This essay will provide evidence for the ritual purpose of blood sacrifice using examples of information sourced from various Mexican Codices and other documents and will include some Aztec creation myths and religious doctrine to hypothesise the true meaning and belief behind the Aztec people’s constant need for ritualistic blood sacrifices.
The Aztec’s reigned during 1376 to 1521 CE from their capital at Tenochtitlan which was situated in the heart of Lake Texcoco in the Basin of Mexico (Renfrew & Bahn 2004: 76; Scarre 2005: 634-635)). Constructed on an island in Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan had three causeways that connected the capital to the mainland (McIntosh & Twist 2003: 222; Renfrew & Bahn 2004: 76) that were easily defendable from enemy attack until the Spaniards arrived.
A walled in ceremonial centre was positioned in the heart of Tenochtitlan that housed the Great Temple that was jointly dedicated to the sun and the rain gods (McIntosh & Twist 203: 222). The ceremonial centre also housed a great ball court where a fatalistic game was played using a rubber ball (McIntosh & Twist 2003: 222); the loser having his head chopped off supports the notion of the Aztecs showing fatalistic behaviour, however the ball game has had a long history in many Mesoamerican societies.
Inside the ceremonial centre there were priestly residences, other temples and a huge skull rack that housed the heads of sacrificial victims in varying stages of decomposition (Coe & Koontz 2005: 194; Burland 1975: 70-71; Townsend 2003: 107; McIntosh & Twist 2003: 222). Just outside of the walls of the ceremonial centre were several royal palaces that housed the Aztec rulers and their subordinates (McIntosh & Twist 2008: 222). Adjacent to the royal palaces was the Great Plaza that held markets that supplied the needs of the Aztec people from nobility to peasant classes (McIntosh & Twist 2003: 223).
The city surrounding the ceremonial centre was situated on a patchwork of small islands that provided the rest of the Tenochtitlan populace with houses made of wood and stone (McIntosh & Twist 2003: 223; Scarre 2005: 635), the roofs of the houses were generally thatched and flat in form. According to McIntosh and Twist (2003: 223; Scarre 2005: 635), Tenochtitlan’s population was estimated to have been at least 200,000 people which provides the evidence for Tenochtitlan being larger than any other contemporary European city of the time.
The Aztecs built their empire from tribute, conquest, acquisition, warfare and blood sacrifices (Hooker 1996: online), although they did create three worthy allies and form a triple alliance with their neighbouring cities Texcoco and Tlacopan (McIntosh & Twist 2003: 221; Tompkins 1990: 106). However, not all of their conquered neighbours or landholders were happy with the Aztec’s thirst for blood sacrifice or the constant requests for tribute that the Aztecs demanded of them (McIntosh & Twist 2003: 221).
The Aztec’s were a violent people who practised human sacrifice and cannibalism (Tompkins 1990: 190). They were also highly ritualistic people who appeared to have had a fatalistic behaviour or view towards life (Tompkins 1990: 130). The Aztecs lifestyles were governed by a need to supply fresh-blooded sacrificial victims to the sun god who required the hearts of men to give life to the world and assist the souls of dead warriors to the Aztecs version of heaven (Tompkins 1990: 130; Townsend 2003: 117- 129; McIntosh & Twist 2003: 222).
Residing in a large city it is very hard to imagine death or dying in addition to the decomposition of flesh. It sounds vile and sickening to the ears because modern city dwellers generally have their deceased taken straight to the mortuary where they are beautified for an open casket or prepared for cremation or burial. Modern city dwellers do not, generally speaking, bare witness to sacrificed people, see dogs or monkeys lying dead in the street whilst in a state of decay. Therefore, due to the later, the concept of Aztec behavioural practices of death, dying and blood sacrifice will seem repugnant and cruel to modern people. However, for the Aztec’s the concept of dualism was obvious and beautiful because from the moment of conception, death was a dual counterpart of their life (Kastenbaum no date: online).
In the Aztecs society, death was visual and commonly displayed for the public to see; therefore, it is likely that behaving in a cruel barbaric or atrocious manner was probably not what the Aztecs were thinking (Kastenbaum no date: online). The blood rituals were considered part of a reciprocal relationship between humankind and god; the ultimate gift is blood and is amongst the highest honour one can pay to the gods. Aztec blood rituals were an act of reciprocity for the blood the gods sacrificed of themselves in order to create the sun and the cosmos (Kastenbaum no date: online).
