Aztec Sacrifice

Aztec Sacrifice

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The religion of the Aztec civilization which flourished in ancient Mesoamerica (1345-1521 CE) has gained an infamous reputation for bloodthirsty human sacrifice with lurid tales of the beating heart being ripped from the still-conscious victim, decapitation, skinning and dismemberment. All of these things did happen but it is important to remember that for the Aztecs the act of sacrifice - of which human sacrifice was only a part - was a strictly ritualised process which gave the highest possible honour to the gods and was regarded as a necessity to ensure mankind's continued prosperity.

Origins & Purpose

The Aztecs were not the first civilization in Mesoamerica to practise human sacrifice as probably it was the Olmec civilization (1200-300 BCE) which first began such rituals atop their sacred pyramids. Other civilizations such as the Maya and Toltecs continued the practice. The Aztecs did, however, take sacrifice to an unprecedented scale, although that scale was undoubtedly exaggerated by early chroniclers during the Spanish Conquest, probably to vindicate the Spaniards own brutal treatment of the indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, it is thought that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of victims were sacrificed each year at the great Aztec religious sites and it cannot be denied that there would also have been a useful secondary effect of intimidation on visiting ambassadors and the populace in general.

In ancient Mesoamerica human sacrifices were viewed as a repayment for the sacrifices the gods had themselves made in creating the world.

In Mesoamerican culture human sacrifices were viewed as a repayment for the sacrifices the gods had themselves made in creating the world and the sun. This idea of repayment was especially true regarding the myth of the reptilian monster Cipactli (or Tlaltecuhtli). The great gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca ripped the creature into pieces to create the earth and sky and all other things such as mountains, rivers and springs came from her various body parts. To console the spirit of Cipactli the gods promised her human hearts and blood in appeasement. From another point of view sacrifices were a compensation to the gods for the crime which brought about mankind in Aztec mythology. In the story Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl stole bones from the Underworld and with them made the first humans so that sacrifices were a necessary apology to the gods.

Gods then were 'fed' and 'nourished' with the sacrificed blood and flesh which ensured the continued balance and prosperity of Aztec society. In Nahuatl the word for sacrifice is vemana which derives from ventli (offering) and mana 'to spread out' representing the belief that sacrifices helped in the cycle of growth and death in food, life and energy. Accordingly, meat was burnt or blood poured over the statues of deities so that the gods might partake of it directly. Perhaps the quintessential example of 'feeding' the gods were the ceremonies to ensure Tezcatlipoca, the sun god, was well-nourished so that he had the strength to raise the sun each morning.

Non-Human Sacrifices

Blood-letting and self-harm - for example, from the ears and legs using bone or maguey spines - and the burning of blood-soaked paper strips were a common form of sacrifice, as was the burning of tobacco and incense. Other types of sacrifice included the offering of other living creatures such as, deer, butterflies and snakes. In a certain sense offerings were given in sacrifice, precious objects which were willingly handed over for the gods to enjoy. In this category were foodstuffs and objects of precious metals, jade and shells which could be ritually buried. One of the most interesting such offerings was the dough images of gods (tzoalli). These were made from ground amaranth mixed with human blood and honey, with the effigy being burnt or eaten after the ritual.

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Enemies who had fought bravely or were the most handsome were considered the best candidates for sacrifice.

Preparing the Victims

With human sacrifices, the sacrificial victims were most often selected from captive warriors. Indeed, warfare was often conducted for the sole purpose of furnishing candidates for sacrifice. This was the so-called 'flowery war' (xochiyaoyotl) where indecisive engagements were the result of the Aztecs being satisfied with taking only sufficient captives for sacrifice and where the eastern Tlaxcala state was a favourite hunting-ground. Those who had fought the most bravely or were the most handsome were considered the best candidates for sacrifice and more likely to please the gods. Indeed, human sacrifice was particularly reserved for those victims most worthy and was considered a high honour, a direct communion with a god.

