Aztec Sacrafice: 12 Pg. Paper Essay, Research Paper
The Aztec s religion consisted of many gods, including Uitzilopochtli (the sun god), Coyolxauhqui (the moon goddess), Tlaloc (the rain god), and Quetzalcoatl (inventor of writing and the calendar, who was also associated with resurrection)(AC). The gods were most often fed captured soldiers or slaves through sacrifice. One reported occurrence was that the priests would buy babies and small children for more special sacrifices, to Tlaloc, who was apparently fond of the sound of screaming children. When the Great Temple was built, it was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, and to honor him the Aztecs performed a sacrificial rite never attempted before: mass sacrifice. This would become the greatest sacrifice of humans in all of Mexico, and quite possibly the world (Frederiksen). They felt the need to something as an offering to Huitzilopochtli, for the purpose of him answering their prayers and also to regain his respect. As an offering, they gave blood, which sustained life. These acts of the Aztecs, as well as their fellow ancient civilizations, went down in history as some of the most gory yet fascinating methods of worship ever performed.
An Aztec tale told of two gods who stepped forward to offer themselves. The first was the arrogant Tecuciztecatl (lord of the conch shells), and the second was the modest Nanahuatzin (meaning purulent or pustuled one)(Leon-Portilla, 15). The ritual called for the use of fir tree needles for drawing blood, before they would each have the chance to cast themselves into a huge fire, only to emerge as the sun. However, Tecuciztecatl was content in simply offering up spines made of coral, while Nanahuatzin bled himself profusely with the needles, and offered up authentic fir branches and sharp maguey needles (15). When the time came to run into the fire, Tecuciztecatl was the first to go. He made four attempts, but was too afraid. This resulted in him losing to opportunity to cast himself into the fire. Next, Nanahuatzin closed his eyes and rushed into the fire while all the gods gathered in Teotihuacan to watch. Tecuciztecatl then desperately hurled himself into the fire as well, but it was too late. As Nanahuatzin rose as the sun, Tecuciztecatl rose as the pale moon (15). The gods freely accepted death, and they sacrificed themselves so the sun would move and life would be possible for humanity. One god, Quetzalcoatl bled himself over the bones of the dead, in order to restore life on earth, and to keep time divided into the day and night (17). The gods were also required to sacrifice themselves, so that the sun would continue to move across the sky. Quetzalcoatl performed the sacrifices, cutting open the chest of the gods and removing their hearts for Tonatiuh. As a result, the sun would assume its correct path across the sky. Because the gods performed these rites, the Aztecs believed they should do the same (Smith, 208).
Human sacrifice became very important to the Aztec in the fifteenth century. For warriors, the ultimate honor was to either be slain in battle or to volunteer for sacrifice in a major ritual (AC). For the less important rituals, prisoners would be used as victims. For the purpose of avoiding any kind of cosmic disaster, the Aztec priests would sacrifice thousands of victims. The priests were a sight themselves. They had long, unkempt hair, which was clotted with dried blood and shredded ears and genitalia. They were often painted black, and wore an ankle-length black or dark green robe (Frederiksen). These robes could be decorated with human bones and skulls, their bodies covered with burnt powdered scorpions and spiders (Frederiksen).
The Flower Wars took place as a method of capturing victims for sacrifice. By 1487 the custom was more established, the year the Great Temple was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. To mark the occasion, twenty thousand prisoners were sacrificed. The kings of Tenochtitlan and Texcoco initiated the killing, and the priests continued it for four days. The captives stood in four separate lines, which stretched for two miles throughout the streets of the city (Frederiksen). Some religions looked on Aztec sacrifice as action inspired by the devil. However, the Aztecs simply saw it as the only way to avoid death of the sun, which would result in the death of humanity. So they provided Huitzilopochtli with the vital energy enclosed in chalchiuhatl or the precious liquid, also know as blood (Leon-Portilla, 17). For the god Xipe Totec, who was associated with springtime, the perished prisoners would be flayed, and the winning warriors wore their skins for a twenty day period (Time-Life, 86). Although human sacrifice was important to most Mesoamerican cultures, its importance to them was nothing compared to that of the Aztecs. The Aztecs even beheaded a quail each day to salute the rising sun (100).
