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Feeding the sun by giving your life

Placing Aztec human sacrifice under the magnifying glass

Author: Annemieke Doornbos S0501557


Accompanied by: Prof. Dr. Maarten E.R.G.N. Jansen
Dr. Gilda R. Hernández-Sánchez

University of Leiden, Faculty of Archaeology


July 2009
Front page illustration: Sahagún, Florentine Codex, bk. 2
Feeding the sun by giving your life
Placing Aztec human sacrifice under the magnifying glass

Author: Annemieke Doornbos S0501557


Accompanied by: Prof. Dr. Maarten E.R.G.N. Jansen
Dr. Gilda R. Hernández-Sánchez

University of Leiden, Faculty of Archaeology


July 2009
Table of Contents

Introduction ................................................................................................................................ 1

The people performing sacrifices: the Aztecs ............................................................................ 3


The migration into the Valley of Mexico........................................................................... 3
The founding of Tenochtitlan and its Templo Mayor ....................................................... 5

The Aztec world view ................................................................................................................ 8


The creation of the world .................................................................................................. 8
Important deities in the Aztec world ............................................................................... 10
The Sun-god and the earth monster ................................................................................ 14

Theoretical perspectives on the phenomenon of sacrifice........................................................ 16


The theory behind sacrifice............................................................................................. 16
Some basic theoretical explanations on human sacrifice ............................................... 19

Human sacrifice as mentioned among the Aztecs .................................................................... 22


Examples of human sacrifice within the Aztec culture ................................................... 22
The view on sacrifice by the Spanish conquistadores..................................................... 23
Archaeological evidence for human sacrifice................................................................. 25
Recent given explanations for human sacrifice in the Aztec world ................................ 29

Conclusion ................................................................................................................................ 32
Summary .................................................................................................................................. 35
Samenvatting ............................................................................................................................ 36
References ................................................................................................................................ 37
Appendices ............................................................................................................................... 40
Introduction

The Aztecs, a group of people living throughout the Valley of Mexico from the twelfth till the
sixteenth century A.D. These were the people present at the arrival of Cortés around 1519 A.D. which
is probably the reason why the Aztecs are so elaborately discussed is the last couple of centuries.
Mainly due to reports written by the Spanish Conquistadores, the Europeans created a view of the
Aztecs which is still shared today. When asking people about the Aztecs, one will probably think of
this group living in Mexico, having great influence on other peoples because of their greedy nature
and the performance of many sacrificial acts of which some are thought to even have involved the
sacrifice of human beings.
However, human sacrifice did not only occur among the Aztecs, but throughout the world.
Examples of other cultures where human sacrifice was present are Mesopotamia, Egypt and China but
also in other areas within Mesoamerica like for instance among the Mayas. Mayan glyphs have been
analysed and in these results, researchers have found out that (human) sacrifice has always taken place
in Mesoamerica (Kerkhove, 2002:138). There is yet a difference between human sacrifice among the
Aztecs and the other peoples originating from Mesoamerica. In the case of the Aztecs, their sacrificial
practices are widely documented, especially by Spanish chroniclers, while human sacrifice in other
cultures is just begun to be explained through twentieth century archaeological research. For the
understanding of the Aztecs and their rituals these documents seem very useful, on the other hand it is
just due to these Spanish documents that the later generations are left with an elaborate but also very
biased picture when it comes to human sacrifice in this area of Mesoamerica.
When looking at the documents written on the Aztecs and in particular the ritual activities like
the aspect of human sacrifice, one will soon see that most of the documents that were written before
the twentieth century, are made by Spanish chroniclers that share a perspective on these activities
based on their Western beliefs and religious views like for instance Christianity. The ritual sacrifices
as present among the Aztecs are therefore often associated with ideas like cannibalism, cruel,
inhumane happenings which are depicted in the bloodiest ways.
This rather western view on sacrificial rites and human sacrifice first started to change around
the twentieth century when researcher Sir Leonard Woolley started an investigation in Mesopotamia
where he found some artefacts in connection with the skeletal remains of some people that seemed to
be ritually sacrificed. Looking at these objects, Woolley was able to link the two together and could
from now on state that it were not only slaves or low-class people that were being sacrificed but rather
persons dressed in expensive clothing and probably of a higher class which made people think more
about the practises of human sacrifice and their reasons for doing so (Anawalt, 1982:38).
A similar sort of shift in the way people tend to look at human sacrifice among the Aztecs took
place in the twentieth century when anthropologists and archaeologists started to find more

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information on the Aztec perspective on the matter instead of focussing entirely on the view of the
Spaniards. This showed two main points of view within the documents found on Aztec sacrifice. On
one hand there are the western documents of which most of them come from Spanish conquistadores
in which human sacrifice is called cannibalistic and cruel and is referred to as a ritual where masses of
people are slaughtered each year combined with a lot of bloodletting and in which still pumping hearts
are ripped out of the body after which the lifeless body is kicked down the stairs after which the
human flesh is prepared for dinner. The Spanish even compared human sacrifice to the Devils work
which was absolutely not tolerated in Christianity and therefore their duty to stop it. On the other hand
stands the view of the Aztecs themselves in which they claim that the sacrifices are intertwined in a
deeply religious and even sacred practice. According to the Aztecs their world and its cosmological
existence depended upon it.
So even though a shift from the perspective of the Spanish Conquistadores to a shift with a
dual perspective, on one hand still this Western way of thinking but on the other hand the placing of
human sacrifice in an Aztec religious context, has occurred, there are still many things that are unclear.
For example, did Aztec human sacrifice really take place in its literal sense or should this be viewed
more symbolically? One could also ask oneself whether people have constructed a different way of
looking at the aspect of human sacrifice in the last couple of decades.
The goal of this thesis is to give an overview of both the Spanish resources on sacrifice among
the Aztecs as well as putting the sacrificial act into a more modern theoretical model made by various
anthropologists in order to see what kind of evidence we really have right now and what can truly be
stated on Aztec human sacrifice and if people tend to think differently about human sacrifice these
days or still rely heavily on the biased Spanish documents.

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The people performing sacrifices: the Aztecs

In order to understand how and why human sacrifices took place in the Valley of Mexico before the
Spanish conquest, one should first know some things about the people performing them, in this case
the Aztecs and their origins with in particular the most important events during their reign and of
course their world view and religious beliefs which will be discussed in the next chapters.

The migration into the Valley of Mexico


When discussing the origins of the Aztecs and how they came to live in the Valley of Mexico,
evidence can still be seen nowadays when looking at the flag of Mexico which contains an image of a
blooming cactus with an eagle on top of it holding a serpent in its beak. This image has a lot to do with
the sacred history of origin still told by the Nahuatl speaking people. There are actually several
versions of the Aztec history told that deal with the origins of the Aztec people, but for this paper I
will focus on the part of the Aztec history that is told most often, which starts around the twelfth
century A.D. when a lot of different groups of people left their home to go on a long journey in order
to settle down in a new area. For many generations the Aztecs told their children and grandchildren
how their ancestors the Mexica left their homeland called Aztlan or ´Place of the White Heron´ and the
place where they lived called Chicomoztoc or ´Place of the Seven Caves´ in order to start a long
journey to a place called home (Read, 1998:5-6; see fig. 1).
Supposedly led by one of their priests who had a vision or dream of the god of war called
Huitzilopochtli by whom he was ordered to leave Aztlan, the people traveled until they witnessed a
sign of their new home given by the gods (Carrasco, 1998:41). This sign was to be given to the people
in the form of a blooming cactus with an eagle on top of it, holding a snake in its beak. According to
the Aztecs telling about their history, their ancestors believed that when they witnessed this sign, they
were required to establish a city on that place. This city was to become their main capital which they
had to name Tenochtitlan and was going to make the Aztec nation turn into a great empire. This vision
drove the Mexica on a long journey, taking several years, until they finally reached Lake Texcoco.
Traveling the lake by canoe, they reached a small island in the middle of the lake where they saw a
large eagle holding a serpent on top of a large cactus where they started to build a shrine in order to
honor Huitzilopochtli (Carrasco, 1998:44; For a map of the Aztec area, see Appendix I).
Before the Mexica crossed the lake by canoe, the group was split in two, of which one group
went north. This group founded Tlatelolco which would later from a sister-community together with
Tenochtitlan (Townsend, 2002: 65; see also Coe, 1995:159). After cultivation and draining the area,
the two islands on which both cities were founded, became one large area with two governments
which had an egalitarian system. This egalitarian way of living started to change around 1428 when
the Mexicas wanted to take things in their own hands, starting by conquering the Tepanecs by whom
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they were banned long ago (Coe, 1995:160). After their victory on the Tepanecs and the city of
Atzcapotzalco, the Mexica formed a Triple Alliance between Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan
(Boone, 1994:49). This empire was still present at the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 when they
conquered the Aztecs.

