Aztec Human Sacrifice

Aztec human sacrifice the Spaniards who first entered Mexico and even to us today. The reasons behind these ritual sacrifices are analyzed.

When the Spaniards under Hernan Cortez gazed upon the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in Mexico in 1519,they were amazed by the scene before them. There, in the middle of a wide lake was a shimmering city with bright white walls of vast buildings sitting on an island in the middle of a large lake with causeways linked to it. The astonishment of those first Spanish visitors soon turned to horror when they saw the vast scale of ritual sacrifices made by the Aztecs.

Even today, it is hard to comprehend the extent or rationale for this ritual sacrifice. It is estimated that approximately 20,000 people per year were sacrificed by the Aztec royalty. Captives were taken to the top of pyramids where, upon a ritual flat stone table, they had their chests cut upon and their hearts ripped out. Then the bodies of the victims were tossed down the steps of the pyramids. The scene to both the Spaniards of that time and to us today is truly gruesome. But it was not mere thirst for blood that motivated the Aztecs to engage in this mass ritual sacrifice.

Critical to understanding the motivation behind the ritual sacrifices is the concept of "tonalli," which means "animating spirit." The tonalli in humans was believed to be located in the blood, which concentrates in the heart when one becomes frightened. This explains the gods' hunger for the heart. Without this sacrifice, all motion stops, even the movement of the sun. So when the Aztecs made their sacrifices, as far as they were concerned, they were keeping the sun from halting in its orbit.



Particularly thirsty for blood was the war god, Huitzilopochtli. On the other hand, Quetzalcoatl was a kinder, gentler god. Quetzalcoatl only demanded the sacrifice of animals such as snakes and butterflies.

The victims of these ritual slaughters were usually warriors captured by the Aztecs in battles or tributes from vassal states in the form of humans offered up for sacrifice. This is why the Aztecs never fully conquered many of the surrounding states. They needed a steady supply of ritual sacrifice victims. If they used their own people for sacrifice then it could cause an uprising.

There was another reason for these ritual sacrifices---cannibalism. After the hearts were removed and the bodies tossed down the temple steps, the limbs were removed and later cooked. As repugnant as cannibalism is to us today, back then to the Aztecs, cooked human bodies were looked upon as great delicacies which explains why only Aztec royalty, not the common people, were allowed to engage in cannibalism. The favorite parts for the Aztecs to munch on were the hands and thighs. The Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, was reported to have been partial to cooked thighs served with tomatoes and chili pepper sauce.

This scene might turn our stomachs but it must also be remembered that the Aztecs had no domestic livestock so the body leftovers (the hearts given to the gods were the main course) from the ritual sacrifices was a way for the Aztec royalty to obtain proteins and fats. Thus in the Aztecs we can see a mingling of religion and nourishment which resulted in human sacrifice.

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