A Brief History Of Human Sacrifice: The Aztecs

The Aztecs civilization were known to live in central Mexico from 1300 to 1521. History has illustrated the Aztecs as a weird civilization, one capable of great intelligence and architectural marvels, who simultaneously worshiped a bunch of strange angry gods and routinely ritually sacrificed each other to them.

A lot of our beliefs about the Aztecs traced back to 1519 and the Spanish conquerors of the time. And although we accept that human sacrifice was a part of their culture and religion, the extent of it is still debated today. The fall of the Aztec Empire and our subsequent beliefs on human sacrifice in their culture can be traced back to 1519 and the expedition of Henancortez that culminated in the conquest of the capital Tenochtitlan and the fall of the Aztec Empire by 1521.

Upon arrival in Tenochtitlan, Cortes reported discoveries of the practice of human sacrifice, horrifying the general public and lending credence to the conquest. It’s thanks to the Spanish writings of the time that people saw Aztecs as a horrifying civilization who routinely murdered their own people.

But how true is it?

There’s no question that Aztec people performed human sacrifice.

Later archaeological findings confirmed the practice in Aztec society. As of 2000 and 2600 three human skulls have been uncovered at the Templo Mayor, the main temple of the Aztecs.

1 Aztecs Didn’t Invent Human Sacrifice

Aztecs didn’t invent human sacrifice and certainly weren’t the first civilization to practice it.

It was actually a long standing cultural tradition across Mesoamerica. And others like the Mayans and Toltecs also took part in ritual human sacrifice. And yet Aztecs seemed the most bloodthirsty sacrificing more than any other civilization, with an estimated 20,000 per year dying to appease the gods. And although it seems the majority of these sacrifices were men and prisoners of war. It wasn’t unheard of for women and children to also be sacrificed in the name of the gods.

2 Why did the Aztecs perform human sacrifices?

The most commonly held belief is that the Aztecs were deeply ritualistic. They followed a strict calendar and cycles that they believed were related to their five primary gods. They believed that at the end of each cycle of 52 years, the world had the potential to end and that sacrifice helped prevent this.

The legend of the five sons tells that these gods sacrificed themselves so the Aztec people could live and that humanity only continued to survive because of their sacrifice. And so in return, by performing ritual sacrifices, they were lending the gods continual strength to nourish humanity through the next 52 years cycle and giving thanks for everything they had been granted. At the end of the 52 years, if the gods had not received enough sacrifices, it was believed the world would end. And so, whenever the sun rose in the sky on the day of a brand new cycle, the Aztecs would celebrate the lives given so that humanity could survive. This wasn’t the only calendar the Aztecs followed.

Unlike modern society, the Aztecs’ year stretched to 18 months and each month had a different festival dedicated to one of the five gods. Each festival involved giving thanks and human sacrifices to the god to continue to appease them and ensure enough people were killed. To strengthen each god for the end of the 52 years each god required a different type of sacrificial ritual and each sound pretty horrifying.

3 5 Aztec Gods & Human Sacrifice Rituals Attached To Them

Let’s take a look at five of the gods that had specific sacrificial rituals attached to them. Although, remember, there were plenty of other gods that needed human flesh too.

Huitzilopochtli – The God Of Warfare And The Sun

Huitzilopochtli was a manifestation of the sun and worshiped at the main temple – Templo Mayor. He is celebrated at four of the 18 Aztec festivals. At festivals dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the victim would be ceremoniously adorned in the god’s colors and covered in blue body paint before being laid upon a sacrificial stone.

A priest would chant before raising a blade to the sky bringing it down and sharply cutting a line through the victim’s torso. Their hearts would be ripped out and still beating held towards the sun. They then, in a move that seems a bit unceremonious, push the body of their sacrifice off the pyramid. The body would be carried away and either cremated or given to the warrior who captured them. To begin with, the warrior would either send parts of the body to important people because who doesn’t love getting a thumb in the post or eat pieces as part of a cannibalistic ritual?

The warrior would then get to move one step up the Aztec social hierarchy.