Fig 1. Chicomoztoc, „Seven Caves‟ from which the Mexica left their home (Kirchhoff, 1989)

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The founding of Tenochtitlan and its Templo Mayor
In the previous chapter on the origin history of the Aztecs, something is briefly mentioned about the
founding of Tenochtitlan, the great capital of the Aztec people which they were believed to have
established by order of their war deity Huitzilopochtli. Tenochtitlan, a nahuatl name which consists of
tetl ‘rock’, nochtli ‘cactus’ and tlan which is a locative suffix, was given to an Aztec city-state that
was located on a small island on the western side of Lake Texcoco and was founded around 1325 A.D.
after the Aztecs had witnessed the promised sign given by Huitzilopochtli in the form of an eagle
sitting on a blooming cactus, holding a serpent in its beak (See Appendix II). Soon after having
received this sign, people started to build an earthen platform by using the so-called chinampa-system
of ‘floating gardens’, in order to expand the island, on which a temple was constructed with the use of
reed which was used as a shrine in order to honor their great deity Huitzilopochtli (Townsend,
2002:65).

Fig 2. The place-glyph of Tenochtitlan (Codex Telleriano-Remensis)

As the city grew larger it was divided in four sections believed to have each been tied to a particular
kinship, using the cardinal directions. These four zones were called calpōlli in Nahuatl of which each
calpōlli consisted of twenty districts (Read, 1998:8). The two main streets of the city that divided the
area in the four zones, come together in the centre of Tenochtitlan where an area with all the public
buildings, schools and temples is located. In total there are believed to have been about 45 public
buildings of which the most famous are: the Templo Mayor, the temple of the sun, the temple of
Quetzalcoatl but also platforms, which are assumed to have been used for sacrificial ends, and the
tzompantli or skull-racks on which the skulls of the sacrificed people were thought to be placed upon.
When looking at the city plan of Tenochtitlan, one can see that its construction has clearly been
planned and based upon great symmetry.
With the help of the growing importance of Tenochtitlan as the Aztec capital, the Aztecs were
able to have a lot of influence throughout the Valley of Mexico. Therefore it was of no surprise that
the Spaniards were flabbergasted at their first encounter with the city in 1519 who at that time are
thought to believe that Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world. Spanish chronicler
Bernal Diaz del Castillo describes the following about Tenochtitlan:

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“When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on
dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (...) on account of
the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of
masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were
not a dream? (...) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had
never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.”
(Bernal Diaz del Castillo, 1928:14)

Earlier noted is the Templo Mayor as being one of the most famous public buildings located in the
centre of Tenochtitlan. This temple which original name in Nahuatl was huey teocalli, was one of the
main Aztec temples was constructed during the Late-Postclassic period. Being dedicated to two of the
most important deities of the Aztec world being Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and Tlaloc, the god of
rain or water, the Templo Mayor was constructed with two large shrines on top of its platform. It was
for these gods that the temple was constructed on top of which numerous rituals took place like for
instance sacrificial rituals of which more will be said in the chapter on Aztec human sacrifice.
According to the Aztecs, the Templo Mayor was founded on the exact place where the Aztec god
Huitzilopochtli had given their traveling ancestors the sign of the eagle on top of the cactus in order to
settle down and establish Tenochtitlan. This is why the Aztecs thought of the Templo Mayor as being
the most important place for ceremonial acts and rituals, however the building itself was also very
imposing in particular due to its height, rising tall above everything else (Read, 1998:9). Furthermore,
the people tend to believe that the Templo Mayor is a representation of Coatepec and Tonacatepetl, the
mountains where Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc are thought to be born. In this case, the southern part of
the temple represents Huitzilopochtli and the northern part Tlaloc.

Fig 3. The Great Temple with its two shrines. The right one is for Huitzilopochtli on which a person if
being sacrificed (Durán, 1990, fol. 44)

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Whether this is the case or not, there is archaeological evidence which has been found at the Templo
Mayor, for instance, a large stone disk depicting Coyolxauhqui, Huitzilopochtli´s sister (see fig. 4).

Fig 4. Stone disc depicting Coyolxauhqui


(http://www.famsi.org/research/pohl/images/aztec3figure1.jpg)

More about the findings at the site of the Templo Mayor will be discussed in the chapter on
archaeological evidence. In 1521 A.D. Tenochtitlan was captured and colonized by the Spaniards in
which they succeeded in destroying the Templo Mayor.

(For more basic information on Tenochtitlan and the Templo Mayor, visit: 7
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenochtitlan and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Templo_Mayor)
The Aztec world view

Having the goal to understand more about the reasons why human sacrifice was performed by the
Aztec people and in what way, one must learn to see these events in their original context, therefore
know more about the Aztec world view or the way in which the Aztec people looked at their world.
Because it was on this view that most of their actions and important decisions made in life were based
and therefore affected their entire lives.
In order to get to know the worldview of these people, first we have to take a look at how the
world was created through their eyes. During the Aztec period, people tended to see the world as a
horizontal disc with in the middle the so called ´navel´ of the world or the axis mundi. The disc itself
was separated in four individual quarters with the axis mundi functioning as the fifth important section
(Carrasco, 1998, pp. 36). Vertically, held together by the axis, the world consisted of the heaven, the
earth and the underworld. Having briefly explained the visual appearance of the world according to the
Aztecs, let us continue to the story of how this world was created and seen in such a way.

The creation of the Aztec world


Almost everyone knows about the elaborate migration stories told by the Aztecs for generations in
which their ancestors leave their home in order to find a new place to live. Since these origin stories
are already explained in a previous chapter, let us not get any further into this but go further back to
the creation of the Aztec world itself, starting with the Calendar Stone. In this stone, images are shown
of the five important sections of the Aztec world, depicting the four previous periods in time and the
fifth period in which the Aztecs lived. These periods of time in the Aztec history are also referred to as
the five Aztec ‘Suns’ or ‘Ages’ (Carrasco, 1998:37).
The story continues by stating that the first of these five ages took place a few thousand years
ago and was called 4 jaguar. This period had the duration of 676 years and was eventually destroyed
during an intense battle between the gods in order to gain ascendancy. The second sun or age for that
matter lasted 364 years and was called 4 wind, hence the depiction of wind on the calendar stone (See
fig. 4). This age was supposedly destroyed by huge winds during some arguments between the gods.
The third age, called 4 rain which refers to a rain of fire in this case, was destroyed after a huge
confrontation between the deities when a rain of fire came which lasted a whole day. The fourth and
last sun in which the gods lived was the one called 4 water which lasted for 52 years. This age was
eventually destroyed by a symbolic ‘collapse of the heavens’ in which everything is said to be
swallowed up by water including the mountains (See Appendix III for the legend of the four suns).

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Fig 5. Depiction of the Second Sun, being destroyed by the wind (Codex Vaticano A, fol. 6)

With the arrival of the fifth sun or age, everything changed, not only because in the fifth age there
were not only gods dwelling but this was also the age in which the Aztecs lived. The fifth age was
called 4 movement which according to David Carrasco referred to two important things: First of all, 4
movement could refer to the actual sun moving from east to west during this age but 4 movement
could also involve an important cause concerning the end of the age. This fifth age was often feared by
the people to end due to heavy movements of the earth, thus earthquakes (See fig. 6).

Fig 6. The destruction of the fifth sun according to the Aztecs and their legend (Read, 1998:83-84)

Either way, the fifth sun started at the end of the fourth age when everything was covered in darkness
after the sun was destroyed by the collapse of heaven. According to Carrasco, the gods gathered
together around a large fire, possibly in Teotihuacan (see Read, 1998:60), in order to figure out how to
re-instate the sun at the sky to start the fifth age. After consulting with each other, the deities
supposedly figured out that they had to sacrifice themselves by throwing themselves in the fire in

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order to make the sun rise in the east. The story continues by saying that several gods tried to sacrifice
themselves, but nothing happened. These attempts failed until Tezcatlipoca hurled himself into the
fire. The sun finally rose in the east but stayed there and did not move across the sky. For the sun to
move across the sky the gods all decided to sacrifice themselves and all of them went into the fire
which made the sun move from east to west and so the fifth age or sun was created. Some even claim
that the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, cut out the hearts of the gods that sacrificed
themselves with a sacrificial knife and that their clothes were wrapped up in sacred bundles which
were still being honored during the reign of the Aztecs (Pizzato, 2004:34). After the creation of the
fifth sun, the large migrations op peoples to the Valley of Mexico took place of which we already
know and the rest of the Aztec Period is history.
The most important things that can be seen when looking at this sacred history of the Aztec
world and its previous ages, is the fact that stability and order are probably very difficult to achieve in
this world but that they are of high importance. Balance must exist in order to let the world be. The
second fact involves the effort one must make in order to keep this balance which means that
sometimes sacrifices must be made. In the case of the creation of the fifth sun this is seen by the fact
that the gods had to hurl themselves into a large fire, thus sacrificing themselves in a rather violent
way in order to make sure that the fifth age would be created. Projecting this on the Aztec people later
on, one can see that these people believed in the role of sacrifice in the history of creation and lived by
these beliefs using violent ways of sacrifice for the sake of creation which is a very important aspect of
the Aztecs to keep in mind when looking at the presence of human sacrifice in this culture which is
dealt with in a later chapter.

