The Role of Human Sacrifice in Aztec Society
Human sacrifice is defined as the act of killing humans as part of a spiritual and religious ritual (Futrell 1997:170). Human sacrifices began many years ago even before the Aztecs and any other Pre-Columbian civilizations. It has been practiced in various cultures throughout history. Many ancient people around the world have practiced the act of killing human beings it goes all the way from the Greeks and Hebrews to the Mayans and Aztecs (Smith 1996:225). But it is curious to see that it was similar in these diverse cultures. In some cultures like the Aztecs and Mayans, sacrifice was part of their central religion and was carried out on a different scale. Why did the Aztecs see sacrifice as an act of maintaining the universe and remembering the gods' sacrifice for humanity? Why were there also special types of sacrifices? If in today's society human sacrifice or any types of sacrifices are not seen as normal religious practices; nowadays these practices are seen as acts of inhumanity and cruelty just how the Spaniards saw it in the conquest.
Human sacrifice existed since even before Christ, during the time of the Old Testament. Abraham, the founder of the patriarch of the Israelites, Ishmaelites, Midianites and Edomite peoples, as describe in Book of Genesis, was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, but God then replaced Isaac with a ram that was caught in a brush. This could suggest that Israelites used to sacrifice humans but at the dawn of their history they saw the error of their ways and were prompted by their God. It is believe that then human sacrifice was replaced with animal sacrifices. But human life was still seen as the most precious substance for sacrifice to a god in Pre-Columbian civilizations. Though among the African Asante, the victims sacrificed as first-fruit offerings during the Festival of New Yams were usually criminals, though slaves also were killed (Encyclopedia Britannica) This means that in African Asante civilizations humans were maybe seen as the most valuable offering to first-fruit offerings in the festival of new yams. Though maybe it wasn't seen badly because they sacrificed criminals and slaves and maybe these people were seen as corrupted and evil.
Human sacrifice in the other hand in Pre-Columbian civilization like the Aztecs was part of their religion which was created in a way by creation myths. Sacrifice is talked about in Aztec Mythology in the Chimalpopoca Codex with the Legend of the Five Suns. The fundamental idea of the legend was that the gods sacrificed themselves in order to benefit humankind. In one of the legends, the gods threw themselves into a huge fire to create the sun; in another they spilled their own blood in order to create humanity (Smith 1996: 221). These myths or legends established a debtor relationship between the humans and the gods; a debt that could be repaid only through the offering of human blood or life. Human sacrifice and bloodletting (auto-sacrifice) were primary forms of religious rituals in Aztec society.
Auto-sacrifice (blood-letting) was first performed by the god Quetzalcoatl when he bled himself to give life to the bones of the ancients. (Smith1996: 221) Every single Aztec from this point on engaged in auto-sacrifice as part of their lives, usually to lobby the gods for agricultural or human fertility. This form of sacrifice is well shown in Codex Telleriano-Remensis and Codex Magliabechiano in which Aztecs are bloodletting themselves by perforating their ears and tongues with maguey thorns. Human blood was the most valuable substance that could be offered to the gods. The most common act of self sacrifice or auto-sacrifice which was to perforate their ears, nose, tongue, arms, thighs, chest, even genitals with sharp maguey thorns, used as needles to pierce these various body parts (Van Tuerenhout 2005:186). It is believe that priests engaged in auto-sacrifice nightly. They did this by bathing and purifying themselves, burnt increase, and proceeded to a secluded spot where they carried out the ritual (Smith 1996:221). It is believed that they purified themselves so that their petition to the gods would be given to them. Friar Bernardino de Sahagun listed four different types of bloodletting (auto-sacrifice) practiced by the priests "the drawing of straws, "the offering of thorns, "the bloodying, and "the cutting of ears was made as debt payment in return for continued existence of the universe (Smith 1996: 221). So it is believed that everyone in the Aztec society have the role of auto-sacrificing themselves in order to maintain the universe going. Some people in today's society still practice self-sacrifice by making small incisions on themselves. Self-sacrifice is used in the form of penance to gain forgiveness for their sins.
