“There is no such thing as ‘Human Sacrifice’”
This thought-provoking article has kindly been specially written for us by Dr. Elizabeth Graham, Senior Lecturer in the Archaeology of Latin America, Institute of Archaeology, University College London. We welcome feedback and further contributions on this most controversial of topics...
|‘Human sacrifice’, Codex Laud folio 8 (Click on image to enlarge)|
People take it for granted that the Aztecs practiced something called human sacrifice. But what, exactly, is ‘human sacrifice’? What people mean by using this term is that humans are killed to satisfy the needs of a god or gods. We assume that this was true about the Aztecs, but a closer look reveals more about us than about the Aztecs.
|Two Aztec conquest scenes, each including captor with captive and a toppled/burning pyramid temple, Codex Mendoza folio 2r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)|
First of all, the people who were killed were men who fought in various battles. Aztec warriors tried to capture other warriors, not kill them. In our warfare, we encourage soliders to kill other soldiers on the battlefield itself, but in some cultures, such as that of the Aztecs or Maya, this was dishonourable. The rule was to engage in hand-to-hand combat with another warrior and defeat him by capturing him. Some, and only some, of these men captured in battle were later killed in the setting of a temple. But the rationale for the killing – and by this I mean the ‘excuse’ for the killing in the Aztecs’ minds, was war. This is no different from modern wars or medieval wars in which men killed other men, and sometimes women and children, with the excuse that it was part of WAR.
|The Aztecs vanquish the mighty city of Tlatelolco - its twin temple is in flames, and the dead leader Moquihuix tumbles from the temple, wearing the full regalia of his position - Codex Mendoza folio 10r (Click on image to enlarge)|
How to kill people and get away with it
In all civilizations, the best-accepted excuse for killing people - for defense, economics, oil, power, resources - is WAR. What makes this different from murder? There are some kinds of killing that societies allow without punishing the killer or killers. These kinds of killing (archaeologists call this socially sanctioned killing) are legalized in a number of countries, and examples would be capital punishment, euthanasia, or even abortion. But the most common excuse for killing people (without being arrested for murder) is WAR.
What I am saying is that Aztec society justified having captured warriors killed in temples as WAR and not as ‘human sacrifice’. I doubt that they even had a concept of ‘human sacrifice’ before the arrival of the Spaniards. It seems to have been the Spanish friars who interpreted such killing as ‘human sacrifice’ but the term ‘sacrifice’ or ‘human sacrifice’ does not exist in the Nahuatl language at all.
|A symbolic skull rack beside the city emblem of Tenochtitlan, Codex Mendoza folio 2r (detail) - one of the very few images in this Codex that acknowledges the Aztecs’ practice of ‘human sacrifice’ (Click on image to enlarge)|
And as for killing in temples, all societies explain wars in ways that call on God or some abstract concept such as truth or justice even if the war involves economic gain, which it almost always does. The Iraq war was said by the Americans to be a fight against the Axis of Evil. English colonial wars were fought for God and the queen. But what was to be gained by these wars? Resources such as oil Wealth? Power?
|4 conquered towns under the rule of the emperor Tizoc, Codex Mendoza folio 12r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)|
The bloodthirsty Aztecs
Why have the Aztecs come to be portrayed as so bloodthirsty then? This is a good question. The answer is complicated. But here are some points.
• If you compared Aztec wars with European wars even in medieval times, a far fewer proportion of people (men or women or children) wound up dead in Aztec battles than in European battles.
• Why, then, do we see the Aztecs as so bloody? The ‘horribleness’ seems to come from the fact that the Aztecs delayed killing their enemies. Even though they wound up killing very few of their enemies compared to all the people who actually fought in the war, we think of them as more bloodthirsty than we are.
|A youth capturing a warrior was given a flower-style ‘manta’ (cloak) as a sign of his bravery; he would don this emblem of honour on ritual occasions (Codex Mendoza folio 64r, detail) (Click on image to enlarge)|
• Scholars say that Aztec warriors fought specifically to capture other warriors to offer them to the gods and that this gave them prestige. But this interpretation has come down to us largely from Spanish friars and the Aztecs they educated. In real life, no civilization has ever endorsed killing on such a massive scale, and repeatedly, only to please gods! The gods, however, always provide a nice handy excuse for killing that is motivated by other things.
