Aztec Human Sacrifice

When you think of the Aztec, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the Spanish conquistadors or their beautiful capital at Tenochtitlan. What comes to mind for a lot of people is their practice of human sacrifice. In class, we learned a lot about the civilizations of the Maya and the Inca but not much about the Maya. Chapter 13 of the assigned readings talks about the Aztec and how they came to power and their collapse. One paragraph in the chapter, although morbid and disturbing, caught my attention. “The victim was stretched out over the sacrificial stone. In seconds, a priest with an obsidian knife broke open his chest and ripped out his still beating heart, dashing it against the sacrificial stone.” (pg. 340) These sentences refer to the ritual of human sacrificed practiced by the Aztec priests.

The Aztec believed that they owed everything to the gods who created themselves as well as the world around them. The would perform sacrifices in order for a good crop yield or good weather among other things. They believed that the best way to repay them was to offer up blood to them in regular rituals. Although many just assume this was human blood, they also sacrificed animals as well. Some offerings weren’t outright killings as well. They would have been cutting oneself and offering the blood shed to the gods. Archaeologists estimate that a few thousand people would have been sacrificed each year. Some were members of the Aztec community but they believe that most were prisoners of war. Instead of killing their enemies in battle, they would sometimes capture them and take them back to the capital to be offered up to the gods. In one ritual, the prisoners were forced to walk up the many stairs of the temple. Once they reached the top, the priest would cut open their stomach from throat to stomach. They would rip out their heart to offer it to the gods. The bodies were then pushed down the stairs. At the bottom, the body would be dismembered or carried off depending on the ritual.

Its hard to believe this sort of activity happened regularly, especially as a public event where people would gather in the square to watch. Human sacrifice was not only an Aztec event. It happened all over the world in several different cultures. It was a part of their religion and a way to please the gods so the Aztecs would avoid disaster. No amount of human sacrifice could have stopped their collapse at the hands of the Spaniards.


Chapter 13 of the textbook


8 thoughts on “Aztec Human Sacrifice

  1. This is a very interesting and well written post! I all of the assigned readings in the textbook, but really didn’t give that part of the reading much thought. At a first glance, it seems like such a distant ritual compared to how we behave in the modern world, but I believe that it is still very real. To these ancient societies, their kings and leaders were “gods” as well and they had to please them with the offering of human blood. Today we still have human sacrifice for our leaders. We do not call them “gods” and in most cases, these killings are distanced from religious ritual, but they still happen! In medieval times, prisoners were tortured publically and it was a celebrated event! Moving on to not that long ago in The United States, hangings were quite frequent and it was an exciting family event to go! Even now, when someone gets lethal injection and an audience is permitted. The process has become more “humane” and we now do it for justice, but do we really? Whether or not our modern processes, such as the electric chair, are more “humane” is really up for personal opinion, but where do we derive our idea of justice? Yes it does come from laws, but more importantly it comes from morality, and our morality is linked to our world view, which includes religion. It is gruesome to think of ancient Aztec kings ripping out the still beating heart of a prisoner and pushing them down the pyramid, but we still do it now. The only difference is we paint it in a different light. Great post!

  2. Living in the sophisticated world of the twenty-first century, it’s crazy, somewhat unbelievable, that people performed human sacrifices. For some reason whenever the topic of human sacrifice comes up, I always think of the movie El Dorado. The Aztec’s were playing on a ball court, and the loser was to be sacrificed. This intrigued, scared, and left me in disbelief all at the same time. From previous classes and independent research, I’ve come to understand that the sacrifices were performed in order to please the gods, and that there was great reverence and respect for any individual sacrificed, excluding slaves, prisoners, and criminals.
    The movie, Apocalypto, was a pretty savage interpretation of the Aztec culture. Although, the movie was greatly exaggerated, it was good depiction of Aztec brutality and savagery, at least from a sophisticated standpoint. The blood and gore of Aztec culture was disturbing to say the least, but that what was the norm at the time. Tribes were always competing with each other and each tribe needed to do what was best in order to survive and intimidate other tribes.
    Overall, I thought this to be a very interesting and insightful post. I was interesting to find out how the priests performed the ritual of human sacrifice and this post appeals to the inner savagery every human has no matter how advanced our race and culture has become. That’s the reason why I think our generation is obsessed with zombies. As humans, we still have an inner barbarian nuance of our subconsciousness. In other words, we still share the same tendency of gore that the Aztec’s had, but with cultural norms and years of sophistication, we’ve repressed the natural instinct for survival and competition.