Heart sacrifice was performed by taking captive warriors or slaves up to the temple or pyramid, by cutting their chest open and immediately seizing their heart; then raising it up to the sun (Smith 1996:222). This shown in Codex Magliabechiano where victims are cut open, their hearts is pulled out and offered to the sun since sacrificial victims were considered "people of the sun. I believed they were considered "people of the sun because they were being sacrifice to keep the sun burning. Thereafter rising the heart to the sun the Aztec priest would slash the victims head off which was exhibited on a skull rack that was next to the temple or pyramid. Then the victim's body is sent rolling down the steps of the temple which are bathed in blood (Smith 1996:222). This is well shown in Codex Magliabechiano were the victim is rolled down the temple steps.
Gladiator combat sacrifice was another typed of sacrifice in which a captive warrior was tied to a large, carved, circular stone and was forced to fight a mock battle with an experienced Aztec warrior (Smith 1996:225). The victim was given a sword whose the blades were replaced with feathers but the warrior was fully armed and dressed for battle (Smith 1996:225). Codex Magliabechiano best demonstrates how a captive warrior is tied to a gigantic- rounded stone and is fully armed and dressed for battle against the Aztec warrior. There was also "arrow sacrifice the victim was tied spread-eagled to a wooden frame and shot full of arrows so that his blood dripped on the ground (Smith 1996:225). I believe that "arrow sacrifice illustrates acts of inhumanity and cruelty towards the victim because the victim is tied up and shot at with thousands of arrows penetrating his whole body. In addition to these sacrifices to Xipe Totec "our lord the flayed one, some victims were sacrificed by burning in a large fire pit, and others simply had their necks slit (Smith 1996: 225). The sacrifice of burning victims in a large fire pit makes the victims become "ixiptlas (deity impersonators) because they are being sacrificed this way they are remembering the gods sacrifice to create the sun.
These sacrificial victims were also bound with cords (which symbolized heart vessels) and identified by a sacrificial banner (Hill Boone 2007: 56). They were sacrificed with sacrificial knives that were of carved out of precious stone. It is believed that captives are brought into the city, they go immediately to the temple were the sacrifices taking place but in the Aztec society it was different; sacrificial ceremonies would take time be organized and prepared. When the day of sacrifice was at hand, there would be special ceremonies, included fasting, dancing, and music (Van Tuerenhout 2005: 187). This shows us that these rituals of killing for the gods actually required months even some times years to prepare. The deity impersonator would actually have to prepare his or her self for his or her killing on the special occasion. The victims were so important and valued that they were asked to sing and dance the night before their sacrifice (Van Tuerenhout 2005: 187). This illustrates that scarified victims of these sacrificial rituals were not viewed as ordinary mortals. They were considered deities whose deaths repeated the original sacrificial deaths of the gods that was describe in the myth.
Though during the reign of Ahuizotl, Aztec ruler, there were as many as eighty-four thousand victims were sacrificed on a single occasion for the rededication of the Great temple at the heart of Tenochtitlan (Sullivan 1994:31).But it is believe that this event actually took about four days to be complete. For these were not just bloody events of human massacre. They were both political and religious events (Sullivan 1994:31). These events of bloodshed were seen as political in the aspect that rulers from throughout the empire were invited. If a ruler would refuse such an invitation was to invoke the wrath of the Aztec war machine (Sullivan 1994:31). For these ceremonies were accompanied with endless orations, dances, and songs to the gods. Great feasting and rich gifts were lavished on visiting dignitaries, who were flattered with elegant and florid speeches (Sullivan 1994:31). These ceremonies were seen as huge fiestas with lots of guests viewing sacrificial rituals as party entertainment. It is believe that tamales and tortillas were made as foods in these special occasions. The temple precincts were festooned with flesh flowers, and lavish viewing areas were reserved for special guests (Sullivan 1994:31). Reserved seating in sacrificial rituals shows that these splendor occasions were seen as some so special that their special guests deserved the right to view it from a special location. These special guests were basically viewed as V.I.P. guests. It is believed that rulers were invited so that the Aztec's could demonstrate their ability to control the empire and their ability to maintain power.
