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‘Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires’
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Dr. Sugg’s new (2011) book, a history of corpse medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, is out!
Dr. Richard Sugg, Durham University

The Aztecs, cannibalism and corpse medicine (1)

When we ‘accuse’ the Aztecs of cannibalism, are we not conveniently ignoring many perhaps equally ‘dubious’ - and widespread - practices that went on in other parts of the world not only at the same time but for centuries after? We are privileged to offer on our website this thought-provoking and fascinating essay written specially for us by Dr. Richard Sugg, Research Fellow in Literature and Medicine in the Department of English Studies, Durham University.

Pic 1: looking west from Madeira
Pic 1: looking west from Madeira (Click on image to enlarge)

Eating the Soul: Forms of Cannibalism from the Aztecs to Charles II
It seems that the Aztecs were a particular puzzle to the Spanish conquerors of 1519, and to those Europeans who heard reports of them in the following months and years. In these extraordinary new continents, the home of Amazons and men whose heads grew beneath their shoulders, of whole mountains of gold, and a bewildering unexpected kaleidoscope of dazzling and deadly flora and fauna, perhaps nothing was more baffling than this ancient civilisation, locked away in the heart of lands that (according to the Christian bible) simply had no right to even exist. On the whole, America did not have cities. It had small, isolated communities whose technology was well-adapted to certain immediate ends, but clearly very limited in the eyes of the British, French and Spanish travellers who crossed the Atlantic in the years after Columbus.

Pic 2: painting of the capital city of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan by Miguel Covarrubias, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 2: painting of the capital city of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan by Miguel Covarrubias, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Compare this to the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. It had a population which, at two hundred thousand, was roughly twice that of Seville, then Spain’s largest city. It had a temple precinct ‘of perhaps five hundred metres square, dense with the immaculately worked masonry of more than eighty structures...’ (1). The palace of the emperor Moctezuma was ‘so marvellous that it seems to me impossible to describe its excellence and grandeur ... in Spain there is nothing to compare with it’. So said Hernando Cortés. Even before they had passed through the surrounding cities and villages to this imperial realm itself, one of Cortes’ soliders, Bernal Diaz, felt himself to be in the midst of ‘an enchanted vision’, while his men ‘asked whether it was not all a dream’ (2).

Pic 3: stone skullrack, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 3: stone skullrack, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

And yet these visions of grandeur, of order and harmonious organisation, only seemed to make the religious practices of the Aztecs all the more startling. Led to the summit of a sacrificial pyramid, captive men and women were habitually slaughtered, their hearts torn out still beating, their bodies tumbled back down the bloodied steps which they had just ascended. These corpses would then be carefully dismembered. Men danced in flayed skins. Different body parts were deliberately handed out to privileged Aztecs to be eaten. As Inga Clendinnen points out, the seeming contrast between order and moral chaos, between this formidable civilisation and that perceived barbarity, was to baffle not only the first European soldiers, but many scholars of the region in later eras. Writing in the nineteenth century, the historian W.H. Prescott summed up the sense of paradox: ‘Surely, never were refinement and the extreme of barbarism brought so closely into contact with each other!’ (3)

Pic 4: part of the (replica) Tradescant family tomb, Museum of Garden History, London
Pic 4: part of the (replica) Tradescant family tomb, Museum of Garden History, London (Click on image to enlarge)

Those studying the Aztecs have not universally agreed on the meaning of these remarkable ceremonies. Without attempting to finally explain them myself, I want to compare them to two broadly similar phenomena which were also occurring in the Americas and in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One is the (usually less spectacular) cannibalism found in regions such as Brazil and Canada. The second is a form of cannibalism now almost wholly blotted from the collective memory of Europe. For over two hundred years, the richest, most pious, most highly educated men and women of Paris, Wittenberg, and London used human body parts as medicine.

Pic 5: Toxcatl sacrifice scene, Florentine Codex (Book 1); note the sun looking on
Pic 5: Toxcatl sacrifice scene, Florentine Codex (Book 1); note the sun looking on (Click on image to enlarge)

Let us recall three especially memorable features of the Aztec rites. First: these notorious killings had all the seriousness, all the poise, precision and formula of any great religion. The source of all this violence was finally cosmic and supernatural. Second: it seems to have been vital that the living heart should be wrenched from the hot core of the chest and held up, dripping and steaming, to the watchful eye of the sun. Life - the most potent, most basic source of vitality - could be somehow fed to the Aztec deities. Not only that. We find that, thirdly, life could be fed to those fortunate Aztecs who were granted body parts for their personal consumption.

