At first glance, Aztec ritualistic human sacrifice may seem absurd or barbaric. We can barely stomach imprisonment, let alone mass killing! But we have the benefit of hindsight, while the Aztecs were simply trying to keep the world going.
The Aztecs used ritual sacrifice as a way to placate the gods, who they believed would destroy the earth if they were not repaid often for creating the world. So the tradition goes that the gods of the Aztec people were themselves sacrificed to the sun to create humans. To pay that debt, humans had to be sacrificed in return—it was only fair! Gods that people were often sacrificed to were the gods that represented forces of life and fertility such as the sun, rain, and earth. Particularly pleasing to the gods were fresh human hearts, infants, and small children, who were often eaten, after being partially burned and having their throats slit. Children were especially of value when sacrificing to the rain god (Tlaoque) for repayment of water and crops. They would be sacrificed at springs and whirlpools and their tears were thought to bring sympathetic water. Young girls were often sacrificed to the maize goddess (Chicomecoatl) by decapitation as this is who they represented ¹. Sacrificed victims were often treated with a lot of respect because the sacrificial victims were the ones responsible for the continued existence of the universe. It actually became an honor to be chosen in some cases.
Recent research suggests that slaves and captives were forced to dress as certain deities, literally embodying that god for the span of the ritual ceremony, and then marched throughout the city. The ceremony would consist of costumes, props, and sets, and would often require rehearsals. In effect, the Aztecs were enacting cosmological stories theatrically, like ancient playwrights. But, unlike Shakespeare’s plays where much of the violence was staged, Aztec theatrical performance rituals consistently ended in human sacrifice at a temple on top of a pyramid. The method of death often varied based on the type of ritual. For example, for sacrifices to the fire god, victims were burned¹. An annual ritual called ‘The Raising of Banners” was an extremely bloody event that was done to appease the chief deity Huitzilopochtli. 20,000 people (many war prisoners) were usually sacrificed.² This ritual occurred at Templo Mayor by the priests and rulers and was done for to ensure military power. It is one of the 18 solar rituals of the year and the city was elaborately decorated with flowers. A ball game would occur during this ritual and had great symbolism about several gods.³ This ritual is just one example of the elaborate measures the Aztecs went to to keep balance in their world. Since the gods sacrificed themselves to create humans, humans had to sacrifice these embodiments of the gods to sustain mankind.4
The Aztec believed that blood was the essence of life, a “precious liquid” that enabled repentance and continued existence when it was shed. Interestingly, blood (of humans and animals) was not the only thing offered up as sacrifice or payment to the gods. Often “flowers, burnt offerings, copal resin (incense), dance and music” were added to the mix, but blood was the most valued and sacred of all of these. In fact, following from the concept mentioned previously that being a sacrificial victim was honorable, the Aztec idea of the afterlife hinged on the form that death took, not on anything done during life. Those who died in battle as warriors, and those who were sacrificed on the altar for the gods were granted access to the “solar paradise,” the Aztec equivalent of heaven. In effect, what we often think of as brutal, cruel ritual enacted on unwilling victims may actually have been the golden ticket to an ideal afterlife for many victims.5
²Golden, F., & Orme, J. (1982). Poetry, Serpents and Sacrifice.
³Rex Koontz, Performing Coatepec The Raising of the Banners Festival among the Mexica, http://www.academia.edu/660197/Performing_Coatepec_The_Raising_of_the_Banners_Festival_among_the_Mexica
4 Pizzato, Mark. “Blood Sacrfice in Ancient Greece and Aztec America.” Theatres of Human Sacrifice. N.p.: SUNY, 2004. N. pag. Theatres of Human Sacrifice. SUNY Press, Nov. 2004. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.
5Gruenschloss, Andreas. “Aztec Religion and Nature (Precolumbian).” © Andreas Gruenschloss, Sept. 2005. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.