Human sacrifice in Aztec culture


Human sacrifice in Aztec culture

Human sacrifice was an aspect of historical Aztec culture/religion, although the extent of the practice is debated by scholars. The Spaniards who first met the Aztecs explicitly stated in their writings that human sacrifice was widely practiced in Mesoamerica. For example, Bernal Díaz's "The Conquest of New Spain" includes eye-witness accounts of the remains of sacrificial victims. In addition, there are a number of second-hand accounts of human sacrifices written by Spanish friars, told to them by native eye-witnesses.

Presently, scholars largely accept that human sacrifice was practiced in the Aztec Empire as well as throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Since the late 1970s, excavations of the offerings in the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, Teotihuacán's Pyramid of the Moon and other archaeological sites have provided physical evidence of human sacrifice among the Mesoamerican peoples. [cite book
last = Matos-Moctezuma
first = Eduardo
title = Vida y muerte en el Templo Mayor
publisher = Fondo de Cultura Económica
date= 1986
] [ [http://www.livescience.com/history/human_sacrifice_050123.html "Evidence May Back Human Sacrifice Claims"] By Mark Stevenson] [ [http://www.livescience.com/history/041202_grave_site.html "Grisly Sacrifices Found in Pyramid of the Moon"] By LiveScience Staff.]

A wide number of interpretations of the Aztec practice of human sacrifice have been proposed by modern scholars, both with regards to its religious and social significance. For example, one theory that has been widely discredited is that the Mesoamerican diet was lacking protein and that cannibalism of sacrificial victims was a necessary part of the Aztec diet. [cite journal
last =Harner
first=Michael
year=1977
title=The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice
journal=American Ethnologist,
volume=Vol. 4
issue= No. 1,
pages=117–135
doi=10.1525/ae.1977.4.1.02a00070
] Other theories link the practice to special socio-psychological factors or see it as a political tool. Most Mesoamerican scholars however see it as a part of the millennia-long cultural tradition of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica.

Human sacrifice among pre-Columbian indigenous populations is a controversial topic today. The discussion of human sacrifice is also tied with the classic conflict between viewing indigenous peoples as either "noble savages" or "primitive barbarians" also within modern scholarship, where some scholars tend to romanticize the description of human sacrifice while others tend to exaggerate it. [Leonardo López-Luján's address in "Nuevas perspectivas sobre el sacrificio humano entre los mexicas", an international seminary of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia celebrated in September 2007 in the Museum of the Templo Mayor.]

The antecedents of Mesoamerican sacrifice

The practice of human sacrifice was widespread in the Mesoamerican and in the South American cultures during the Inca Empire. [cite journal| last = Graulich| first = Michael| title = El sacrificio humano en Mesoamérica| journal = Arqueología mexicana| volume = XI, 63| pages = 16–21| date= 2003 ] [cite journal| last = Reinhard| first = Johan| title = A 6,700 metros niños incas sacrificados quedaron congelados en el tiempo| journal = National Geographic, Spanish version | pages = 36–55|date=November 1999] Like all other known pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Aztecs practiced human sacrifices. The extant sources describe how the Aztecs sacrificed human victims on each of their eighteen festivities, one festivity for each of their 20-day months. [Bernardino de Sahagún, "Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España", ed. a cargo de Ángel Ma. Garibay (México: Editorial Porrúa, 2006), chapters XX to XXXVIII] It is unknown if the Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice before they reached the Anahuac valley and started absorbing other cultural influences. The first human sacrifice reported in the sources was the sacrifice and skinning of the daughter of the king Cóxcox of Culhuacán, this story is a part of the legend of the foundation of Tenochtitlan. [ cite book| last = Thema | first = Equipo| title = Los aztecas| publisher = Ediciones Rueda| date= 2002| pages = 39-40] Several ethnohistorical sources state that under the guidance of Tlacaelel the importance of human sacrifice in Aztec history was given extra emphasis.

