Reactions to Aztec Sacrificial Practices
Aztec rituals of sacrifice are often thought of as grossly horrific and immoral acts, but this is a great misconception. Each culture has its own take on what is the cultural norm. Being witness to these commonplace practices unique to a society, however, often causes alarm and fear of the different and unknown if they break with our own concept of “normal.” Such is the case with Aztec sacrifices and how they are perceived by our society, the Spanish who conquered them, and even their fellow Mesoamerican neighbors.
Despite living in close proximity to many other Mesoamericans, there existed a major difference in cultural practices in regards to sacrificial rites. Interestingly, “ritual bloodshed was far more widely practiced by the Aztecs than by any of the other indigenous peoples of the New World, and their brutal religious zeal was apparent in the awe-inspiring displays of violence which shaped the lives of the men and women of Tenochtitlan”.1 Although, bloodshed was a common sight among the Aztecs, and sacrifice was engrained into society’s beliefs about maintaining life and appeasing the gods, they were not seen in the same way by the Aztec’s neighbors. In fact, Aztec sacrifices even appeared gruesome and overly done by other Mesoamericans that performed their own versions of sacrifice as well. For instance, there was an incident around AD 1325 in which the Aztecs asked the site of Culhuacan for a princess to be wed to an Aztec god. The King of Culhuacan, Achitometl, agreed to the marriage and later joined the Aztecs for a feast in which he discovered his daughter killed with her skin flayed off to be used as a macabre cloak worn by the High Priest. Not knowing that his daughter was supposed to be sacrificed, Achitometl became furious and drove the Aztecs from the land in which they recently settled.2 The Aztecs tended to be more extreme in how a victim was sacrificed and in the number of victims sacrificed, but never did they do this as an inhumane act. Rather, sacrifice was an essential method of communicating to the gods and creating increased welfare among the population. In this situation, there was a grave misunderstanding among both participants that ended up with the people of Culhuacan not accepting the customs and practices of the Aztecs.
Other Mesoamericans, although not entirely accepting of the Aztec practices themselves, did share some beliefs on the importance of sacrifice contrary to other civilizations such as that of the Spanish.
The Spanish in 1519, led by Hernan Cortés, were “revulsed by the stench of blood that coated the temples” as well as the overall concept of human sacrifice itself.3 In coming from an entirely different society that had no prior contact with any Mesoamerican, it is not surprising to see the lack of understanding in the Aztec culture. The Spanish only saw unjust murder and cannibalism rather than a ritual in which the society was giving back to their creators. This disagreement between viewpoints resulted in the Spanish believing that the Aztec people were confused and lost morally and religiously. He “lectured Motecuzoma [Aztec ruler] about the evils of human sacrifice,” automatically looking down at the Aztec people as if their way of life was somehow wrong compared to the Spanish way of life.4 Cortes became close with an Indian people, the Totonacs. They were vassals of the Aztecs. Their ruler, “Fat Chief,” complained to Cortes that the Aztecs were requiring that they send 30 people to Tenochitlan. This made Cortes angry and he reportedly commanded the Totanacs to ignore all Aztec orders and then went to a Totanac temple and destroyed the temple and replaced it with a Christian shrine. He then declared that all human sacrifice is to cease. The Spaniards were so sure that their way was right that they actually thought that if a Mesoamerican was committing human sacrifice they could take their gold and enslave or kill them. They used sacrifice as an excuse for conquering.The Spanish were also scared of the Aztec’s propensity for sacrifice, another reason why they wanted to end it. The Aztecs were particularly intent on sacrificing Cortes.5 Different cultures have radically different views of practices such as sacrifice, causing a dynamic that leads to trouble as each society feels more morally right than the other.
1 Kellogg, Susan. “Bonds of blood: gender, lifecycle and sacrifice in Aztec culture.” in Hispanic American Historical Review, 2010, Volume 90, Number 3: 527-529.
3 Evans, Susan. Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2008, 2nd ed: 535.
4 Evans, Susan. Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. Thames & Hudson, Limited, 2008, 2nd ed: 535.
5 Anawalt, Patricia. Understanding Human Sacrifice, Archaeology, September/October 1982