When the Spaniards under Hernan Cortez gazed upon the Aztec capital of Tenochtitl?n in Mexico in 1519, the scene before them amazed them. There, in the middle of a wide lake was a shimmering city with bright white walls of vast buildings sitting on an island in the middle of a large lake with causeways linked to it. The astonishment of those first Spanish visitors soon turned to horror when they saw the vast scale of ritual sacrifices made by the Aztecs.
Even today, it is hard to comprehend the extent or rationale for this ritual sacrifice. It is estimated that the Aztec royalty sacrificed approximately 20,000 people per year. Captives were taken to the top of pyramids where, upon a ritual flat stone table, they had their chests cut upon and their hearts ripped out. Then the bodies of the victims were tossed down the steps of the pyramids. The scene to both the Spaniards of that time and to us today is truly gruesome. But it was not mere thirst for blood that motivated the Aztecs to engage in this mass ritual sacrifice.
Critical to understanding the motivation behind the ritual sacrifices is the concept of ”tonalli,” which means: “animating spirit.” The tonalli in humans was believed to be located in the blood, which concentrates in the heart when one becomes frightened. This explains the gods’ hunger for the heart. Without this sacrifice, all motion stops, even the movement of the sun. So when the Aztecs made their sacrifices, as far as they were concerned, they were keeping the sun from halting in its orbit.
Particularly thirsty for blood was the war god, Huitzilopochtli. On the other hand, Quetzalcoatl was a kinder, gentler god. Quetzalcoatl only demanded the sacrifice of animals such as snakes and butterflies.
The victims of these ritual slaughters were usually warriors captured by the Aztecs in battles or tributes from vassal states in the form of humans offered up for sacrifice. This is why the Aztecs never fully conquered many of the surrounding states. They needed a steady supply of ritual sacrifice victims. If they used their own people for sacrifice then it could cause an uprising.
There was another reason for these ritual sacrifices—cannibalism. After the hearts were removed and the bodies tossed down the temple steps, the limbs were removed and later cooked. As repugnant as cannibalism is to us today, back then to the Aztecs, cooked human bodies were looked upon as great delicacies which explains why only Aztec royalty, not the common people, were allowed to engage in cannibalism. The favorite parts for the Aztecs to munch on were the hands and thighs. The Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, was reported to have been partial to cooked thighs served with tomatoes and chili pepper sauce.
This scene might turn our stomachs but it must also be remembered that the Aztecs had no domestic livestock so the body leftovers (the hearts given to the gods were the main course) from the ritual sacrifices was a way for the Aztec royalty to obtain proteins and fats. Thus in the Aztecs we can see a mingling of religion and nourishment which resulted in human sacrifice.
The Aztecs: Ambivalence and Beauty
The Aztecs were also known as the Tenocha or the Mexica and the name Mexico comes from this. They were the dominant peoples of Central America at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s. Read The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz for an absolutely gripping account of this by a conquistador who was there.
The center of Aztec culture was the city of Tenochtitl?n [Teh-noche-TEE-tlahn- 'place of the prickly pear cactus'] in the Valley of Mexico. This was on the location of the present day site of Mexico City. It is estimated that at the time of the Spanish conquest Tenochtitl?n had in the region of 200,000-300,000 people and it was apparently a beautiful sight. It would have been larger than any European city of the time. It contained more than forty finely decorated pyramids, large residential areas, and six major canals which acted as transport routes along which the inhabitants traveled by canoes.
Family life was important to the Aztecs. When babies were born, a midwife assisted the delivery. Midwives were highly regarded professionals. As Aztec women married when they were as young as fifteen the first birth was often to a teenage girl of a young age. The midwife would cut the umbilical cord, wash the baby, and then offer a prayer to Chalchiuhtlicue ["Jade-Her-Skirt"]. Baby boys were told that life was difficult and full of suffering and that they were likely to die in battle or as sacrifices. The umbilical cord of boys was given to warriors to be buried on the battlefields. Boys were educated at home by their fathers until they were about ten when they started school. The umbilical cord of a girl was buried next to the hearth. The domestic role was seen as the most important part of a woman’s life. The women generally stayed within the home and cooked and made clothing. When girl babies were born the assisting midwife told them that they were to the house as the heart was to the body. Girls stayed in the home with their mothers and began their “training” when they were four. By the age of twelve they were accomplished weavers. The women dressed in wraparound skirts and sleeveless blouses. Women often colored their faces in a pale yellow ochre powder to enhance their attractiveness.
A man could have one main wife but a number of secondary wives. It was important to Aztec women, like women everywhere, to be thought to be beautiful. Mature, married Aztec women typically wore their hair in two horn-like tufts while younger women often wore it straight and long sometimes down to the waist. Like the Egyptians cleanliness was valued as was a pleasant scent. Women used to wear garlands of pleasant smelling flowers around their necks. Aztec women were not to put red on their mouths and were to keep clean and wash if they wanted their husbands to continue to love them. Most Aztec women did not wear make-up but some women accompanied warriors and these wore a yellow ochre and died their teeth red. Aztec women decorated themselves with jewelry including shell, clay, precious metals, and feathers. The ideal Aztec woman was not too thin and young women were told not to have early babies because of what it would do to their figures! Aztec women were supposed to be modest in their sexual conduct though there were prostitutes within the culture. Female adultery was punishable by death.