The role of sacrifice in Mesoamerica

, a body of Franciscans confronted the remaining Aztec priesthood and demanded, under threat of death, that they desist from their murderous practice. The priests defended themselves as follows:

Cquote|Life is because of the gods; with their sacrifice they gave us life [...] . They produce our sustenance [...] which nourishes life. [cite book
last = Nicholson
first = Henry B.
title = (in) Handbook of Middle American Indians
publisher = University of Texas Press
date= 1971
pages= 402
]

What the Aztec priests were referring to was a central Mesoamerican belief: that a great, on-going sacrifice sustains the universe. Everything is "tonacayotl": the "spiritual flesh-hood" or "bodily [sacrificial] presence" of the gods on earth. Everything —earth, crops, moon, stars and people— springs from the severed or buried bodies, fingers, blood or the heads of the sacrificed gods. Humanity itself is "macehualli", "those deserved and brought back to life through penance". [León-Portilla (1963, p.111).] A strong sense of indebtedness was connected with this worldview. Indeed, "nextlahualli" (debt-payment) was a commonly used metaphor for human sacrifice, and, as Bernardino de Sahagún reported, it was said that the victim was someone who "gave her service".

Human sacrifice was in this sense the highest level of an entire panoply of offerings through which the Aztecs sought to repay their debt to the gods. Both Sahagún and Toribio de Benavente (also called "Motolinía") observed that the Aztecs gladly parted with everything: burying, smashing, sinking, slaying vast quantities of quail, rabbits, dogs, feathers, flowers, insects, beans, grains, paper, rubber and treasures as sacrifices. Even the "stage" for human sacrifice, the massive temple-pyramids, was an offering mound: crammed with treasures, grains, soil and human and animal sacrifices that were buried as gifts to the deities. Adorned with the land's finest art, treasure and victims, these temples had become buried offerings under new structures every half a century.

The sacrifice of animals was common, a practice for which the Aztecs bred dogs, eagles, jaguars and deer. Objects also were sacrificed, broken and offered to their gods. The cult of Quetzalcóatl required the sacrifice of butterflies and hummingbirds.

Self-sacrifice was also quite common; people would offer maguey thorns, tainted with their own blood and, like the Maya kings, would offer blood from their tongue, ear lobes, or penises [Museo del Templo Mayor, [http://archaeology.la.asu.edu/tm/pages2/sala2.htm Hall 2] ] [Cecelia Klein. "The Ideology of Autosacrifice at the Templo Mayor" in E. H. Boone, ed. "The Aztec Templo Mayor" pp. 293-370. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks. 1987 ISBN 0-88402-149-1] Blood held a central place in Mesoamerican cultures. The Florentine Codex reports that in one of the creation myths Quetzalcóatl offered blood extracted from a wound in his own penis to give life to humanity. There are several other myths in which Nahua gods offer their blood to help humanity. [cite book
last = Soustelle
first = Jacques
title = La vida cotidiana de los aztecas
publisher = Fondo de Cultura Económica
date= 2003
pages = 102ff
]

Common people would offer maguey thorns with their blood. [ cite book
last = Durán
first = Fr. Diego
title = Historia de las Indias de Nueva España
publisher = Porrúa
date= 1967
] Lloyd deMause has argued that, like present-day self harmers, the Aztecs also practiced bloodletting from cuts made with obsidian knives or bone needles on fleshy parts of the body, like earlobes, lips, tongue, chest and calves. [cite book
last = deMause
first = Lloyd
title = The Emotional Life of Nations
publisher = NY: Karnac
year = 2002
pages = 413
] This was considered private and a personal act of penitence toward the gods. The thorns were put in a ball of straw called "zacatapayoli" and later placed in an adoratorium.

During social or environmental stress, the Maya kings would make a wound on their tongue or on their penis, and pass a piece of rope through it. [Schele and Miller (1992).] If this supreme sacrifice failed it was believed the entire dynasty could fall.

The 52-year cycle

The cycle of fifty-two years was central to Mesoamerican cultures. The Nahua's religious beliefs were based on a great fear that the universe would collapse after each cycle if the gods were not strong enough. Every fifty-two years a special New Fire ceremony was performed. [cite book
last = Matos-Moctezuma
first = Eduardo
title = Tenochtitlan
publisher = Fondo de Cultura Económica
date= 2006
pages = 172-73
] All fires were extinguished and at midnight a sacrifice was made. The Aztecs waited for the dawn. If the Sun appeared it meant that the sacrifices for this cycle had been enough. A fire was ignited on the body of a victim, and this new fire was taken to every house, city and town. Rejoicing was general: a new cycle of fifty-two years was beginning, and the end of the world had been postponed, at least for another 52-year century. (A similar ceremony is still practiced by small indigenous groups, but without human sacrifice.) The ceremony was older than the Aztecs. While originally it was believed it was a matter of luck to survive, the Aztecs thought that constant sacrifice through the fifty-two year cycle could postpone the end.