Important deities in the Aztec world


The rituals that deal with sacrifice or human sacrifice for that matter are often performed by the Aztecs
in order to please the important gods or deities that are believed to have given their own life in order
for the Aztecs to exist in the fifth world. This chapter will elaborate more on this aspect by shedding
some light on some of the most important deities when it comes to human sacrifice in order to
understand their importance for the Aztec people. It is also a very useful aspect because this will let
the reader think about the way in which gods can be seen since this perspective of viewing the deities
and peoples beliefs was involved in one of the major conflicts present between native Americans and
the European conquistadores.
Long before the great migrations to the Valley of Mexico took place, the peoples who would
later become known as the Aztecs, shared the belief in numerous deities. For almost anything there
was a certain god attached to it. Although the Aztecs believed in this group of gods, one should not
compare it to the way in which for instance the Greek looked at their range of deities. In the Aztec
world, there was no family bonding going on between these gods, but it should rather be seen as each

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deity taking a place in a particular part of one of the universal spheres (Townsend, 2002:116). One
thing that is in particular very interesting to see is that when the Aztec Empire conquered another city-
state, the deity that coincided with that city-state was added to the pantheon of Aztec deities.
First of all the most important deity in the Aztec belief system must be mentioned, the one
standing at the top of the pantheon above all others, the creator of life or in Nahuatl the god Ometeotl.
Literally, the English translation of the Nahuatl word Ometeotl is ‘Two-lord’ which reflects the duality
of this God who actually consisted of the two gods named Ometecutli and Omecihuatl. This makes it
clear why Miguel Leon-Portilla refers to Ometeotl as the ‘Lord of Dualty’ (see also Carrasco,
1998:50). In a way, Ometeotl could be compared with the one god still present in western religions,
who is also believed to have been the creator of all living beings. However, in the Aztec world there
were more gods present instead of just one, all associated with different aspects of life. I will not
elaborate on all the different gods present among the Aztecs instead I will focus on the ones being
important in the ritual aspect of human sacrifice (Carrasco, 1998:47-48).
The god seen as one of the most important for the Aztec people next to Ometeotl is
Tezcatlipoca or Smoking Mirror. He is often associated with fate and destiny and represents an
embodiment of the power present in all things. When looking at depictions of Tezcatlipoca, one will
see that this deity is often elaborately dressed with feathers and carrying his symbol in the form of an
mirror made of obsidian, the black volcanic glass (See fig. 7), which is often associated with
divination and shamanic acts but also with royalty to which the Aztec people often dedicate long
prayers (Townsend, 2002:117). When looking at the origin myth of the creation of the fifth sun, one
can see that Tezcatlipoca was believed to make the fifth sun rise in the east as the beginning of that
age after hurling himself into the fire. It was because of this deed that the people shared great
admiration for this deity and was simply seen as the most awesome one, being able to make an
appearance anywhere like smoke with his carried mirrors, hence the name ‘Lord of the Smoking
Mirror’ (Carrasco, 1998:50-51).

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Fig 7. Tezcatlipoca (Codex Borgia)

The next deity for whom sacrifices were made in Aztec life was the god of rain, Tlaloc, who was often
associated with the fertility of the earth. Although the name Tlaloc is derived from the Nahuatl
language, meaning He Who Is the Embodiment of Earth, the god himself is considered one of the
oldest in Aztec history and can also be found in the form of a storm-god in for instance places like
Teotihuacan. Tlaloc is often depicted as a person wearing a mask with distinctive goggles. As one will
later on read, is it often said that children were being sacrificed in honor of this deity (Townsend,
2002:122).

Fig 8. Tlaloc (Codex Borbonicus)

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Bernardino de Sahagún gives the following description on Tlaloc in his Florentine Codex:

"This god called Tlaloc Tlamacazqui was the god of rain. They said he gave them the
rains to irrigate the earth and that these rains caused all the grasses, trees, fruits and
grains to grow. It was he who also sent hail and thunder and lightning and storms on
the water and the dangers of the rivers and sea. The name Tlaloc Tlamacazqui means
that he is the god who resides in the terrestrial paradise and gives to men the
subsistence necessary for life."
(Passage from the Florentine Codex, found in: Moctezuma, 1985: 799)

The final god mentioned in this chapter is one that should not be forgotten for it played such a great
role in the life of the Aztecs even from the beginning. This is the god of war called Huitzilopochtli
who gave the priest its vision about the blooming cactus with an eagle on top of it as a sign for the
founding of Tenochtitlan. Of this deity is also an important passage written by Sahagún:

"The god called Huitzilopochtli was another Hercules, exceedingly robust, of great
strength and very bellicose, a great destroyer of towns and killer of people. In
warfare, he was like living fire, greatly feared by his enemies ... While he lived this
man was highly esteemed for his strength and prowess in war."
(Passage from the Florentine Codex, found in: Moctezuma, 1985:800)

By this passage, Sahagún succeeds in showing the great strength and power that
Huitzilopochtli had in the eyes of the Aztecs. It also reflects the great importance of both this
deity and the god of rain Tlaloc, since the Aztec economy rested upon both agriculture, thus
the water provided by Tlaloc and on the other hand the tribute paid by conquered city-states,
obtained through war, therefore needing the support of their deity of war, Huitzilopochtli
(Moctezuma, 1985:800).

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Fig 9. Huitzilopochtli (Codex Borbonicus)

The Sun-god and the earth monster


Apart from the deities that were mentioned in the previous part of this chapter, there are two gods
which played a very important role when it comes to Aztec human sacrifice, i.e. the sun and the earth
monster. Since they play a significant role involving human sacrifice, I decided to spend a separate
piece of the chapter to these deities.
The first of these two deities is called Tonatiuh or the sun, literal translation: He Who Makes
the Day. Tonatiuh is not depicted in Aztec art as a person but rather as a solar disc worn on the back of
a person impersonating him. It is in particular this god in the Aztec system of beliefs that played a
large role in the acts of human sacrifice since the Aztecs believed that the sun needed human sacrifices
in order to keep on moving across the sky. It was for this reason that warriors were often associated
with Tonatiuh and were installed with the mission to take captives at the battlefield in so-called
Flowery Wars in order for them to be sacrificed on a special altar in for instance coronation-rites
instead of killing them at the battlefield (Townsend, 2002:117).
In order to stress the importance of the Sun for the Aztec people a citation has to be made from
the work of López Austin:

“The fundamental principle was the need to strengthen a hungry god, one in need of
food, a good whose existence depended on humans. This was the Fifth Sun, who was
condemned, like the sun that had preceded him, to die in a cataclysm. As long as men

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could offer blood and the hearts of captives taken in combat, his power would not
decline, and he would continue on his course above the earth.”
(López-Austin, 1988:336)

This passage shows exactly why the Aztecs lived the way that they did and how much they relied on
their pantheon of gods. This is also the red line through the whole story on human sacrifice which will
become clearer later in this thesis.

Fig 10. Tonatiuh (Codex Telleriano-Remensis)

Next to the sun there was the earth monster who was believed to refuse to give the people food and
water unless she was constantly fed with human flesh and blood. In order to do that, the blood of the
person being sacrificed was collected in a special bowl bearing the image of the earth monster
(Pizzato, 2004:38). By feeding human blood to the earth monster, she would receive energy called
teonalli or tonalli, which was thought to reside in human blood, hair and the human skull. So the blood
was given to the earth monster, the person’s hair was kept by the one sacrificing the victim and the
victim’s skull was placed on top op the skull rack (Pizzato, 2004:41; see also Carrasco, 1998:54-55).
Apart from the earth monster in need of a person’s teonalli, the sun was thought to need
nourishment of the teyolia, which is power that according to the Aztecs resides in a person’s heart.
When the person being sacrificed acted like the god for whom the sacrifice was meant, in this case the
god of the sun, his teyolia was released by taking out his pumping heart and holding it towards the sun
(Pizzato, 2004:40). More information on human sacrifice will be given later on in the next chapters.