Another source of sacrificial victims was the ritual ball-games where the losing captain or even the entire team paid the ultimate price for defeat. Children too could be sacrificed, in particular, to honour the rain god Tlaloc in ceremonies held on sacred mountains. It was believed that the very tears of the child victims would propitiate rain. Slaves were another social group from which sacrificial victims were chosen, they could accompany their ruler in death or be given in offering by tradesmen to ensure prosperity in business.

Amongst the most honoured sacrificial victims were the god impersonators. Specially chosen individuals were dressed as a particular god before the sacrifice. In the case of the Tezcatlipoca impersonator in the ritual during Tóxcatl (the 6th or 5th month of the Aztec solar year) the victim was treated like royalty for one year prior to the sacrificial ceremony. Tutored by priests, given a female entourage and honoured with dances and flowers, the victim was the god's manifestation on earth until that final brutal moment when he met his maker. Perhaps even worse off was the impersonator of Xipe Totec who, at the climax of the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli, was skinned to honour the god who was himself known as the 'Flayed One'.

Ritual & Death

Conducted at specially dedicated temples on the top of large pyramids such as at Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan, sacrifices were most often carried out by stretching the victim over a special stone, cutting open the chest and removing the heart using an obsidian or flint knife. The heart was then placed in a stone vessel (cuauhxicalli) or in a chacmool (a stone figure carved with a recipient on their midriff) and burnt in offering to the god being sacrificed to. Alternatively, the victim could be decapitated and or dismembered. M.D.Coe suggests that this method was typically reserved for female victims who impersonated gods such as Chalchiuhtlicue but images recorded by the Spanish in various Codex do show decapitated bodies being flung down the steps of pyramids. Those sacrificed to Xipe Totec were also skinned, most probably in imitation of seeds shedding their husks.

Victims could also be sacrificed in a more elaborate process where a single victim was made to fight a gladiatorial contest against a squad of hand-picked warriors. Naturally, the victim had no possibility to survive this ordeal or even inflict any injury on his opponents as not only was he tied to a stone platform (temalacatl) but his weapon was usually a feathered club while his opponents had vicious razor-sharp obsidian swords (macuauhuitl). In another method, victims could be tied to a frame and shot with arrows or darts and in perhaps the worst method of all, the victim was repeatedly thrown into a fire and then had his heart removed.

After the sacrifice, the heads of victims could be displayed in racks (tzompantli), depictions of which survive in stone architectural decoration, notably at Tenochtitlán. The flesh of those sacrificed was also, on occasion, eaten by the priests conducting the sacrifice and by members of the ruling elite or warriors who had themselves captured the victims.

Aztec Sacrifices

What would you do to ensure a good crop yield? Fertilize the soil and water, ensure no pests gobble them up and rip up any pesky weeds?

What if I were to tell you some folks would rip out your heart and offer it to their Gods so that the crops do well?

Enter the Aztecs they believed they owed everything to the gods who created them as well the world around them.

The Aztecs didn’t break any ground by performing such acts they were just another in a long tradition of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica.

They would perform ritual sacrifices to ensure good crop yield, good weather, or just in honor of the Gods.

Now you’re probably thinking “but wait why to do something so disgusting to appease the Gods?” This most likely goes back to the Aztec “Legend of the Five Suns” wherein the Gods sacrificed themselves so that humanity could live.

So it’s not a stretch to think the Aztecs felt they were indebted to the Gods for their sacrifice and thus only thought it right to give back to them.

Animal sacrifice and Self-Sacrifice were also quite prevalent for example, the Cult of Quetzalcoatl required the sacrifice of butterflies and hummingbirds, and they bred Dogs, Jaguars, Deer, and Eagles for slaughter. (I hope all dogs go to Heaven.)

The Self-Sacrifice consisted of offering the thorns of an Agave Plant tainted with the persons own blood, blood from the earlobes and even genitals! (That’s going to be a NO from me dog…)

This may sound crazy to we modern folks, but the Aztecs truly believed that the offering of human and animal blood was the best way to repay the Gods they revered so profoundly.

