Who was sacrificed?
It was strongly believed among the Aztecs that “one could serve the sun and the Aztec state by three means: waging war, paying tribute, or giving one’s life.”1 Being a sacrificial victim was seen as an act of heroism—giving up one’s own life for the good of the group—as well as a general responsibility. These people were volunteers who were treated with great respect. This noble act was not just limited to the working class of society, however. Elites and the king (or queen) also performed autosacrifice as a means of giving back to the gods, especially since it was believed that they were the most closely related to them. Auto sacrificial rites are ones in which bloodletting rituals were done to appease the gods.2 Although the sacrificial victim doesn’t die in auto sacrificial rites, they do sacrifice their own blood which was thought to be chalchiuh-atl or “precious water”.3
Moreover, researchers are starting to think that there could have been additional incentives for people to been sacrificed – the atonement of sins. The victims were thought to go to a privileged afterlife and, therefore, volunteered for sacrifice in order to absolve themselves of sin and guarantee a place in this better afterlife. It wasn’t only the victim who was thought to be absolved, however. The people performing the sacrificial rite were believed to obtain this privilege as well. In effect, this caused more incentive for sacrifice and increased the shaman’s power and respect in the community.³
Not everyone had the opportunity to choose to be a sacrificial victim though. For the Aztec’s many rituals, there was a great demand for a large number of victims. For example, the Stage VI dedication of the Templo Mayor of the Aztecs was a huge ceremony which required many sacrifices. Scholars believe at least 20,000 victims were sacrificed at this one ritual, however it could have been as many as 80,000.4 Many of these victims were individuals from their own community, but more commonly they were prisoners of war, and of surrounding civilizations. In fact, during times of peace, the Aztecs would incite wars that seemed to have no purpose except for gathering prisoners for sacrifices; these were known as “flower wars”5 or “‘flowery war’ (xochiyaoyotl)”6. These battles were held for the express purpose of gathering prisoners to sacrifice and training them in military tactics rather than for having a single victor like the more serious “mortal war (cocoltic yaoyotl, literally “angry war”)”6. Honor and glory, as well as death and imprisonment of the enemy (to later be sacrificed), was the goal of all who participated which served as a great practice for soldiers in preparation for mortal wars.
Not only did sacrificial victims include war captives and royalty, on certain occasions children, lower status and noble women, slaves, young men with no flaws, and priests were used, depending on the particular ceremony.7 While becoming or sacrificing a victim had its perks, consisting chiefly of the equivalent of martyrdom and indulgences or atonement, there were also those who did not choose to die, who were prisoners of war, often captured solely for the purpose of sacrifice. Ending your life as a victim, then, could have been a boon, or a curse, depending on where you stood in society. Like many other aspects of Aztec culture, your social standing had a major impact on how your life appeared to the gods, even if the actions themselves were identical.
1 Ingram, John M. “Human Sacrifice at Tenochtitlan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jul., 1984), pp.379-400.
2 The Mystery of Aztec Sacrifice. (2000). Wilson Quarterly, 24(4), 110.
3 Ingram, John M. “Human Sacrifice at Tenochtitlan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jul., 1984), pp.379-400.
4 Susan Toby Evans, Ancient Mexico and Central America. page 453
6 Hicks, Frederic. “Flowery War.” Aztec History, 1979.
7 Gracida, 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.