According to Miguel León-Portilla, Tlacaelel reformed the original Nahua religion and the Aztecs viewed themselves as the main representatives for feeding the gods. This gave them a new sense of identity, from "people without face" as they were called by hostile neighbours, to the people in charge of the existence of the universe. Thus they began to call themselves "The people of the sun". Other researchers dispute León-Portilla's perspective, pointing to the relative lack of primary sources.Fact|date=November 2007

acrifices to specific gods

Huitzilopochtli

Huitzilopochtli was the tribal deity of the Mexica and, as such, he represented the character of the Mexica people and was often identified with the sun at the zenith, and with warfare.

When the Aztecs sacrificed people to Huitzilopochtli the victim would be placed on a sacrificial stone. [Bernardino de Sahagún, "Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España" (op. cit.), p. 76] Then the priest would cut through the abdomen with an obsidian or flint blade. [ Sahagún, Ibid.] The heart would be torn out still beating and held towards the sky in honor to the Sun-God; the body would be carried away and either cremated or given to the warrior responsible for the capture of the victim. He would either cut the body in pieces and send them to important people as an offering, or use the pieces for ritual cannibalism. The warrior would thus ascend one step in the hierarchy of the Aztec social classes, a system that rewarded successful warriors. [ cite book
last = Duverger
first = Christian
title = La flor letal: economía del sacrificio azteca
publisher = Fondo de cultura económica
date= 2005
pages = 83-93
]

Tezcatlipoca

Tezcatlipoca was generally considered the most powerful god, the god of night, sorcery and destiny (the name "tezcatlipoca" means "smoking mirror", or "obsidian"). The Aztecs believed that Tezcatlipoca created war to provide food and drink to the gods. Tezcatlipoca was known by several epithets including "the Enemy" and "the Enemy of Both Sides", which stress his affinity for discord. Tezcatlipoca had the power to forgive sins and to relieve disease, or to release a man from the fate assigned to him by his date of birth; however, nothing in Tezcatlipoca's nature compelled him to do so. He was capricious and often brought about reversals of fortune. To the Aztecs, he was an all-knowing, all-seeing nearly all-powerful god. One of his names can be translated as "We Who Are His Slaves".

Some captives were sacrificed to Tezcatlipoca in ritual gladiatorial combat. The victim was tethered in place and given a mock weapon. He died fighting against up to four fully armed jaguar knights and eagle warriors.

During the 20-day month of Toxcatl, a young impersonator of Tezcatlipoca would be sacrificed. Throughout a year, this youth would be dressed as Tezcatlipoca and treated as a living incarnation of the God. The youth would represent Tezcatlipoca on earth; he would get four beautiful women as his companions until he met his destiny, in the meantime he walked through the streets of Tenochtitlan playing a flute. On the day of the sacrifice a feast would be held in Tezcatlipoca's honor. The young man would climb the pyramid, break his flute and surrender his body to the priests. Sahagún compared it to the Christian Easter. [Sahagún, Op. cit., p. 79]

Huehueteotl

To appease Huehueteotl, the fire god and a senior deity, the Aztecs had a ceremony where they prepared a large feast at the end of which they would burn captives and before they died they would be taken from the fire and their hearts would be cut out. Motolinía and Sahagún reported that the Aztecs believed that if they did not placate Huehueteotl a plague of fire would strike their city. The sacrifice was considered an offering to the deity. Just before the slaves died they were removed from the fires to have their hearts extracted. [Bernardino de Sahagún, "Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España" (op. cit.), p. 83]

Tláloc

Tláloc was the god of rain. The Aztecs believed that if sacrifices weren't supplied for Tláloc, rain wouldn't come and their crops wouldn't flourish. Leprosy and rheumatism, diseases caused by Tláloc, would infest the village. Tláloc required the tears of the young as part of the sacrifice. The priests made the children cry during their way to immolation: a good omen that Tláloc would wet the earth in the raining season. In the Florentine Codex, also known as "General History of the Things of New Spain", Sahagún wrote:

Cquote|They offered them as sacrifices to [Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue] so that they would give them water. [cite book
last = Sahagún
first = Fray Bernardino
title = Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. 1561-82., trans. Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble
publisher = Santa Fe: School of American Research and the University of Utah
date= 1950-1959
pages = III, 5
]