These offerings were not always outright slayings sometimes they would just cut themselves and offer the shed blood to the gods.

Archaeologists estimate that a few thousand people were sacrificed each year, some members of the Aztec community, some prisoners of war.

The Aztecs would capture enemies in battle, and take them back to their temples where the soldiers were forced to ascend the long stairways to be sacrificed by being cut open throat to the stomach by a Priest and the heart removed as an offering.

the bodies were then pushed down to stairs to be dismembered or simply carried off depending on the ritual.

The Aztecs were not the only people to practice human sacrifice it was practiced by many across the world as a way to appease the gods and avoid disaster, or other reasons.

But no amount of sacrifice could save the Aztecs from the Spaniards. We all know how that turned out.

The History of the Aztecs on their Terms: A Q&A with NEH Public Scholar Camilla Townsend

Though priests staged acts of human sacrifice in Tenochtitlan’s temples, the city is better characterized by its vast markets, advanced infrastructure, and complex inhabitants.

Detail of Codex Mendoza, MS. Arch. Selden. A. 1, folio 2r, Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (2020)

Portrayals of the Aztecs often center on violence, including their practice of human sacrifice and their apocalyptic demise at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. NEH Public Scholar Camilla Townsend sees these narratives as an oversimplification. “The Aztecs,” she notes, “would never recognize themselves” in the brutal images spread by modern books and movies. In reality, their society was home to artisans and chroniclers who developed an unusually rich culture. Townsend’s recent book, Fifth Sun: a New History of the Aztecs , presents the members of this society in a more nuanced light. Based on the Aztecs’ own records, it depicts their intricate world and the individuals (like the famous female translator “La Malinche”) who lived there. “In the annals,” she writes, “we can hear the Aztecs. They sing, laugh, and yell. It turns out that the world they lived in cannot be characterized as naturally morbid or vicious, even though certain moments were.”

I reached out to Camilla Townsend to further discuss her project.

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Courtesy of Oxford University Press

The Aztecs believed that their gods destroyed four previous universes, or suns, and created them with the fifth (hence your book’s title). What were the Aztecs’ true origins?

The Aztecs actually called themselves the Mexica (Me-SHEE-ka), and they came from what is today the American Southwest. Because of a common origin, the Mexica language shares features with those of the Hopi and the Utes. The Mexica people migrated gradually, over the course of about 200 years, and eventually settled on an island, called Tenochtitlan, in the middle of a great lake that existed in the central valley of Mexico.

Tenochtitlan became the center of the sprawling Aztec empire, but people often associate the city with the human sacrifice performed in its temples. What other aspects of Tenochtitlanand Aztec societywould you like to see emphasized instead?

You’re right that Tenochtitlan is known for being the site of human sacrifice. The movie Apocalypto, for instance, although filmed in a Mayan language, revolves around this stereotyped view. I wish more people understood that Aztec human sacrifice was promoted by a small class of priests at the height of the empire’s power. Most people spent their time very differently: not killing, but creating–the Aztecs were a population of artisans.

Eventually, Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico and seized Tenochtitlan. What factors enabled them to succeed in their conquest? What resistance did the Aztecs mount?

The Aztecs mounted a fierce military defense against the Spaniards. They fought successfully for months. Sadly for them, however, their ancestors had only been sedentary farmers for a few millennia, whereas Old World cultures had been farmers for ten thousand years. As a result, the Europeans (and the Chinese, as an aside) had large ships, compasses, printing presses, metal armor, canons, gunpowder, flour mills, barrel-making establishments, etc.–all that they needed to defeat the Aztecs, despite the latter’s bravery and brilliant strategizing.

After Spanish contact, the Aztecs feared cultural and historical erasure. How did they differentiate themselves from their conquerors? Did they choose to adopt parts of Spanish culture anyway?