Cannibalism is believed to be part of human sacrifice because in many sacrifices were followed by a ceremonial meal at which the family of the captor or sponsor ate a portion of the victim's body (Smith 1996:225). It is consider a great tribute to the victim's memory if the captor and its family ate the victim's body parts. The act of Cannibalism was a sacred part of the whole ritual of sacrifice (Smith 1996: 225).This ritual is best shown in Codex Magliabechiano which exhibits how humans are eating the victim's body parts after being sacrificed. But only a portion of the victim's body was eaten, for this meal had a symbolic not a dietary significance. After some sacrifices, the sponsor gathered up the blood in a bowl and would drink the victim's blood (Smith 1996:225). It is supposed that cannibalism still exists in today's society and evidence of this has been found; though it is not believed to be practice in religious acts. Thereafter were many different types of victims in sacrificial ceremonies in the Aztec society. Some of the victims in these sacrificial ceremonies were enemy warriors, slaves, children, and even women.
Most victims for sacrifices were enemy warriors that were captured in battle. The captor would sponsored the sacrifice therefore would gain prestige for his effort. The higher the rank of the victim, the greater the honor was for the captor. Captives were brought back from the battle ground and housed until the time for their ceremony of transformation. A sacrificial ceremony in the Aztec dictionary was viewed as a remainder of the god's auto-sacrifice. Which kept the Aztec's in debt with them. Victims were carefully chosen to match the requirements of the god who they were to honor. So they did not just pick any random stranger for sacrifice because this ritual was very significant and important to the Aztecs; it was part of their religion. Most gods required warriors for their "ixiptla which means deity impersonator but in some cases purchased slaves would be able to satisfy some occasions. Tezcatlipoca, was associated with a wide range of concepts including the night sky, the night winds, hurricanes, the north, the earth, obsidian, enmity, discord, rulership, divination, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, war and strife, was honored with the Toxcatl ceremony which took a full year in advance to prepare. His ixiptla had to be a handsome, well-bled youth with no bodily imperfections. The transformation from human to ixiptla began with a physical and ritual cleansing (Smith 1996: 224). This shows how human-ixiptla transformation is taken very seriously since the human-ixiptla must be physical and ritual cleaned without any impurity. The young man, who would volunteer, would live in luxury with four beautiful women for a year (Smith 1996:224). He would walk the streets playing a flute with the four women (Smith 1996:224). On the day of his sacrifice a feast would be given in honor of the god, the young man would willingly walk the pyramid stairs break his flute and be sacrificed (Smith 1996: 224). The young man would walk up willingly just like the gods did when they created mankind and the sun.
