Aztec Ritual and Sacrifice.

A clay figurine of a uauantin, or "striped one"; a person who will be sacrificed to the Gods.

"The causes of the differences between cultures cannot be found in the universal characteristics of the human mind, nor in a theory that they are pathological excrescences of that mind." (Harner 1977:133)

The ritual component of Aztec religion was incredibly complex. A large amount of time, energy money was expended in the public and private enacting of ritual. Here, public ritual and sacrifice, in the form of ceremonies with particular reference to calendric rituals will be discussed.


While obviously each ceremony was different, there are certain distinct recurring elements of ritual. For example, each ceremony was preceded by a period of four or a multiple of four days of ritual fasting. These fastings required the participants eat only one unseasoned (no chili or salt) meal per day, to abstain from sex and bathing.

Every ceremony required offerings to be made, in particular food, flowers, amatetchuitl, or rubber-spattered papers, and clothing, and incense copaltemaliztli was burned and libations were poured.

The ceremonies themselves involved feasting, dancing, processions and the singing of ritual songs accompanied by music from drums, rattles, flutes, whistles, shells, rasps and wooden instruments.


An image of an Aztec obsidian sacrificial knife.

While these web pages have concentrated on the religion and world view of the Aztecs, one aspect of their culture and a vital element of important rituals cannot be ignored: death sacrifice. Animal sacrifice and the beheading of quail was common, while tlamictiliztli, or human sacrifice, "was practised on a scale not even approached by any other ritual system in the history of the world."(Nicholson:430) An investigation into ritual Aztec Sacrifice sheds light not only on Aztec beliefs, but also social structure and society as a whole. Further, it puts into context many issues brought up in this paper such as religion, myth and symbolism. It also places Aztec society within the larger context of population and environmental pressure, and the maintenance of a 'cannibalistic' Empire.

The practice of human sacrifice and its heavily entrenched social structure, such as the "Flowery Wars", threatened and horrified the Spaniards upon their arrival in Mesoamerica. As such, many records survive of not only the frequency and number of sacrifices, but also vivid details of what these men saw:

"When Alvarado came to these villages he found that they had been deserted on that very day, and he saw in the cues [temples or pyramids] the bodies of men and boys who had been sacrificed, the walls and altars all splashed with blood, and the victims hearts laid out before the idols. He also found the stones on which their breasts had been opened to tear out their hearts.

Alvarado told us that the bodies were without arms or legs, and that some Indians had told him that these had been carried off to be eaten. Our soldiers were greatly shocked at such cruelty. I will say no more about these sacrifices, since we found them in every town we came to."

( from Bernal Diaz, in Harner 1977:120)

Further, on their expedition inland, Diaz describes the large scale at which such sacrifice was conducted, he continues:

"I remember that in the square where some of their cues stood were many piles of human skulls, so neatly arranged that we could count them, and I reckoned them at more than a hundred thousand. And in another part of the square there were more piles made up of innumerable thigh bones. There was also a large number of skulls and bones strung between the wooden posts, and three papas [priests], whom we understood to have charge of them, were guarding these skulls and bones. We saw more of such things in every town as we penetrated further inland. For the same custom was observed here and in the territory of Tlaxcala.

I must now tell how in this town of Tlaxcala we found wooden cages made of lattice-work in which men and women were imprisoned and fed until they were fat enough to be sacrificed and eaten. We broke open and destroyed these prisons, and set free the Indians who were in them. But the poor creatures did not dare to run away. However, they kept close to us and so escaped with their lives . From now on, whenever we entered a town our captain's first order was to break down the cages and release the prisoners, for these prison cages existed throughout the country. When Cortes saw such great cruelty he showed the Caciques [chiefs] of Tlaxcala how indignant he was and scolded them so furiously that they promised not to kill and eat any more Indians in that way. But I wondered what use all these promises were, for as soon as we turned our heads they would resume their old cruelties."

(Harner 1977:121)

Estimates of the number of sacrifices in relation to the population vary, however, it has been estimated that up to 250,000 people were sacrificed per year. This is equivalent to approximately one percent of the population. "This quarter of a million figure, according to Borah (personal communication) is consistent with the existence of thousands of temples throughout the Triple Alliance alone and with the sacrifice of an estimated one thousand to three thousand persons at each temple per year. "(Harner 1977:119)

Sacrifices were usually prisoners of war or slaves. They were ritually cleansed before the ceremony where they were supposed to represent the deity being propitiated, and afterwards their hearts were placed in a ritual vessel, and their skulls placed on a skull rack. Nor was it uncommon for the body to be stewed and eaten at a feast after the ceremony.