After the conquest, the Aztecs did indeed fear erasure. The scholars among the Aztecs worked hard to document their history and way of life, and they were determined not to disappear as though they had never lived. For many years, the sources these scholars wrote weren’t read widely beyond their own communities, but today that is changing. Their writings teach us that, although the Aztecs rejected some of what the Spaniards had brought with them, they loved other elements: they preferred candles to their own traditional torches, for instance, and were delighted by the idea of keeping their private belongings in boxes with locks!

As they conquered Tenochtitlan, the Spanish brought not only their lock-boxes and candles, but also their political rivalries. In 1529, Nuño de Guzmán (above, with cross) challenged the authority of Hernán Cortés, an original conquistador, over the formerly-Aztec land.

Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 44r, Photo: FAMSI, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2020)

I want to shift to part of what makes your work so unique: your sources. What sources did you use for this project, and why have they been neglected?

I chose not to rely on the typical sources: statements made by the Spaniards and silent archaeological remains. Instead, I mined the writings of the Aztecs themselves. These writings have been ignored because they were written in the Aztec language of Nahuatl (NAH-wat), and relatively few scholars ever study indigenous languages. Though there are more than a million living speakers of Nahuatl in Mexico today, the vast majority of them are impoverished rural people who do not have the luxury of researching and writing books. Moreover, in the public schools, the Nahuatl-speaking children learn to read in Spanish and not Nahuatl. Still, many native Nahuatl speakers are currently engaged in revitalizing their language. I expect that in the not-so-distant future, one of them will write a book that is better than mine.

Each chapter opens with an imaginative vignette constructed from these indigenous sources. What do you hope these stories achieve? Which is your favorite?

I open the chapters with these vignettes because I want readers to care about these people. Yet it’s important to note that these vignettes are not flights of fancy: Every one of them is based on careful research. I’m not sure which one is my favorite. But I will say that it was a powerful experience to write about Tecuichpotzin (Tek-weech-PO-tzeen), the daughter of Moctezuma, lying on her sleeping mat, sick with the new disease of smallpox and facing her own death. Her story feels especially harrowing during the covid-19 pandemic.

You also include numerous Nahuatl words in the book’s text. Why is it important that the reader engage with the Aztecs’ original tongue?

This was a subject of some discussion between me, early readers, and the book’s editor. The problem is that foreign words can alienate readers. On the other hand, if I didn’t use them, then readers would never get to know the Aztecs’ world in terms they would have understood. For example, the Nahuatl word “altepetl” literally means “water-mountain,” but it was the Aztecs’ term for a community, whether a small town or a wider state, because each needed a water supply and a lookout point.

Courtesy of Rutgers University, School of Arts and Sciences

Fifth Sun closes with an annotated guide to its indigenous sources, allowing readers to investigate on their own. As a public scholar, how do you understand your responsibility towards the Aztecs and an audience eager to see them in a new light?

As a public scholar, I consider it my duty to try to demystify knowledge. It isn’t true that anybody can easily become an expert in anything–it takes time and energy–but I do think it is important that readers understand what kinds of information an expert has access to, as well as the opportunity to take a look themselves. If readers do choose to dig further, it will be easier for them to figure out whom to believe regarding controversial topics. This is why I include a detailed appendix, explaining to readers what each of the surviving Nahuatl-language histories includes, and where it is located.

In the case of this book, I hope I have convinced my readers that it isn’t just my “opinion” that the Aztecs were kinder and funnier than we have wanted to believe–rather, that there is real and accessible evidence for that view.

Lastly, with this book finished, what’s next?

Right now, I’m working with the papers of a particular indigenous family who lived in Mexico in the late 1600s. One of them started a remarkable family record book that was maintained for several generations, and we have various other documents as well: Wills, baptismal records, tax payments, etc. With these, scholars can, for the first time, actually get to know an ordinary Native American family in the colonial period.