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Theoretical perspectives on the phenomenon of sacrifice

In the previous chapters some things were mentioned on the sacrifice of human beings present in the
Aztec period and the deities that were involved in these ceremonial killings. Before dealing with
human sacrifice used in Aztec rituals, one should first be familiar with the theoretical background of
the concept of human sacrifice. In this chapter, some theories behind sacrifice will be further explained
and later on reflected on human sacrifice.

The theory behind sacrifice


When doing research on ancient and modern religions or religious groups, one often stumbles on a
phenomenon called sacrifice. Looking at this word, it seems very difficult to really determine what
sacrifice is and words used to explain sacrifice are often confusing and unsatisfying which is rather
strange for something that is so widely used in nearly all kinds of religions (van Baaren, 1964:1).
The difficulties start with the definition of sacrifice. The word ´sacrifice´ originated from
Latin, meaning to make something holy or sacred (Beattie, 1980:29). In English the word sacrifice has
three meanings: slaughtering an animal or person, the surrender of an important possession or in a
ritual context, the surrender or destroy of an object for someone else’s sake which is normally
someone in a higher position like a deity (Bourdillon, 1980:10). However, these explanations of the
word do not give meaning to every kind of sacrificial act though. Various researchers have failed to
produce a suiting definition for this subject. Often no difference is made between sacrifice and
offering while these two terms do imply two different things (Lok, 1991:21). One of the definitions
made on sacrifice is the one by Hubert and Mauss:

‘Sacrifice is a religious act which, through the consecration of a victim, modifies the
condition of the moral person who accomplishes it or that of certain objects with
which he is concerned.‟ (Hubert and Mauss, 1964:13; Lok, 1991:22)

According to Hubert and Mauss, a sacrifice is being performed when the object is being
destroyed. The sacrificed object then often passes from the common world to the religious domain,
therefore being consecrated (Beattie, 1980: 29). If the object is just given to the deity, this will be an
offering instead of sacrifice.
In an article written by van Baaren, the author states that sacrifice consists of four basic forms
in which it can be presented. First of all sacrifice is often being presented as a gift in a situation in
which a return gift is being expected to follow. In this case, sacrifice could be seen as a part of
reciprocity. The sacrifice of giving a gift does not weaken the position of the person presenting the
gift, because the person will receive a different gift in return which is in balance with the given object
16
and are therefore bound together. This balance in reciprocity can fail when the two parties are not
equal anymore, for instance between rich and poor people but also when the distance between the god
or deity and the human being becomes too large. In this case, one could look at the sacrifice as tribute
being paid from one to another.
Looking at what Mauss has to say on sacrifice and gift-exchange, he tends to look at sacrifice
as some kind of contract between man and the gods. He explains this by presenting a model in which
three different relations are expressed: between man and man, a relation between deities and one
between deities and the dead (Lok, 1991:24). The model shown below was made by Mauss in order to
make these relationships more clear.

Fig 11. Taxonomy of different forms of exchange represented by Mauss (1954).


(Lok, 1991:25)

The second way of looking at sacrifice according to van Baaren involves a form in which the
object being sacrificed is leaving the person giving it for the sake of one’s own benefit or that of
someone else. A clear example of this is when people donate money to help children in need. In this
case, something valuable is given away without expecting anything in return by knowing that the idea
of helping someone else is satisfactory enough.
The third option of sacrifice is used in the case of important events. In some religions,
sacrifice is based on events that play a fundamental role. These forms of sacrifice are often repeated
and renewed through the years. These sacrifices probably started at the creation of the religion like for
instance the ritual meal often present in Christianity.

17
The form of sacrifice is one in which sacrifice is used as an act in which the world is made
holy. In this case, the sacrificial act is often referred to as the sacrament. This form of sacrifice shows,
as does the third form, that it is not important what is given, but that their gifts are heard and answered
by for instance a good harvest or a solution to possible problems that communities might have. This is
also what makes the sacrifice act as a symbol in this way, thus having a high symbolic value (van
Baaren, 1964:1-3). The object being sacrificed usually symbolises the person making the sacrifice,
thus giving a piece of oneself away as a sacrifice (Beattie, 1980:30).
When analysing the actual act of sacrifice, one can distinguish six elements. The first element
in the sacrificial act involves the ‘sacrificer’, meaning the one who makes the sacrifices either a group
or an individual (Lok, 1991:23). The easiest way to answer this is by saying that man usually makes
the sacrifice, but one needs to be more specific. When looking at populations that deal with sacrifices
as a cult, it seems that not everyone is just able to perform the sacrificial act and therefore there are
usually certain persons or groups within the population that have the authority to perform sacrifices,
being chosen by their qualities. The one performing the sacrificial act does not has have a religious
function, but can also be someone representing the community in general (van Baaren, 1964:4).
Examples of sacrificers are the king of a community, the head of a household family or a priest. Kings
are often chosen because the gods they are giving their offerings to, might be their ancestors. Another
reason for this is the idea of sacred kingship which sets the king apart from the rest of the population.
Priests are often chosen for their intermediate role between this world and the supernatural one.
The second element in the act of sacrifice is that which is sacrificed. This could involve a
number of things. That which is being sacrificed could mean an object but could also refer to
something entirely of a spiritual nature. Even a god may be sacrificed (Baaren, 1964:8). When talking
about human sacrifice, Hubert and Mauss refer to this person as ‘the victim’ (Lok, 1991:23).
The third aspect of sacrifice is the place and time in which the act is being performed.
Although this aspect is often not considered as one of the most important ones, the place and time in
which the act is performed could say something about the cult in which the ritual takes place.
Sacrifices that are not part of the rituals performed together as a population can take place at all kinds
of locations at various times. These sacrifices are often performed on a place depending on the
situation the one performing them is in. The sacrifices performed within a cult are often done at fixed
times, based on the dates of important events like religious festivals. The places in which these
sacrificial acts take place are often places thought to be holy or of at least of great importance, for
instance near or on a graveyard, at a temple or when objects are given to the gods, near an altar.
The fourth part of sacrifice involves the method of sacrifice. This is partially being determined
by the object that is being sacrificed. When dealing with a leaving animal or human, the way of
sacrifice will involve slaughter because one needs to kill the victim in order for it to be sacrificial since
the word sacrifice refers to an offering made by destroying the object being offered. In the case of

18
objects being given to for instance deities, are often put on or beside an altar. These objects involve
foodstuffs and precious objects. Sometimes the object being given to deities is given by burning it
which has the symbolic meaning of getting the sacrificed object in the air when the deities are believed
to reside in heaven.
The fifth element deals with the one receiving the sacrifice, the recipient. There is not much
that needs to be explained about this part of the sacrifice other than people sacrifice for a reason and
with the intention for who the act takes place. It is just an element that needs to be determined in order
for the sacrifice to become clear. However, Beattie does explain clearly that the aspect of the recipient
seems to disappear more often. People do have a certain intention or goal of what they are sacrificing
for, but the idea to whom the gift is presented fades into the background because it is the act of
sacrifice and the object being sacrificed that are in front of it all. So it is rather getting rid of something
evil by asking for instance for rain in order not to let the crops fail than giving a gift to a deity as a
present. (Beattie, 1980:31).
The last element involves the motivation and the intention of the sacrificial act. One does not
just sacrifice without a meaning. Often the sacrifice takes place according to a mythical example,
being repeated occasionally for the general good (Beattie, 1980:32). In this case sacrifice could be
seen as an awareness of man depending on supernatural forces other than the forces of oneself. Van
Baaren gives three different motives for sacrifice: first, in order to make contact with the gods to be
able to communicate with the other world, second to maintain cosmic order and balance and third to
ask something from a deity being either positive or negative, like for instance rain for a good harvest
(van Baaren, 1964:11). People tend to make sacrifices when they are in need or at times of a crisis
which could either involve one person or a group.
Looking at the possible theories on the ritual aspect of sacrifice, one can tell that there is a lot
of guessing and speculation involved in this. When one reads about ancient populations that performed
ritual sacrifices, we can only guess what happened and write down what we think that happened
without being fully sure. This is also an important point which makes it very hard to really analyse
sacrifice and making a whole theory on this subject, but the information various authors are giving on
sacrificed can be put together and used in order to see if some things can be applied and recognized in
a case study.