The Flower Wars

It has often been claimed by scholars that the Aztecs resorted to a form of ritual warfare, the Flower War, in order to obtain living human bodies for the sacrifices in time of peace. This claim however has been severely criticised by scholars such as Ross Hassig [cite book |author=aut|Hassig, Ross |year=1988 |title=Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control |publisher=University of Oklahoma Press |location=Norman |isbn=0-806-12121-1 ] [cite journal
last = Hassig
first = Ross
title = El sacrificio y las guerras floridas
journal = Arqueología mexicana
volume = XI
pages = 46–51
date= 2003
] and Nigel Davies [cite book |author=aut|Davies, Nigel |year=1968 |title=Los Señorios independientes del Imperio Azteca" |publisher=Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) |location=Mexico D.F.] who claim that the main purpose of the Flower Wars was political and not religious and that the number of sacrificial victims obtained through flower wars was insignificant compared to the number of victims obtained through normal political warfare.

According to Diego Durán's "History of the Indies of New Spain", and a few other sources that are also based on the Crónica X, the Flower Wars were originally a treaty between the cities of Aztec Triple Alliance and Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo motivated by a famine in Mesoamerica in 1450. Aztec prisoners were also sacrificed in Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo. The capture of prisoners for sacrifices was called "nextlaualli" ("debt payment to the gods"). These sources however are contradicted by other sources, such as the Codex Chimalpahin, which mentions "Flower Wars" much earlier than the famine of 1450 and against other opponents than the ones mentioned in the treaty.

Because the objective of Aztec warfare was to capture victims alive for human sacrifice, battle tactics were designed primarily to injure the enemy rather than kill him. After towns were conquered their inhabitants were no longer candidates for human sacrifice, only liable to regular tribute.

Slaves also could be used for human sacrifice, but only if the slave was considered lazy and had been resold three times. [ cite book
last = Duverger
first = Christian
title = La flor letal
publisher = Fondo de cultura económica
date= 2005
pages = 81
]

The sacrifice ritual

Most of the sacrificial rituals took more than two people to perform. In the usual procedure of sacrifice, the victim would be taken to the top of the temple. [Bernardino de Sahagún, "Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España" (op. cit.), p. 88] Then the victim would be laid on a stone slab by four priests, and his/her abdomen sliced open by a fifth priest with a ceremonial knife made of flint. The cut was made in the abdomen and went through the diaphragm. The priest would grab the heart and tear it out, still beating. It would be placed in a bowl held by a statue of the honored god, and the body thrown on the temple's stairs. [ cite book
last = Duverger
first = Christian
title = La flor letal
publisher = Fondo de cultura económica
date= 2005
pages = 139-40
]

The body parts would then be disposed of: the viscera fed the animals in the zoo; the bleeding head was placed on display in the "tzompantli", meaning 'hairy skulls'. [Duverger, Ibid., 171] Not all the skulls in the tzompantlis were victims of sacrifice. In the Anales de Tlatelolco it is described that during the siege of Tlatelolco by the Spaniards, the Tlatelolcas built three tzompantli: two for their own dead and one for the fallen conquerors, including two severed heads of horses .

Other kinds of human sacrifice, which paid tribute to various deities, approached the victims differently. The victim could be shot with arrows (in which the draining blood represented the cool rains of spring); die in unequal fighting (gladiatorial sacrifice) or be sacrificed as a result of the Mesoamerican ballgame; burned (to honor the fire god); flayed after being sacrificed (to honor Xipe Totec, "Our Lord The Flayed One"), or drowned. [ Duverger (op. cit.), pages 157-167]

[
tzompantli", or skull rack, as shown in the post-Conquest Ramirez Codex.]

Estimates of the scope of the sacrifices

For the re-consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed about 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days, though there were probably many fewer. According to Ross Hassing, author of "Aztec Warfare", "between 10,000 and 80,400 persons" were sacrificed in the ceremony. [cite journal
last = Hassig
first = Ross
title = El sacrificio y las guerras floridas
journal = Arqueología mexicana
volume = XI
pages = 47
date= 2003
] The higher estimate would average 14 sacrifices per minute during the four-day consecration. As a comparison, the Auschwitz concentration camp, working 24 hours a day with modern technology, approached but did not equal this pace: it executed about 19,200 a day at its peak. Four tables were arranged at the top so that the victims could be jettisoned down the sides of the temple. [Victor Davis Hanson (2000), "Carnage and Culture," Doubleday, New York, pp. 194-195. Hanson, who accepts the 80,000+ estimate, also notes that it exceeded "the daily murder record at either Auschwitz or Dachau."] Nonetheless, according to Codex Telleriano-Remensis, old Aztecs who talked with the missionaries told about a much lower figure for the reconsecration of the temple, approximately 4,000 victims in total.