I’m not sure what comes after that project. I have so many things I’d like to do, but I’m no longer young, so I have to think realistically about what I can accomplish. Ask me again in a year!

Camilla Townsend received a Public Scholars award ( FZ-256395-17 ) to support her work on Fifth Sun: a New History of the Aztecs (Oxford University Press, 2019). She is Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University.

The Public Scholars program supports well-researched books in the humanities written for the general public. For more information on the NEH Public Scholars program, or to apply, see the program’s resource page . Contact @email with questions.

Human Sacrifice Rituals

Aztec human sacrifice was an elaborate ritual and an almost standard procedure. The person to be sacrificed was taken to the top of the temple and laid on a stone slab by four priests.

Often the person to be sacrificed was drugged in order to eliminate any resistance. On the stone slab, the abdomen of the victim would be sliced open by a fifth priest using a special ceremonial knife.

The heart of the victim was torn out while still beating. It would be placed in a bowl and the body thrown down the temple stairs.

The Nahua Religion and the evolution of sacrifice

One of the main aspects of the Aztec religion (also practiced by many other Nahua tribes) was the relentless hunger of the gods. Blood and hearts, in particular, were prized gifts to the gods. Blood was important as the god Quetzalcoatl was said to have cut himself in several places and the blood gave life to man.

Hearts were said to hold a fraction of the sun&rsquos warmth and power as well as being the seat of the soul. The sun was never taken for granted by the Aztecs either. In fact, the sun we all know and love today was considered to be the fifth in a cycle of dying and reborn suns. So keeping the sun rising was of paramount importance to the Aztecs

From here we can see how understandable it would be to go down the route of sacrifice. common sacrifices involved self-mutilation as simple as biting one&rsquos tongue until blood could drip to the ground for the god&rsquos enjoyment. Of course, the blood draining from a murdered victim was worth far more.

With all that&rsquos going on here, it might be hard to notice the heart that is soaring through the air, a representation of its power reuniting with the sun. Wikipedia

Furthermore, the practice of ripping out a still-beating heart was meant to be a way to reunite the little fraction of the sun&rsquos power back to the sun to keep it going. This return of the heart&rsquos heat to the sun was likely why sacrifices took place atop the highest towers and why sacrifices mainly involved the most expeditious removal of a still beating heart. The efficiency of the sacrifice was important.

Given the power of blood, combat was seen as a type of sacrifice in its own right. The bloodshed in battle would please the gods, but also the blood of prized prisoners of war would be a sacrifice that would make the gods notice. Combat was so revered that the Aztecs arranged &ldquoflower wars&rdquo with others following the religion.

A ceremonial Macuahuitl recreation, these were used on the battlefield and for some sacrifices. Wikipedia

Meeting at a set place and time, two equally sized armies packed with members of royal families would meet. Traditional ranged weapons were discarded and the weapon of choice was an obsidian-bladed club, the Macuahuitl, causing guaranteed blood-loss.

Death in a flower war was the epitome of a good death (the same &ldquogood death for women was through childbirth), but capturing a powerful enemy was nearly as good. The Aztecs did bully and sack towns of the Tlaxcalans, but the flower wars were always an equal and respected tradition until the arrival of Cortez.

Aztec human sacrifice was a bloody, fascinating mess

The common consensus—outside academic circles, at least—is that the Aztec empire, like most indigenous American nations, crumbled under the combined force of colonial subjugation and imported European diseases. And while these factors certainly played substantial roles in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, another theory considers a fascinating aspect of Aztec society: human sacrifice.

And few things fascinate anthropologists and archaeologists, amateur and professional, than ritualistic slaughter. It can’t be helped. It’s the very same morbid appeal that HLN true-crime documentaries capitalize on. Death—the weirder, the better—is always enthralling.

For decades, historians were skeptical of Spanish accounts documenting Aztec human-sacrifice rituals. They were generally thought to be historiographical—intended to portray indigenous Mesoamericans as more savage than they actually were, thus necessitating “civilized” colonial governance. This was, after all, a common justification employed throughout the 500 or so years of European colonialism around the world.

