The practice of human sacrifice was a very prevalent in the ancient cultures of the Mesoamerican region. While practiced by smaller civilizations, the Aztec empire’s aggressive use of sacrifice was romanticized in movies, books, and other mediums. Before the Aztec empire’s height in 1427, historians speculate that the natives practiced sacrifice only in small quantities. The Aztecs dominated the Mexican region in culture for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico, many Aztecs were wiped out by the introduction of new diseases by Hernan Cortes and his soldiers. However, the Aztec culture thrived for so long because they were one of the most advanced civilizations on the continent, with their unique religion and importance placed on agriculture. To understand how and why human sacrifices were practiced, it is crucial to understand the fundamental ideas of the Aztec people and their religion.
The religion of the Aztecs was very adamant on the importance of human sacrifice to please the Gods. This was considered an honor, basically giving the “essence” of an organism for a god was an ultimate honor for an Aztec. This essence was essentially returned back to the gods who created the earth that the Aztecs lived on. Human sacrifices were one of the main events in the Aztec religion because they believed that their offerings could send messages to the Gods. Some sacrifices were also believed to help crops grow and the land to be more fertile. Not all ceremonies were treated with equal importance. The rituals were determined by the people attending and the purpose of the ritual. Prisoners of war and enslaved people were sacrificed only in ordinary or average rituals, while people from higher social classes such as warriors volunteered themselves for ceremonies that were dedicated to the gods.
In Aztec society, human sacrifice held importance over several aspects of life, including religious importance and political-social level. The Aztecs considered themselves to be the chosen ones of the Sun, who was a symbol that the gods were responsible for the wellbeing for the world. As the Mexica group began to exert more power in Mesoamerica, human sacrifices were demanded from each states. This demand of human sacrifice was a way to keep control over each state, and added the effect of political propaganda.
The start of the “Flowery Wars”, was a way to keep a steady flow of human sacrifices, in regards to the “average” celebrations. Wars were waged not to kill enemies and take land but to capture prisoners of war. An offer made to the local states of the Puebla-Tlaxcala to wage conflicts in order to capture prisoners of war was beneficial to both sides. Since human sacrifice was so important to religions in the region These battles were distinct from the concurrent wars of conquest: In this case, conquest would be self-defeating because it would leave no more enemy warriors to capture.
Warriors were eager to sacrifice themselves to the “Flowery Wars.” They believed that they would receive an honorable death and an afterlife. The attitude of the warrior was dependent on their willingness to be sacrificed. Participating in the war effort, Moctezuma created a privilege system based on warrior’s prowess on the battlefield, allowing commoners to become famous and nobles to be disregarded if they didn’t do as well.
The “Flowery Wars” put into place by Moctezuma was not a new idea and had in fact been in place since ancient times. However, it had a major impact for the Aztec empire since it sparked almost fifty years of warring between the Aztec empire and neighboring states. Neighboring states grew resentful of the Aztecs since their warrior culture dominated their neighbors leading to even more sacrifices and warfare. After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, several resentful states around the Aztec empire aided the Spaniards in toppling the empire.
The ritual of the “Flowery Wars” intended not to kill enemies but to severely wound or incapacitate. In order to keep power over their enemies, a regular supply of sacrifices of their people was needed. This practice served to subjugate their neighbors and send a political message to both their own citizens as well as foreign leaders. A recent study pointed to the evidence of the nobility using the practice of human sacrifice to keep their power. Another study shows that the modern view of a bloodthirsty Aztec society is very wrong, pointing to a system that revolved around appreciating the value of life and the earth.
Different circumstances of sacrifice required different materials to be used. “Mexican archaeologist Alfredo López Austin (1988, discussed in Ball) described four types of Aztec sacrifice: “images”, “beds”, “owners of skin” and “payments”.” Images known to Aztecs as “ixpitla”, were sacrifices dressed as gods would transform as the god in a ritual time. The sacrifices were important because the Aztecs believed that when a god died, their spirit could be reborn if a human dressed as them. These humans would allow the god to be reborn which would be a great honor.
The second category was what López Austin called the “beds of the gods”, referring to retainers, those victims killed in order to accompany an elite personage to the underworld. The “owners of skins” sacrifice is that associated with Xipe Totec, those victims whose skins were removed and worn as costumes in rituals. These rituals also provided body part war trophies, in which the warriors who captured the victim were awarded a femur to display at home.
One of the central beliefs of the Aztec world was that Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun, needed constant nourishment in the form of human blood—seen as the sacred life force—in order to keep the sun moving from east to west across the sky. Those who were sacrificed included both volunteers, who saw their choice as the height of nobility and honor, and prisoners captured by the Aztecs during their frequent wars.