Michael Harner, in his 1997 article "The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice", estimates the number of persons sacrificed in central Mexico in the 15th century as high as 250,000 per year. Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl, a Mexica descendant and the author of Codex Ixtlilxochitl, claimed that one in five children of the Mexica subjects was killed annually. Victor Davis Hanson argues that an estimate by Don Carlos Zumárraga of 20,000 per annum is "more plausible." [Hanson, p. 195.] Other scholars believe that, since the Aztecs always tried to intimidate their enemies, it is more likely that they could have inflated the number as a propaganda tool. [ Duverger (op. cit), 174-77] The same can be said for Bernal Díaz's inflated calculations when, in a state of visual shock, he grossly miscalculated the number of skulls at one of the seven Tenochtitlan tzompantlis. According the Florentine Codex, fifty years before the conquest the Aztecs burnt the skulls of the former tzompantli. Mexican archeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma has unearthed and studied some tzompantlis. [cite book
last = Matos-Moctezuma
first = Eduardo
title = Muerte a filo de obsidiana
publisher = Fondo de Cultura Económica
date= 2005
pages = 111-124
]

Sacrifices were made on specific days. Sahagún, Juan Bautista de Pomar and Motolinía report that the Aztecs had eighteen festivities each year, one for each Aztec month. They clearly state that in those festivities sacrifices were made. Each god required a different kind of victim: young women were drowned for Xilonen; children were sacrificed to Tláloc; Nahuatl-speaking prisoners to Huitzilopochtli, and a single nahua would volunteer for Tezcatlipoca. The Ramírez Codex states that for the annual festivity of Huitzilopochtli more than sixty prisoners were sacrificed in the main temple, and prisoners were sacrificed in other large Aztec cities as well.

Not all sacrifices were made at the Tenochtitlan temples; a few were made at "Cerro del Peñón", an islet of the Texcoco lake. According to an Aztec source, in the month of "Tlacaxipehualiztli" (from February 22 to March 13), thirty-four captives were sacrificed in the gladiatorial sacrifice to Xipe Totec. More victims would be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli in the month "Panquetzaliztli" (from 9 November to 28 November) according to the Ramírez Codex. This would mean a figure as low as 300 to 600 victims a year. There is little agreement on the actual figure due to the scarcity of archeological evidence.

Every Aztec warrior would have to provide at least one prisoner for sacrifice. All the male population was trained to be warriors, but only the few who succeeded in providing captives could became full-time members of the warrior elite. Those who could not would became "macehualli", workers. Accounts also state that several young warriors could unite their efforts in order to capture a single prisoner, which suggests that capturing prisoners for sacrifice was challenging.

Discussion of primary sources

, Telleriano-Remensis, Durán, and Sahagún's Florentine. On the other hand, the pre-Columbian, indigenous codices that depict the rites were not written texts but pictorial and highly symbolic ideographs -- the Aztecs had not developed the fully written language of their predecessors, the Mayans. Bishop Zumarraga (1528-48) burned all obtainable texts for missionary reasons. [George Holtker, "Studies in Comparative Religion", The Religions of Mexico and Peru, Vol 1, CTS]

For Mesoamerica as a whole, the accumulated archaeological, iconographical and in the case of the Maya written evidence, indicates that human sacrifice was widespread across cultures and periods, dating back to 600 BCE and possibly much earlier. Osteological analyses have also been interpreted as corroborating the texts. [ [http://www.famsi.org/reports/96036/index.html] - "Ritual Sacrifice and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid at Teotihuacán, México" By George L. Cowgill] [ [http://www.famsi.org/reports/99002/index.html] - "Analysis of Kaqchikel Skeletons: Iximché, Guatemala" By Stephen L. Whittington & Robert H. Tykot] Pictorial illustrations of sacrifices on Maya ceramics and stelae have also been published. [cite journal
last = Stuart
first = David
title = La ideología del sacrificio entre los mayas | journal = Arqueología mexicana
volume = XI, 63
pages = 24–29
date= 2003
]

