How Did the Aztecs Sacrifice Victims?

Examples of Aztec cuauhxicalli stones carved in the forms of a large disc, a jaguar, an eagle, and a reclining man.
Examples of “cuauhxicalli” stones
(images courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

For the Aztec people of Mesoamerica, life was ruled by the sun, who they worshiped as the god of their world. At temples in the Aztecs’ capital city of Tenochtitlan, priests would sacrifice tens of thousands of men, women, and children every year, to ensure that the sun was “reborn“ each day.

In Aztec mythology, human life was part of a cosmic movement of energy. In the Nahuatl language, “Ueman” is the word for sacrifice. The word, Uemmana combines mana, which means “to pass,” and ventli, which means “to offer.” A sacrifice was the way in which the Aztecs returned vital energy to its source, which was necessary to maintain the energy cycle. Blood was the preferred offering to the gods.

The most common public form of sacrifice was to cut the victim’s heart from his chest while lying on a sacrificial stone placed on a platform at the apex of the temple. The stone was known as a cuauhxicalli, or “eagle gourd bowl.” These stones were carved in various forms, such as a large disc, a jaguar, an eagle, or a reclining man. The victims were placed in a spread-eagle formation on the surface of the stone, which was sometimes carved in such a way that it forced the victim’s chest upwards towards the tecpatl, the sacrificial knife.

It would only take a matter of moments for the victim to have his heart removed and burned in a large, carved stone crucible. The ritual required up to six priests. Four restrained each limb of the victim, a fifth held the throat, and a sixth cut the chest and extracted the heart. This priest would wield his sacrificial knife and, with expert precision, cut open the victim from the breastbone to the stomach, and remove the still-beating heart. He held the heart to the sun before throwing it into the large stone receptacle which, depending on which stone vessel was used, could weigh over six tons. The body was then thrown down the temple steps. Usually, multiple victims were sacrificed, which resulted in a large pile of bodies at the base.

Aztec sacrificial knife
Aztec Sacrificial Knife (image source)

Self-sacrifice was another common form of offering.

Aztec bloodletting illustration from codex tudela
Depictions of Aztec bloodletting
(image source)

They used obsidian, volcanic glass, or cactus spines to cut themselves, or even form a cord of spines through their genitals or tongue. Sometimes they soaked bark paper with blood before their offering. Other victims included those who were hacked to death or decapitated, with their severed heads placed on long poles and publicly displayed beside rows and rows of stacked skulls belonging to thousands of other victims.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived at Tenochtitlan in 1519, one of them counted 136,000 tightly packed skulls in the storehouse. When the temple of Huitzilopochtli, their sun god, was dedicated, approximately 20,000 victims were sacrificed over a four-day period.

These human sacrifices were recorded by Jesuit missionaries such as Jose de Acosta, who witnessed that on certain feast days, Aztec priests decapitated young women with sacrificial knives and tortured others in the maize fields so that their tears could “water” the farmers’ crops. He also noted that to satisfy Tlaloc, the rain god, they also drowned small children in Lake Texcoco.

Human sacrifice was central to the Aztecs’ religious rituals. They believed that to sacrifice oneself in death signified a merging with the gods. Portions of the victims’ flesh were also consumed with other sacred foods. It is hypothesized that this was done so that they might absorb some of the gods’ divine attributes.

Effigies of the sun god, Huitzilopochtli were fashioned from honey and amaranth seeds and, after being sprinkled with sacrificial blood, were broken into pieces and fed to the worshipers by the Aztec priests.


18 Months of Aztec Worship

Aztec calendar stone
Aztec calendar (image source)

The Aztec operated on an 18-month solar calendar. Each month was named according to the ceremonies that marked them, and which celebrated the seasonal phenomenal and deities upon whom they were so dependent for their sustenance. The first month of their calendar coincided with our February and was a time of fervent prayer for the spring rains needed to prepare their fields for planting.

Consequently, this month was dedicated to the gods and goddesses of water and rain, as well as to Quetzalcoatl,  who was personified in, among other things, the wind, who pushes the rain-filled clouds before him.  Because their rain gods resided in the mountains, children were brought to their summits, where they assumed the identities of the mountain gods and were sacrificed in their names in order to usher in the coming rain.


Sacrifice to Xipe Totec

Aztec god Xipe Totec
Aztec god “Xipe Totec” (image source)

In honor of the god Xipe Totec, whose name means “Our Lord the Flayed One,” a gruesome ritual occurred in the second month of the Aztec year. War prisoners were dressed in the garments of this god and made to fight with Aztec warriors in mock battles. The victims were then lead to the temple of Huitzilopochtli, their god of the sun and of war. Here the hearts of some prisoners were extracted using a flint knife, while others were shot with arrows while tied to a wooden frame.