Pic 6: ‘Tupinamba portrayed in cannibalistic feast’ in woodcut by Hans Staden (original 1557)
Pic 6: ‘Tupinamba portrayed in cannibalistic feast’ in woodcut by Hans Staden (original 1557) (Click on image to enlarge)

How does this compare with the cannibalism of now more obscure American peoples in Brazil or Canada? These man-eating tribes often believed that they could absorb the courage or the energy of their defeated enemies by eating their flesh or their hearts. In some cases, even if the victim was not alive, it was considered necessary to eat a body within four days. This was because its spirit would cling to it for that span before ascending to heaven. If the body was eaten, then the spirit’s ascent was thwarted. The rituals of tribes such as the Huron, the Iroquois and the Tupinamba were also very precise, well-ordered and controlled. Once again, they were fundamentally religious.

Pic 7: front cover of Professor Beth Conklin’s pioneering study of the Wari
Pic 7: front cover of Professor Beth Conklin’s pioneering study of the Wari (Click on image to enlarge)

We might of course object that these seemed to be religions marked by habitual violence - and certainly the ordeal of victims prior to cannibal ceremonies was often horrifically cruel. But religion was also central to another, very different form of New World cannibalism. Many tribes ate not just dead enemies, but the naturally deceased members of their own clan. This was considered an absolutely sacred duty, vital both for the dead and the living. In many cases it seems again that participants in these funeral rites were eating something like the spirit or soul of the deceased, absorbing it and conserving it in a kind of sacred recycling. Hence, if the soul was thought to reside in the bones, people would take the trouble to grind these into powder and mix the powder into drink or honey. This kind of respectful funerary cannibalism was still occurring among a Brazilian tribe called the Wari’, as late as the 1960s. Living with the tribe at the end of the twentieth century, the American anthropologist Beth Conklin learned that the practice was a highly reverent one. Participants must use special wooden splints to avoid touching flesh with their hands, for example. There was no question of merely satisfying hungry appetites. Indeed, in some cases tribe members felt it vital to force down putrid flesh, even though it made them nauseous and often sick (4).

Pic 8: the classic image of Aztec cannibalism, Codex Magliabecchiano (note this is a POST-conquest manuscript)
Pic 8: the classic image of Aztec cannibalism, Codex Magliabecchiano (note this is a POST-conquest manuscript) (Click on image to enlarge)

Cannibalism seems to look rather different when we find it carried out as part of ordinary funeral customs. All those involved agree on the acts, with those eaten having been well aware what would happen to their dead corpses, and very keen that it should do so. To such peoples, this was a kind of honourable and sacred burial. Perhaps because tribe members were usually consumed after they had died naturally, we do not often hear of native Americans drinking live, fresh blood. But the practice was not unknown. In 1675 a native Indian was executed by the colonial authorities of Massachusetts in New England. As he lay dying, a friend of his ran up, ‘and with his knife made a hole in his breast to his heart, and sucked out his heart’s blood’. Questioned about this, he insisted that he would now have the strength of two men (5). Once again that powerful religious belief resurfaces. The principle of strength and life can be transferred and absorbed through the material or fluid of the body.

Pic 9: John Banister delivering an anatomical lecture at the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall
Pic 9: John Banister delivering an anatomical lecture at the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall (Click on image to enlarge)

And this brings us to our second area of comparison. Even as the Massachusetts Indian lay with his mouth clamped to the dying man’s chest, cannibalism was flourishing across much of civilised Christian Europe. At this point the reigning English monarch, Charles II, was a particularly strong supporter of corpse medicine, distilling an extract of human skull in his own personal laboratory at Whitehall. On his death-bed in 1685, Charles was given high doses of this ‘spirit of skull’, in the hope that it would soothe the convulsions which wracked his dying body. And Charles was far from alone. Corpse medicine was used, accepted, or actively recommended by many of the most powerful and learned men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among them was the French King, Francis I (1494-1547), the Italian anatomist Berengario da Carpi (1460-1530), the poet and preacher, John Donne (1572-1631) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), seen by many as the founder of modern science in England. Other advocates included John Banister, surgeon to Elizabeth I [see Pic 9], and Shakespeare’s son-in-law, the physician John Hall, who in 1623 used human flesh to treat a rich landowner suffering from epilepsy. In the Restoration period, after 1660, the eminent chemist, Robert Boyle, was an especially keen supporter of corpse medicine, and drugs derived from the human body continued to form a routine part of medical treatment well into the eighteenth century.

