Free «Human Sacrifice in Aztec Culture» Essay

Human Sacrifice in Aztec Culture

Aztec was an ethnic group that lived for three centuries in central Mexico and constituted a dominant portion of the Mesoamerican Chronology. The Aztec spoke Nahuatl language and had different currencies for trades. Aztec Empire was formed on 1325 when Tenochtitlan was founded and remained until 1521 with the foundation of Mexico City near Tenochtitlan after the Spanish conquest (Berdan, 32).

After the Spanish took hold of the Aztec Empire many new intriguing features were found to be practiced in the Empire. The most striking feature was the human sacrifice. Human sacrifice has been practiced in various regions and remained their cultural aspect for many centuries but Aztec Empire took human sacrificing to an extended level. In Mesoamerican cultures, human sacrifice was important as well but it was not common where most of the times lethal prisoners were sacrificed but the human sacrificing became more of a political factor and therefore it was highly practiced whether it was needed or not (Sahagún, 14). Other historians also state that though the human sacrificing was very common in the Aztec Empire, but the figures most of the times have been exaggerated mostly by the emperors in order to gain political and other benefits.

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It was found that there were eighteen festivals when the human sacrificing was compulsory, not including other events that were manufactured from time to time. Eighteen festivals were according to their months which were 20 days long. It is not known when did this sacrificing began because of the lack of the historic information but it is believed that first of the sacrificing included the daughter of King Coxcox which also included her skinning. In Aztec Empire it is believed that Tlacaelel emphasized on human sacrificing much more than his predecessors (Sahagún, 32). Tlacaelel is considered as the major architect of the beliefs, part of the emperor family, and practices of the Aztec Empire and under his guidance the frequency of sacrificing was increased. He increased the frequency during the natural disasters started in 1446 and depicted Aztec people as the chosen one who have been given the responsibility of sacrificing in order for the god to run the world peacefully. It is also stated by ethno historical perspective that Aztec people have created myths, mostly by their scholars and priest on the order from emperors that they should sacrifice because the gods previously sacrificed so that the people on the earth could live happily (Restall, 66). The “Legend of Five Suns” points towards the sacrifice that was practiced by the gods. In fact when Spanish came across these people and asked for a reason for this brutality, the answer was quite easy which stated that this life on earth is because of the gods who have sacrificed their lives so that we could get ours and it is their responsibility to give back (Sahagún, 97).

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Aztec believed that the sustaining of the earth, land, weather and crops all is related to the sacrifice to gods. The reason behind that was the stereotyping that was being created by the priests which required paying off the debt to the gods. Sahagun (1982) observed that the sacrificing was also an important ritual for the Aztec people who happily took part in the sacrificing. The barbarism was at its peak which saw skinning, burning, smashing, burying and slaying of the humans. The illiteracy of the Aztec people was at the peak as they also sacrificed different animals including bees and birds. Different objects were also sacrificed by breaking into pieces. The place for sacrifice was the pyramid temple in the center of the city which was designed by gold and silver and humans and animals were buried in the pyramid as well. The pyramid temple was the sign of alliance of the three tribes which combined to form the Aztec Empire and sacrificing on the pyramid meant that they are trying to save the Aztec people from the god’s revenge by committing these actions.

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Self sacrificing was another important part of the rituals and obligations which required that people should either kill themselves or use their blood for tainting. Many important people sacrificed their lives in order to keep the trend alive whereas common people used their blood from genitals and tongues apart from using sharp knives to cut their skin to obtain blood. This was like self harming of the body which is currently practiced as well in society but the reasons for both the actions are very different. People even clipped off their genitals to showcase the care for the god’s sacrifice and it was also believed that gods also gave sacrifice of their genitals to keep the people alive. The blood constituted a special place in all the Mesoamerican culture and it portrayed the love for the god. Beliefs and actions that were performed by Aztec people critically determined their important mythology dependence. Aztec people are regarded to have created myths for each and every action they perform in daily lives and during the sacrificing.