The Aztecs loved flowers and ‘Flowers-and-song’ was their name for poetry, art and symbolism. Some of their poetry is emotionally very expressive and one of their preoccupations was how transitory and impermanent life is-perhaps just like a dream or a flower that blossoms to fade.
Judging by aspects of their art the Aztecs were, as many cultures have been, very ambivalent in their views of women. There is a ten-foot diameter circular sculpture from the temple of Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlan that illustrates this. It depicts the body of a naked woman (Coyolxauhqui) that has been dismembered. This was the sister of Huitzilopochtli who, with her sons, planned to kill him when he was born. He emerged from the womb of his mother full sized and armed for war. He chased away his nephews and decapitated his sister. This mythic story graphically represents sibling rivalry, warnings to the enemies of the Aztecs what will happen to them, and the attractive and frightening power of women.
Coaticlue is the name of the serpent-skirted mother of the war-god. A statue shows her with twin rattlesnake heads and a necklace of human hands and hearts. She could transform herself into a beautiful woman that would then lead men to their deaths.
Many goddesses of ancient people were associated with beauty, sexuality and war. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, took the god of war as her lover. Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and sexuality, was also very warlike. This association reveals a psychological truth that is that the attractiveness of female beauty is often connected with, but does not cause, conflict between men. This is also true in much of the animal world where there is conflict between male animals over sexual access to females. [Beauty, Sex, and War]
The Aztecs were great lovers of poetry, flowers, and chocolate which was a favorite drink of the Aztec nobility. It was made by drying cacao beans, roasting them over a fire, pounding them to a paste and mixing them with water. Other spices including chili, pimento and vanilla were often added to it. It was thought to have both medicinal properties and to be an aphrodisiac. There was a famous gathering of Aztec wise men and poets about 1490 when they met to discuss the true meaning of poetry. It took place at the house of lord Tecayehuatzin, prince of Huexotzinco. The poets and wise men lay on mats and were served tobacco and foaming mugs of chocolate by servants while they discussed the true meaning of flowers-and-song which is what the Aztecs called poetry.
One Aztec metaphor for blood can be translated as ‘flower’. Dead warriors spilled their blood to feed the gods and became eagle men who flew into the sun Xipe Totec, the god of spring. Spring was greeted by sacrificing impersonators of Xipe Totec. These sacrificial victims would be skinned and the skin then worn by the worshippers. This apparently repeated the cycle of the husk of corn about to ripen and the earth being renewed with vegetation.
Through what we call their myths it is possible to see how these people tried to deal with their ambivalent feelings about both the beauty and bounty of their environment and its potential to wreak havoc and cause trauma. We find their practice of human sacrifice quite horrific yet it is quite possible to see how these myths and ritualized practices may have originated as a result of the impact on the minds of the peoples being subjected to both the violent forces of nature-jaguars, hurricanes, fiery rain (possibly volcanoes), floods, earthquakes and drought as well as the beauty and bounty of nature.
One view of ritual sacrifice is that it is a way of binding tension and conflict within a community so that the anger within a community is displaced onto the sacrificial victims thereby stopping the community from tearing itself apart.
Drought and other natural disasters could bring famine. The gods gave their blood to the world. In order to keep the world going and the spring rains falling man had to give blood back. From the point of view of modern psychology an understanding of how what we call trauma and post traumatic stress disorder leads to interesting speculations on some of the more horrific aspects of Mesoamerican ritual practices.
There would have been significant morbidity among the early inhabitants of this region due to human helplessness in the face of the powerful and destructive forces of nature such as earthquakes, volcanoes, drought, floods, and hurricanes. Fearsome predators like the jaguar, puma, or poisonous snakes would also have taken a significant toll. These myths and religion seem to function as attempts to master and control this anxiety and yet, at the same time, are a reenactment and repetition of the trauma.
Aztec/Christian parallels or inverse analogues
The Aztecs carved the heart out of an alive human war captive, dedicated his heart’s blood to the sun, and ate his body in order to honor their gods and to preserve the world; Christians beheld their man-god nailed alive to a cross, and ate and drank his body and blood in a symbolic ceremony in order to save themselves. At the temples of both religions one could encounter black clothed priests performing mysterious rites; the Aztecs pinned the skulls of their victims onto racks outside their temples; the Spanish church featured auto-da-fe’s staged by the Inquisition in which numerous heretics would be burned alive in wicker baskets in the town square.]
The victim was led to the altar at the top of the pyramid, stretched across a stone by three priests [check number, think 4 held and 5th ripped out, would duplicate 4 cardinal points plus sun as center of Aztec wheel] who held his limbs, while a fourth ripped out the living heart, holding it up so that the spraying blood might spatter about–it was a definite honor to be sprayed with the blood, one that the priests reserved for themselves and visiting dignitaries.