But archaeological evidence suggests human sacrifice was indeed a regular aspect of Aztec religious practices. And the zeal with which it was practiced can be traced back to the political reforms of one man—imperial vizier Tlacaelel, who, in 1428, launched a campaign of religious codification, military development, and territorial expansion that would, for lack of a better term, really piss off the Aztec’s neighbors.

It all began with a restructuring of the Aztec pantheon. Tlacaelel elevated Huitzilopochtli, god of sun and war, to a Zeus-like position of preeminence—appropriate, considering the Aztecs’ push toward militarism at the time.

According to Aztec beliefs, Huitzilopochtli required regular nourishment (tlaxcaltiliztli) in the form of freshly harvested human hearts. As so-called “people of the sun,” the Aztecs were uniquely mandated to provide their patron deity with this bloody sustenance—more often than not sourced from people who were not “of the sun,” so to speak. It was a kind of cultural exceptionalism that not only lent the Aztecs an inherent, ethnic superiority, but directly victimized their neighbors, specifically the Tlaxcala people, who provided the lion’s share of sacrifice-able bodies for Aztec sun-god worship.

“[Tlacaelel’s] plan was to consolidate Aztec or Mexicatl grandeur,” says Antonio Serrato-Combe, a professor of archaeology at the University of Utah’s school of architecture, in an email to Quartz. Part of Tlacaelel’s reforms included expeditions into neighboring communities to “find individuals who were to be sacrificed,” he adds. “Obviously these communities were unhappy by the practice.”

This resentment, Serrato-Combe confirms, was fully exploited by Hernán Cortés.

Cortés, the notorious conquistador responsible for ultimately toppling the Aztec empire and bringing much of modern-day Mexico under Spanish control, forged an alliance with Tlaxcala and a few other neighboring groups in the early 16th century. Tlaxcala leaders quickly converted to Christianity, and provided 250,000 warriors to the siege of Tenochtitlan.

In a 2011 article written for History Today magazine, historian Tim Stanley wrote:

“[The Aztecs were] a culture obsessed with death: they believed that human sacrifice was the highest form of karmic healing. When the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan was consecrated in 1487 the Aztecs recorded that 84,000 people were slaughtered in four days. Self-sacrifice was common and individuals would pierce their ears, tongues and genitals to nourish the floors of temples with their blood. Unsurprisingly, there is evidence that Mexico was already suffering from a demographic crisis before the Spanish arrived.”

That number is disputed, however. Some say as few as 4,000 were sacrificed during what was actually a re-consecration of the Templo Mayor in 1487. Nevertheless, scores were killed. And perhaps there is some merit to the idea that, in obsessing over death and an imminent apocalypse, the Aztecs sealed their own fate.

The story of the rise and fall of the Aztecs highlights some intriguing problems with the ways we, in the post-Columbian Americas, attempt to understand our geographic predecessors. When speaking of Aztec sacrifice culture, many anthropologists are quick to resort to culturally relativistic justifications. Some insist only prisoners of war met these particularly gruesome fates, though archaeological findings suggest women and children were not entirely exempt from the practice.

This line of reasoning ultimately depicts Aztec customs as untouchable and requiring massive context. In doing so, it revives the trope of the “noble savage,” the idealized aborigine, whose manners and customs—in direct contradiction to colonialist rationalizations—were actually purer, less easily corruptible than those of the West.

There’s no use denying it: Aztec sacrifice was a bloody, messy, brutal affair. There was nothing noble about it.

And this means the Aztecs weren’t all that different from any other regionally dominant culture. They lived parasitically off of their weaker neighbors, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Persians and Mongols, and the Vikings and Normans did. They engaged in what we, in the modern West, think to be crude or morbid practices—largely because they were—but which, outside of culturally specific contexts, differ little from the brutalities of Christian crusaders or Hunnish hordes. All of human history has been an exercise in human savagery. You could say the Aztecs, with their vividly violent codices, were just more honest and upfront about it.