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The Aztec history from the historians’ perspectives provides us much more information on their beliefs. The beliefs were the major portion of the thought process that allowed the Aztec people to become more violent and aggressive in taking and giving of life. It is believed that the sacrificing was the atonement for the god. It seemed that god was always very angry towards the Aztecs as the number of the sacrificing increased all the times. It was thought that the one who has been sacrificed will go straight to the heaven and will forward their pleading to the god who will then forgive them for their actions. As discussed before, Tlacaelel emphasized on the sacrificing much more than any other guidance leader, his interventions were thought to be logical and true. This was the reason why the natural disasters such as excessive rain, floods and storms were considered as the angriness of god and no time was wasted in giving the sacrifice. The prisoners were also kept at stand by for sacrificing in these emergency situations. The situation was much worst then it looked at first time for the Spanish who came here. The slightest of sin was considered as the one that could harm the whole society. People who had committed stealing or abusing at certain level were thought be evil and considered them as a supernatural force that can be the reason for much more destruction for their people and the world. In fact if an adulterer entered into a house, all the chickens of that house have to be killed in order to keep the purity. The people in order to survive in a better way subjected themselves to some very difficult situation which included the cutting of their tongues or their ears. This didn’t end here as it also included self hanging and shattering of the face by striking forcefully into the rocks that would eventually end the life. It was also believed that if someone has committed a sin he should follow that sin with an act that could cover up for the sin. Therefore even if the priests didn’t require anyone to sacrifice, people sacrificed themselves in many ways without the knowledge of others to completely secure themselves from the god’s revenge against them. Among various sacrificing rites, the heart extraction was very dominant. Heart was extracted from the body either previously killing or extracting it alive. Most of the times, it was the heart extraction from someone alive including humans and animals. The reason behind the heart extraction was it relatedness to the Sun’s heat. It was believed that a heart is not only the most important part of the body, but also it is an important fragment of Sun’s heat. This meant that when a person was sacrificed and had an extraction of his blood, his heart critically becomes a part of the Sun’s heat and provides much better perspectives for the people living on earth (Berdan, 213).

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The misconceptions of the Aztecs didn’t stop here as they also believed that those who have sacrificed will lead an afterlife according to the way they have sacrificed themselves. This included that if someone died at their homes will be tortured and will have to pass many more injurious phases before they can get into the heaven. The men who had died in the wars were considered as god-dead because they have fight for the god and will have a pure and easy life when they are dead and will not have to pass any phases (Godwin, 87). This was why many people in the Mesoamerican culture were warriors and the violence against the nearby tribes and states was very common which happened without any cause. The deceased who had offered their lives for the sacrificing were considered to enter the second level of heaven because these people have accepted in front of all the people that they have committed actions which were against god’s will and they should be sacrificed (Carrasco, 168). The children who died in infancy were the purest because they weren’t able to commit any crime or action that could lead to the destruction of the society and make god to take revenge. The women who died giving birth to the babies were also considered to have died with honor and respect and will go straight to the heaven. These different levels of death modes played a crucial role in the understanding of the Aztec people who always had options for them to get sacrificed.

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Tlacaelel was the one who put more into the human sacrificing. It was a common practice in the Mesoamerican societies that sacrifices should be made after a 52 years cycle. It was thought that after 52 years, the earth becomes strong against the gods and if the strength is not provided to the gods, the earth may collapse which could end their lives (Godwin, 134). In Mesoamerican culture, the Aztecs were considered as People without Face by their enemies because they seemed to be very reluctant to cut their heads during useless sacrifices and had no reason for these sacrifices. Their enemies thought of them as illiterate who sacrifice for nothing. However, Tlacaelel changed this critical approach. Tlacaelel impacted that Aztec people are the most responsible people on the earth and because of their value in the front of the gods; they have become the representatives for the sacrificing (Sahagún, 218). This allowed Tlacaelel to increase the frequency of sacrificing by making people believe in themselves as someone who are very important. Though this ritual was very common in the Mesoamerican culture but Tlacaelel took it to a new level where people got themselves happily involved into the sacrificing. In this sacrificing event the fire was burnt to a body and the new fire was taken to every home. This was done at night and continued little before dawn. It was believed that if sun appears at the dawn then their sacrificing has been successful, and if not then sun wouldn’t appear (Gillespie, 33). However, these trends were very common in all the tribes therefore whenever this 52 year cycle came many tribes sacrificed lives. Aztec on the other hand became the People of Sun who considered themselves as better than other living beings.