Some basic theoretical explanations on human sacrifice


In human sacrifice, the symbolic meaning of the sacrificial act also involves the person arranging the
sacrifice like mentioned in the previous part of this chapter. To be able to symbolically give away a
piece of yourself to the gods or the person the sacrificial act is meant for, it would be easy to sacrifice
another living organism, since this is the closest one could get to an actual living person. This could
involve literally another human being, therefore involving human sacrifice, but when dealing with a

19
blood sacrifice, often animals are being killed like for instance chickens. When sacrificing animals,
people often deal with domestic animals. This is because they are living among people and therefore
symbolise the human life being sacrifice. It does not imply though that there were no humans being
sacrificed in such an act.
Human sacrifices, or blood sacrifices for that matter, were acted out, mostly on special
occasions, for example when a new temple was finished building, when the house for the chief was
built or when a leader or king was ill or had to be buried (Cordero, 2008:203; Bremmer, 2007:6).
People often had the belief that the offering of a person was for the good of a population, thinking that
a sacrifice was made by the regrettable loss of a human being though for receiving something of much
more value like for instance rain after a long period of drought. Still nowadays not many people
approve these ritual killings, thinking that killing another person is immoral and cruel (Cordero,
2008:205).
Beattie describes four stages given by Evans-Pritchard in blood sacrifice, which are therefore
also useful in analysing human sacrifice. The first stage is the person being sacrificed. This person is a
gift to the gods and is therefore being consecrated in the next step, made holy. The third step in the
ritual is a step called invocation. In this step, the person giving the sacrifice to the gods tries to talk to
the gods in order to let them know what the sacrifice is for and filling them in on background
information. The last step in human sacrifice is the actual killing of the person being sacrificed, called
immolation. This final step is usually seen as the climax of the whole ritual (Beattie, 1980:33-34).
The previous examples of human sacrifice all involve ritual sacrifice. Bourdillon mentions
types of human sacrifice next to the most common type used for ritual purposes which could also be
used at rituals but not necessarily. The first type involves prestigious killings. These killings do not
involve religious themes like consecration or cleansing a population from evil or the release of some
power which are themes that are often used in religious killings. An example of a prestigious killing
involves societies in West Africa in which important people are buried. People pay there respects to
these important people by giving them a number of human bodies or animals to be buried with them
(Bourdillon, 1980:13).
The second type of human sacrifice involves the execution of a criminal. Since this type of
death often does not really involve a death which is found to be regrettable it does not seem obvious
for executions to be listed as sacrifices. However, a lot of ritual aspects are present when executing a
criminal. These ritual aspects describe why the person must be killed, what the charges are and how
the person is going to be killed and in all of these situations, witnesses must be present. The execution
of a criminal becomes even more religious when the charges for which the person is punished are
dealing with offending a deity. The lives of the rest of the people are safeguarded by executing the
criminal far away from the cities and villages (Bourdillon, 1980:13).

20
The third type of killing a person deals with a more ritual sacrifice which is called sorcerous
sacrifice. These sacrifices are often performed in secret, either by a group or an individual, almost
always for private ends instead of sacrificing a person for the good of the whole community and
therefore often acted out by evil witches or sorcerers.
The last form of sacrifice is called dramatic threat. This type of sacrifice is often performed in
order to avoid danger or threats in a way that if one does not perform the sacrifice, something bad will
happen to the person (Bourdillon, 1980:16).
Human sacrifice also involves a number of reasons why it is being performed. First of all,
human sacrifice can act as a gift to a deity. This can be a gift as a part of the one sacrificing it, a gift at
someone else’s expense or as a token gift for instance as an expression of good faith. The subject does
not need further explanation, since it was already explained earlier in this chapter. The second function
of human sacrifice is the ritual control of death. This sounds like an execution and it could be in a way
that a king or priest is being killed for not doing his duty well or when he was believed to cause bad
things. Furthermore, Bourdillon talks about sacrifice as an act of substitution in which a scapegoat is
being sacrifices to be substituted by another person. In this case, evil is often driven out of a
community symbolically. Ritual meals and power are in this case also mentioned as symbols in human
sacrifice (Bourdillon, 1980:20-21).
In this chapter, it has become clear that there are a number of ways to look at human sacrifice.
At the same time, this is just what makes it so difficult to analyse such an interesting subject as human
sacrifice, especially among ancient civilizations. With these theories and explanations on the
phenomenon called sacrifice, hopefully some light will be shed on Aztec human sacrifices explained
later in this thesis.

21
Aztec human sacrifice as mentioned in various sources

Having looked at some background information on the Aztecs and their worldview and having
focussed on some theoretical frameworks made by numerous anthropologists on sacrifice in general, it
is now down to applying this information on the Aztecs and their documents on human sacrifice in
order to try and find out why human sacrifices took place during their reign. A lot of people have tried
to state something on this matter but since there are a lot of different opinions about this particular
subject, I believe that some overview is needed in this case. In order to create a clear overview on
Aztec human sacrifice, this chapter will first deal with examples on human sacrifice as mentioned in
numerous sources like for instance the Florentine Codex by Sahagún. After that some things will be
said on the way in which the Spaniards described these sacrifices when dealing with them after the
Conquest. To be able to state whether these descriptions are accurate or not, the focus will then lie on
the archaeological evidence found during excavations in for instance Tenochtitlan in order to draw
some conclusions afterwards.

Examples of Aztec human sacrifice


There are many rituals described in which human sacrifice took place, like for instance in a ritual held
in honour of the rain god Tlaloc. Sahagún describes in his second book the monthly rituals that were
held among the Aztecs. Already in the festivities of the first Aztec month human sacrifice takes place.
Sahagún describes a ritual in which children are taken to the sacred mountaintops surrounding
Tenochtitlan on which they were said to be sacrificed. The author continues his description by stating
that the hearts of the children were being removed from their bodies and presented to the god of rain,
Tlaloc, in order to ask for rain so that the people got a good crop season. The story continues with the
events in the second month in which is explained that slaves and captives were sacrificed on a
sacrificial stone on the Templo Mayor by their owners in honour of the gods Xipe and Totec
(Sahagún, 1950, bk.2).
Ways in which humans were sacrificed include decapitation and cutting the throat which is
often said to be followed by the extraction of the heart. Scratching, shooting with arrows at the victim,
drowning the victim, burying or throwing the person of the steps of the temple are also included in
descriptions of human sacrifice (Graulich, 2007:10; Carrasco, 1999:83). The extraction of the heart
supposedly creates the opening for the gods. It is believed to form the way of access to them
(Kerkhove, 2002:147).
The people used in sacrificial acts were mostly captured on the battlefield by warriors. When
offering such a captive to ones deity did put the warrior in a sort of higher sphere, allowing them to
gain social status and a worthy afterlife in reward. Merchants and artisans could also bring sacrifices
by buying slaves at the market. Carrasco mentions slaves being bought at the market, after which the
22
victim was being washed up and dressed in order to become the living image of their gods (Carrasco,
1999:84).

The view on sacrifice by the Spanish conquistadores


The first encounter of the Spanish with Mesoamerican human sacrifice occurred around 1518 A.D.
when Juan de Grijalva was leading the expedition along the Gulf of Mexico. While exploring the area,
he and his crew stumbled upon an island which is nowadays called Isla de Sacrificios where human
remains were found at the top of a small temple-like structure. This does not immediately proves that
human sacrifice indeed took place there, but a year later Cortés found obsidian knives together with
human blood, also located at the top of a pyramid temple, this time located in the Yucatan peninsula,
which made the presence of human sacrifice in their eyes very likely, which is why the island in the
Gulf of Mexico was later called the island of sacrifices (Anawalt, 1982:39). It were encounters like
these that heavily focussed the attention towards practices of human sacrifice, which made people like
Sahagún document every sacrifice that they claimed to see very carefully and in a very elaborate rather
western way.
The works of Bernadino de Sahagún, a Spanish friar working for the Spanish king, are
considered one of the most elaborate documents on Aztec life. In his Florentine Codex much is
explained about this group of people going from their mythical story to the monthly festivities and
their important deities to crop growing. Next to explaining the sacrifice itself, Sahagún also wrote
about what happened to the victim after he was sacrificed at the platform of the temple. Supposedly
the body of the person was taken to a kitchen where the meat was prepared. Very small pieces of the
victim are said to be presented at dinner to the elite in order to enrich themselves with the holy flesh of
the one who died in honour of their deities. What is most interesting about this description is the fact
that the sacrificer, or the ‘owner’ of the sacrificed victim, does not eat any of this meat, because that
person is believed to be identified with the one being sacrificed. Sahagún describes this by stating the
following on the owner of the victim:

“Shall I then, eat my own flesh?” (Sahagún, 1950)

Apart from Sahagún, there are also important records of a Dominican priest who wrote about
human sacrifice among the Aztecs. Diego Durán documented the Aztec festivals and rituals in order to
show others what kind of ‘practices of the Devil’ were taking place. This was all documented after the
conquest and he did this by learning Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztec people and then
interviewing Amerindians who were present at these festivities and rituals. One has to bear in mind
though that friar Diego Durán himself actually has never been to any of these activities which he wrote
about.