One way for Aztec merchants to prove themselves, and to create a social status for themselves was to first buy an attractive slave. Next, they bathe the slave and dress him/her in beautiful apparel (108). After inviting friends over, the slave would dance for the owner and his guests. After dancing, the slave would be turned over to the priests, who would cut out the heart and offer it up to the gods. The remains of the slave would then be served to the owner and his guests over cooked maize (108). However, because after the sacrifice the victim s limbs are considered divine, they were eaten with reverence, ritual, and care. The torsos were not as important, and were therefore treated with less respect, and were fed to the animals in the royal zoo (108).
The Aztecs believed that warriors who died in battle went straight to the Eastern Paradise where they would become attendants to the sun (125). Each morning, they would wait on the plains, and as the sun rose, they would beat their wooden clubs against their shields, before escorting the sun to its zenith while dancing and singing. There, the women who had died in childbirth (another kind of battle) would take over, and transported the sun to the day s end (125). Deaths of this measure were equal to the important sacrificial rites performed, using volunteer warriors and nobles.
The importance of the ritual was often portrayed through the importance of the sacrificial victims being used. As stated before, it was an honor for warriors to be slain in battle, or to volunteer for a sacrifice, but they were usually only used in the more important ceremonies. For the less important, prisoners were generally used (AC). However, it was reported that some priests would often buy babies and small children for special ceremonies to Tlaloc who was fond of the sound of screaming children (Frederiksen). The victims would ascend the steps of the pyramid wearing a traditional sacrificial mask (AC). At the summit of this temple was the most common place to perform a sacrifice, although some could be performed inside (Frederiksen). Four priests would hold each of the victim s arms and legs, while a fifth priest would, by one of many methods, cut open the chest of the victim, and quickly remove the heart, sometimes still beating (Frederiksen). The steam rising off the heart would float into the air as an offering to the deities. Often times, the corpse would then be placed on a nearby banquet table where the palms of the hands and the feet were considered an edible delicacy. The remains of the body were then generally thrown into pits of snakes and other animals (Frederiksen). At the time of the Spanish conquest, an estimated fifty thousand people were sacrificed each year (Frederiksen).
The last day of the Aztec century a fifty-two year cycle was celebrated by a victim laid over an altar while priests used a fire-board to ignite a flame on his chest Stuart, 65). Once the fire was started, the victim s heart was ripped out and thrown into the new fire Priests then tended to the fire until it had grown large enough to be seen all over the Mexico Valley (65). Next, runners from all the different temples would come to carry a torch lit by the new fire to their own, local temples (Frederiksen). This ceremony was performed not only to welcome the new century, but also to assure the rebirth of time (Stuart, 65).
Slaves were killed in sacrifice when their owner died, in order to accompany him into the next world. Ahuitzotl s death resulted in the sacrifice of two hundred of his slaves. They were dressed in beautiful robes and given little hampers of items for the journey to carry with them. Each of their hearts were torn out and cast into the funeral pyre (Davies, 224). Also, to honor the ghost of a king s predecessor, a yearly average of five hundred prisoners were thrown over a cliff, in Dahomey. However, if a monarch died that year, the sacrificial number raised to one thousand (220). Although attempts have been made to figure out why mass sacrifice was performed, they have only lead to misconceptions. With so many people dying at one time, this act actually becomes a sanctified terrorism (220).
Although other ancient empires also chose to perform human sacrifice, the Aztec treated their victims much better than the others. Some other civilizations both sacrificed and enslaved their victims, enslavement often being worse fate (220). However, the victims of the Aztecs were treated with respect, as well as being offered a hope of wonderful and rich rewards in the next world, which are not given to those to have died natural deaths (220).
Although much of the photographs and drawings we see today are portrayals of the sacrifice of men, women, too, were subject to sacrifice. During the fall festival honoring mother goddesses of growing maize (the Aztec staple), women were beheaded while dancing in imitation of the goddesses (Time-Life, 106). Also, one youth was chosen annually to represent Tezcatlipoca. He was then honored for the next year, and treated as though he were a reincarnation of the god. He wore god-associated clothing, and a month prior to execution, four women portraying goddesses were presented to him (106). For the next month he would enjoy their company, until his death-day would arrive, and he would ascend the temple stairs, breaking a flute on each stair as he went (106).
