Who Were the Aztecs?
The Aztecs were an agricultural people living in Mexico from 1300 to 1521 CE. Religiously, the Aztecs were polytheistic for they believed in a pantheon of major and minor deities for whom temples were constructed. They had a fascination with the sun which they evidently incorporated into their mythologies, one of which was their creation story.
The Aztecs had, by all accounts, a rather gruesome creation story in which the power of blood and human sacrifices were central (1). This included myths of the creation of the world, of human beings, and purpose in life.
According to this story, the gods had created and destroyed four earlier eras. In the fifth era the god of the wind, Quetzalcoatl, and his trickster brother, Tezcatlipoca, tore a goddess (or god in some accounts) Tlaltecuhtli in half to make a new heaven and Earth. From Tlaltecuhtli’s body sprouted everything that was necessary for the life of human beings such as grass, flowers, trees, wells, valleys, and mountains. However, this caused the goddess great pain, and she howled through the night demanding the sacrifice of human hearts to sustain her. Further cosmic creation acts followed that all required sacrifice or blood offerings. One relief presents the first stars beings born from the blood flowing from Quetzalcoatl’s tongue after he had pierced it. Most notably, the creation of the fifth sun required one of the gods to cast himself into a funeral pyre. Two more gods, Tecuciztecatl and Nanahuatzin became the sun and Tecuciztecatl the moon god respectively, while the other gods offered their hearts in order to make the new (fifth) sun move across the sky. According to this myth, the Aztecs were bound by a blood debt to their gods due to these acts of creation that could never be repaid. The god Quetzalcoatl then descended to the underworld and retrieved the bones of former humans from the previous four eras. The gods ground these bones into a meal flour, and then let their own blood drip onto it to create a new race of people. These people could now satisfy the gods’ own need for blood. According to scholar Patricia R. Anawalt,
“The Aztecs of Mexico carried a heavy spiritual burden. They felt responsible for the continuation of the universe because they were the children of the sun. The Aztecs believed, as did most ancient people, that the gods created their world and the birth of the sun was the most important act. Already there had been four previous suns’- worlds- and each had perished” (2).
Accordingly, blood and human sacrifice to the Aztecs meant that blood could be used to appease the gods as to persuade them to not bring an end to the present age, that of the fifth sun. They also believed that the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, was engaged in an ongoing battle with darkness and that he needed to strength through blood in order for the sun to continue in its cycle. The continued existence of the world was, to an Aztec, very tenuous and in need of frequent support through blood sacrifice (3).
Blood Offerings and Human Sacrifices
Offerings to the gods took place through self-inflicted bloodletting (“autosacrifice”) and human sacrifice. Nobles, for example, felt that being able to shed their own blood for the gods was in fact an honour. The process included the use of obsidian knives, stingray spines, and the sharp spines of the maguey plant to penetrate the skin, which could be drawn from the shin, knee, elbow, tongue, ear, or foreskin. Anawalt explains,
“Blood was required at some point in the endless ceremonial round from every man, woman and child. Even babies made their reverent offering… the priests drew blood from the ear lobes of the girl babies, but from the little boys the sacred fluid came from “the virile member.” Adults drew blood from the fleshy parts of their bodies – earlobes, tongues, thighs, upper arms, chests, or genitals. Sharp maguey thorns were the most common instruments of autosacrifice, although occasionally cords or reeds containing sharp thorns were passed through the wounds. The Aztec priests, who constantly practiced autosacrifice, are often pictured with a smear of blood from the temple down in front of the ear” (4).
Regarding human sacrifice, those sacrificed and offered to the gods were often prisoners of war. Sometimes when in combat, the Aztec warriors would attempt to capture victims, rather than kill them, in order to ensure a bountiful supply of offerings. These sacrifices were a gruesome process that involved the cutting out of a person’s heart from his or her body (5). The heart was significant because it was believed to be a fragment of the sun’s energy and therefore in some way connected to it. To remove the heart from the victim was to return the energy to its source. Four priests would hold the victim down on a stone slab located in the temple, and a fifth would perform the cutting and then offer it, still beating, to the gods. The offering would be made in a vessel called a Cuauhxicalli (“eagle gourd bowl”), and the victim’s body was then rolled down the stairs to the stone terrace at the base. There the head would be removed as where sometimes the arms and legs. Skulls were displayed on a skull rack.
What Does Archaeology Show?
Human and blood sacrifice was not limited to the Aztecs. The Aztecs certainly did not invent the custom and evidence suggests the practice to go back to at least 5000 BCE. However, it is the Aztecs whose practices have been arguably the most widely and well documented (6). According to some sources, notably those composed by Spanish conquistadors who saw the sites themselves, the scale of sacrifice was extensive. In 1487 CE, around 80 400 victims were said to have been sacrificed at the re-dedication of the Aztec temple of Huitzilopochtli, although a more modest estimate is around 20 000,
“One figure reported was 80,400 sacrificed in four days. For a city of 200,000 this seems impossible. A smaller estimate comes from Codex Telleriano-Remensis, presently in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Utilizing pictographic numerators – the incense bags each represent 8,000; the pine tree symbols are each 400 – the total is 20,000” (7).
According to a source composed by the conquistador, Andrea de Tapia, upon arriving in the Aztec capital, the Spanish saw 136 000 heads placed upon a skull rack. Although such a number, and others like it, is treated with suspicion given the Spanish had many reasons for exaggerating Aztec practice (which could have ranged from wishing to present the Aztecs in a negative light to justifying Spanish conquest), archaeological evidence does indeed support this to be a reality within the Aztec empire (8). For example, a pre-hispanic stone model of a skull rack can be found in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, and archaeologists have unearthed skulls perforated for stringing on poles (which tends to be far less than the 136 000 figure). Blood and human sacrifices were clearly a common religious custom for the Aztecs, and it stood in as a display of power, divine authority, and a warning to others what would happen if they rebelled against Aztec rule. The Aztec civilization came to an end when the Spanish, under the leadership of Hernan Cortes, captured Tenochtitlan in 1521 CE.
1. Ambalu, Shulamit. 2013. The Religions Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
2. Anawalt, Patricia. 1982. “Understanding Aztec Human Sacrifice.” Archaeology 35(5): 38-45. p. 43.
3. Anawalt, Patricia. 1982. Ibid. p. 38.
4. Anawalt, Patricia. 1982. Ibid. p. 44.
5. Graulich, Michel. 2000. “Aztec Human Sacrifice as Expiation.” History of Religions 39(4): 352-371. p. 353.
6. Anawalt, Patricia. 1982. Ibid.
7. Anawalt, Patricia. 1982. Ibid. p. 45.
8. The Guardian. 2015. Aztec skull trophy rack discovered at Mexico City’s Templo Mayor ruin site. Available; Wade, Lizzie. 2018. Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital. Available.