23
According to Durán, the slaves kept for human sacrifice were dressed up, looking like the gods
for whom they were later on being sacrificed and were given instructions as to how to enter the stage
or temple platform. These preparations would sometimes take place even a year before the actual
sacrificial rite. In this year, the person being sacrificed was worshipped and treated like one of the
gods by the entire community which strongly believed that the victim presented one of their gods at
that time. Later on, the possibility of Quetzalcoatl wrapping the clothes of the gods who sacrificed
themselves in order for the fifth sun to begin, as mentioned in the chapter on the creation of the Aztec
world, was given in an article since it might give a suitable explanation as to why the sacrificial
victims impersonating the Aztec deity was dressed in these fine clothes as is mentioned in the works
of Diego Durán (For more information see Durán, 1964).
Getting further into the subject of the importance of the victim to the community, Sahagún
continues by stating all the physical requirements which the victim was claimed to should have had.
It seems that the Aztec created this perfect image of the victim in their head in order for the victim to
be able to impersonate one of their gods. If this was the case with all the human sacrifices performed,
one should be starting to wonder if these victims are easy to find and whether it would then be
possible for the Aztecs to make such mass-sacrifices as often stated by Spanish chroniclers.
Sometimes the figures they write down in their documents rise up till 10.000 humans being sacrificed
a year!
Another conquistador writing about human sacrifice is Bernal Díaz del Castillo who wrote
about the sacrifice of Spanish soldiers in honor of Huitzilopochtli. What is most appalling about this
passage is the way in which the author describes the actual sacrifice. He talks about chests being
sawed open, the offering of the still palpitating hearts to the Aztec idols after which the bodies were
kicked down the staircases of the temple pyramid. Bernal Díaz del Castillo even described what
happened next to the body, focusing on skin being torn of faces and being prepared like leather
(Carrasco, 1998:183-184). Even if this was what really happened during the fifteenth and sixteenth
century, one should note the way in which the author expresses himself. Durán mentions the following
about the Aztecs performing human sacrifice, showing the way in which many people thought of the
Aztecs during the sixteenth and seventeenth century:

“The Aztecs were the cruelest and most devilish people … worse even than the way the
Spaniards treated and treat them.”
(Durán, 1964:108)

When looking at the documents on sacrifice written by the Spanish conquistadores, one can see that
they all tried really hard to show that the act of human sacrifice could not be tolerated. This was done
by describing the rituals elaborately and in the cruelest sense by stating for instance that the still

24
pounding heart was ripped out of the body instead of just taken out and that at least thousands of
people were sacrificed every year.
Numerous of researchers dealing with Aztec human sacrifice later on, tended to take these
numbers for granted but fortunately people started to put question marks on these figures in the last
few centuries and found that these numbers might well be highly exaggerated. What is interesting to
see though that even as they are exaggerated, the Spanish chroniclers did succeed in giving about the
same numbers as their colleagues, varying from 2 to 6 victims every 20 days per Aztec temple or
ceremonial complex (Kerkhove, 2002:136).
However, whatever the Spanish may or may not have written about the Aztecs, one should
bear in mind that during the fifteenth and sixteenth century, western cultures that believed in
Christianity viewed human sacrifice as something that could not be approved of and could maybe even
be compared to murder. Yet, the Aztecs had some strict rules against murder. The priests handling the
sacrifice had to be helpful and polite and were not allowed to hurt anyone. Also, the victims were
often captured at the battlefield during the Flowery Wars, partially because the Aztecs did not just
want to brutally kill people but rather let them impersonate their deities since a sacrificial death was
believed to be an honorific end to ones life (Kerkhove, 2002:140). Ray Kerkhove who wrote about
Aztec sacrifice also mentions in his article that the victims „sung and danced with great joy to their
death‟ and that the victims were not suffering alone because during the ceremony the priests
perforated themselves with maguey thorns through the earlobes, tongue, genitals and other fleshy body
parts (Carrasco, 1999:85).

Archaeological evidence for human sacrifice


Apart from the numerous Spanish sources dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth century at post-
conquest times, there are also some archaeological implications that might be able to tell us more
about human sacrifices among the Aztecs. First of all, anthropologist Patricia Anawalt explains in her
article that the steps of the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan were constantly stained with human blood.
Whether this is still the case and if research can be done on these stains is uncertain but this could be
an argument in favour of the presence of human sacrifice among the Aztecs.
Another argument can be found in actual archaeological evidence found in the Aztec area in
the form of the famous skull racks. How many skulls were put on such a rack and if these skulls were
indeed kept as some sort of trophy is not investigated yet, however the existence of these racks seems
to be accepted throughout the world (Anawalt, 1987:41). One example of such a skull rack is given by
Rosemary Joyce. In her book on gender and power in Mesoamerica, she states that a ball court and
skull rack are found at the foot of the twin temple (Joyce, 2000:144). Although the skull racks are
found in areas that are often linked to human sacrifice, one should bear in mind though that these

25
skulls are not necessarily from people that have been the victims of human sacrifice. These skulls
could also be kept in honour of ones ancestors but a lot remains unclear about these skull racks.

Fig 12. Pieces of a skull rack found at the Templo Mayor


(http://www.famsi.org/research/pohl/pohl_aztec5.html)

Next to the skull racks found at the Templo Mayor, there are also depictions of skulls on wall that are
found throughout Mesoamerica like for instance on the façade of a structure located at the northwest
of the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan (see fig 13.). Next to these depictions of skulls and the racks
with the actual skulls hanging on them, there are also numerous obsidian knives found of which they
are believed to be sacrificial knives.

Fig 13. The depiction of numerous skulls located on the façade of a structure located in the northwest
corner of the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan, or current Mexico City (Moctezuma, 1988:18).
26
Recent investigations around the Templo Mayor in nowadays Mexico City have recovered new
information dealing with possible human sacrifices. An article on this subject was published by
Ximena Chávez Balderas in 2005 and submitted to FAMSI. In this article, research has been done by
looking at human remains and looking at their mortuary treatments. The remains from 19 offerings in
the Great Temple have been collected which consisted of a total of 107 bodies (See Appendix IV for
the locations). Skulls that have been recognized in this case include skull-masks, decapitated skulls,
skulls coming from the skull racks and isolated remains in its primary context (Balderas, 2005:2; see
also Appendix V for some examples).
By performing osteologic analysis on the remains, Balderas states that they were able to
conclude that the investigated offerings were individuals being sacrificed. The samples are studied on
bone marks whereby the researchers establish whether these marks are applied on the bones prior to
their death, after they died or even while dying (Balderas, 2005:5-6).
A very interesting discovery noted in the article of Balderas, is the fact that they have found
the remains of an infant showing signs of sacrifice by heart extraction. The remains referred to as
Offering 111 (see fig. 15), were found at the Templo Mayor and are currently the only archaeological
case of sacrifice by extraction of the heart. Marks have been detected near the so-called costo-condral
joint which means that it is very likely that a priest slid his hand behind the child’s heart in order for it
to be taken out. Also, the arteries were sliced with a knife, using the ribs as cutting surface which have
been found in offering 111 showing cut marks (See fig.14; Balderas, 2005:14).

Fig. 14 Cut marks on one of the ribs of the infant in offering 111 (Balderas, 2005:15)

27
Fig 14. Offering 111, the remains of an infant sacrificed by heart extraction
(Balderas, 2005:13)

By looking at the remains of the infant and analysing them on cut marks etc, the following sequence
has been made concerning human sacrifice:

Fig 15. A general sequence based on offering 111


(Balderas, 2005:16)

Although there is not much evidence found on actual human sacrifice, in particular through the
extraction of the heart, recent publications are finally showing some evidence for this event, making it
more likely to assume that human sacrifice really took place among the Aztecs.