Herein lies a majorpoint of contention among modern archaeologists and anthropologists. At one end of the spectrum, you have the fetishists: those who intensely scrutinize a single aspect of a given culture—usually its most obviously distinctive—and inflate it to the point of definitiveness. In this case, that the Aztecs sacrificed people, and were therefore a “death-obsessed” culture.

At the other end, you have the militant cultural relativists who, no matter how demonstrably unusual or violent a practice may be, conflate critical thinking with moralistic judgment, becoming rote collectors of archaeological information, if not unintentional perpetuators of the “noble savagery” stereotype.

The Aztecs are a fascinating civilization for many reasons, a taste for human sacrifice being unquestionably among them. Understanding them as a “death-obsessed” culture, as Mr. Stanely does, is objectifying. But framing sacrifice as nothing more than “delayed casualties of war” is similarly overly simplistic—politically correct to a fault. It denies the fact that sacrificial-worship culture was a component of Mesoamerican civilization at the time, and a distinctive one at that!

There’s a lot to learn from the Aztecs and neighboring cultures. It would be a shame to let those lessons go to waste—all because we’re too blinded by morbid curiosities, or overkill of academic methodologies. Instead, let’s allow ourselves to be truly, rightly fascinated.

Aztec Temples

Essentially, Aztec temples were used for offerings. They were solid, pyramid-like structures that held a variety of objects such as, special soils, sacrifices, and treasures. They also contained sacred relics and images of the gods, hidden behind veils and curtains hung with bells and feathers.

There were also buildings around the base of the pyramid, or a chamber underneath of it. In this chamber, the Aztecs would often store ritual items and provide lodging for priests, dancers, and temple orchestras.

In front of every major temple was a large plaza that occasionally was the place for rituals, but it also served for worshippers and dancers. Nobility either sat on an elevated platform under the plazas awnings, or they conducted part of the ceremonies on the temple.

The temples were decorated for festivals. There was a flat surface to accommodate dancers, while another slab was for sacrificial purposes.

© haRee - Temple at Teotihuacan

Assorted References

Perhaps the most highly elaborated aspect of Aztec culture was the religious system. The Aztec derived much of their religious ideology from the earlier cultures of Meso-America or from their contemporaries. This was particularly true during the final phase of their history, when…

Mesoamerican religion is a complex syncretism of indigenous beliefs and the Christianity of early Roman Catholic missionaries. A hierarchy of indigenous supernatural beings (some benign, others not) have been reinterpreted as Christian deities and saints. Mountain and water spirits are appeased at special altars in sacred…

Aztec religion was syncretistic, absorbing elements from many other Mesoamerican cultures. At base, it shared many of the cosmological beliefs of earlier peoples, notably the Maya, such as that the present earth was the last in a series of creations and that it occupied a…

The concheros’ claim to an Aztec heritage is given considerable credence despite some Spanish mixture.

Included are the Aztec of Mexico, the Maya of Central America, and the Inca of Peru.

The Aztec culture, successor of earlier civilizations, together with the associated Maya culture, laid great emphasis on astronomical observation and on a complex religious calendar. Important were the high god Ometecuhtli, the morning star Quetzalcóatl, and the various legends woven round Tezcatlipoca, patron of warriors, who…

…also occurred in the pre-Columbian Mexican calendrical ritual in association with human sacrifice on a grand scale. In the May Festival in honour of the war god Huitzilopochtli, an image of the deity was fashioned from a dough containing beet seed, maize, and honey then the image was covered with…

…in the rite of the Aztec maize goddess Chicomecóatl. A virgin chosen to represent Chicomecóatl, after having danced for 24 hours, was then sacrificed and flayed. The celebrant, dressed in her skin, reenacted the same ritual dance to identify with the victim, who was viewed as the goddess.