  3. The Aztec sacrifice rituals are a great topic of interest to Archaeologists, especially when one considers how in an empire of such magnificence, such acts of barbarism occurred. When the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, he was astonished to discover that the city’s size dwarfed that of the cities in 16th century Europe. However, the sight of human sacrifice quickly made Spanish conquerors view the Aztecs as nothing more than devil worshiping savages. Upon arriving at the city center (Where the temples of the war god, Huitzilopochtli, and the rain god, Tlaloc, stood) Spanish conquistadors recorded in their diaries some of the gruesome scenes that they witnessed. For example, the temple stairs were stained with blood, and along the bottom of the temple stairs sat rows of wooden pulls upon which skulls were placed on like meat on a cabob, hence giving them the name “the skull racks.” By the skull racks were some small shops that were selling limbs and body parts of sacrificed victims to the public. Also, when Cortes met with the Aztec priests, he noted that their hair was stained in blood and they reeked of the stench of rancid meat. An Interesting event that occurred during Cortes’ encounter with the Aztecs was that while he and some of his men were visiting in Tenochtitlan, a smaller company of Spanish men, women, and horses were resting in the jungles nearby waiting for Cortes’ orders to come and help him conquer the city. Before they got word from Cortes, however, they were ambushed in the night by an elite group of Aztec warriors. As was custom for the Aztecs (who used obsidian clubs to impair rather than kill their enemy), the warriors took most of the Spanish as prisoners and took them to the abandoned city site of Teotihuacan. Upon arriving at Teotihuacan, the Aztec warriors had a priest sacrifice all of the Spanish captives. The evidence for this came both from a grave of the remains of men, women, and horses near Teotihuacan as well as from a Spanish diary written by a man who had recorded the scene that followed the capture of the Spanish group. In the diary, there’s a drawing of a skull rack holding the heads of women, heavily bearded men, and horses. This drawing gave archaeologists evidence of this incident in that the Aztecs did not often have beards as were depicted in this picture, and horses had not yet been released in Mesoamerica, thus leaving the Spanish as the only possible people depicted in the drawing.

  4. I thought that this post was very interesting and covers a subject that many people like to ignore and shy away from because it causes discomfort. The idea of sacrificing a human life to an unrealized deity is something that society finds distasteful, as do I personally. However, last semester I took a class on religion and culture (ANP 422 which I suggest to anyone interested in how theories of how religion interacts with culture have evolved over time or who has an interest in how culture and religion influence each other). For my final paper in that class I decided to focus on this exact subject, human sacrifice, especially in the Aztec context. Coming into the paper I had very defined views on the practice, mainly that they were unequivocally barbaric and evil. However, through my research I come to a much different conclusion. While human sacrifice may seem to us gory, barbaric, unnecessary even, to the Aztecs it was seen as a vital point of their survival and even an honor. While many accounts like to focus on the sensational sacrifices of prisoners that the Aztecs no doubt took part it, most of the sacrifices given by the Aztecs were willing supplicants who saw it as their duty for the good of the community. It is interesting to see this ethic of sacrificing the individual for the good of the community, the one for the many. This is the basic argument I laid down in the conclusion to my paper, that our society with its obsession with individual choice, freedom, rights is inherently abhorrent of a system like the Aztec’s where an individual would go to such lengths as killing themselves to see their community survive. That is not to say that our society does not appreciate giving one’s life for a cause. The praise given to our troops and those who fought before us proves the opposite, however, it is almost incomprehensible to us that someone would volunteer to die when we can see no connection between the death and saving the community. If anyone is interested further I point to The Golden Bough by James George Frazer which has many articles on this subject.

