Although we see the Aztecs as barbarians for their cruel deeds to humankind, they saw what they did as necessary to ensure the continuation of the world. They had to give the gods sacrifices of human flesh and blood in order to repay the blood debt of the gods when creating humans and corn. This acts of sacrifice were in no way random – they were highly ritualized and specific. Depending on which god the sacrifice was being made to, determined the ritual and victims¹. Many of these rituals involved the victims having to dress up as living images of the deities and then parade around the city to be seen by all. While blood was valued highly as an offering (called precious water), other offerings were often included in the rituals such as flowers and incense. Interestingly, hearts were included particularly pleasing to the gods and often a major item offered! Priests would rip victims still beating hearts out to do this. Luckily (or unluckily?) for the victims of sacrifice, ensuring that the world continues was a considered a heroic act and was thought to be rewarded with a special afterlife².
Aztec people had a duty to fulfill to the Aztec state and to their deities. This could be fulfilled by waging war, paying tribute, or giving one’s life. Those who were sacrificed were seen as heroes and treated with a great deal of respect. Some even volunteered as they were searching for atonement of their sins. As an added benefit, the ones performing the sacrifice (usually priests) were also atoned and received a special afterlife³. Sacrificial victims often included war captives, children, lower status and noble women, slaves, young men with no flaws, and priests were used, depending on the particular ceremony. Many victims were prisoners of war, often captured solely for the purpose of sacrifice.4 When a great number of victims were needed, flower wars were often performed (wars for the sake of getting sacrificial victims).5 Royals also performed auto sacrifice as a way to appease the gods by using their own blood.6
In modern day America, human sacrifice seems like a barbaric tradition of the past. however, many cultures other than the Aztecs performed sacrifice. In fact, many other Mesoamerican groups did. The Aztecs were often more extreme though, resulting in surrounding groups not accepting them.7 When the Spanish came, they had no background in sacrifice and did not understand the creation rituals. Instead, they only saw murder and cannibalism and tried to prevent the Aztecs from committing human sacrifice.8 These differing views and backgrounds caused a lot of conflict for the Aztecs and those they interacted with.
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²Gruenschloss, Andreas. “Aztec Religion and Nature (Precolumbian).” © Andreas Gruenschloss, Sept. 2005. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.
³Ingram, John M. “Human Sacrifice at Tenochtitlan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jul., 1984), pp.379-400.
4Gracida, Dr. A. Rojas Martinez, and Dr. L.N.K. Van Broekhoven. Aztec Human Sacrifice and Museum Exhibitions. Thesis. Leiden University, 2012. Leiden: Leiden University, 2012. Print.
5Hicks, Frederic. “Flowery War.” Aztec History, 1979.
6The Mystery of Aztec Sacrifice. (2000). Wilson Quarterly, 24(4), 110.
7Kellogg, Susan. “Bonds of blood: gender, lifecycle and sacrifice in Aztec culture.” in Hispanic American Historical Review, 2010, Volume 90, Number 3: 527-529.
8Anawalt, Patricia. Understanding Human Sacrifice, Archaeology, September/October 1982