28
Apart from evidence visual at archaeological excavations, some people claim that there is also
evidence of human sacrifice present in Aztec codices which were made by the Aztecs themselves and
are therefore much more reliable than the ones made by the Spanish. However, most of these Aztec
documents unfortunately were destroyed by the Spanish after the conquest because they wanted to
create a new history for the Aztec people. One of the Aztec documents that did survive is the codex
Borbonicus which is the only Aztec codex that deals with ritual practises, though to me it did not
really show some valid evidence on the practise of human sacrifice beside a small depiction of the
skull rack on folio 11.

Fig. 16 A skull rack (Codex Borbonicus, Durant-Forest, 1974)

Recent given explanations for human sacrifice in the Aztec world


In the previous chapters, human sacrifice among the Aztecs has been viewed in a religious context,
trying to explain this phenomenon by looking at the Aztec worldview and their beliefs in life. Also the
view of the Spanish conquistadores from the fifteenth and sixteenth century has been shown in order
to shed some light on the differences in the way of thinking about the event of human sacrifice being it
either from the Aztec perspective which numerous anthropologists tend to adopt or the Spanish
perspective in which people tended to look at things by honouring the values of Christianity and thus
thinking of human sacrifice as being something cruel and non-human.
Although these are two very important ways of looking at things used over time in history,
people nowadays come up with other explanations which are even very different from the previously
mentioned methods. The first example of a possible explanation when it comes to Aztec human
sacrifice is the one that is given the most, simply by looking at Aztec religious beliefs. Many
anthropologists are supporting the explanation of using human sacrifice as a means of satisfying the
gods and feeding them in order to pay of debts, in order to ask for something or to ascertain the
movement of the sun which forms the existence of their lives but also to form a link between the
human realm and that of the gods (Graulich, 2007:9).
Aztec deities are believed to be able to revive after being ‘fed’ with (human) blood and
through their own death being it via impersonators, actual human beings often dressed up with things
that characterize a certain god or deity, able to sacrifice themselves for their gods (Graulich, 2007:11).

29
In this case the victim could impersonate numerous things starting with the most important, a deity as
mentioned before, but also some kind of mythical hero. One could even stand for foodstuffs or in a
more simple way, just to form a messenger between this world and the next.
Even though the idea of sacrificing a person, who represents an important deity, in order to
show great respect for the god and therefore willing to give ones life to be able to revive him sounds
plausible, there is another important reason for sacrificing a person which was already briefly
mentioned before namely to pay of debts. By paying of your debts to the gods one was thought to
receive a worthy afterlife (Graulich, 2007:12). What should be kept in mind though is that when a
person wanted to pay of its debt by giving its life, this should not be seen literally. The one wanting to
pay of its debt is not the person being sacrificed during the ritual but rather its ‘owner’. The victim
being sacrificed is either obtained in battle or bought as a slave. Michael Graulich explains it like this
in his article:

“...the victim serves as a substitute for the sinner.” (Graulich, 2007:12)

What is often seen when reading an article on Aztec human sacrifice is the fact that at one point the
author most often starts to wonder why it had to be human beings that were ritually killed. The Aztecs
could have easily chosen certain types of animals or even flowers of certain plant species for their
sacrificial rites, after all numerous animal species played a significant role in the Aztec cosmic vision
and in their religious beliefs. As logical as this way of thinking might seem to us, we have to bear in
mind that the Aztecs believed that the human body was the centre of the universe, thus playing a
crucial role and considered as something really precious. More or less it is just because of this view
that they also believe that they have their gods to thank for their body and therefore felt like they owed
them. For the Aztecs to be able to show this importance and gratefulness to their deities, they felt like
they had to make the largest sacrifice possible, one that would have the most impact on human life,
namely showing the gods that one is able to give it all back to them in a second if they had to, thus
giving their life. By letting a chosen victim impersonate either the deity or the one making the sacrifice
this is just how that could be done (Graulich, 2007:13; see also Carrasco, 1998:185).
A lot of people have given explanations similar to the one just mentioned above, focussing on
the cosmology and religious aspects of the Aztecs. Yet there is another group of people who firmly
believe that the Aztecs ate a piece of the victim’s meat after being sacrificed and were thus
cannibalistic. Such an explanation for human sacrifice is given by Michael Harner who adopts an
ecological perspective. In his article he claims that anthropologists tend to look at sacrifice through
religion, rituals and worldview but that they are forgetting a very important aspect being the question
as to why the use of large-scale sacrifices in religious contexts evolved the way it did. With this
question held in the back of his head, the author tries to search for an answer for this development by

30
looking in the ecological direction by combining the act of human sacrifice and mostly the possible
presence of cannibalism in these ritual activities, with the possible need of certain nutritious
foodstuffs. In order to prove the relationship between cannibalism among the Aztecs and their need for
the nutrients present in human flesh, Harner cites numerous post-conquest documents in his article like
for example the Florentine Codex by Sahagún, works of Diego Durán and Bernal Díaz.
The most important conclusion coming from this article is the fact that according to Harner,
Mesoamerica dealt with large-scale ecological problems concerning failure of the crops and with that a
growth in population. In order to reduce the uncertainty in crop production, the Aztecs started to
sacrifice in order to ‘feed’ the gods with the cannibalistic part of eating the sacrificed victim so that
satisfy the requirements of essential protein (Harner, 1977:132).
Although some assumptions have been made on human sacrifice in combination with
cannibalism, there has been a flow of criticism afterwards, for instance by Hunn, a researcher who
found out that the Aztecs did not need human flesh to meet their protein requirements. Even if they
did, the human flesh of the victim being sacrificed was only eaten in very small amounts by the elite
(Kerkhove, 2002:138; see also Carrasco, 1995:433).
Having briefly discussed the most popular explanations given for human sacrifice when it
comes to the Aztecs, I would like to close with a definition for human sacrifice among the Aztecs cited
from Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos by Kay A. Read, of which is believed to be a suitable
explanation seen from a religious perspective:

“Mexica-Tenochca sacrifice in which human and nonhuman beings participated, was


regarded as the systematized manipulation of various life-giving powers via their feeding,
which served to: 1. Sustain, strengthen, and transform those powers; and 2. Maintain an
orderly and balanced system consisting of many and diverse animated entities which were
intimately, inherently, and reciprocally related with each other.”
(Read, 1998:154-155)