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It is believed that in the time of peace, the Flower Wars took place (Hassig, 45). The claim for these wars is that they were used for the capturing of the people for the sacrifice. Certain historical aspects also point that these wars were primarily had the political means but nothing religious and were a treaty between the three cities of the Triple Alliance that made it legal that people from other cities can be sacrificed in the other (Montellano, 110). On some occasions when these wars were fought with other cities and tribes, the strategies were to injured the enemy rather than kill him because they can then be used for the sacrificing (Durán, 128). If the city was conquered by the Aztecs then the people become the part of regular sacrificing. The slaves on the other hand were also used for sacrificing after they met certain conditions.

The movie “Apocalypto” directed by Mel Gibson depicts how the sacrifice took place. The movie was based on the tribes who had similar ways of sacrificing. In Aztecs all the public sacrificing took place on the top of the pyramid temple. There was also a statue of a god on the top of temple. The person who has to be sacrificed is placed on a stone table by four priests. The fifth priest had a very sharp knife that is only used in these sacrificial ceremonies. The priest cuts the abdomen of the person including the diaphragm and takes out the heart which is still beating. The person’s body is then pushed through the stairs of the temple and the heart is put into a bowl on the statue of god. The heart extraction was always the main method for the sacrificing in the Mesoamericans. Different body parts were then displaced from the body where some part went to the animals at zoo and others were put on the displays including the skulls (Carrasco, 124). The audience which is present below the temple to view the sacrificing also used different sharp objects to cut their skins to start bleeding showing the respect to this sacrifice. Apart from these methods other methods included the killing by arrows which represented the rains of spring, the gladiator fights, the burning of a living body or by drowning (Montellano, 15). Another important part of the rituals was that people who cried or weakened during the sacrifice were considered as cowards and were slain in privacy. This was due to the observance by the priest that these weaknesses can make their god angry and will lead to destruction. In most of the cases people were quite happy to know that they are the chosen one. Historians also believe that the choosing of the right people for sacrificing was also a very important. The impact was placed on such qualities that were very scarce and in the dictionary of god these were good qualities. Therefore persons who were beautiful and were very good in manners were those who probably had much chance to be chosen one (Schele & Miller, 200).

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Cannibalism was an important aspect of the Aztec rituals as well. It is believed that Aztecs were the last people before the modern age came to the Mexico who ate the flesh of the humans. Cannibalism was seen as a ceremonial treat that was given by the warrior who had caught the sacrificed person.