The Aztec of Mexico and the Inca of Peru worshiped gods of fire with sacred flames, which the Inca ignited by concentrating the Sun’s rays with a concave metallic mirror.

…of victims annually in the Aztec and Nahua calendrical maize (corn) ritual. The Inca confined wholesale sacrifices to the occasion of the accession of a ruler. The burning of children seems to have occurred in Assyrian and Canaanite religions and at various times among the Israelites. Among the African

What Were Aztec Sacrifices Ritual Actually Like?

They were religious events first. The Aztecs believed that their gods got their sustenance from human sacrifice and one of the basic duties of Religion is caring for your gods. The most important of these sacrifices were carried out during the 18 monthly festivals of the Solar Year.

One of these, to give you an example, was the Tlacaxipehualiztli, the Festival of the Flaying of Men, celebrated at spring equinox before the rainy season, one of the most brutal and complex.

We know about it thanks to the notes of the Spanish monk Bernardino de Sahagun, who in the 16th century interviewed old Aztec men who were still alive in pre-spanish Mexico and recounted how this festival was held in the Aztec capital:

40 days (or maybe even a year) before the festival, a captive (from war) was designated to impersonate the god Xipe Totec (Our Flayed Lord), and he was celebrated in public as living image of the God until the Festival.

He was taught courtly manners, walking about the city playing a flute, smoking tobacco and being praised by the people and the Tlatoani (the leader).

He was even wed to four young maidens representing goddesses. There were similar representants for other important gods (Tonatiuh, Huitzilopochtli, Quetzalcoatl, Chililico and so forth).

These slaves-gods were to be sacrificed on the main pyramid by cutting out the heart. There were six sacrifice-priests who cut open the slaves breast with an Obsidian knife and then cut out the heart.

After that, the corpses were rolled down the pyramids stairs. The corpses were then flayed and their flesh given to important Aztecs. Moteuczuma would have gotten the best part, the femur. The flesh was then eaten.

Other captives would be clothed in the skin of the flayed corpses and adorned with the ornaments those killed earlier wore as &ldquogods&rdquo.

They were paraded through the city by their captors, and finally, on the next day, fought in mock combat against Eagle- or Jaguar-wariors (they only had a mock sword with feathers instead of obsidian).

Once the captive was beaten down, he was sacrificed by a priest wearing the vestments of Xipe Totec.

His heart and blood from his chest was then presented to the sun. The captor would take that blood, and walk around the city to the statues of the gods, feeding them by painting their lips with blood.

The captives corpse was then brought to his captors house, flayed, and cut up, his flesh given away and eaten.

However, there was a special link between captor and captive, and the captor wouldn&rsquot eat of the flesh of his captive.

Poor or sick people would walk through the streets, wearing the skins of the sacrificed, begging.

For twenty days, the priests, too, would wear the flayed skins, often adorned with gold and feathers, until the next festival (Tozoztli) approached.

The skins were then stored in special containers in a cave in the Xipe-Totec temple.

There were certainly festival-like elements, but the main events were very ritualized and everyone involved hat a part to play and knew what to do.

Even the captives were probably not struggling against their fate, but from what I&rsquove read, walked to the place of their sacrifice willingly, and played their part in the choreography.

Why Did the Aztecs Sacrifice Humans?

The Aztecs sacrificed humans because they believed that without the sustenance of human life-blood, the sun would fail and the world would end. Their gods had sacrificed themselves to bring the world into existence, so humanity must continue the sacrifices to ensure the world remained sustained.

The Aztecs were, in many ways, an apocalyptic civilization, believing that light and darkness were in a constant struggle and that at any moment the sun could lose the fight. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, every 52 years, all lights were extinguished and people waited, breathless and terrified, for the Pleiades to reappear in the sky. When this happened, fires were re-lit and sacrifices resumed to provide extra energy to the gods fighting to maintain the world.

Watch the video: Aztec Sacrifice