31
Conclusion

Having read a lot about the Aztecs, one can see that a lot has been written about these people that lived
in the Valley of Mexico since the twelfth century A.D. till the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 A.D.
The Aztecs, a group of people with a lot of influence throughout the Valley of Mexico. After having
migrated there during the twelfth century, one can see a shift towards this area which became even
greater as the Aztecs started to build their empire with the founding of their capital Tenochtitlan.
Tenochtitlan soon grew to be one of the largest cities ever during the fourteenth century. With
its large ceremonial centre in the middle of the city with the imposing building of the Great Temple on
its platform that rose into the sky, it is no surprise that large groups of people came to that place in
order to witness the religious ceremonies and rituals. Among these rituals human sacrificial acts were
said to be included. These were the important events that drew the attention of the Spanish
Conquistadors when they arrived there around 1519 A.D. Numerous sacrifices have since then been
documented by various friars, travelers and other European people.
Looking at the view of the Aztecs, starting with their worldview, it has become clear that the
Aztecs believed in their pantheon of gods and relied heavily on them and their existence. They firmly
believed that there had been four worlds, or suns as they call them, before them and they were living
in the fifth sun which was created by the gods that sacrificed themselves by hurling themselves into a
large fire in order to make the sun rise in the east and making it move across the sky. Having made this
sacrifice, the Aztecs came to believe that they had some kind of debt which they needed to pay to their
deities. This was believed to be done by showing that one was able and willing to sacrifice the most
important thing being the human body that was seen as the centre of the cosmos.
About these human sacrifices a lot of assumptions have been made over the years, starting
with the documentation made by some Spanish Conquistadors. Even though the number of documents
that are available on the Aztecs seem to be very use full, especially when looking at the difficulties of
analyzing a culture of which not much is known, one has to be very careful when it comes to the
Aztecs and their act of human sacrifice. The first problem encountered when looking at primary
sources on human sacrifice, one can see that there are only sources available written after the Conquest
and mostly written by Spanish or European people. This makes it difficult to really analyze human
sacrifice among the Aztecs since there are no Aztec sources that mention if, how and why human
sacrifices might have taken place during their reign which is why the present view on these rituals is
highly biased due to the European view on human sacrifice which was non-tolerating due to the
influence of Christianity.
Fortunately a shift can be seen during the last few decades in which the more anthropological
perspective on the matter kicked in, namely viewing Aztec rituals in their own context and trying to
explain them with the use of sources on Aztec worldview and their ritual beliefs instead of analyzing it
32
by using Christianity as a point of view which immediately placed human sacrifice in a broader
daylight instead of thinking about it as the Devil’s work and portraying it as a cruel event in which
hearts were torn out.
Linking human sacrifice to recent theoretical frameworks made on sacrifice in general, on can
see that probably the most profound reason for human sacrifice was for the Aztecs the way to
symbolically feed their gods to ensure the annual rainfall needed to grow crops and to ensure their
own existence since the Aztecs believed that the sun and the earth needed their blood to make sure that
the sun would keep making its course across the sky. To make this sacrifice more meaningful, the
victim being sacrificed was often captured during battles which made the warrior the ‘owner’ of the
victim and also the one sacrificing the victim. After capturing the person, the victim was washed and
dressed in order to impersonate a deity and was also really believed to be the deity for which he was
treated with the upmost respect. Although this has been the case, I was still wondering why people
would let themselves be sacrificed since there are even sources in which it is mentioned that victim
climbed the temple voluntarily, knowing that one was going to be sacrificed. But the Aztecs did not
fear death and in their eyes, a sacrificial death for the sake of your gods was the most generous thing to
do which makes it in a way comparable with the death of a hero warrior on the battlefield. Since this
belief together with the knowledge of being able to receive a worthy afterlife after being sacrificed, the
Aztecs really did not seem to mind to die through being sacrificed.
On the other hand, the only cases of human sacrifice being fully documented were the ones
written down in Spanish sources. This makes them biased of course but yet one does need to ask
oneself how much of it really took place in the Aztec period. A lot of research has been done on this
part and one thing that can absolutely be concluded is the fact that the numbers of sacrifices made
annually and written down by the Spaniards, are highly exaggerated. The second thing that can be
noted is that I think that the proposed idea of cannibalism among the Aztecs can be discarded as well
since some sources gave direct evidence in the nutrition pattern of the Aztecs, showing that the Aztecs
did not need human flesh as a source of protein and that only the elite tended to eat a fairly small
amount of meat which makes it very doubtful if it could have even be seen as cannibalism.
However, let’s not get into that any further since that was not the reason why this thesis was
written in the first place. The main question was whether people have started to look at human
sacrifice in a different way other than by taking the Spanish documents for granted and secondly if we
can now state, by looking at the evidence, if human sacrifice actually occurred among the Aztec
people. Having discussed the Aztec worldview and the Spanish sources, one can see that people
started to look more at human sacrifice within its context, although it must be said that still a lot of
researchers tend to take Spanish sources for granted which should not be done so easily.
Looking at the archaeological evidence on human sacrifice, I must say that at first when
starting this literary investigation on the matter, I had my doubts on whether or not human sacrifice

33
really took place in its literal sense. That was until I found the publication by Balderas (2005) in which
she laid down the evidence of offering 111, the remains of the infant found at the Templo Mayor.
Reviewing that work and looking at the pictures, one can see that there is an actual case in which a
child was being sacrificed in which the heart was extracted from the body.
Putting all of the evidence together, I think it is safe to say that human sacrifice actually took
place, however, when looking at the numerous publications made on the subject, I do find it surprising
that there is only one case found in which one can state that the heart has been extracted from the body
since this is the picture that the Spanish sources tend to show all the time. Therefore more
archaeological evidence should be expected. Maybe this will change in the future so that more will be
able be said on this difficult matter in which the European way of thinking mingles with the Aztec
way. Still there is a lot that has to be researched in order to really prove the concept of human sacrifice
among the Aztecs without having any Aztec primary sources, but the increase in archaeological
evidence certainly is of great help and a good start.

34
Summary

The Aztecs, people living in the Valley of Mexico at the arrival of the Spaniards, are a well-discussed
group which is believed to have had an elaborate ritual way of living in which sacrifices took place.
The Spanish Conquistadores have documented many rituals in which victims are described to have
been decapitated after their still pumping hearts were ripped out of their chests. Being described as
cruel acts of the Devil, sacrifice was not tolerated among the Europeans and caused a lot of
commotion and highly exaggerated cases on which people tended to rely completely since there are no
real Aztec primary sources.
While so many things have been written about these ceremonies and the personality of the
Aztecs themselves, one starts to wonder what really happened during Aztec reign since these Spanish
texts seemed to be highly biased with the influence of Christianity. This was what researchers started
to wonder a few decades ago when another perspective on the matter kicked in.
Anthropologists started to view things in their own perspective, using the Aztec world view as
their guideline. The Aztecs shared this great belief in their pantheon of gods and the fact that their
deities had sacrificed themselves in order to create the fifth sun in which the Aztecs lived. In order to
pay of their debts to the gods, the Aztecs sacrificed impersonators of their deity to show that they were
willing to give up the most precious thing, namely the human body.
To be able to state if this is really the best way to analyze human sacrifice and to be able to
state that this really happened, archaeological evidence has been searched for and was found in the
offering of a child which showed signs of sacrifice by the extraction of the heart. This showed that
there is upcoming evidence on the actual happening of human sacrifice but this thesis also shows that
nowadays not everyone is relying completely on the sources of the Conquistadores anymore. However
some still do and should keep in mind that Spanish sources are not just to be taken for granted but
should be read with great care and caution.

35
Samenvatting

De Azteken, mensen woonachtig in de Vallei van Mexico in de tijd dat de Spaniaarden in het gebied
aankwamen, zijn een wel-besproken groep waarvan men geloofde dat ze een uitgebreid ritueel leven
hadden waarin offers plaatsvonden. Veel van deze rituelen zijn door de Spaniaarden gedocumenteerd
als wrede daden van de Duivel waarin mensen werden onthoofd nadat het nog steeds kloppende hart
uit het lichaam was verwijderd. Dit laat zien dat mensenoffers een groot taboe waren onder de
Europeanen, gevormd door westerse invloeden van onder andere het christendom. Hierdoor werden de
mensenoffers vaak sterk overdreven in de Spaanse bronnen die men volledig leek te vertrouwen
aangezien er geen Azteekse primaire bronnen meer beschikbaar waren naast deze Spaanse
documenten.
Hoewel er zoveel over de Azteken en hun ceremonies is geschreven, ging men zich toch
afvragen wat er werkelijk gebeurd was tijdens het heerserschap van de Azteken, aangezien de Spaanse
documenten toch wel erg subjectief bleken te zijn. Op dat moment kwam er een stroming opzetten
waarin er gekeken werd vanuit een ander perspectief.
Antropologen begonnen de gebeurtenissen te verklaren vanuit hun eigen context, gebruik
makend van de wereldvisie van de Azteken zelf als hoofdlijn. Dit heeft ervoor gezorgd dat men
erachter kwam dat de Azteken een geloof deelden in een heel pantheon van goden en het idee dat deze
goden zichzelf hadden geofferd om er zo voor te zorgen dat de vijfde zon geboren werd, de wereld
waarin de Azteken leefden. Met het idee om zijn zonden te kunnen afbetalen aan de goden, offerden
de Azteken mensen die hun goden moesten voorstellen om zo te laten zien dat ze het allerbelangrijkste
dat er bestond bereid waren op te offeren voor de goden, namelijk het menselijk lichaam.
Om te kunnen aantonen of deze manier van het analiseren van mensenoffers de beste is, is
deze rode draad van het verhaal onderbouwd met archeologisch bewijs waarin men recent een
offergraf heeft ontdekt van een kind waarin aanwijzingen gevonden zijn dat het gaat om een geofferd
kind waarbij het hart uit het lichaam is verwijderd. Dit laat zien dat er duidelijk een opkomst is van
meer bewijs waarmee kan worden aangetoond dat mensenoffers werkelijk voorkwamen in
Mesoamerika. Aan de andere kant laat deze scriptie ook zien dat er tegenwoordig niet meer alleen
maar blindelings wordt vertrouwd op de Spaanse bronnen. Helaas doen sommigen dit nog wel. Men
moet hierbij in het achterhoofd houden dat deze bronnen niet zomaar voor lief moeten worden
genomen.

36
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Appendices

Appendix I. The Valley of Mexico in Aztec times (Coe, 1995:165)

40
Appendix II. The founding of Tenochtitlan (Moctezuma, 1988:32)

41
42
Appendix III. The legend of the Four Suns (Read, 1998:67)

43
Appendix IV. Map of the Great Temple with the locations of the offerings found during the
investigation (Balderas, 2005:4)
44
Appendix V. Skull masks found in offering 6 (Balderas, 2005:25)

45