This Blood sacrifices ensured the gods would remain helpful and they ensured the sun would continue to shine, the fields would grow abundant crops and the wheels of life would continue to turn. According to Kastenbaum (no date: online) sacrifice is a form of communication with the deity or with a God (Hultkrantz 1981: 51-54) that allows one to gain forgiveness, blessings, fertility, victories and protection from prevailing negative or dark forces (Hultkrantz 1981: 51-54). Sacrifice can also facilitate offerings of praise to the gods, however, it is blood sacrifices that are the ultimate gift which historians accord the most powerful measure in regard to appeasing the gods (Kastenbaum no date: online).
According to Irish et al (1993: 72), the Aztecs were very familiar with the concept of death, and they greeted it with dramatics and visual violence. For example, most people in modern cultures would pale at the site of a living mans heart being ripped out whilst it is still beating. In contrast, the Aztecs faced sacrifice with qualities of extreme tolerance to pain and violence, and with an acceptance that if they did not perform the ritual sacrifice the gods would reap vengeance more destructive and more violent than any man could ever do (Brinton 1976: 310-311). The latter is also an indication of the Aztecs fatalistic world view.
The true history regarding where the Aztec’s originated from has long been debated, however, the Aztec’s made strong claims that they were the descendents of the Toltec’s whom they believed reigned from Teotihuacan around 700 CE (Renfrew & Bahn 2006: 22; Tompkins 1990: 66-67). The claim to come from royal descent would have furthered the power and influence of the Aztec emperors, just as so many other Mesoamerican leaders had done before them (Tompkins 1990: 66-67). It is possible because new lands had opened up that this allowed the nomadic Aztecs to hire themselves out as mercenaries and eventually overthrow their overlords (Tompkins 1990: 66).
The Aztec’s believed the Toltec’s were great warrior heroes who were brilliant conquerors, righteous, wise, expert astronomers and artist, and the Toltec’s were the inventors of all things that were wondrous, marvellous and magnificent (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 456-458; Coe & Koontz 2005: 190).
Because the Aztecs were fascinated and held accolades for all things Toltec, they incorporated everything that was believed to be of Toltec origin into their own creation myths, artistic practices, warfare, religion and human sacrifice. However, archaeological (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 456-458) and historical evidence provides evidence for a more aggressive belief system and a higher demand for sacrificial victims. This can be clearly seen in the example of the human skull rack discovered at Tenochtitlan (Diaz & Rogers 1993: 68-77).
Virtually all-Aztec artefacts bare witness to the Aztec’s constant desire and purpose of human sacrificial victims (Sahagun no date: online; Del Campo no date: online). The many Mexican codices, for example the Codex Borgia (Diaz & Rodgers 1993: 68-77) displayed on page one of the tonalpohualli, [otherwise known as the 260-day ritual calendar] the need for sacrifice and blood in varying forms is evident and in graphic detail.
According to Burland (1975: 23), the main purpose of Aztec religion and blood sacrifice was to keep Aztec people in good health, secure plentiful crops and foods. These were were granted if there was a constant supply of sacrificial victims to keep the hierarchy of Aztec gods placated.
Three of the chief Aztec gods were; Huitzilopochtli [the hummingbird wizard] was native to Tenochtitlan and was the god of the sun and war; Tezcatlipoca [smoking mirror] was the chief god to the general public of the Aztecs and; Quetzalcoatl [sovereign plumed serpent] was the god of civilization, the priesthood, education and was worshipped all over Mesoamerica (Hooker 1996: online). Although there were copious amounts of lesser Aztec gods a few of them were most important to the Aztecs; Tlaloc the rain god; Coatlicue the earth mother goddess; and Xipe [the flayed one] the god of spring (Forman 1980: 39-58; Hooker 1996: online). Duality was common in Aztec religions.
Their gods generally catered to dual purposes. For example, they could be both male and female and although the Aztecs believed their gods to be good and kind they also saw a dual aspect in their gods because they saw them as harsh, cruel, vengeful and completely destructive (Berdan 1982: 111-118; Hooker 1996: online). This was probably due to the constant need and purpose of sacrifice that is implied from the belief that if they did not sacrifice themselves and their blood, the sun would cease to shine and the fifth world (Berdan 1982: 111) would come to an end,therefore destroying all life as the Aztecs knew it.
The author Jasmyne Pendragon has bachelor of archaeology (ABATR) and is working on her Archaeology Honours (AHAR) in the Latrobe University in Australia. She has participated in the Bamburgh Castle Research Project in 2009 and the Bellarine Bayside Archaeological Program in 2010 as well as participated in the Glenrowan Siege Project and the Willoughby Bean Project. Research interests are rituals and death in human history.
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Images courtesy of BBC Learning, Raggio, McIntohs & Twist, Del Campo
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