas. Bishop Zumarraga (1528–48) burned all obtainable texts in his religious zeal.
For Mesoamerica as a whole, the accumulated archaeological, iconographical and in the case of the Maya written evidence, indicates that human sacrifice was widespread across cultures and periods, dating back to 600 BC and possibly much earlier. Osteological analyses have also been interpreted as corroborating the texts. Pictorial illustrations of sacrifices on Maya ceramics and stelae have also been published.
This is truly heavy stuff. When one reads the Old Testament consider all the sacrificing going on. These Egyptians (Moors) were killers, tyrants, cannibals etc… The Moors were not the only culture practicing such abominations. Hernando Cortez say in the one of the 5 letters to the Emperor that he saw first hand the sacrificing. Cortez says “they got what they deserved” but then he does the same by killing them.
The Left hand and evil fallen ones deceived these cultures into this. This study brings to new light what mind set the Ibri (Hebrews) had when Moses led them around South America. These people were descendants of the Moors from Egypt. Notice in the above artwork who is doing the sacrificing? Notice also the turban style on his head, look familiar.
Not that the Ibri depicted above were cannibals but they were definitely descendant from Egypt in South America. The mixed Egyptian dress and writings that are similar give the evidence.