Though the Aztecs likely saw human sacrifice as crucial to their survival, it’s not quite clear how bloodthirsty they actually were. Reports passed down by Spanish conquistadors and other European observers suggest that human sacrifice occurred on a massive scale in the Aztec world. According to Spanish sources, up to 20,000 people were put to death as part of a ceremony to dedicate the Templo Mayor (or Great Temple) in Tenochtitlán in 1487. However, some historians have argued that such reports were exaggerated to make the Aztecs look bad and justify the Spanish conquest. In their view, although human sacrifice was part of Aztec religious tradition, it was not as common a practice as the conquistadors would have us believe.
Another civilization that were active users of human sacrifice were the Maya civilization. Before the pre-Columbian era, human sacrifices were pretty common in Maya culture. The Maya civilization covered a large area of land which included southeastern Mexico and northern Central America. The Mayans believed that sacrifices were important because the blood provided nourishment to the gods. The sacrifice of anything living was incredibly important to the Mayans with a human sacrifice being the ultimate form of devotion. Usually, only high status prisoners of war were sacrificed while other captives were used as the labor force.
There were differing ways of providing a sacrifice within these empires. The common practices were removing the heart from the chest and decapitation. Sacrifices were used as modern day celebration, such as a crowning of a new emperor or the dedication of a new building. The Mayans left several forms of art that showed human sacrifice in their society. These artworks depicted the Mayans torturing, beating, and burning their victims before and after the sacrifices. There were different settings for the sacrifice taking place. If the sacrifice was done by removing the heart it was done in courtyards, temples, or pyramids. The victim was painted blue, given a headdress that was pinned down by four people pointing in different directions. The official of the sacrifice, known as a nacom to the Mayans, would cut open the chest of the victim and then pull out the heart. He then would pass the heart to a religious priest, called the chilan, the blood would then be smeared on the face of the statue of a god. The body was then thrown down the steps where the other priests would skin the body leaving the feet and hands intact. The priest would then wear the skin of the victim and do a dance of rebirth. These rituals provided hope and security to the Maya culture and demonstrated their own outlooks on death.
For the Mayan empire, their sacrifices of human sacrifices were viewed equally with the Mayan ball game, known as Pitz. The game was played with “a hard rubber ball was knocked around by players mostly using their hips, often had religious, symbolic or spiritual meaning.” The game was often played with decapitated skulls, showing the importance of sacrifices to Mayan civilization. The ball game would be played by prisoners of war, who would be sacrificed after the game, continuing the day of victorious battles. An infamous image from Chichen Itza shows a winner of the game holding the head of the opposing team’s leader.
Another important sacrifice to the Mayans were kings and rulers that were captured after a battle. Regional battles were often finished with the ball game, where chieftains were sacrificed in rituals to the gods. An archeologist of Mayan ruins found, “In another carving from Yaxchilán, a local ruler, “Bird Jaguar IV,” plays the ball game in full gear while “Black Deer,” a captured rival chieftain, bounces down a nearby stairway in the form of a ball. It is likely that the captive was sacrificed by being tied up and pushed down the stairs of a temple as part of a ceremony involving the ball game. In 738 A.D., a war party from Quiriguá captured the king of rival city-state Copán: the captive king was ritually sacrificed.”
An important aspect of Mayan sacrifice was bloodletting, blood sacrifice. The Mayans would first pierce their skin to give blood to the gods, Hacavitz and Avilix among other gods. Mayan nobles and rulers would also pierce their skin such as genitals, ears or tongues with items as bizarre as stingray barbs. These items found in tombs of Mayan nobility were considered to be divine beings often being important in sacrifices. The blood would be seen as adding fertility to dried up lands which was a useful tool in an agriculturally based society. It’s also interesting to note that Mayan men and women practiced bloodletting, which was not seen as commonly in other societies. Blood offered by nobles would be put on statues or bark then burned to represent the opening of the door to the world of the gods.
Considered auto-sacrifice, bloodletting involved cutting one’s own body to offer a small portion of blood. This would not have killed the person sacrificing their blood. Bloodletting was done at important dates and events such as the beginning and end of the calendar cycles and the accession of a new king. This ritual was considered a private and sacred practice and was often done in secluded rooms of temples. During important events for the Mayans, bloodletting was done in front of the public or commoners to show that the nobility were capable of contacting the gods. This would solidify their power as a ruler in their regions.
These practices by both the Mayans and the Aztec and other similar Mesoamerican cultures show just how important blood sacrifice was to the their religions and cultures. The communication to the gods allowed them to grow and prosper until the conquistadors arrived.