Pic 10: interior of John Hall’s consulting room, Halls Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon
Pic 10: interior of John Hall’s consulting room, Halls Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon (Click on image to enlarge)

Just what were doctors and patients using? A short answer is: almost everything. Back in classical Rome certain epileptic patients were prescribed several doses of human liver (usually derived from a gladiator, who (again) was especially strong and courageous). In 1739 the Irish clergyman, John Keogh, recommends oil distilled from human brains, pulverised heart, bladder stones, warm blood, breast milk, and extract of gall (among many other things). Usually, however, the preferred parts of the body were more limited. The most commonly cited ones are: fresh blood; fat; bone (either powdered or distilled); and flesh. One last favourite was a kind of moss which grows on human skulls - seen here in this portrait of the gardener and collector, John Tradescant the younger (1608-1662), who was one more advocate of such remedies.

Pic 11: portrait of John Tradescant the Younger attributed to Thomas De Critz, National Portrait Gallery
Pic 11: portrait of John Tradescant the Younger attributed to Thomas De Critz, National Portrait Gallery (Click on image to enlarge)

Human flesh seems to have been the most popular of these cures. In the late sixteenth century, as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson wrote and staged their famous plays, European travellers and merchants were smuggling increasing numbers of Egyptian mummies back into France and Britain. This was rarely for the sake of private collectors. Rather, the distinctively dry, dark, and crumbly flesh of these curiously preserved bodies was one of the most popular (and profitable) types of cannibalistic medicine. Usually powdered, it was a well known treatment for epilepsy, for bruising, and for haemorrhaging, whether internal or external. It would be given as a drink mixed with other ingredients, or soaked into a linen compress and applied to the wounded part of the patient’s body. Francis I was such a keen believer in its efficacy against bruises that he never travelled without a small amount of mummy in his purse. When Shakespeare has Falstaff describe himself as ‘a mountain of mummy’ he is alluding more to the medical substance than to the individual bodies of long-dead Egyptians. Similarly, references to ‘mummy’ before the eighteenth century almost always mean some of the drug, rather than a mummified body.

Pic 12: Egyptian mummy, Vatican Museums
Pic 12: Egyptian mummy, Vatican Museums (Click on image to enlarge)

We can imagine that this kind of medicine did not seem as shockingly cannibalistic as the habits of the Aztecs or the Tupinamba. Nothing had to be chewed. There was no raw stench - either of life or of death. Even the usual fibrous texture of ordinary flesh had been transformed by the long processes of time and the special embalming materials into a hard, dry, powdery substance. For all that, the treatment was still cannibalism. But in fact the ancient corpses of Egypt were not the only source of human flesh being swallowed by epileptics or accident victims in the days of Shakespeare or Samuel Pepys. Medicine in general fell into different camps in this era. Traditional thinkers supported the ideas and cures derived from the Roman physician Claudius Galen (c.120-200AD). More modern physicians and patients had shifted to new theories proposed by the influential Swiss doctor, Paracelsus (c.1493-1541). Paracelsus and his numerous followers had no interest in the venerable cadavers of the Pharoahs. For them, the most valuable flesh was that of a young man, about twenty four, and preferably red-headed. He should have died a violent death, preferably by hanging or drowning. And his flesh (though it needed treating carefully) should be acquired as soon as possible after he died. If physicians knew the value of such corpses, Paracelsus insisted, they would never be left hanging on gibbets for more than three days (6).

Pic 13: Paracelsus
Pic 13: Paracelsus (Click on image to enlarge)

We seem here to be rather closer to the cannibalism of the New World. Such bodies were of course usually those of condemned criminals. But they were very much recognisable as human flesh - and, indeed, during their very public deaths, recognisable, also, as human individuals.Yet the body could be put to uses which were still more startling than this. Some way into the nineteenth century, beheading was the standard form of execution on the Danish islands of Amak and Moen. Here crowds of epileptics jostled at the scaffold of the condemned, thrusting up cups in which they caught the blood flowing from the still twitching body. Mabel Peacock, the folklorist who cites this vivid account, also notes that blood was a known cure for epilepsy in Switzerland in the 1860s (7).

Pic 14: beheading of a criminal, Europe, 16th century
Pic 14: beheading of a criminal, Europe, 16th century (Click on image to enlarge)

By that stage, such treatments were increasingly limited to the poorer, uneducated members of society. But that was certainly not the case during and after the European Renaissance. The influential Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) talked of doctors who distilled blood as a medicine. Not only that, but he believed that the aged could rejuvenate themselves if they would ‘suck the blood of an adolescent’ who was ‘clean, happy, temperate, and whose blood is excellent but perhaps a little excessive’. As Karen Gordon-Grube points out, the New England Puritan minister and lay physician, Edward Taylor (c.1658-1702) recorded that ‘“human blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness”; while ‘drinking human blood “recent and hot” was still being recommended for epilepsy by English physicians in 1747’ (8).