Accounts from the Grijalva expeditions

In addition to the accounts provided by Sahagún and Durán, there are other important texts to be considered.
Juan de Grijalva, Hernán Cortés, Juan Díaz, Bernal Díaz, Andrés de Tapia, Francisco de Aguilar, Ruy González and the Anonymous Conqueror wrote about the Conquest of Mexico. Martyr d'Anghiera, Lopez de Gomara, Oviedo y Valdes and Illescas, while not in Mesoamerica, wrote their accounts based on interviews with the participants. Bartolomé de Las Casas and Sahagún arrived later to New Spain but had access to direct testimony, especially of the indigenous people. All of these narratives mention and describe the practice of human sacrifice

Juan Díaz

Juan Díaz, a participant of the 1518 Grijalva expedition, wrote "Itinerario de Grijalva" before 1520, in which he describes the aftermath of a sacrifice on an island near Veracruz.

Bernal Díaz

Bernal Díaz corroborates Juan Díaz's history:

Cquote|On these altars were idols with evil looking bodies, and that very night five Indians had been sacrificed before them; their chests had been cut open, and their arms and thighs had been cut off. The walls were covered with blood. We stood greatly amazed and gave the island the name "isleta de Sacrificios" [Island of the Sacrifices] . [cite book
last = Díaz
first = Bernal
title = Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España (Introducción y notas de Joaquín Ramírez Cabañas)
publisher = Editorial Porrúa
date= 2005, published posthumously in 1632
pages = 24
]

In "The Conquest of New Spain" Díaz recounted that, after landing on the coast, they came across a temple dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. "That day they had sacrificed two boys, cutting open their chests and offering their blood and hearts to that accursed idol". Díaz narrates several more sacrificial descriptions on the later Cortés expedition. Arriving at Cholula, they find "cages of stout wooden bars [...] full of men and boys who were being fattened for the sacrifice at which their flesh would be eaten"." [ Díaz (op. cit.), p. 150] When the conquistadors reached Tenochtitlan, Díaz described the sacrifices at the Great Pyramid:

According to Bernal Díaz, the chiefs of the surrounding towns, for example Cempoala, would complain on numerous occasions to Cortés about the perennial need to supply the Aztecs with victims for human sacrifice. It is clear from his description of their fear and resentment toward the Mexicas that, in their opinion, it was no honor to surrender their kinsmen to be sacrificed by them. ["The Conquest of New Spain", chap. XLVI]

Hernán Cortés

Cortés describes similar events in his "Letters":

Cquote|They have a most horrid and abominable custom which truly ought to be punished and which until now we have seen in no other part, and this is that, whenever they wish to ask something of the idols, in order that their plea may find more acceptance, they take many girls and boys and even adults, and in the presence of these idols they open their chests while they are still alive and take out their hearts and entrails and burn them before the idols, offering the smoke as sacrifice. Some of us have seen this, and they say it is the most terrible and frightful thing they have ever witnessed. [cite book
last = Cortés
first = Hernán
title = Cartas de relación
publisher = México: Editorial Porrúa
date= 2005, originally published in 1523
pages = page 26
"Y tienen otra cosa horrible y abominable y digna de ser punida que hasta hoy no habíamos visto en ninguna parte, y es que todas las veces que alguna cosa quieren pedir a sus ídolos para que más acepten su petición, toman muchas niñas y niños y aun hombre y mujeres de mayor edad, y en presencia de aquellos ídolos los abren vivos por los pechos y les sacan el corazón y las entrañas, y queman las dichas entrañas y corazones delante de los ídolos, y ofreciéndolos en sacrificio aquel humo. Esto habemos visto algunos de nosotros, y los que lo han visto dicen que es la más cruda y espantosa cosa de ver que jamás han visto"."
]

The Anonymous Conqueror

The Anonymous Conqueror's "Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan" details Aztec sacrifices. [ [http://www.famsi.org/research/christensen/anon_con/section16.htm] - Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan, México, Chapter XV, written by a Companion of Hernán Cortés, The Anonymous Conqueror.] On Chapter XIV he depicts the temple in which men, women, boys and girls were sacrificed. [ [http://www.famsi.org/research/christensen/anon_con/section15.htm] – Ibid., Chapter XIV] On Chapter XXIV the Anonymous Conqueror repeatedly claims that the Aztecs were cannibals, sodomites, alcoholics and polygamists. [ [http://www.famsi.org/research/christensen/anon_con/section25.htm] – Ibid., Chapter XXIV] The original Spanish text is lost. The description of the temple was published in the 1556 Ramusio Italian edition.

