It amazed me when we were learning about Mesoamerica and South America how much I did not really know. I can also see how our opinion about these groups is skewed because of the lack of detail provided when they are taught in school. Of course everyone knows about the main groups, the Aztec and Maya, and everyone is also taught that these peoples, the Aztecs especially, practiced human sacrifice. However, the reasoning behind it, as well as where these great cultures came from, is often not explained in detail.
For both the Maya and especially the Aztec religious, and some might say ironically, life sustaining reasons were the main factor behind practices like human sacrifice and blood letting. While these practices were often gruesome, the belief was that they were a necessary ritual to keep the universe balanced and the gods happy. More often than not, as we learned in class, prisoners of war were the ones to be sacrificed to the gods, not the Aztec people themselves. Although it was not unheard of. They would generally be put on an altar and have their heart cut out in a ritualistic way. These sacrifices were done to satiate the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who was in charge of fighting the darkness and keeping the universe running. In the Toltec culture, human hearts were placed on a Chacmool offering stone. The Chacmool figure represented the rain god that needed to be appeased. There are also stone statues and carvings in Maya cities that portray priests performing bloodletting rituals on themselves. This was meant to be an offering to the god and to bring the priest closer to the spiritual world. Usually through hallucinations which were brought on by a lack of blood. So, as we learned, the reasons behind human sacrifice and bloodletting, was not just because of an affinity to be brutal and gory, although the practice was, but was to keep their gods satisfied and their lives in order.
Another topic which is not often talked about is the other civilizations that both predated and flourished during the time of the major civilizations. In Lowland Mesoamerica, the Olmecs were a dominant group that were around at about the same time as the Maya and a little before. They also greatly influenced all of the other peoples culturally who came after them in this area. The Zapotec were an ethnic group that originated in Highland Mesoamerica in the Oaxaca Valley. They traded quite a bit with Lowland cultures and during this time trade became more complex and settlements became larger as well. The Toltecs were a group composed of highland tribes. Each of these peoples played integral parts in the development of later cultures and peoples as well as the development of Mesoamerica as a whole.
There are also some similarities between these New World cultures and other cultures around the world that they had no connection to or knowledge of. As we have learned throughout class, the sun god is often the most important and revered. In Egypt, for example, the sun god was Amun Ra/Re. This was no different for the Aztecs, who’s sun god was Huitzilopochtli as mentioned above. Another similarity between the New world and other cultures was the emphasis in on their origin and who they descended from. For example, the Aztecs were adamant about connecting themselves to the Toltecs whom the Aztecs said were fierce warriors and the dominant group before them. In the Mayan city of Copan, there is the hieroglyphic stairway which details the life of Copan’s rulers and dynasties. This was used to legitimize Copan’s power and right to rule the surrounding area. These New World cultures, especially later on, also built massive temples and spiritual complexes to their gods, which were also where the sacrifices took place in the later cultures. Huge temples like the temple of Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlan, the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, and Tres Zapotes.
In the end, this last section of class, as was the rest of class, was very informative and enlightening. I learned a lot that I did not know and my interest in these New World cultures has grown. It also seems that the general view about these cultures could also be improved if schools stopped portraying them essentially as blood thirsty and barbaric and looked at the reasons behind why they practiced what they practiced.