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Human sacrifice by 5 Aztec priests, Florentine Codex Book 2

And one to hold the head?

The ‘popular’ image of Aztec human sacrifice (right) involves a victim being held down by 4 trained priests, one gripping each outstretched limb, and a fifth responsible for cutting out the still-beating heart. This resonates with the sacred quincunx shape (four-on-the-outside-and-one-in-the-middle) so important in ancient Mesoamerica (the Sunstone is a classic place to see this). However not all the historical sources agree on this number... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Classic ‘quincunx’ shape design in the Movement calendar sign
Classic ‘quincunx’ shape design in the Movement calendar sign (Click on image to enlarge)

Dr. Jerome Offner, a Yale University-trained anthropologist with extensive knowledge of ancient Mesoamerica, has pointed out that some Spanish sources mention heart-extraction sacrifices being carried out at times by 5 priests, but also AT TIMES BY 6. During the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli, the ritual of sacrifice is described in the Florentine Codex (Book 2) as follows:-

Having brought them [the war captives] to the sacrificial stone... they [the priests] threw them upon it, on their backs, and five (priest) seized them - two by the legs, two by the arms, and one by the head; and then came the priest who was to kill him (Our emphasis).

Unfortunately the picture that accompanies this text (main picture, top) shows only five priests taking part.

Durán’s ‘Historia...’ vol 1 (‘The Gods’) plate 7
Durán’s ‘Historia...’ vol 1 (‘The Gods’) plate 7 (Click on image to enlarge)

There is a clear illustration of a 6-man sacrifice team in Fray Diego Durán’s Historia de los Indios de Nueva España e Islas de la Tierra Firme (right), and Durán confirms the use of six priests, referring to sacrifices in honour of Huitzilopochtli:-

four for the feet and hands, and another for the throat. The other to cut open the chest and take out the heart of the sacrificial victim...

Offner puts this number in perspective: ‘The use of six men to perform heart extraction becomes significant when discussed in the context of the capture of enemy warriors and the division of their bodies after sacrifice... A maximum of six people could be considered the captors of a single person, since... -’

thus was the division of their captive: in six parts it came. The first, who was the real captor, took his body and one of his thighs - the one with the right foot. And the second who took part took the left thigh. And the third took the right upper arm. The fourth took the left upper arm. The fifth took the right forearm. And as for the sixth, he took the left forearm. (Florentine Codex)

Offner’s conclusion is that ‘In certain circumstances, six priests would have sacrificed the captive of six captors, and that the body of the captive would thereupon have been divided into six parts’. He goes on to explore other references to this number - from the six neighbourhoods that served Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlan to the idea (expressed in Náhuatl) of empires and cities as bodies, divided again, into six parts...

Info source:-
Jerome A. Offner, Aztec Political Numerology and Human Sacrifice: The Ideological Ramifications of the Number Six, Journal of Latin American Lore, UCLA Latin American Center, vol. 6, no. 2, Winter 1980, pp 205-215.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture (Florentine Codex Book 2) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Movement sign: design commissioned for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos
• Durán Historia image - public domain

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