D: thus human sacrifice was a part of many Native American cultures on both continents, for many thousands of years. The Aztecs had come to hold it as a daily necessity to sustain the sun in its course. They levied human tribute from their vassal states–one of Cortez’ first mainland experiences was to witness such a demand on the coastal cempoallans. Some states, like the tlaxcala, the Aztec refused to conquer–leaving it independent so that they might war against it. In effect the Aztecs were harvesting humans within and without their borders in their zeal for keeping the wheels of the universe well greased. For special occasions–such as the dedication of the great pyramid of Huitzilopochtli in our year 1486–tens of thousands of victims, harvested and kept prisoner for years–were offered up, and their lines extended for miles backward from the center of sacrifice. The pyramids glistened black with blood–a sign of great power and energy for that is how the sun god drank–and great mounds of skulls grew up. In Tenochtitl?n the excess bodies were fed to the animals in the zoo. Although this was a normative experience in Aztec culture–one the Aztecs felt comfortable with as they might say in Marin County, it seems clear that their neighbors were feeling oppressed and threatened. One of the guises of Cortez was that of a liberator.
Slide–after the sacrifice–a victim thrown down the steps of the pyramid.
The bodies of the excardiated victims were flung down the steps of the pyramid, perhaps as a rough and ready form of tenderizing the meat. The trunk and limbs would be severed, and the tender parts, the thighs and the hands reserved for ritual feasting. Moctezuma was said to be partial to the thighs of young men, served with a nice tomato and chili pepper sauce.
Prescott captures the European sense of horror
“This was not the coarse repast of famished cannibals, but a banquet teeming with delicious beverages and delicate viands, prepared with art, and attended by both sexes, who, as we shall see hereafter, conducted themselves with all the decorum of civilized life. Surely, never were refinement and the extreme of barbarism brought so closely in contact with each other!” reader Ritual sacrifice and cannibalism: pros and cons
Indeed, the Aztecs don’t seem so bad if you put their habits next to those of the Spanish inquisition. At least the Aztec sacrificed their victims to their gods and into heaven; the inquisition burned its victims and consigned them to hell.
And modern writers stress the centrality, the necessity, of human sacrifice in Aztec society. If you believe what they did, that the sun needed a daily ration of human blood, then humans had to be sacrificed to the sun. It was a tough job, in other words, but somebody had to do it.
The victims, some say, were well cared for and honored before their deaths. And they were not individuals in our modern western sense–they were honored themselves to be chosen, to do their bit, as it were, to keep the sun going for the rest of humanity.
Another rationale is that human sacrifice–mostly, but not always, of young males captured in war, was a cultural device to eliminate surplus males from the population. The ones unskillful enough in war got caught, the more clever ones survived to reproduce–so rather than fighting bloody and deadly wars with an overkill factor, the Mexicans were enacting a relatively humane and structured procedure in their prisoner harvesting warfare.
Many now suspect that reports of cannibalism in the Americas are greatly exaggerated and the results of Europeans spooking themselves with their own horror tales. But with the Aztecs, with so much smoke, there probably is some fire.
Prescott’s sense of horror continues to affect our present view.
One can only say–yes, in certain societies, one can be civilized and eat one’s neighbor too. How to comprehend this mindset?
The Christian mass itself is a re-enactment of such a feast–only in the mass it is the flesh and blood of the god that is eaten–a prospect that might have horrified the Aztecs.
One historian even suggested that the meat of the sacrificial victims provided a crucial source of protein in a society where the largest form of animal livestock was the chicken. Were the Aztecs simply striving for a balanced diet?
Whatever the explanations, it was this last practice that most horrified the Spaniards and led them to conclude that the Aztecs were beyond the pale of humanity, unless they could be saved by another religion. Fear, zeal, and greed were all part of the coming encounter between Cortez and Moctezuma.
Sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli
During the sun god sacrifice ceremony, a priest carved out the person’s heart with an obsidian blade knife. At this time in the person was still alive and conscious. The priest would then remove the heart from the person’s chest. During this ceremony, the person being sacrificed rarely uttered a word. The sacrificed person was then thrown down the side of the temple, and after reaching the bottom, the sacrificed person’s arms and legs were severed. These extremities were then cooked in a clay oven, and served as a tender delicacy. In eating their victims, or partaking in them, the Aztecs believed that they were honoring them, as well as honoring the sun god. The ritual of the heart being cut out of the sacrifice victim was to honor only the sun god.
Other Sacrificial Ceremonies
The Aztec also preformed other sacrificial ceremonies. During the ceremony generally preformed in regard to Wipe Tote, the sacrifice was preformed by shooting the victim with arrows. In this instance, drops of blood falling from victims represented life giving rain. In honor of the Aztec fire god, the sacrifice was made by covering the victim with hashish, and then placing them into fire. In specific ceremonies throughout the Aztec year, people who were going to be sacrificed often dressed up as the god to which they would be sacrificed. The sacrificial victims often felt honored to be sacrificed, and society held these people up as exemplary and honorable.