• What other things?
• Same as in our wars: resources, wealth, power.
• Think about it. Why would a young man repeatedly go into battle and risk his life just to drag his opponent off to a priest? Warriors’ wives alone would start a revolution. This scenario is about as likely as telling young men in Britain to fight in Iraq without paying them a salary or benefits. No one would fight!
• Far more likely is that warriors sought to capture other warriors not to have them killed for their hearts but to put them in a position in which the captor, by right of capturing his opponent, could take away some of his opponent’s tribute rights (resources, money, power). This makes a lot more sense, and puts the Aztecs well within the range of all civilizations. In fact, if you count all the so-called ‘sacrifice’ victims as war victims, it makes the Aztecs look downright peaceful compared to us...
• ‘Human sacrifice’, Codex Laud folio 8 (scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by ADEVA, Austria, 1966)
• Images from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 10th 2009
Here's what others have said:
20 At 3.54am on Monday August 1 2016, John Finlayson wrote:
I thought that this was an interesting article as it highlights the conceptual justification for killing we still practice today. To me there is no difference between chopping the head off of innocents than blowing them to pieces with bombs dropped from drones, both crimes against humanity.
19 At 12.07pm on Tuesday April 19 2016, James Reed wrote:
Cf. P. Hassler, “The Lies of the Conquistadores: Cutting Through the Myth of Human Sacrifice.” World Press Review *December 1992) 28-29
18 At 11.33pm on Wednesday October 15 2014, dk wrote:
JC: great! Around 1995-1998 I had, in paper, an excerpt, if memory serves, from a thesis in anthropology from the University of Bern, putting forward some of the same arguments as you do. Unfortunately, I lost it when my car got stolen a couple years later, and in all that time I just can’t seem to be able to find the source again. Would anyone have any knowledge about it?
17 At 6.41am on Tuesday July 15 2014, Arturo wrote:
It’s not the first history has been changed to the benefit to aquire money and power.
16 At 7.08pm on Tuesday January 7 2014, JC wrote:
I appreciate your article but feel that the whole matter of human sacrifice by the Mexica as is common knowledge today is a myth.
1. There are no credible documents confirming that the Mexica performed human sacrifice.
a. The sources and basis for the human sacrifice myth are documents prepared by the Spanish (Cortez, Diaz, etc.) or chronicled by Spanish priests. These sources are not reliable because the documents were prepared to suit the writer’s own agenda.
i. The grand Spanish agenda in creating and propagating the human sacrifice myth was to justify the war against the Mexica to the Spanish Crown and the Pope. Remember, the conquistadors were not sent to conquer the Mexica by the Spanish Crown. Cortez’s company took that action upon themselves and later needed to justify their actions to their superiors.
ii. The Spanish were not beyond lying when chronicling their actions or justifying them. Another myth, that the Mexica believed that Cortez was a returning god was invented by the Spanish priests. The Spanish priests initially claimed that the Mexica believed that Cortez was their god of War in person but another Spaniard spoke up that this was not true. The priests kept pushing and eventually their lie that the Mexica believed that Cortez was Quetzalcoatl stuck. Quetzalcoatl is not the god of War that they initially claimed but a different God.
iii. Diaz, wrote that he witnessed the sacrifice of other Spaniards in Tenochtitlan from the bank of the lake. Many people have actually sourced him in the comments of this article. But careful study has proven that Diaz could not have seen anything from the bank of the river since that would have meant that he was some three to four miles away from the Mexica temple. There is no way he would be able to see that far and much less be able to see a heart still pumping in the Mexica priest’s hand from that distance.
iv. While the Spanish priests used Mexica to develop their chonicles in which they helped cement the human sacrifice myth, the Spanish were the final editors of this work which brings the completed works into question.
b. All pre-contact histories and records developed and maintained by the Mexica were destroyed by the Spanish priests. Then the Spanish priests went about recreating the Mexica histories and chronicling their culture. This is very suspicious. Why not keep the original materials as reference but instead try to recreate them from the native’s memory? This reeks of the Spanish rewriting or at least editing the Mexica’s history to meet the Spanish agenda. Many scholars have even pointed out that the Mexica interviewed by the Spanish priests were not reliable (i.e. either too young to be witnesses to the events described [such as human sacrifice], or were zealous followers of the Spanish priests. At any rate, the Spanish priests were the final editors of the interviews. There are no documentational proof from prior to the Spanish contact supporting the human sacrifice myth. All the sources are post-conquest and they are all influenced by the Spanish in one way or another.