Slavery existed in the Aztec society because of the Aztecs, constant warfare among neighboring tribes ensuring an ample supply of sacrificial slaves (Ross Watkins 2001:75). Slaves purchased for sacrifice in particular had to be bathed carefully to erase all traces of impurity and are given abundance of food during the festival of Panquetzaliztli (Smith 1996: 224& Van Tuerenhout 2005: 187). This means that the Aztecs really wanted their ixiptlas (deity impersonator) to be perfect and pure. The cleansed victim was then dressed in the clothing and insignia of the god. Once he was fully dressed, he became the god and was addressed and worshiped accordingly (Smith 1996:224). This concept of transformation is similar to that of the Roman Catholics who believe that when the Eucharist takes place the fundamental reality of the bread and wine is transformed in a way beyond human comprehension into that of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, but the accidents (physical traits, including chemical properties) of the bread and wine remain. This is known as Transubstantiation. (Codex Telleriano-Remensis Offerings made to Tlaloc, the god of rain, on the first day of the month: Atlcahualo were Children who were selected for favorable signs like having two cowlicks in their hairs and with the correct day signs, they were dressed in dark green, black striped with chili red and light blue (Van Tuerenhout 2005:187). This means that not any child would be sacrificed because they had to have favorable signs like the ones mention. The Aztecs believed that the children's tears would ensure rain (Van Tuerenhout 2005:187). So, according to Friar Bernardino de Sahagun, the Aztecs believed that, if sacrifices were not given to Tlaloc, the rain would not come and their crops would not grow. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, priests made children cry before the infanticidal sacrifice took place. Sometimes priests would make these children cry by tearing off their nails ("Child Sacrifice in Pre-Columbian Cultures). This was a very inhuman and cruel way to practice the sacrificial rituals because not only the children were destined died and cry, but they sometimes were required to be tortured by their killer, the priest. Fernando de Alva Corts Ixtlilxochitl, an Aztec descendant and the author of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl, claimed that one in five children of the Mexica subjects was killed annually. This has not been actually confirmed but Hernn Corts describes an event in his Letters: "And they would take their children to kill and sacrifice to their Idols ("Child Sacrifice in Pre-Columbian Cultures").Cortes describes to Spaniards horrifying events he saw in New Spain. Many children were actually not sacrificed at the same locations. There were seven different sacrificial locations (Carrasco 1999: 85). But archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrificed to Tlaloc in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. Which means that there wasn't as many children sacrifices as warrior captive or slave sacrifices.
Women were also used as victims in Aztec sacrifices. They were most of the time sacrificed for female deities. At the Festival of Xilonen during the eighth month of the year, a woman was sacrificed (Van Tuerenhout 2005:187). In this festival a woman would be selected to represent the goddess mother Xilonen. In the sacrifice of women, the female body, marked by sexual and regenerative powers, layered with cosmic colors, jewelry, and mythic and memory clothing (City of sacrifice 1999:191) In Aztec society women were very valuable and considered equal to men. A successful birth was considered the equivalent of taking a captive on the field of battle (Sullivan 1994:43). Women were diminished in Aztec society they were seen as heroes for having successful births. If women were too died in the battle of giving birth, they would afford the same position as warriors who died in battlefield (Sullivan 1994:43).This helps illustrate that women role in Aztec society was extremely important because they were the ones who assured the constant renewal of Aztec society. Sometimes they were referred as "precious jewels (Sullivan 1994: 43). This means that if a woman was going to be sacrifice, this event or ritual would be very special and memorable since women play an important role in the Aztec society as the "precious jewels of the empire.
Spanish conquistadors were horrified the Aztecs form of religion. Spaniards considered the Aztecs to be savages and barbarians because of their acts of killing human beings for religious practices. The Spanish could not believe that these people who spoke of their children as "precious jades, precious feathers, their most valued objects, yet continually sacrificed crying newborns to (Tlaloc Sullivan 1994:40). Spanish conquistadors could not understand why these indigenous people could be so inhumane and cruel to their newborns. Europeans could not interpret this gruesome part of Aztec religion. They could not understand how religion had to do with such devastating religious rituals. In result Spanish decided to convert indigenous people to Catholicism to change their ways. It is ironic that the Spanish heavily emphasized the brutality of Aztec religion, yet the impact of the arrival of Europeans caused the death of much greater number of indigenous people than any of the previous egregious acts on the part if any of local civilization (Van Tuerenhout 2005:186).
Though, human sacrifice is defined as the act of killing humans for religious and spiritual means; these practices are still seen as bloody and gruesome. But they actually had religious and spiritual meaning to the Aztecs. Aztecs did not see these acts as inhumane and cruel acts; Aztec society saw human sacrifice as an act of maintaining the universe and thanking the gods for their own sacrifice for creating humanity.
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