Recently in class we have been discussing Maya culture and have touched on their use of sacrifice in rituals. I found the activity of sacrifice in Maya culture to be very interesting so I decided to do further research into the subject.

Sacrifice involved rituals of killing both humans and animals, these rituals were performed by priests. It has been a feature of almost all pre-modern societies during their development and for mainly the same reason: to propitiate or fulfill a perceived obligation towards the gods. Many agree that these practices arose in Mesoamerica among the Olmecs and were transmitted to subsequent cultures, including the Maya.

Sacrifices were carried out by a priest called a nacom. The nacom would cut out the hearts of the victims. The nacom had four assistants called chacs. The name chac stemmed from the god of rain and their job was to hold down the victims during sacrifice. Ritual sacrifices played a vital role in the Mayan culture. They sacrificed both animals and humans. Some animals were sacrificed in great numbers these included such animals as: crocodiles, iguanas, dogs, jaguars, and turkeys. However, sacrifice of human life was supreme. These sacrifices took place during elaborate ceremonies and have been depicted in ancient Mayan ceramics, sculptures, and murals. Slaves, criminals, bastards, orphans and children made up the bulk of the victims.

Diego de Landa a Spanish Bishop was one of the few Europeans to witness human sacrifices. He described them in detail telling that the sacrificial victim was first painted blue. Then, the victim was led to the top of the pyramid and laid over a stone alter. He was then held down by the chacs and the nacom cut open his chest and tore out his still beating heart. This was done with a ceremonial knife usually made of obsidian or flint. The heart was then handed to the high priest and the body of the victim was tossed down the temple’s stairs. There were other methods of sacrifice that also took place one being with arrows shot at the heart of the victim. Others included flaying, decapitation, hurling from a cliff, and throwing the victim into a limestone sinkhole. All of this was done just to appease the gods.

While researching this gruesome ritual I found some of the information I read disturbing. However, nonetheless I find it very interesting. It is hard to imagine a society whose culture is strongly tied to the sacrifice of fellow human beings. But these sacrifices are just a stage in many developing societies. It makes me thankful that I was not born into a society that is still in this stage of development.

2 thoughts on “Sacrifice

  1. Abbi Lynch

    I also did my fourth blog post on human sacrifice, but I looked at it specifically in the context of the Aztecs and cannibalism. Based on what you’ve said here, it seems to me that the Aztecs and the Maya had very, very similar practices concerning human sacrifice. Especially in having the predominant murder form of removing still-beating hearts and later throwing victims down the pyramid steps, the two are identical. I am not certain on the religious beliefs of the Maya, but I wonder if they share more than just methodology–perhaps they have a common ideology, or at least have influenced each others’ to some degree.
    Due to this similarity in sacrificial behavior, I would also be interested to learn if the Maya participated in cannibalistic rituals, as did the Aztecs (a quick Google search didn’t reveal too many strong, relevant hits). If they did not, this would be an interesting point at which to compare and contrast the two groups. If they share a behavior in human sacrifices, why do they not share cannibalistic behavior? What wider implications does this have on how anthropologists look at human sacrifice and cannibalism?
    I find it interesting that you say “these sacrifices are just a stage in many developing societies.” Based on what I know, you are correct, but I wonder where and why the change from viewing human sacrifice as acceptable to deplorable happens. It seems sacrifice has happened everywhere—Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Mesoamerica—but it has virtually disappeared today (with a few exceptions). I wonder if the change in beliefs happened independently in each culture/region, or if one specific group opposed to human sacrifice had contact with one (or several) cultures and started a chain of ideological change that spread throughout the world.

    Interesting link:

  2. Abagail Gray

    I agree, the thought of growing up in a society that preforms sacrifices is indeed frightening, and I am very glad to have missed that. And while it is a grisly history to study, it is interesting as well; something about it makes it fascinating. Perhaps it involves the fact that sacrificial acts are something found throughout history in many different areas and cultures.
    Besides the Maya, the Ancient Egyptians also performed human sacrifices throughout their history. Like the Maya, they performed them as offerings to the gods. One difference between the two being the involvement of criminals or enemies; those killings were not considered true human sacrifices. Egyptians also sacrificed individuals so they could be buried in a tomb with the king. These people were sacrificed so they could move into the afterlife with the king and act as his staff there.
    The purpose of many sacrifices revolves around appeasing the gods, protecting the people, and the afterlife. In these same cultures, we see the presence of elites and their strong participation in the sacrifices. The Maya nacom were the priests in charge of sacrifices, and were held in high regard. The Egyptian pharaoh was considered the son of the god(s), their direct descendant on earth. If the common citizen was told that the gods required a sacrifice, who were they to argue? Those in charge had a direct connection to the gods, and thus knew what was right and necessary.
    I cannot imagine living in the fear some of those people must have lived in. Like you said, the Maya sacrificed slaves, criminals, bastards, orphans, and children for the most part. Criminals knew the possible result of their actions, but the others had no say in their position.

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