Tezcatlipoca – God Of Night, Sorcery And Destiny

Tezcatlipoca, the most powerful god and the god of night, sorcery and destiny. There were two types of ways victims were sacrificed to Tezcatlipoca. One was in gladiatorial combat; they would be tethered in place and given a fake weapon to die fighting facing four fully armed Jaguar Knights and Eagle warriors, two branches of the Aztec military elite. The other was a sacrifice of a young boy chosen to mimic Tezcatlipoca for a year until his inevitable death. And what a year it was.

The boy would be dressed as the god and treated as a living incarnation tasked with wandering the streets of Tezcatlipoca playing a flute and showered with luxury and women until the day of his sacrifice. First, a feast would be held in his honor before, the boy would be expected to climb the pyramid, break his flute and surrender his body to the priests.

Immediately after the sacrifice the next incarnation would be chosen.

Xiuhtecuhtli – The God Of Fire And Heat

Xiuhtecuhtli – The god of fire and heat and version of the old god Huehueteotl are worshiped both as one and separate entities during the festival of Iskali. Ten days before the festival, preparations would be made in order to commit ritual sacrifices to the gods. Animals would be captured to be sacrificed on the first night of the celebration and prisoners of war or captives of the Aztec empire would be burnt alongside the animals.

After a large feast, the captives would be thrown onto the fire but just before they died from their wounds. They’d be, some would say, unceremoniously yanked out of the flames and their hearts cut out duplicate Huehueteotl and ensure he didn’t send a plague of fire to burn the city.

Xiuhtecuhtli was the god worshiped at the end of the 52 year cycle. In the new fire ceremony priests and a sacrificial victim would travel to the top of the volcano Visachhslan and wait for Orion’s belt to rise over the top of the mountains. When it did, they would rip the sacrifice’s heart from his body and light a fire in the hole in his chest. As thanks to Xiuhtecuhtli that humans had provided enough sacrifices to live another 52 years from the fire burning in the sacrifice’s chest. They then each take flames to light the ceremonial fires in temples throughout the city.

Tlaloc – God Of Rain, Water And Earthly Fertility

Tlaloc was a god who wanted particular sacrificial victims and those victims just happened to be children. The Aztec believed if he didn’t get them the god would wreak havoc ruining crops withholding precious rainwater and sending bouts of diseases throughout the land. As if sacrifice and the sacrifice of children wasn’t bad enough, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the brutality of the sacrifices to Tlaloc.

The Aztecs believed that the god required the tears of the young as part of the sacrifice. And so the remains of the 42 children found at the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan also showed signs of suffering serious injuries before their deaths.

The 16th century researcher Friar Bernardino de Sahagun wrote of sacrifices to Tilolok in the Florentine Codex – a book describing Sahagun’s research study of Mesoamerica.

They assembled the children whom they slew in the first month buying them from their mothers and they went on killing them in all the feasts which followed until the reigns really began. Thus they slew some on the first month named Kavita lyua and some in the second named Tolakashi Pew Alitzli and some in the third named Tokostonteii and others in the fourth named Ueitocoztli so that until the reigns began in abundance in all the feasts they sacrificed children.

Xipe Totec – God Of Rebirth, Agriculture, The Seasons And Craftsman

Shepatotek was also known by the name Our Lord the Flayed One and celebrated during the festival of Tlacippe Juillisli. One sacrifice was chosen for each of the 40 days preceding the festival and for that time got to act, live and dress as the god enjoying similar luxuries to the young man who was chosen for Xipe Totec. But at the end of the 40 days the sacrifices would be taken to Xipe Totec’s Temple where a Texas Chainsaw Massacre ritual would play out.

Their skin would be flayed from their bodies and given to others to wear as a disturbing skin suit. These individuals would then travel through the city fighting battles and collecting gifts encased in the sacrifice’s skin.

The sacrifices who are still alive at this point would then have their hearts removed before their bodies were dismembered for ritualistic eating.

Have you enjoyed this breakdown of Aztec human sacrifice?