2. Interpretations of archaeological finds are also suspect.
a. There is a circular argument occurring in interpreting archaeological finds. Archaeologists based their assumptions on historians who based their assumptions on the Spanish and post-conquest sources. As such, these archaeologists interpret anything they find as human sacrifice without doing further analysis. These archaeologists then publish their work, which in turn further cements our common knowledge that the Mexica practiced human sacrifice.
i. Example one, if they find pre-contact artwork depicting human sacrifice, they immediately claim that it is a representation of human sacrifice. No thought is given to whether or not the image is symbolic in some manner. Could the images be a representation of some self-sacrificing action that their diety undertook? Could the religious ceremony then invoke this sacrifice by the diety? This isn’t farfetched. Our Catholic churches contain statues or paintings of a crucified man, a symbol for the self-sacrificing action taken by the diety. These images do not confirm that Christians crucify people. No one is crucified at every mass at the sacrifice of the mass and their their flesh is not eaten and their blood is not drunk correct? The one-time sacrifice of Jesus is made present during the ceremony. Similar parallels could have occurred in Mexica worship.
ii. Example two. Bodies buried in the temple are immediately shown as support for human sacrifice. Nine to ten children were found buried in either Templo Mayor or in the neighboring Tlatelolco site. Archaeologists provide no proof that the children were sacrificed. But they assume this relying on the baggage of their education. In the articles that I read, these archeologists only provide as proof of human sacrifice that the bodies were buried in the temple mounds and that they bodies were carefully positioned at the time of burial. These archaeologists did not explore other options, such as maybe the children were buried there for other reasons other than because they were sacrificed. As the records that may have shed light on these burials were destroyed by the Spanish, we cannot reference them. But what if the children died of natural causes and were buried there after the temple was built? Were they the children of nobles that died naturally and were buried there? Were the children holy persons and were buried in the Temple after it was built? The altar in every Catholic church contains a relic, a bone or body part of a saint (holy person). These relics can be a small finger, tooth, a knee, a shin, anything that came from the saint. The saint was not killed to have their body parts placed under alters. Why should we then assume that these children were killed to be buried under the pyramid?
iii. The above applies to any body found buried in the temple.
15 At 5.50pm on Sunday November 10 2013, Ray Kerkhove wrote:
I think Mexicolore does a great job of creating interest in Aztec culture BUT the article on human sacrifice is simplistic. A great deal of esoteric thought and social expectation was involved, not just military considerations. See my Masters thesis on this (published online “Explaining Aztec Human Sacrifice”)
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks for this, Ray. We’ve downloaded your thesis and look forward to studying it...
14 At 8.56am on Thursday September 13 2012, gaye shortland wrote:
What I find disturbing is that a senior lecturer in University Colllege London should put forward such a peurile argument. What’s her agenda in trivialising and casting a nice gloss on the horrific deaths of thousands of men, women, and children? Perhaps we should work on justifying other atrocities too - there are plenty sociological and psychological reasons we could put forward for genocide for example.
And finally, they were humans and they were sacrificed - therefore it is precisely accurate to call it ‘human sacrifice’ - what else?
13 At 12.51am on Sunday September 2 2012, Johann Frank wrote:
I like seeing a different perspective on the role of human sacrifice. However, the descriptions of the various Aztec rituals show a prescription that a certain number of persons be killed, or that women or others be used for ritual sacrifice. They may well have frequently been ‘captives’, however, their deaths were nevertheless not due to the activity of war but due to the demands of religious ritual. It’s not mere “delay” in killing, it is killing for a purpose other than winning the war.
