Did the Aztecs really practice human sacrifice?

6:55 PM

Yes they did. And they were really cruel.

The Aztec civilization which flourished in Mesoamerica between 1345 and 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. The Aztec gods and goddesses also required the living hearts of humans for nourishment. All hearts were good, but the bravest captives were considered to be particularly nourishing to the Aztec gods.

Their chief god was Huitzilpochtli (the Hummingbird Wizard) who represented the sun, the warrior, and fought the Aztecs' battles with the other gods to ensure the Aztecs' survival. Huitzilpochtli needed food to nourish him so he could continue to fight. His preferred food was human blood. In order to keep feeding Huitzilpochtli, the Aztecs warred continuously. Their army was of the utmost importance, and they had several different factions of warriors. The Knights of the Eagle and the Knights of the Jaguar were two such bodies of troops. These were the men who went forth to capture suitable human sacrifices. 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.

The killing was bloody. The most important place where sacrifices occurred was the Huey Teocalli, the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) of Tenochtitlan. Here a specialized priest with a sharp sharp knife removed the heart (by cutting below the chest) from the victim and the body was thrown down the steps of the pyramid, while his head was cut off and placed on the tzompantli, or skull rack. However, not all sacrifices took place on top of pyramids. In some cases mock-battles were organized between the victim and a priest, where the priest fought with real weapons and the victim, tied to a stone or a wooden frame, fought with wooden or feathered ones. Children sacrificed to Tlaloc were often carried to the god’s sanctuaries on top of the mountains that surround Tenochtitlan and the Basin of Mexico in order to be offered to the god. Those sacrificed to Xipe Totec were also skinned, most probably in imitation of seeds shedding their husks.

Estimates suggest 20,000 people a year were sacrificed by the Aztec royalty. 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.

Top images: Aztec human skulls with decorated with the mosaics

A jaguar-shaped cuauhxicalli.
This altar-like stone vessel was used to hold the hearts of sacrificial victims.

Tecpatl obsidian sacrificial knife, Aztec

Mosaic ceremonial knife

Aztec zoomorphic death whistle, click on image to listen

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