"The food of mortals was thought to be too coarse and not nourishing enough for the gods to consume. The Aztecs were convinced that the only way to satisfy a god's hunger was by providing him or her with the energy contained in the heart and blood of a human being. The name given to the divine force contained in the heart was known as teyolia. The Aztecs likened teyolia "to a 'divine fire,' and it animated the human being and gave shape to a person's sensibilities and thinking patterns... When a person died his or her teyolia traveled to the world of the dead, known as the 'sky of the sun,' where it was transformed into birds (Carrasco, 68)." When a warrior was sacrificed to the sun, it was believed that by extracting the heart his teyolia was released and received by Huitzilopochtli as energy.

In this manner, the human body was considered to be a container of cosmic power which could be used to replenish the gods. This use of one's teyolia was considered to be a huge honor and a person destined for sacrifice was held in the highest esteem and admiration. The people thought that the victim's teyolia also served as a messenger carrying their own pleas to the gods, and as a result, treated the captured warrior as a beloved guest as they housed and prepared him for the ceremony. The responsibility of catering to the captured warrior's needs fell to his captor, and it was a duty that was not taken lightly. This admiration and royal treatment was not what lured men into participating in the "flowery war" however. Their true reward was thought to exist in the afterlife.

According to the Aztecs, the place a person's soul went after death was not determined by his or her conduct in life, "but rather by the manner of his [or her] death and his [or her] occupation in life (Caso, 58)." In the Aztec afterlife the highest level of paradise was called Tonatiuhican, or "the house of the sun," and this was where "the souls of warriors who fell in combat or who died victims on the sacrificial stone" resided (Caso, 58). "In gardens filled with flowers they [were] the daily companions of the sun, they [fought] sham battles, and when the sun [rose] in the East, they greet[ed] him with shouts of joy and beat their shields loudly. When they return[ed] to earth after four years, they [were] transformed into hummingbirds and other birds with exotic plumage and [fed] upon the nectar of flowers. They [were] the privileged ones whom the sun [had] chosen for his retinue and [lived] a life of pure delight (Caso, 58)." Assured of this sort of afterlife, it is little wonder that so many warriors willingly participated in the "flowery war" and did nothing to resist being sacrificed upon their capture." (

However, it is not enough to merely describe these horrific accounts and not attempt to find an explanation for them, especially since they are quite particular to this area of Mesoamerica. It has been suggested by Harner that due to population pressure and limited protein resources (the Aztecs had significantly depleted the resource of wild game, and were unable to domesticate an appropriate herbivore) the Aztecs were forced to resort to cannibalism in order to satisfy their 'hunger', or innate need for specific nutritional components such as amino acids and fats. On this point, Harner explains: "To the reader who may wonder how the Aztecs might have known they needed the essential amino acids, it should be parenthetically pointed out that the human body, like that of other organisms perfected under natural selection, is a homeostatic entity that under conditions of nutritional stress naturally seeks out the dietary elements in which it is deficient. If living organisms did not have this innate capacity, they would not survive."(Harner 1977:127) Harner's work is consistent with a model of increased population pressure leading to increased cannibalism from the Miyanmin of New Guinea.

Such explanations for Aztec ritual sacrifice have wider implications in so far as understanding it's role within Aztec society. As mentioned, the victims were usually prisoners of war. "By encouraging the lower classes to engage in war through the reward of human flesh-distributing rights and elevation in status, the Aztec rulers were able to motivate the bulk of their population, the poor to contribute to state and upper-class maintenance by participating in offensive military operations. It was in the interests of the ruling class and the state to prohibit the eating of human flesh by the commoners, precisely because they were the group in most need of it. By so doing and also by providing a path, through war service, of obtaining meat, the Aztecs were assured of an aggresive war machine. And underlying the competitve success of that machine were the ecological extremities of the Valley of Mexico." (Harner 1977:130) Further, these 'war machines', and the propagation of wars, which were used to collect meat, eventually became an end in itself. It also explains why the Aztecs let their conquered states remain independant: it was forbidden to eat people of one's own polity.

Ritual human sacrifice was not only performed by the Aztec priests, it was also beneficial to, and supported by them, and indeed it reinforced their power over the warriors and Emperor, and also over society as a whole. Further,"when the priests had seemed to fail in their supplications for rain or other weather changes to save the maize crops, they could simply demand sacrificial victims to appease the obviously wrathful gods. Thus, in the guise of satisfying gods, the priests were actually authorizing a hungry population to go forth and seize humans destined for consumption. Given the lack of beasts of burden, the seizure of cptives would have also provided bearers to bring back whatever crop stores that may have been looted."(Harner 1977:130) In such a way the perpetuation of the power of the priests becomes obvious: if the gods failed to deliver food to the masses, the priests demanded more sacrifices (which was easy due to their interdependance with the warriors and Emperors). In this way, the priests could appease the gods, the population, and their position in society was assured. Further, the perpetuation of the myths that supported the priests and Aztec religion was necessary to continuation of the upper classes and priests.

Religion. Cosmology and
World View.