12 At 12.12am on Sunday June 10 2012, Bob M. wrote:
Interesting to see a different perspective. Definitely caught my attention and i see why it shouldnt be called “Human Sacrifice” and this was simply one of the Aztecs cultural practices and not a killing crisis that was to be found entertaining or amusing.
11 At 1.28am on Friday March 4 2011, Alberto wrote:
Interesting how, during WWII, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, as well as countless humans were killed for the right of power. Nagasaki’s 50 thousand or more souls lost killed without a blessing. What would the rest of the world felt like if, one by one, children and adults were burned in front of them--modern “sacrifice” is so much more pleasant.
10 At 1.11am on Sunday September 19 2010, Cecile Mills wrote:
One thing lightly touched here is the Spanish chronologists’ bias. Making the Mexica (Aztecs) into terrible people justified killing so many. Estimates of over 70% Mexica dying from diseases or violence may be low.
To justify conquest, the Spanish (and others) have always painted pictures of brutish people with horrid religious practices who needed the guidance of priests--Catholic or otherwise. If you study the culture, you see that Mexica captives were often given to families, where they were educated and given rights of citizenship. This was a masterful way of “conquering” people.
When you apply the knowledge that the Mexica traders and businessmen were given the status of ambassadors with the ability to set treaties, you see another agenda, where multilingual people with diver cultural competency were much needed to further the Mexica’s biggest asset--trade.
Even these days Pan De Muerto, or breads shaped into either skulls or whole human bodies, is made. These are baked for Los Dias de Los Muertos—Days of the Dead. The bread, made in Pre-conquest times of amaranth flour, was one way the harvest surplus was distributed throughout Tenochtitlan.
9 At 7.53am on Tuesday August 10 2010, Jack wrote:
This conveniently overlooks the textual and archaeological evidence for child sacrifice - such as the sacrifice of 48 children placed in a box in the Templo Mayor!
Mexicolore replies: What’s ‘convenient’ about it? The article discusses ‘human sacrifice’ in broad terms. We hope to cover child sacrifice among the Mexica in a forthcoming piece. There’s no ‘hidden agenda’ here...!
8 At 6.07pm on Friday June 25 2010, aslana wrote:
i am researching for a paper, and know that the first one to interpret the symbols were Christianized folks that were decedents of the conquistadors or the converted mexica Indians. blood thirsty i don’t know but what i wonder is why is many god and goddess represent the same ones in Tibet and India, but they did not interpret that culture wrong, so why are they getting it wrong? the god of war, hustilapostle (excuse the spelling) is actually a name for a time of the sun, which there are i believe four stations of the sun in aztec culture, he is the morning sun represented by the humming bird, why are hummingbirds represented by war here? because the ones interpreting them were under the higher influence of whomever was paying them, any other reasons? id like more information on.
Mexicolore replies: The name of the Aztecs’ tribal/war god, Huitzilopochtli, means ‘Hummingbird of the Left, Hummingbird of the South’. Blue/green hummingbird feathers were almost as precious as quetzal feathers, and feathers generally were - according to Fray Diego Durán - considered to be the ‘shadows of the gods’ by the Aztecs. The hummingbird is a surprisingly fearless and aggressive little creature - a fitting representative of Huitzilopochtli, who was the ‘Blue Tezcatlipoca’. He is depicted in codices wearing a blue-green hummingbird headdress and carrying a fire serpent weapon. He was the patron Mexica deity of the sun, fire and war...
7 At 11.29am on Friday January 1 2010, dylan wrote:
great article and does not go far enough. As i’ve said in another comment, there is no clear evidence that there were human sacrifices happening. The explanation from the people who still carry on the tradition is that these glyphs are of surgery. Just because one western scholar has quoted a spanish account of sacrifice and it’s made it into history books does not make it fact. Just because we misinterpret glyphs does not mean they show bloodshed. So much of mexhika culture has been misinterpreted.. Anyone who studies archaeology will know it’s about who shouts their theory the loudest who gets heard..
i would challenge the authors of this site to print an article from a mexhika scholar such as arturo mesa to show another side to this story...
Mexicolore replies: Actually, Dylan, we feel there’s plenty of evidence from researchers - many of them Mexicans - from many traditions and backgrounds that points to Mexica ritual killings. The question raised in this article is what to CALL these practices. Codex glyphs certainly do show bloodshed: if they depict surgery, it certainly wasn’t of the life-saving kind...!
