General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 14 Dec 2017/3 Rain
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Image of human sacrifice, Codex Laud

Ritual self (“auto”)-sacrifice

The Aztecs firmly believed in giving in order to receive, in offering gifts to the earth in exchange for daily sustenance (food), and in paying the gods back for the sacrifices they had made at the beginning of the Fifth Sun for human life to begin. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: A priest goes to town on his tongue! Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Pic 1: A priest goes to town on his tongue! Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Click on image to enlarge)

The ‘currency’ they used for these regular exchanges with their ancient gods was of course human blood, offered in the form of ‘tribute’ (the Aztecs used a special word here: tequitl, which includes the idea of fulfilling obligations to the world). Just as the Aztecs received a constant flow of goods, services and people from the four corners of their empire, so they felt it was their mission to provide their gods with a never-ending supply of ‘most precious water’ ( chalchiuatl) to fuel divine labours. Most of this, as we all know, came directly from sacrificial victims, whose hearts were cut, still beating, from their bodies and ‘offered hot like tortillas straight from the griddle to the Sun’ (Inga Clendinnen).

Pic 2: Tongue and ear piercing by two priests, Codex Magliabecchiano
Pic 2: Tongue and ear piercing by two priests, Codex Magliabecchiano (Click on image to enlarge)

On a much smaller scale, but with no less dedication and reverence, however, the Aztecs performed ritual self-sacrifice (also called autosacrifice or blood-letting) on a daily basis, offering token gifts (drops of blood) to refresh and give thanks to the earth. Giving and taking, breathing in and breathing out, life and death, night and day - you can’t have one without the other...

Pic 3: Ritual nose-piercing by a Mixtec lord, Codex Zouche-Nuttall
Pic 3: Ritual nose-piercing by a Mixtec lord, Codex Zouche-Nuttall (Click on image to enlarge)

In their own words, the Aztecs described human blood - very much a non-renewable resource - as ‘our redness, our liquid, our freshness, our growth, our life blood... it wets the surface, it moistens it like clay, it refreshes it, it reaches the surface... it strengthens one.’ It held a strong fertilizing power, reflected in the mythical first shedding of blood by Quetzalcóatl onto the dry lifeless human bones in the underworld to give them life...

Pic 4: Pricking the thumb with a cactus needle: detail from mural ‘El Pulque’ by Diego Rivera
Pic 4: Pricking the thumb with a cactus needle: detail from mural ‘El Pulque’ by Diego Rivera (Click on image to enlarge)

Using a maguey (century plant cactus) thorn or other super-sharp instrument such as the point of an obsidian blade, Aztecs (of all ages, save for very young children) would prick themselves in the tongue, ear, thigh, arm or other parts of the body too delicate to mention here, and offer humble gifts of blood to their gods, always in the presence of sacred images (every house contained these, no matter how poor).

Pic 5: Exchanging gifts - including human hearts within a flow of blood - with the Sun, Codex Laud
Pic 5: Exchanging gifts - including human hearts within a flow of blood - with the Sun, Codex Laud (Click on image to enlarge)

Ultimately, though, only through death would humans be able finally to sign off their debt to their gods, returning earth-fed flesh and blood to the warm womb of the earth out of which it had been born...

Notes on the codex images
• Main picture: human sacrifice, Codex Laud folio 8 (scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by ADEVA, Austria, 1966; the original is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
• Picture 1: Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 9r: though dressed simply in a loincloth, the red leather tie binding his hair indicates he’s a priest. In one hand he holds a bundle of reeds or dry grass, while with the other he draws one of them through his tongue ‘in an act of ritual bloodletting’ (scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995)
• Picture 2: Codex Magliabecchiano folio 79 (scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by ADEVA, Austria, 1970)
• Picture 3: Codex Zouche-Nuttall folio 52: 8-Deer (‘Jaguar Claw’) uses ritual nose-piercing to raise his status to ‘tecuhtli’ (Lord) - thus claiming descent from royal Toltec-Chichimec ancestors - in order to secure a regular flow of goods from the coastal provinces to the Central Valley of Mexico
• Picture 4: Detail of photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore (original mural in the National Palace, Mexico City)
• Picture 5: Codex Laud folio 18 (scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by ADEVA, Austria, 1966; original in the Bodleian Library)

Info from ‘Aztecs’ by Inga Clendinnen, Cambridge University Press, 1991

Synchronized blood-letting

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Rob, much appreciated.
Mexicolore replies: Very interesting question! We hope to get back to you on this...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for these points, Dylan. We’re slowly improving our Náhuatl as a team!
I would encourage you to keep an open mind when it comes to sacrifices: scores of archaeologists, anthropologists and historians - many of them Mexican - have come up with plenty of very concrete evidence to support the claim. Just which ‘misunderstood glyphs’ are you thinking of?!
Mexicolore replies: Thanks very much for writing in, Andres, and for your thought-provoking comments...
Mexicolore replies: FYI, the replies in light blue colour are from us, Mexicolore! Your message is a powerful one, Kinrayukar, and we very much share your feelings on the importance of ‘making a sacrifice’ in life...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for being so honest, Alice. We know this is a difficult subject, but please remember these aren’t images of ‘murder’- they HAVE to be understood as part of a set of beliefs and customs going back many many centuries.
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks for this support and encouragement, Cehualli.
Mexicolore replies: Well, they’re the real thing! We’ve shown some of these in hundreds of English primary schools and never once had any complaint. How do others feel...?