Sacrifice in the Aztec World

We have chosen to do our case study on the Aztec’s sacred act of human sacrifice. Through our research we hoped to explain several aspects of Aztec sacrifice in Tenochtitlan. We chose to focus on human sacrifice at Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan because it was considered to be the cosmic centre of the Aztec world. We sought to find answers to the following questions:

  • What were the ritual reasons for Aztec human sacrifice and how did these relate to their cosmology and worldview?
  • Who was chosen and for what purpose?
  • How were these ritual sacrifices performed by the Aztecs?

In Aztec society there was a strong dichotomy between the nobles and the commoners. This reflected the divisions between various gods, with some being more important than others. Nobility was passed down through generations, but one did not achieve full noble status until they have proved themselves (Ingham 1984). This was often accomplished when individuals showed extreme courage in the face of war (Ingham 1984). It was possible, but uncommon, for a lower-class citizen to attain nobility (Ingham 1984). Once again, this would have likely been achieved through acts of bravery in battle (Ingham 1984). The nobles also exhibited a high level of social control upon the commoners. They believed themselves to be “protectors of the peasants” (Ingham 1984). The nobles perceived themselves as being on a level near to the gods. They would often dress as gods and partake in cannibalism (Ingham 1984).

The Aztec pyramid, the Templo Mayor was found in modern day Mexico City, a place that was once known as the booming metropolis of Tenochtitlan.  We have focused our research on the sacrificial acts performed by the ancient Aztec, in places such as Tenochtitlan and its sister town Tlatelolco. There is evidence that sacrifice took place both at the Templo Mayor and at Temple R, which De La Cruz suggests was a temple which was dedicated to Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl – who is believed to have been the Aztec god of wind and rain – found in Tlatelolco (De La Cruz et al. 2008).

Sacrifice was an important aspect of Aztec culture. The sun – which was integral to the universe both in their religious beliefs and in that it gave them life – was believed to have been formed through an act of sacrifice (Ingham 1984). The self-sacrifice of two gods created the sun and the moon and the following self-sacrifices of eight more gods began celestial movement (Ingham 1984). The Aztec believed that without sacrifice, a state of tlahtacolli, which Read identifies as a state of “disarray”, would disrupt the balance of the Aztec peoples’ “cosmic universe” (Read 1998).

There are many important festivals and events that were created by the Aztec people. Our group chose to focus our research on the New Fire Ceremony, also known as the Binding-of-the-Years ceremony, and a re-enactment of the mythic battle between night and day – the Sun God and his sister, the Moon God. These are just a few of the ceremonies performed that included sacrifice of human victims to the Gods, it is important to mention that there were many reasons for sacrificing human beings.

The Aztecs believed that there was something they referred to as “tonalli” in their veins, which represented strength; a person’s wealth may have been linked to their tonally (Ingham 1984).  The process of death would disengage the tonalli from a person’s body and the act of cremation was said to release it so that it could travel to the afterlife along with a person’s soul (Ingham 1984).  Some would also be left behind in the physical remains of the deceased’s body. These remains would bring luck to the relatives of the deceased.  Furthermore, the Aztecs believed that the fear induced on by the threat of sacrifice forced most of a person’s tonalli to their heart (Ingham 1984). This represents the importance of a victim’s heart and its removal in sacrificial rituals; this was a common practice in Aztec sacrifice (Ingham 1984).

At the Templo Mayor, archaeologists have found and recovered tens of thousands of artifacts that will help them discover and explore in more detail the importance of the Cosmic universe in the everyday lives of the Aztec people. We believe that the religious importance of the Templo Mayor as well as the physical evidence of sacrifice that archaeologists have found there, prove that the temple is a perfect representation of the Aztec peoples’ beliefs and practices surrounding human sacrifice.

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