Afterward, priests dismembered the victims’ bodies for the sacrificial meal. This consisted of a stew made from dried corn along with the flesh taken from the victims’ limbs. The dead were then completely flayed and their skins were presented to the warriors who captured them. The captors would either wear their victim’s skins — thus “becoming” like gods themselves — or they would give the skin to the infirmed who would wear it and then dispose of it by fire in a ceremonial curing ritual. The ritual was believed to cure skin and eye disorders and evoked symbols analogous to the rattlesnake, which sheds both its skin and blemishes together.


Sacrifice to Coatlicue and Tlaltecuhtli

Aztec god Coatlicue displaying her woven snake skirt
Aztec god “Coatlicue” displaying her woven snake skirt (image source)

In the third month, flowers were dedicated to the great mother goddess, who revealed herself in various manifestations. One of her most terrifying was Coatlicue, whose name means, “She of the Serpent Skirt.” In this form, she was a snake goddess who wore a necklace made of human hands and hearts, with a serpent belt of human skulls over a skirt made of intertwining rattlesnakes.

The mother goddess’ second form was that of Tlaltecuhtli, a terrible toad with claws and fangs of a Jaguar, and snapping maws located at her arm and leg joints. Her breasts were empty from giving all her milk to the children of the earth.

These first rites of the ceremony were most concerned with the rains and with the fertility of the earth. The flowers that she was offered symbolized the first fruits of springtime, and the people were not allowed to even smell the flowers until this ritual had been performed. Large numbers of people came out of the city into the meadows and fields to collect flowers on this day for their goddess.  If they were not able to gather flowers, they would purchase them from the florists in the market.

The modern-day Mexican custom of giving flowers to the Virgin of Guadalupe, as well as their love of bright and colorful flowers, is reminiscent of this ancient ceremony.

Aztec god Centeotl
Aztec god “Centeotl” (image source)

The sacrifice in the fourth month was dedicated to a young male god, Centeotl, who personified an ear of corn (maize), and to Chicomecoatl, his mother, whose name means, “Seven Serpent,” and who embodies the maternal corn plant. In both sacrifices of the third and fourth month, human life was not the offering but rather the fruit of the earth.


Sacrifice to Tezcatlipoca

Aztec god Tezcatlipoca
Aztec god “Tezcatlipoca” (image source)

In the fifth month was the sacrifice of the great god Tezcatlipoca (“smoking mirror”), the twin brother of Quetzalcoatl in the Aztec creation story. He is considered the greatest of the gods for some people of Mexico. Aztec elders had already chosen a young man to represent Tezcatlipoca and to die in his name a year prior to the sacrifice.

The young man had to fit the perfect model of Aztec physique and masculinity. He must have perfect skin without scar or blemish; his hair must be straight and long; his speech must be eloquent, showing his education; his expression proud and content. He was skilled in playing the flute, and took it everywhere he went, along with flowers and a smoking pipe (for tobacco was the sacred food of the gods).

Everyone he encountered treated him as a living god. The ruler himself provided the chosen man’s clothing and accessories, along with ear pendants of gold and seashell, and a pectoral of white seashell. Near the end of his year, he would be married to four young women, with whom he lived only 20 days. Five days before his sacrifice, he embarked on a ceremonial tour of the sacred places while dancing and singing. During this time, the ruler shuts himself away in his palace as a sign of mourning for the approaching death of the “god”.

Sacrificial victim for Tezcatlipoca showing broken musical instruments (image source)

On the fifth and final day, accompanied by his companions and wives, he sails by canoe to a small temple in the midst of the lake. Here he was left alone to meet his destiny. He played his flute and accompanying instruments as he slowly ascended the temple. At each successive level, he would break one of the instruments. At the temple’s summit, he was taken by four priests who sacrificed him by removing his heart and offering it to the sun god.

Once the sacrifice was complete, for men carried his body back down the steps and his decapitated head was placed on the tzompantli, a wooden rack which displayed the skulls of sacrificial victims and dead warriors.


Sacrifice to the Rain Gods

The sixth and seventh month were devoted to the rain gods, whose favor was essential for the abundance of corn, beans, squash, amaranth, and other fruits, as well as to the salt goddess who was considered their older sister.


Sacrifice to Xilonen

Just prior to the new harvest, in the eighth month, a woman was dressed in the garb of Xilonen, goddess of the new corn (maize), and sacrificed. This was the time of year when food reserves were depleted for many, especially the poor. Consequently, on this day the poor were fed with beans, corn, and other staples out of the public storehouses which were kept full throughout the year by the surplus of agriculture offered as tribute.


Aztec Worship, Months Nine Through Eighteen

image: Aztec god Huitzilopochtli
Aztec god “Huitzilopochtli”
(image source)

The ninth month’s festivals were in honor of Huitzilopochtli. The ceremonies of the 10th month were marked by rites that included the sacrifice of slaves to Xiuhtecuhtli, the fire god. Xiuhtecuhtli is often depicted in sculptures, carvings, and paintings as a wrinkled old man with a fire pot on his head. To the Aztec, he was personified in the active volcanoes that spewed their fire and smoke over the Mexican land.