6 At 8.32am on Tuesday October 27 2009, Dr. Mariella Remund wrote:
Refreshing thinking, a total paradigm shift to encourage us to really understand what is behind associations such as Aztec culture = human sacrifice. Bravo!
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this positive feedback, Mariella.
5 At 9.51pm on Tuesday September 1 2009, Michael E. Smith wrote:
I ‘m having trouble grasping the point of this post. The title seems misleading, because the Aztecs clearly practiced some kind of ritualized killing, as we know from archaeological remains (not to mention codices and the chroniclers, whose bias must be taken into account). If this wasn’t “human sacrifice,” then what was it? The final paragraph suggests that the captors obtained some kind of economic resources from their captives. I am aware of no documentary support for such a notion. If this really happened, we would expect at least some hints of this practice in the sources, if not outright descriptions of it. There are a number of reasons why this scenario is unlikely (e.g., resources were locally based, and a captive in Tenochtitlan could not transfer his wealth from back in the provinces to a Mexica captor. Similarly tribute rights were locally based and not transferable.) But most of all, I dislike the title of this post, since it plays into the “new age” revisionist view that the Aztecs were peaceful crystal-gazers, not warriors who practiced bloody rituals of sacrifice.
Mexicolore replies: Point well taken, Michael, and the last thing we want to do is give support for the revisionist approach that you rightly decry; the author is NOT denying the killings, simply questioning the use of the term ‘human sacrifice’ to refer to them. How do others feel?
4 At 3.00pm on Tuesday September 1 2009, John Whittaker wrote:
It’s silly to say the Aztec did not engage in human sacrifice. Of course they did, as Aztec art and archaeology shows, not just biased Spanish testimony. See Pic 6 in my Atlatl article. Although war was part of the context, children were often sacrificed as well as men captured in war. As for the motivation of warriors, all too many people fight for “God and Country” today; religious belief worked then too. True, warriors also had “practical” motives then and now - success in war meant prestige, tribute, or today medals, officer status, career in politics - how to rise in power and position whether you are an Aztec or a modern American.
Instead of whitewashing the Aztecs, perhaps Graham would do better to turn the issue around. The European cultures of the time also engaged in human sacrifice, although they would have hotly denied it. The Inquisition and similar organizations, and crusades against non-Christians and Christian heretics can be seen as war and politics, but they were also seen as pleasing to God and necessary for religious reasons. Burning a heretic in front of the church was human sacrifice just as cutting out a captive’s heart at the Sun Temple.
3 At 5.39pm on Thursday August 20 2009, milinda banerjee wrote:
absolutely fabulous article...changed my whole perspective on mexican history...and as a practitioner of history, i must heartily congratulate the author for her analytical skills:)
2 At 6.03pm on Tuesday August 18 2009, Martin wrote:
Rubbish. Ignores Diaz and the testimony of the Aztrecs themselves, the Tlaxcalans and the other members of the triple alliance. Ignores the skull racks and the sensations of the conquistadores when they entered the temple precinct of Tenochtitlan. It ignores the cynical and effectively fake war of the flowers that was designed solely to enable the capture of warriors for sacrifice and prevented Tlaxcala from developing into it’s own state. The Aztecs displayed skulls in their temples, worshipped as two of their principle gods the gods of war and death, and their own historical fables centre around how tough they were and that they succeeded because they were more cruel than all the cruel tribes which surrounded them - a fact that the Aztecs themselves were intensely proud of. It is only modern day Euro-centric historical revisionism that has started to paint the Aztecs as some sort of hippie commune that only went to war when all else failed. They were a warrior race in a stone age culture surrounded by tribes that wanted to kill them - if they had truly been a ‘Switzerland of the Americas’ as this article suggests and only went to war and made sacrifices after much tear-jerking and soul-searching there would be no Aztec culture...and no Mexico...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for writing in, Martin. We can understand your gut reaction, but please note: Dr. Graham is NOT saying the killings didn’t take place, she’s discussing how we should refer to the killings...
1 At 11.58am on Monday May 11 2009, Tecpaocelotl wrote: