Of Gods And Blood: Aztec Religion And Human Sacrifice

CULTURE | December 12, 2019

An Aztec Temple. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Aztec Empire was one of the most sophisticated civilizations in world history. They were magnificent engineers and mathematicians. They composed elaborate poetry, had excellent medical knowledge for the time, and were the first civilization to implement universal compulsory education. Yet the Aztecs had a dark side that has often overshadowed these significant achievements -- the spectacle of mass human sacrifice.

While many cultures throughout the world have historically sacrificed human beings as part of their religious beliefs, the Aztecs are the most famous.

Be cautioned that this article will contain some unsettling accounts.

Map of the Aztec Empire. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 13th century A.D., the people that would form the Aztec Empire settled in the Valley of Mexico. The empire, forged from a so-called Triple Alliance of three city-states, solidified and expanded its power so that by the 15th century it dominated most of Central Mexico and had to influence throughout other areas of Mesoamerica.

The god Tonatiuh. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The Aztecs were polytheistic, worshipping up two 200 divinities. The many gods were divided into broad categories. Life was represented by Ometeotl (literally “two-god”) a male-female pair that created the gods and Tezcatlipoca an all-powerful divinity that controlled fate. Another category was agriculture which included Tlaloc a god of thunder, rain, and fertility, and Centeotl the god of maize. There were also numerous gods of war.

Aztec mythology tells that the gods cast themselves into a fire to create the sun and bled themselves to create humanity. The motif of the sun is worth pausing on since it figures such a prominent place in Aztec beliefs. Aztec mythology states that we are living in the age of the fifth sun, that is that there were four suns before our current one and that each was in turn destroyed by various cataclysms including jaguars, hurricanes, flood, and fiery rain. Each sun age was presided over by a different god with the current age overseen by the sun god Tonatiuh ("He who goes forth shining"). It was foretold that the fifth age would end with earthquakes.  

Victim of sacrificial gladiatorial combat, from Codex Magliabechiano. Source: (Wikipedia)

To forestall the end of the world, the Aztecs depended on their priests to act as an intermediary between them and the world of the gods. It was believed that their rituals would preserve the universe and were of the utmost importance. Human sacrifice was central to this.

Human sacrifice figured in almost every Aztec religious ceremony. Almost all victims were captured warriors, taken in battle. At the height of Aztec power, they agreed to fight so-called “Flower Wars” with a rival state, the Tlaxcalans agreeing to capture as many warriors as possible rather than kill them. This was a matter of prestige for Aztec warriors, the more captives one took, the greater one’s status. Many captives were ultimately sacrificed.

Victims were sacrificed in a variety of ways. The Toxcatl ceremony, for example, figured a sacrifice wandering the streets of Tenochtitlan for a year impersonating the god Tezcatlipoca attended by four women impersonating goddesses before he was ritually killed. Others would be sacrificed in gladiatorial-style combat, others would be drowned, some burnt, or other sacrificed from the results of a traditional Meso-American ballgame, ōllamaliztli.

Human sacrifice as shown in the Codex Magliabechiano. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The most infamous type of human sacrifice was the heart sacrifice which took place at the Templo Mayor, the Great Pyramid in Tenochtitlan which contained a temple to Huitzilopochtli and another to Tlaloc. The victim would be paraded about the streets in ritual dress then led up the steps of the pyramid to a platform. On the platform, the sacrifice-to-be was laid on his back on a stone platform or table. The priest cut open the victim’s chest with a flint knife and removed the still-throbbing heart. The body was then cast down the steps of the pyramid while a priest held the heart up to the sun so that the spirit of the victim may go to the sun god. The body would be taken and dismembered for ritual cannibalization. Estimates vary as to the number of victims the Aztecs sacrificed with one number ranging of over 80,000 during the reconsecration of Great Pyramid in 1487 in a four day period. This figure has been dismissed as being far exaggerated with better estimates being a more conservative, but still high 4,000.

Aztec calendar stone. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

All these rituals and ceremonies were driven by the Aztec calendar. The Aztecs had two calendars. A 365-day solar calendar of 18, 20 day months with five left over and a 260-day ritual calendar. The complex ritual calendar worked through a thirteen-day cycle which ascribed one of twenty glyphs representing animals, ideas, and the like to the number. It amounted to twenty months of 13 days. This system was used for divination purposes and was tracked by the priests. The solar calendar and the ritual calendar only reached the same starting point every 52 years. This amounted to an Aztec “century” or calendar round and was extremely important to their religion.

Representation of a new fire ceremony. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Aztecs believed that the end of the fifth sun age could only occur at the end of a 52-year cycle. Therefore, every 52 years, the Aztecs would enact the Toxhiuhmolpilia or New Fire ceremony also called the Binding of the Years Ceremony. To the Aztecs, if the ritual failed, it would mean quite literally the end of the world.

The ceremony was presided by Xiuhtecuhtli the Turquoise Lord, the God of Fire. All fires throughout the empire were put out, the streets swept clean, and old utensils, clothes, and the like were thrown away. Pregnant women were confined to granaries with painted faces under the assumption that this would prevent them from transforming into monsters. Children too had their faces painted in order to prevent them from turning into mice. All grew dark as the Aztecs turned their attention to the sacred Mount Uixachtecatl where the priests waited till midnight to undergo the most sacred ceremony. When the time came, a priest, in the garb of Xiuhtecuhtli slew a victim by cutting out his heart. The priests then started a fire in the victim’s chest cavity using a sacred fire stick. If all was well, the fire would start and the world would not end. If it did not go well then monsters would attack and devour humanity.

The ceremony was always successful. To make it known, the Aztec priests then lit a large pyre from which fires throughout Tenochtitlan would be lit. With the calendar reset, parties and celebrations followed.

From the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, an Aztec cosmological drawing with the god Xiuhtecuhtli, the lord of fire, and the calendar in the center with the other important gods around him each in front of a sacred tree. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Aztec religion ended after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The Spaniard conquistadors often used the sacrifices which they witnessed to justify the brutal subjugation of the Aztecs. Aztec human sacrifice has been explained by modern scholars in a variety of contexts. Some believe that it was a form of population control. Others contend that it was used as a political tool to intimidate those states that were subordinate to Tenochtitlan. Yet perhaps the most direct explanation was that it was their belief system to perform these sacrifices to prevent the end of the world.

Tags: Aztec Religion

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