Aztec Human Sacrifice Rituals
This article is a continuation of my previous article, “What Are Human Sacrifices?“, which describes human sacrifices in general and modern practices that are considered to be related to the sacrificing of human beings. The Aztecs are widely-known for engaging in human sacrifices. It is a well-known fact that hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives due to this culture’s rituals. There have been many propositions and interpretations of the Aztec’s human sacrifice rituals, some that are heavily disputed to this day. One such theory that has been widely discredited is that cannibalism of sacrificial victims were part of the Aztec diet due to the lack of protein in the Mesoamerican diet.
Many pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica practiced human sacrifice. Many believe that the Aztecs obtained this ritual once they reached the Anahuac valley. The first human sacrifice by the Aztecs reported in the sources was the skinning of the daughter of the king Cóxcox of Culhuacán, which is part of the legend of the foundation of Tenochtitlan.
The first question to ask is “Why sacrifice humans?” Well, some years after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, a group of Franciscans confronted the remaining Aztec priesthood and demanded, under the threat of death, why their civilization practiced these rituals. The priests defended themselves and responded:
Life is because of the gods; with their sacrifice they gave us life [...]. They produce our sustenance [...] which nourishes life.
The Aztecs believed that a great, ongoing sacrifice sustains the Universe. Everything in the world springs from the severed or buried bodies, fingers, blood, etc. They looked at human sacrifice as a way to repay the gods. Where the human sacrifices took place was an offering mound, filled with treasures and jewels, grains, soils, and even animal sacrifices. Those that were sacrificed were said to of “given their service”. The Aztecs were known to sacrifice bred dogs, jaguars, deer, and even eagles. They made sacrifices to specific gods also. An example of one such god was Tezcatlipoca, who was considered to be the most powerful god. The Aztecs believed that this god created war to provide food and drink to the gods. He had the power to forgive sins and relieve disease. As a matter of fact, one of his names can be translated as “We Who Are His Slaves”.
The Aztec human sacrifice ritual took more than two people to perform. The victim would be taken to the top of the temple, and laid on a stone slab by four priests. His abdomen was then sliced open by a fifth priest with a ceremonial knife made of flint. This cut went through the diaphragm. Then, the priest would grab the heart out of the victim while it was still beating. The heart would be placed in a bowl held by a statue of the honored god while the body was thrown on the temple’s stairs. All the body parts were disposed, some being fed to the animals of the zoo, while the head would be placed on display. Other human sacrifice rituals practiced by the Aztecs would include the victim being shot with arrows, death in unequal fighting, burned, drowned, or even sacrificed as a result of the Mesoamerican ballgame,
The number of human sacrifices at a given time have long been debated and estimated. For the reconsecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs reported that they had sacrificed around 80,400 prisoners in four days. A higher estimate was that the Aztecs sacrificed fourteen people ever minute during the four-day consecration. Compared to the Auschwitz concentration camp used by Nazi Germany, which was used with modern technology, 24 hours a day, peaked at 19,200 deaths per day, still lower than the Aztecs. With the Aztecs, four tables were arranged at the top, so the victims would be jettisoned down the sides of the temple.
Sacrifices were made on specific days which each god having a specific victim and method of dieing. Children were sacrificed to Tláloc, Nahuatl-speaking prisoners to Huitzilopochtli, and a single nahua would volunteer for Tezcatlipoca. Every Aztec warrior would have to provide at least one prisoner for sacrifice. Sacrifices also sometimes took place in different places rather than at the Tenochtitlan temples, with a few being made at an islet of the Texcoco lake.
Many conquerors have some accounts of Aztec human sacrifices. Juan Díaz, who was part of the 1518 Grijalva expedition, wrote in his work, the aftermath of a sacrifice on an island near Veracruz. Bernal Díaz corroborates Juan Díaz’s history:
On these altars were idols with evil looking bodies, and that very night five Indians had been sacrificed before them; their chests had been cut open, and their arms and thighs had been cut off. The walls were covered with blood. We stood greatly amazed and gave the island the name isleta de Sacrificios [Island of the Sacrifices].
Díaz also described the sacrifices at the temple as follows:
They strike open the wretched Indian’s chest with flint knives and hastily tear out the palpitating heart which, with the blood, they present to the idols [...]. They cut off the arms, thighs and head, eating the arms and thighs at ceremonial banquets. The head they hang up on a beam, and the body is […] given to the beasts of prey.
According to Bernal Díaz, the chiefs of the surrounding towns would constantly complain to Hernán Cortés on the perennial need to supply the Aztecs with victims for human sacrifice. Cortés describes similar events in his Letters:
They have a most horrid and abominable custom which truly ought to be punished and which until now we have seen in no other part, and this is that, whenever they wish to ask something of the idols, in order that their plea may find more acceptance, they take many girls and boys and even adults, and in the presence of these idols they open their chests while they are still alive and take out their hearts and entrails and burn them before the idols, offering the smoke as sacrifice. Some of us have seen this, and they say it is the most terrible and frightful thing they have ever witnessed.
The full extent of Aztec human sacrifice rituals is beyond our reach. There are many proposed explanations as to why this civilization would practice such barbaric rituals. Check out Wikipedia.org’s article “Human sacrifice in Aztec Culture” to learn more about the proposed explanations. We may never know fully why the Aztecs would engage in the rituals of human sacrifice, but what we do know, as stated in my previous article, “What Are Human Sacrifices?“, is that human sacrifice is said to still exist today.