Pic 15: Blood remedy, 19th century, said to ‘cleanse blood from all impurities’
Pic 15: Blood remedy, 19th century, said to ‘cleanse blood from all impurities’ (Click on image to enlarge)

In much of Europe, criminals were usually hung. It may be that, if they had been routinely beheaded, we would now have far more accounts like that given by Mabel Peacock. What we do know for certain is that physicians did not seem to consider it difficult to obtain fresh human blood. Ficino implies that willing donors will allow the elderly to suck it directly from them (rather than like so many vampiric leeches) - and that financial incentive will easily secure such assistance. Perhaps many poor people in these harsh societies were forced to realise that their blood was more valuable than their labour. Yet this was not the only source. In this epoch both the rich and the poor would habitually go to a surgeon or apothecary to be let blood. This standard medical purging would often involve quite large quantities. We know that surgeons would sometimes keep the blood of their customers, using it as a kind of advertisement, displayed in glass jars in their shop windows.

Pic 16: traditional European leeching jar for medical purging
Pic 16: traditional European leeching jar for medical purging (Click on image to enlarge)

So much for flesh and blood. Human fat was thought to be a good cure for rheumatism. In his 1605 comedy Volpone, or The Fox, Ben Jonson hints that the anatomists sell this, deriving it from the criminal corpses which they used for their annual dissections. A slightly more direct source was the executioner himself. In 1694 the French royal apothecary Pierre Pomet also notes that fat can be obtained from Parisian apothecaries, but adds that, ‘as everybody knows in Paris, the public executioner sells it to those that want it, so that the druggists and apothecaries sell very little’. The idea of buying one’s medicine from the hangman may now make us shudder faintly. Yet, ironically, if customers were indeed being supplied at the scaffold (or at least in presence of the corpse) they could have been assured that they were getting genuine human fat, and not some inferior animal substitute.

Pic 17: ‘prosperous pharmacy’, middle ages, Museum of the Royal Phamaceutical Society of Great Britain
Pic 17: ‘prosperous pharmacy’, middle ages, Museum of the Royal Phamaceutical Society of Great Britain (Click on image to enlarge)

Pierre Pomet reminds us how profitable corpse medicine was when he adds that the executioner would also prepare human skulls for sale - removing the brains, stripping off membranes and sawing them into two pieces. Powdered human skull had a number of uses. It might be given against dysentery, against epilepsy, or - as we have seen - against convulsions of any kind. It was also valuable in treating various diseases of the head. Some held that it derived its power from the brain, thought to have evaporated into the material of the skull after death.

Pic 18: skulls, Kent, 19th century - from ‘Lavengro’ by George Borrow
Pic 18: skulls, Kent, 19th century - from ‘Lavengro’ by George Borrow (Click on image to enlarge)

Human skulls could commonly be seen in the windows of London apothecaries some way into the eighteenth century. But it was not just the skull itself which was considered to have medical powers. If left exposed to the air long enough, skulls would grow a kind of moss. This was highly valued as an agent against bleeding. For nose-bleeds, it might simply be inserted into the nostrils, as snuff used to be. The Church minister, Richard Baxter (1615-1691), often did this to combat the severe nose-bleeds which afflicted him through his quite long but cruelly unhealthy life. Again, Robert Boyle was a particularly fervent supporter of skull-moss. He not only used it to cure himself of a nose-bleed, but swore that it would stop bleeding (from the nose or from a cut vein) if it was simply held in the patient’s hand. As with other quite costly forms of corpse medicine, skull-moss was sufficiently profitable to encourage fraud. Hence richer customers might want to buy a complete skull, with moss still attached, to ensure that they had the authentic variety.

Pic 19: Intricate copper engraving (1834) showing the parts of the human skull
Pic 19: Intricate copper engraving (1834) showing the parts of the human skull (Click on image to enlarge)

Some forms of corpse medicine seem to have been quite as rawly cannibalistic as the sacrifices of the Aztecs or the funeral rites of the Wari’. Additionally, they were associated with the degradation of the execution scaffold, and perhaps also tainted by a sometimes unscrupulous drive for profit (it was claimed that some merchants baked up the flesh of beggars, lepers or even camels as a fraudulent substitute for ‘true mummy’.) A further comparison between the New World and the Old World is this: like the Aztecs or the tribal communities of Brazil, European Christians were often seeking to eat or drink the very elixir of human life. They at times hoped to imbibe not merely fresh blood, but the very soul which was thought to be carried in this precious liquid.

Pic 20: ‘Hearts of Mary and Jesus’, Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels
Pic 20: ‘Hearts of Mary and Jesus’, Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels (Click on image to enlarge)

For the conclusion to this article, notes, picture credits, and a biography of Richard Sugg, please click on the link to part 2, below

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 25th 2007

The Aztecs, cannibalism and corpse medicine (2)

Learn more of Beth Conklin’s work among the Wari of the Amazon

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