Assessment of the practice of human sacrifice

Human sacrifice was nothing new when the Aztecs arrived to the Valley of Mexico, nor was it something unique to pre-Columbian Mexico. Other Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Tarascans and Toltecs, performed human sacrifices, as did many Old World cultures such as the Canaanites, Egyptians, Chinese of the early dynasties, Mongols, Scythians, Celts and even the Greeks of Homeric times. [cite book| last= Hughes|first = Dennis D.| authorlink = | coauthors =|title = Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece | publisher = Routledge|date = 1991|location = |pages = |url =| isbn=0-415-03483-3 ] Although the extent of human sacrifice is unknown among several Mesoamerican civilizations, such as Teotihuacán, [ [http://lta.today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=entertainmentNews&storyID=2007-04-11T224854Z_01_N11260646_RTRIDST_0_ESPECTACULOS-MEXICO-PIRAMIDE-SOL.XML] DNA analysis shows that the Teotihuacan civilization brought human victims from distant towns.] what distinguished Maya and Aztec human sacrifice was the importance with which it was embedded in everyday life.

Diego Durán states that Aztecs made "indifferent or sarcastic remarks" when the Spaniards severely criticized the rite. In his "Book of the Gods and Rites" some of the Nahuas even ridiculed the Christian sensibilities. Instead, they asked the Spaniards to applaud:

Sacrifices were ritualistic and symbolic acts accompanying huge feasts and festivals. Victims usually died in the "center stage" amidst the splendor of dancing troupes, percussion orchestras, elaborate costumes and decorations, carpets of flowers, crowds of thousands of commoners, and all the assembled elite.

In the special case of the young man who was indoctrinated for a year to submit himself to Tezcatlipoca's temple, the would-be victim was the Aztec equivalent of a celebrity or rock star, being greatly revered and adored to the point of "kissing the ground" when he passed by, as Sahagún put it. [Sahagún, "Historia general", op. cit, p. 104)]

Proposed explanations of Aztec human sacrifice

The nutritional explanation

Scholars Michael Harner [cite journal
last =Harner
first=Michael
year=1977
title=The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice
journal=American Ethnologist,
volume=Vol. 4
issue= No. 1,
pages=117–135
doi=10.1525/ae.1977.4.1.02a00070
] and Marvin Harris have argued that the motivation behind human sacrifice among the Aztecs was actually the cannibalization of the sacrificial victims. While there is universal agreement that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether cannibalism was widespread. At one extreme anthropologist Marvin Harris, author of "Cannibals and Kings", has propagated the claim, originally proposed by Harner, that the flesh of the victims was a part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. This claim has been completely refuted by Bernard Ortíz Montellano who, in his studies of Aztec health, diet, and medicine, [cite book |title=Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition |first=Bernard R. |last=Ortiz de Montellano |year=1990 |publisher=Rutgers University Press] [cite journal |title=Counting Skulls: Comment on the Aztec Cannibalism Theory of Harner-Harris
first=Bernard R. |last=Ortiz De Montellano |year=1983
journal=American Anthropologist, New Series, |volume=Vol. 85, |issue=No. 2 |pages=403–406.
] demonstrates that while the Aztec diet was low in animal proteins, it was rich in vegetable proteins.

The political explanation

The high-profile nature of the sacrificial ceremonies indicates that human sacrifice played an important political function. The Mexica used a sophisticated package of psychological weaponry to maintain their empire, aimed at instilling a sense of fear into their neighbours. European empires, in contrast, were typically secured through the creation of garrisons and installation of puppet governments in conquered towns or settlements. The Mexica used human sacrifice as a weapon of terror even against the Spanish conquistadors, whose fallen victims were sacrificed and sometimes skinned and their bloody heads placed at the tzompantli. From across the empire even the chiefs of enemy towns were invited, or in the case of tributary towns obliged, to attend sacrificial ceremonies in Tenochtitlan. Their refusal would be considered an act of defiance against the Mexica.

The psychological explanation

For Lloyd deMause it is significant that the victims were invested of a profound cosmological meaning. According to him and a minority of academics who subscribe to an alternate school of thought, "psychohistory", human sacrifices, including sacrifices in Mesoamerica, were an unconscious form of response to the traumatogenic modes of childrearing. [cite book
last = Godwin
first = Robert
title = One Cosmos under God
publisher = Omega Books
date= 2004
pages = 142, 154
] DeMause in particular considers the Aztecs' practice of sacrifice as displacement. [cite book
last = deMause
first = Lloyd
title = The Emotional Life of Nations
publisher = NY: Karnac
year = 2002
pages = e.g., pages 31, 312, 374, 289-90, 410
]

ee also

* Human sacrifice

External links

* [http://www.arqueomex.com/S8N5SacrificioEsp63.html Article "El sacrificio humano en Mesoamérica" by Michel Graulich] - in "Arqueología mexicana".
* [http://mexicoetal.com Aztec obsidian knives] - Solid blade and handcrafted as they would have been for the sacrifices.