The priests of Aztec sacrifice held very important roles in society, and were honored, and feared. The Spanish chronicler Duran described them as wearing robes, and awaiting the victim at the summit of the pyramid. Their faces were smeared black with soot, and they wore leather bands encircling their heads. One man would carry with him a wooden yoke, carved in the shape of a snake (29). Duran wrote,
They seized the victims one by one, one by one foot, another by the other, one priest by one hand, and another by the other hand. The victim was thrown on his back, upon the pointed stone, where the wretch was grabbed by the fifth priest, who placed the yoke upon his throat. The high priest then opened the chest and with amazing swiftness tore out the heart, ripping it out with his own hands. Thus steaming, the heart was lifted toward the sun, and the fumes were offered to the sun. The priest then turned toward the idol and cast the heart in its face. After the heart had been extracted, the body was allowed to roll down the steps of the pyramid, (29).
The Flowery Wars were battles fought simply for the purpose of capturing prisoners for sacrificial rites. They were generally fought between the Aztecs, along with alliances, (the people of Tezcoco and the independent Nahua dominions of Tlaxcala and Huexotzinco), and Tlacopan and Tacuba people (Leon-Portilla, 19). These battles provided a steady supply of prisoners or war to feed the Aztecs unceasing need for sacrificial victims (Time-Life, 100). However, these wars were hardly necessary when finding child-victims.
A letter was written to Mr. Thomas H. Frederiksen by a Mr. Miguel Chavez, who provided some insight on the occurrences of child sacrifice in the ancient Aztec culture. There are many theories about the way children were sacrificed by the Aztecs. However, they do know for sure that his practice went on. The rite was performed at the Templo Mayor, and although many were found to have been decapitated, anthropologists have reported that death was probably inflicted by several lacerations on the neck, otherwise known as throat-slitting (Frederiksen). These wounds were given to the children, causing them to bleed white, or until they were dead. Other theories of methods used in child sacrifice included dismemberment, while either alive or dead, and the removal of their hearts (Frederiksen).
The bodies of some children have been found buried. In one grave, two skeletons were found, seated with their arms and legs close to the body. What was unusual was that the bodies were complete except the absence of the hands and feet (Frederiksen). Was this, perhaps, the result of an act of cannibalism? As mentioned before, exactly those body parts were considered a delicacy. Another skeleton found showed evidence that the femur was cut just over the knee. Mr. Chavez commented, it might be interesting to examine that femur under a microscope to see if there are blood intrusions on the bone tissue, because that could indicate the presence of blood pressure at the moment of the amputation, and by extension, show if the boy had his leg amputated while still alive or once he had died, (Frederiksen).
The attire worn by the sacrificed children in unclear, although stone beads and remnants of thread were found at the burial site. Other than that, though nothing was sound to show if children used in more common sacrifices wore anything at all, with exception of the beads (Frederiksen). Each spring, a child of six or seven years olds was slain by the priest to the sound of many trumpets, conch shells, and flutes, on Mount Tlaloc (Stuart, 73). The idol of Tlaloc would be bathed in the blood of the sacrificed child, by the high priest. If this was not enough, then one or two more would be sacrificed as well. As this was happening, a girl in Tenochtitlan was dressed in blue (representing the great lake). The other priests would canoe the girl into the middle of a whirlpool where the girl s throat would be slit, and the blood allowed to flow into the water (73).
In the Valley of Tehuacan, human skeletons dating back to 5000 BC were found. Included in the remains were a thousand urns, each containing a child who had not died a natural death (Davies, 219). The ages of the children who were sacrificed ranged from three months to eight years old. After their death, the priests would place a jade stone in their mouths to serve as a heart in the next world, where they would become the god s companions (Stuart, 73). Other than common burial, not much else is known about eh way children s bodies were treated after their death. However, one idea is portrayed in a stone drawing in nearby Mexico, which shows two sacrificed children hanging from a pole, upside-down and tied at the feet to a sort of rotating device (Frederiksen). Although the children are usually cut at the throat, they are also killed by removal of the heart, much like that of the adults.
What we know of the methods the Aztec s used in sacrificial rites is based on drawings and the accounts of Spanish voyagers who witnessed the executions (Frederiksen). Overall, there were, in general, three different basic types of sacrificial methods. Although different in some ways, each method deals with the cutting open of the abdomen, and the removal of the heart. This is a brief overview of each technique, with illustrations shown in Appendix I on page 14.
Midaxial thoracotomy provided a good, frontal access to the human heart. However, it took longer time to perform, in comparison with other approaches (Frederiksen). When performed, the skin and flesh along the breastbone, or sternum, was cut with a stone knife, vertically to the axis of the body. Next, a stone chisel and hammer were used to fracture the sternum, cracking the rib cage apart, creating an easier way to separate the two halves of the chest. This gave excellent access to the heart, as well as other internal organs (Frederiksen).