  5. Similar to many of the previous comments I have always been interested in the rituals observed by ancient people. With the Aztecs perhaps being one of the most interesting groups of people I have had the opportunity to learn about. Several years ago I was able to travel to some of the remains of ancient Aztec civilizations and learn more about their culture and way of life. Perhaps one of the most striking take aways from this experience was that death played a huge governing role in their lives and this was a common trait regardless of one’s social class. For example the winner or loser Tlachtli, a common game played among the most elite upper class of Aztec citizens, may end up being sacrificed to appease the gods depending on whether the game took place near an important religious date. Whichever team ended up being sacrificed supposedly viewed this decision as one of the most important and respected ways to die, besides dying in battle. I found this to be very interesting especially considering that these players were the most affluent of the Aztecs and would actually have the most to lose if they died. Never the less this was an interesting juxtaposition given the fact that most of the Aztec sacrifices were indeed captured warriors from neighboring tribes.
    Another interesting aspect to consider is how the sacrificial practices changed depending on which god the Aztecs were trying to appease. Certain gods would demand a practice that resulted in more blood being shed before a person was killed, while others focused more on a ritualistic dismemberment of a warrior’s body. Either way it would of definitely been an extremely excruciating experience for all parties involved.

  6. The Aztecs worshiped their main god, Huitzilopochtli. He was very blood thirsty.
    The Aztecs also believed that if you angered Huitzilopochtli, he could all of a sudden end the earth whenever he wanted. Of course, they didn’t want that.
    So, the only choice they had was to sacrifice the humans for him. This process is appalling by today’s standards.

    People would wait in line and process up as a 4 people & a priest were at the top. When the person eventually reached the top, there would be four people holding the person;2 for each arm, and 2 for each leg. They would stretch the person out so the person couldn’t struggle or move. Like you said, when the preist does his work he takes out the heart, and he even usually took a bite out of it, then while the person was either dead or unconscious, they would throw them on the other side of the pyramid, and then repeat the process with the next person.

    The Aztecs weren’t afraid of this at all. They believed they would please the gods and live in the heavens with them if they accepted it.
    They did this to any random person. They also sacrificed those who were held captives that they attacked, or who attacked them. It is crazy to think that people were brainwashed to the point that they would give up their own life just to please an imaginary god. You said thousands of people were sacrificed each year….. that is thousands of people throughout history wasting their lives to feed the ancient system. (other than POWs of course)

  7. Human sacrifice is a very interesting subject, one that has been depicted in countless films over the decades. As Americans, we only know this kind of behavior to be that of fiction or stories, but acts of sacrifice were a very real thing in ancient times. There were many different civilizations in ancient times that would use the act of sacrifice, but the Aztecs were by far the most extreme case. It is said that they would sacrifice one person each day in order the help the sun rise. Even though all of the people that they were sacrificing were prisoners, it seemed that the Aztecs put a relatively low value on human life in comparison to that of the gods. According to the Aztecs own accounts, they had sacrificed several thousand people for the consecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, sources vary greatly with numbers from 4,000 up to 80,400 people. This is an extraordinary number of people to be killing just to supposedly make a temple holy. This huge amount of sacrifices really shows how massive of a civilization the Aztecs used to be. They had thousands and thousands of war prisoners just lined up to be sacrificed. They surely must’ve been greatly feared by the surrounding civilizations, as it must have been well known that you would be sacrificed if you had gotten captured by the Aztecs. Luckily, the act of sacrifice is now rarely practiced, and has become illegal in every country in the world. Perhaps archaic acts like mass sacrifice were a contributing factor to the civilizations eventual collapse.

  8. I remember learning extensively about the Aztecs in second grade. Our coverage was extensive, we spent probably a month and a half discussing their culture, religion, technology, architecture, and of course the Spanish conquest. I’ve always found them to be a fascinating civilization. In fact, they’re one of the peoples I commonly choose to be my games of Civilization.

    Obviously, being in second grade required a skirting around many of the more brutal elements of the religious ritual. The goals of the class were obviously not to scar children but to inspire wonder about the ingenuity of ancient people. One of the things I love was that their entire capital was waterborne. I just love the idea that the roads weren’t pave with anything more substantial than water.

    You’re right when you say that the goals of these rituals were to appease the gods, largely. When we place it in this type of a context we can see how they thought. In our perspective, the sacrifice is inhuman. And in fact, in the Abrahamic religions human sacrifice has been immoral nearly since their inception. It is a little bit morbid and weird to think that these types of acts were public. The only nearby analogue I can think of to this sort of ritual is the public hangings of the old west, but even that is not nearly as graphic in its depictions of human frailty and anatomy.

    I think that it’s important to frame these types of rituals and events in a cultural and religious context. Because without those elements, we just lose sight of examining the culture for its own merits.

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