Notes

References

: cite book|author=aut|Anonymous Conqueror |authorlink=Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan |year=1917 |origyear=ca.1550 |title=Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan, México |others=Marshall H. Saville (trans. and ed.) |publisher=The Cortes Society |location=New York |format=online reproduction by FAMSI, edited by Alec Christensen |url=http://www.famsi.org/research/christensen/anon_con/index.html |oclc=6720413|accessdate=2008-01-12 : cite book |author=aut|Carrasco, David |year=1999 |title=City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization |location=Boston, MA |publisher=Beacon Press |isbn=0-8070-4642-6 |oclc=41368255 : cite book |author=aut|Díaz del Castillo, Bernal |authorlink=Bernal Díaz del Castillo |year=1963 |origyear=1632 |title=The Conquest of New Spain |edition=6th printing (1973)|others=J. M. Cohen (trans.) |series=Penguin Classics|publisher=Penguin Books |location=Harmondsworth, England|isbn=0-14-044123-9 |oclc=162351797 : cite book |author=aut|Durán, Diego |authorlink=Diego Durán|origyear=ca.1581 |year=1994 |title=The History of the Indies of New Spain |others=Doris Heyden (trans., annot., and introd.) |series=Civilization of the American Indian series, #210 |edition=English translation of "Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y Islas de Tierra Firme"|location=Norman |publisher=University of Oklahoma Press |isbn=0-8061-2649-3 |oclc=29565779 : cite book |author=aut|Godwin, Robert W. |year=2004 |title=One Cosmos under God: The Unification of Matter, Life, Mind & Spirit |location=Saint Paul, MN |publisher=Paragon House |isbn=1-55778-836-7 |oclc=55131504: cite book |author=aut|Hassig, Ross |year=1988 |title=Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control |series=Civilization of the American Indian series, #188 |publisher=University of Oklahoma Press |location=Norman |isbn=0-8061-2121-1 |oclc=17106411 : cite book |author=aut|León-Portilla, Miguel |authorlink=Miguel León-Portilla |year=1963 |title=Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Náhuatl Mind |series=Civilization of the American Indian series, #67|others=Jack Emory Davis (trans.) |location=Norman |publisher=University of Oklahoma Press |oclc=181727 : cite book |author=aut|Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo |authorlink=Eduardo Matos Moctezuma |year=1998 |title=Vida y muerte en el Templo Mayor |edition=3rd edition |location=México D.F. |publisher=Fondo de Cultura Económica |isbn=968-16-5712-8 |oclc=40997904 es icon : cite journal |author=aut|Ortiz De Montellano, Bernard R. |year=1983 |month=June |title=Counting Skulls: Comment on the Aztec Cannibalism Theory of Harner-Harris |journal=American Anthropologist |volume=85 |issue=2 |pages=pp.403–406 |location=Arlington, VA |publisher=American Anthropological Association |doi=10.1525/aa.1983.85.2.02a00130 |issn=0002-7294 |oclc=1479294: cite book |author=aut|Ortiz De Montellano, Bernard R. |year=1990 |title=Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition |location=New Brunswick, NJ |publisher=Rutgers University Press |isbn=0-8135-1562-9|oclc=20798977: cite book |author=aut|Sahagún, Bernardino de |authorlink=Bernardino de Sahagún |year=1950–82 |origyear=ca. 1540–85 |title=, 13 vols. in 12 |edition=translation of "Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España" |others=Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson (eds., trans., notes and illus.) |series=vols. I-XII |location=Santa Fe, NM and Salt Lake City |publisher=School for American Research and the University of Utah Press |isbn=0-87480-082-X |oclc=276351 : cite book |author=aut|Schele, Linda |authorlink=Linda Schele |coauthors= and aut|Mary Ellen Miller |year=1992 |title=Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art |others=Justin Kerr (photographer) |edition=2nd paperback edn., reprint with corrections |publisher=George Braziller |location=New York |isbn=0-8076-1278-2 |oclc=41441466


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