most people, the most shocking part of the Aztec religion is
the presence of human sacrifice. Before I continue, I will state
very plainly here that I do not practice human or animal sacrifice.
My goal is to reconstruct the Aztec religion as faithfully as
can be done in today’s society and with today’s
laws. However, it is also my duty to explain the principles
of the Aztec faith which apply to sacrifices. These principles
are crucial to our religion and to understanding our beliefs;
with or without the rituals of sacrifice, they are a part of
of the most important things which the gods have done, from
the creation of the world and mankind, to the creation of the
crops we eat, were given to us by their own sacrifices. At the
beginning of the world, Tezcatlipoca sacrificed His foot to
bring up the Cipactli monster so that the Earth could be made.
The sacrifice of Cipactli's pain was made for Her to remain
on the surface of the waters. Xipe Totec flayed Himself so that
the new vegetation would grow. Nanahuatzin sacrificed Himself
to be reborn as the sun, the rest of the gods allowed themselves
to be sacrificed so that the sun would move across the skies.
Quetzalcoatl bled Himself so that humans could be recreated.
most people think of sacrifice, they think of unwilling virgins
being killed before idols. However, the reality of the situation
for the Aztecs was much different. To the Aztecs, the idea of
sacrifice most often embodied a conscious action taken on the
part of the one sacrificed. Sacrifice showed that a culture's
people were willing to give of themselves for the greater good.
The gods were willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of
mankind. Thus, to show true devotion to the gods, the cultures
of Mesoamerica were willing to sacrifice and be sacrificed to
show gratitude, dedication, and love to the gods. Death on the
sacrificial altar was called a "flowery death," and
considered the highest honor.
sacrifice to the Sun
Nahuatl peoples believed that a person had three essences. The
first, the tonalli, was located at the top of the head. A person's
tonalli governs their fate in life, what they are destined to
do and what actions are most auspicious for a person to take.
A person's hair collects the energy of their tonalli. When a
warrior would take a captive, they would often grasp the person
by the hair to symbolically grasp their tonalli, and through
it, the rest of their soul as well.
second essence is one's teyolia, which is kept in the heart.
This essence is very much the soul of a person. It governs most
who you are, it is the energy of one's thoughts and feelings.
In addition, through this energy, a person is kept alive. When
it leaves, the body dies. Amounts of teyolia also are found
in the blood itself.
third is ihiyotl, kept in the liver. It governs one's gut reactions
and instincts. It is one's "breath" or "spirit."
depiction from a Codex
Eagle Cactus Fruit
sacrifice was the most common method used by the Aztecs, and
was also used among several other cultures of Mesoamerica. The
heart was seen as the divine vessel of a person's teyolia. As
such, it was the most precious thing that could be given to
the gods, the most nourishing food of the gods. In sacrificing
a person's heart, the god being sacrificed to was given the
most potent energies of life and the soul. This gift helped
to further empower the gods.
a person would be decapitated after they had been sacrificed
and their skulls placed on the skull rack. This wasn't a mere
trophy collection as most assume. The collection of skulls was
actually a method of collecting the tonalli of the sacrificed.
This sacrificial tonalli then belonged to the city and its people.
Collecting fate, so to speak, helped to accumulate auspicious
energies in the eyes of the gods.
addition to human sacrifice there was also autosacrifice, which
was the offering of one's own blood in devotion to a god. This
was a common practice among all, from children to adults, commoners
to priests. Priests did, however, engage in it more often than
others. For some orders it was a daily ritual.
spoke earlier of willingness being a part of sacrifice. By far,
most of the people sacrificed were captive warriors. The Aztecs
and their neighboring nations had a tradition of arranged, ritual
battles called "Flowery Wars." These wars were not
fought over territory or political conflict. Rather, they were
fought so that both sides could take captives for sacrifice.
The object of the battles was not to kill an opponent, but to
capture instead. The warriors of both sides went to war with
this in mind. The warriors knew that going to battle could mean
that they would end up as sacrifices. However, this was seen
as a glorious thing. To take a captive for one's god was to
give that god a great honor, to be captured and sacrificed to
the gods was the most honorable death. If they had not been
willing, they would not be warriors and would not go to war.
a reason the Aztecs sacrificed
sacrifices that were not captives were almost always one of
two kinds; volunteers or slaves. While the concept of sacrifice
may seem terrible to European culture, it was a universal concept
found throughout Mesoamerica and nothing was seen to be wrong
or shocking about it. Because of this, and because it was considered
such an honor, people willingly volunteered themselves for sacrifice
at certain festivals. Generally, one sacrifice out of a group
of volunteers would be chosen by the priest.
small number of sacrifices were those of slaves. These were
mainly children given to Tlaloc. It was believed that a flowery
death and the subsequent reward of living in the rain god's
paradise was a more desirable and merciful fate than living
their entire lives as slaves.
House of the Sun
those who were sacrificed to the gods were subsequently rewarded
by them. Those who died in sacrifice traveled to Tlillan Tlapallan,
"The Land of the Black and Red," the paradise of the
warriors. Those who died in war, sacrifice, and childbirth were
considered to have died warriors' deaths, whatever their occupation
in life. Tlillan Tlapallan refers to the black of the night
and the red of the sunrise (also symbolic colors of wisdom).
There, those who died as warriors would live in luxury and be
given the glory of accompanying the sun on his daily journey
across the sky. After four years of this paradise, one would
be reborn as a hummingbird or butterfly. This was considered
the ultimate life of luxury, to flit about through the sky and
sip the nectar of the sweetest flowers.