You need Adobe Flash Player to view this content.
Click here to download Adobe Flash Player
General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Feb 2017/5 Wind
Text Size:

Screen with scenes from the conquest of Mexico - Aztec musicians and dancers in a canoe

Click to see the latest Artefact in the Spotlight!

link of the month button
Watch a short video on one of the most iconic of Aztec artefacts - the Mexica headdress in Vienna
Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.4.2 - 1523 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!

Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto

What did the Spanish do after the native population collapsed [in the century after the Conquest]? asked Crosshall Junior School. Read what Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto had to say.

Search the Site (type in white box):

Presione para ir a la versión en español Article suitable for older students

Dr Elizabeth Graham

“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
‘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)
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)

War
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
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’
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)
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)
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...

Picture sources:-
• ‘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

Ritual self (“auto”)-sacrifice

Feedback button

Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Many thanks for this, Ray. We’ve downloaded your thesis and look forward to studying it...
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...!
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...
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...!
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this positive feedback, Mariella.
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?
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...