The rites in the 11th month were again dedicated to the mother goddess, Coatlicue. In these ceremonies, a woman past the age of childbearing assumed this goddess’s identity and ritually reenacted the events from the deity’s past, as well as her violent death by allowing herself to be decapitated. Her identity was then assumed by a male priest who dressed himself in her flayed skin, clothing, and ornaments and continued to be addressed by her female names.

The rebirth of the gods was reverently reenacted in the 12th month. In the 13th month, another feast was held in honor of the sacred mountains and their patron gods. During this ceremony, snakes were honored as symbols of lightning, and four women and one man were offered to the gods in sacrifice. In Aztec mythology, mountains were seen as female. The lone man in this ceremony represented the spirit of the fields.

image: Aztec god "Camaxtli-Mixcoatl"
Aztec god “Camaxtli-Mixcoatl”
(image source)

In the 14th month, they participated in communal hunts in honor of Camaxtli-Mixcoatl, the god of the hunt. This deity personified the Milky Way and was the father of Quetzalcoatl in the Toltec religion which informed the Aztecs’ mythology.

The 15th month once again honored the god, Huitzilopochtli, with the 16th honoring the rain and earth deity, Tlaloc. In the 17th month, the earth goddess Tonan (“Our Mother”) was honored.

The 18th and final month of the Aztec solar year was once again in honor of Xiuhtecuhtli, the fire god. In this month the elderly men of the temple were brought snakes and small animals and were revered as reflecting this god’s great age and wisdom. They were also given a sacred drink called pulque made from the fermented sap of the maguey cactus. This drink remains a popular beverage for many Mexicans today.

image: Aztec god "Xiuhtecuhtli"
Aztec god “Xiuhtecuhtli”
(image source)

The year was now coming to an end. In the final days of their solar year, the Aztecs communed with their gods and their dead in the hope that their world would not be destroyed, and that the cycle of life and death would continue as a new year was born. The people gathered in circles and made offerings of five tamales (corn dough wrapped in corn husk and stuffed with greens) to the fire, consecrating these special food gifts to their dead.


What did the Aztecs believe?

Like other Mesoamerican cultures, religion ruled the daily life of the people. Every activity — sunrise to sunset, birth to death — was ordered by the gods and religious ritual.

According to Aztec mythology, four separate creations preceded their present world. Each creation had its own ruling sun, and each was destroyed by its own Cataclysm. The Aztec were not the originators of this myth; the Maya, who predated the Aztecs by hundreds of years, also shared similar stories of multiple creations.

To the Aztec, theirs was the fifth world — a Fifth Sun which was created when Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, the twin gods (whose names mean respectively, “feathered serpent“ and “smoking mirror,” in the Aztec language of Nahuatl) descended from heaven with Tlaltecuhtli, the earth goddess.

The twin creator gods, upon seeing the monstrous creatures floating on the primordial waters, transform themselves into giant snakes and, grasping her in there coil’s, ripped her into two halves. One half they brought back to the heavens, where it brought forth many gods; with the other half, they made the new earth.

When the gods who came forth from her mutilated half-body saw her and heard her cries, they came down to console her anguish and heal her wounds. To reward her for her self-sacrifice, they ruled that from then on her body would produce all fruit needed to sustain human life. From her skin and hair would come all plant life – flowers, herbs, and trees; from her eyes would come pools and springs of water; from her mouth would come caverns and rivers; while mountains and valleys would come from her nose.

The fifth world was now ready for mankind, whom Quetzalcoatl would remake from the bones of the dead in the previous creation. However, the wounded earth goddess continued to cry in sorrow, demanding that she be sustained with both the dead who were buried in the earth, as well as the blood and hearts of the living, in return for her sacrifice.

The gods, in order to decide which of them would become the new ruling sun, threw themselves, one after the other, into a sacred, purifying fire. The sacred bonfire that burned for four days rejected those gods that were shown to have pride and conceit.

The Aztec myth tells of a poor and humble boy, Nanahuatzin (whose name suggests that he was covered with swelling sores) was chosen to sacrifice his body and become the new sun god. As the sun, his daily journey would be from east to west across the dome of the sky, and from west to east on a dangerous nightly journey through the womb of the earth, his mother. To ensure that he would have the necessary strength for such a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, he was also promised a never-ending supply of nourishment in the form of human blood.

Thus, the divine earth and sun had ratified a sacred pact between the gods and men: the offering of human hearts and blood in exchange for the sustenance of food, water, warmth, and light. If this contract was ever broken, the earth would cease to give food and water, the sky would cease to give light, and mankind would perish. Consequently, in the mind of the Aztec, if the bloody practice of human sacrifice was not carried out, they would have no future.


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