The Aztec Gateway
Human Sacrifice

For 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 it.

Divine Sacrifice

Many 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.

When 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.


A sacrifice to the Sun

The Three Essences

The 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.

The 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.

The third is ihiyotl, kept in the liver. It governs one's gut reactions and instincts. It is one's "breath" or "spirit."

Sacrifice depiction

Sacrifice depiction from a Codex

Precious Eagle Cactus Fruit

Heart 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.

Sometimes 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.

In 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.


I 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.

I'm not being paid for this.

Not a reason the Aztecs sacrificed

Those 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.

A 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.

The House of the Sun

Finally, 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.


All materials ©2002-2007 J. Quipoloa. Do not reproduce without permission.