There were different deities in the Aztecs who were the major reason for these sacrifices. The major sacrifice that included the heart extraction was for the Huitzilopochtli who was considered as a sun at the zenith and was the sign of the characters of the Aztecs people (Durán, 101). During the heart extraction, the extracted heart is held towards the sky that showcases the respect to this deity. The social class system of Aztec was also based on the sacrificing levels. Therefore if a warrior has a caught a person who was later sacrificed will have an increase in the social class. This way it became more important for the people to get actively involved in the sacrificing obligations and rituals. Tezcatlipoca was considered as the most powerful god who had the power of night and destiny. Tezcatlipoca considered as the one who when requires sacrificing creates warfare and with the killing of the people, he becomes more powerful. It was also believed that Tezcatlipoca had the power to relieve of diseases and rewrite the fortune of the people. Aztec believed that Tezcatlipoca was the god of everything as he knew everything that is happening in the earth, the most powerful and all people and gods are his slaves (Carrasco, 157). The gladiator fights were performed for Tezcatlipoca which saw a weak captive being killed by four fully trained knights. Another sacrifice for Tezcatlipoca included a young impersonator of Tezcatlipoca. This sacrifice took place on the 20th of the fifth month in Aztec calendar. This impersonator was given all the luxuries of life for a year right before his sacrifice. He was also provided with four beautiful women for a year. He also had to wear dress like Tezcatlipoca in order to showcase himself as his incarnation of the earth. Huehueteotl was considered the deity of the fire and sacrifice for him included the burning of the bodies and extraction of the heart before the person burned dies (Durán, 65). This was an important ritual for the Aztecs as they believed that a storm of fire would hit their city if they didn’t offer sacrifice to Huehueteotl. Tláloc was the god of rain and it was believed that if proper sacrificing wouldn’t be given to him, the feminine would come that would kill all the living beings. In order to give honor to Tláloc, the children were sacrificed (Schele & Miller, 135). Before the sacrificing the priests were made children cry so that the tears could provide the water for rain. These sacrificing took place throughout the year when there was no rain for some period.











For many years Aztecs continued their sacrificing for the honor of the god so that they could live happily. The numbers of sacrificing that have been done throughout the Aztec Empire are clearly unknown. However, it is also the fact that the numbers of sacrificing had been exaggerated all the times may be in order to make them more virtue in the eyes of their neighbors and enemies or just because they wanted everyone to remember them as the sole people who saved the world for a very long time. The reconstruction of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan took place in 1487 and with it; it was believed that more than 80000 people were sacrificed including prisoners, volunteers and children and this was done in just four days. Historians believe that this figure is highly exaggerated (Godwin, 246). It is estimated that 14 sacrificing a minute could be done at that time for full four days that the number still cannot increase up to 80000. Four stone tables were situated on the four sides of the temples and the people after sacrificing were pushed through the stairs. Some historians state that Aztec people during their missionary visit claimed to have sacrificed 4000 persons, however, the exact number of sacrificing is still much unknown. Another research that focused on the number of sacrifices Aztec committed stated that more than 250000 sacrifices were done each year (Schele & Miller, 77). The number seems highly exaggerated as well but with no primary sources available this number could not be confirmed. The major reason for this seemingly exaggeration was the intimidation of Aztecs to their enemies. This was the only way they could shatter their enemies and gain the title of People of the Sun.

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The historical aspects of Mesoamerican culture dictate that human sacrificing was very common when Aztec situation in valley of Mexico during the 14th century. However in the pre Columbian cultures the sacrifice was seen as a rare ritual or something that could take place when the priests felt that the god anger is awaiting. This means that the sacrificing took place in feminine or during any other disaster but Aztec people made this an integral part of their culture and societal aspect where killing was by far the most important thing for the population, priests and the emperors (Gruzinski, 79). The reason behind these killings was the clear distinction which made Aztec believed them to be the owner of the world. When the Spanish came in social confrontation with the Aztec, they criticized the theory of sacrifice. The Aztecs laughed at these statements and replied as to be the ones who have been given responsibility to control the earth and it is therefore their duty to sacrifice so that everyone else on the earth could live their lives peacefully (Durán, 56). The Spanish people tried to emphasize much to remove these rituals but this only achieved when the Spain took over the Mexico. The early Spanish who took over the land stated that the sacrificing rituals were nothing more than of political nature. In order to keep their empire, Aztecs most of the times sacrifices their enemies in the name of the god. This way they not only got the support from the other population but also were able to kill their opposition. The enemies also saw them as very strong and powerful and this is the reason why Aztec started wars by themselves most of the times.

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The historical analysis of Aztec ethnic group determines the barbarism and brutalism which was accounted against the people of that time. The historical perspectives also state that Aztec people had created such myths that were made to critically increase their political worth in the region and in the front of the population. Whatever the reason may be are for these sacrificing, Aztec Empire is considered where the human sacrificing was the dominant part of the culture and societal aspect.

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