Transversal thoracotomy was a similar technique to the one used above, but rather than making a bone fracture and cut vertically, the flesh was cut horizontally, and the ribs, lying in the same formation, were easy to reach through (Frederiksen). The cut was made between the second and third ribs, running across the breastbone, and ended between the second and third ribs of the opposite side. This method also gave great access to the heart, as well as exposing each of the pleural cavities (Frederiksen). This, in turn, caused both lungs to collapse, resulting in the victim fainting, therefore ceasing its struggles. The fainting allowed the priest to then cut the arteries and ligaments while the heart was still beating (Frederiksen).
One of the quicker methods used was the Intercostal approach. Although the heart was not accessed as easily as with the other procedures, it still provided a quick death, ideal for performing during mass sacrifice ceremonies (Frederiksen). A cut was made on the left side of the chest, between the second and third ribs, and ran along until the edge of the breastbone. The priest would then literally insert his hand into the victim s chest, and tear out the heart (Frederiksen).
Although these techniques may seem harsh and messy, when compared with the medical manual for heart surgery, the procedures of preparation are very similar (Frederiksen). The patient is placed on his back, on a supine position, with his arms raised up over his head, and a downward pull on the body, causing the chest to be forced into a hyper extended position. This stretching pulled the laceration apart, allowing for an easy approach to internal body parts (Frederiksen).
Although these were the most common methods, others were used as well. One included a cut made to the victim s stomach, tearing out of the diaphragm, and the cutting of the heart ligament from the inside (Frederiksen). Because the victim would literally disembowel himself during the rite, this procedure was rarely used (Frederiksen). Another form did not include the removal of the heart at all. Instead, a form named gladiatorial sacrifice was used. A victim would be dressed in warrior s attire and given dummy weapon would step out onto the battlefield, and stand tethered to a large stone. Next, a group of Aztec warriors would fight the victim using real weapons. Although it meant humiliation during the procedure, as the victim was practically torn apart, it was still considered an honor to compete on the stone (Frederiksen). This honor extended throughout the entire subject of sacrifice for the Aztecs, and in a way was their secret weapon, or their strength. However, when foreigners saw the Aztec procedures, they made strong judgments based on what they saw.
The Aztec people were the strongest people living in this hemisphere. However, their empire was no match for the modern, foreign Spanish invaders, lead by Hernando Cortes, in 1521. He and his men captured and destroyed the city of Tenochtitlan, along with their Native Mexican allies (Frederiksen). When the Spanish conquest took place, the foreign voyagers came upon the Aztec civilization, and were very surprised when they saw the ways the Aztecs worshipped their gods. One traveler, Bernal Diaz, stated that the walls of the temple were splashed and encrusted with blood whore stench was unbearable (Frederiksen). Diaz wrote,
In that small space, there were many diabolical things to be seen, bugles and trumpets and knives, and many hearts of Indians that they had burned in fumigating their idols, and everything was so clotted with blood, and there was so much of it, that I curse the whole of it, and as it stank like a slaughterhouse we hastened to clear out of such a bad stench and worse sight, (Time-Life, 29).
Cortes, upon witnessing the sacrifices, also made statements about what he saw. He wrote, they take many girls and boys and even adults, and in the presence of the idols they open their chests while they are still alive and take out their hearts and entrails and burns 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, (29).
The temples were described by other ambassadors from foreign nations as streaming with blood, which poured down the stairways and sides of the monument, forming huge pools on the white stucco pavement (Townsend, 100). The Aztecs created a tough look for themselves by performing sacrifice so commonly. Under the rule of Ahuizotl, sacrifice was transformed into a terror inducing thought to any who witnessed it. A shock was brought upon any who observed the blood-covered temple and skull racks strung with thousands of gory trophies. This jump in the intensity and gore of sacrifice marked a turning point in the rule of Ahuizotl, before the empire of the Aztec s finally came to an end (100).
Because of their strong beliefs and courage to stand up to them, the Aztecs lived a long and abundant lifetime. Their civilization survived for decades. They created an image for themselves through their religious practices. Their strength was not overlooked by the horrified Spanish conquestors, but it was surpassed. Although their procedures may have seemed vicious and evil, what is difficult for many people to understand is the fact that sacrifices in the lives of the Aztecs was simply their way of worshipping and honoring their gods.