General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 5 Aug 2020/6 Lizard
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

Ritual cannibalism among the Mexica or Aztecs, Florentine Codex Book 4

What happened to the rest of the sacrificed person’s body?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Katia Hougaard: It’s apparent that human sacrifice was a common occurrence in Tenochitlan. I know the hearts were offered to the gods, but do we know what was done with the rest of the sacrificed person’s body? Wouldn’t a large number of dead bodies lying around the Templo Mayor’s base pose a health hazard in a crowded city? (In a fantasy novel I read many years ago the fictional Aztecs actually ate the sacrificed bodies as the main protein source in their diet! I hope this was just a “tasteless” piece of fiction...) (Answered/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Great questions! This really merits a full-scale feature on its own, and maybe one day we’ll do this, but here, for now, is a stop-gap, FAQ-style summary of the main points:-

Q. Did the Aztecs do human sacrifices?
A. Yes
Q. Why?
A. To pay the gods back for having sacrificed themselves at the start of our world (the Aztec Fifth Sun)
Q. How often?
A. Certainly not every day. Very roughly every 20 days, to link with the calendar round (of festivals)
Q. How many?
A. Very often just a single person, to represent the deity in question; however there were a few major events and festivals during which many hundreds could be killed. Hernán Cortés himself suggested the Mexica carried out some 3,000 sacrifices a year - FAR fewer than some have claimed!
Q. Did the gods demand sacrifices?
A. Huitzilopochtli did. But the Mexica believed that gods, like humans, grow weary after much travelling and fulfilling of duties and need feeding to keep them going

Q. Who was sacrificed?
A. 9 times out of 10 it was (enemy) warriors, captured in battle; but Mexica people were sacrificed too - men, women and even children - according to the festival (and deity) in question
Q. How were you sacrificed?
A. 9 times out of 10 by having your heart ripped out with a sharp blade, while you were held over a sacrificial stone; but they did use other methods, including: being thrown into a fire, decapitation, having darts thrown at you, gladiatorial fights, drowning...
Q. Who were you sacrificed to?
A. The two gods most widely sacrificed to were Tonatiuh (Sun) and Tlaltecuhtli (Earth)
Q. Where did they take place?
A. Mainly at large ceremonial centres or spaces, such as the main temple(s), and ballcourts

Q. Did you ‘go willingly?’
A. Very hard to know, and hardly likely! But note that a) it was an honour to be sacrificed to the gods, b) most of the Aztecs’ neighbours and enemies worshipped the same set of gods, c) you were treated as an ‘honoured guest’ and given special meals, clothes and, yes, drugs, to help psyche you up for the occasion...
Q. Where did the heart go?
A. It was placed in a ceremonial bowl and then burnt - the smoke carried the fuel of the warrior’s heart up to fuel the Sun
Q. What about the rest of the body?
A. It was ritually thrown down the temple steps - note that this was a re-enactment of the defeat of Coyolxauhqui by her brother Huitzilopochtli, not a crude act of disrespect
Q. What about the skull?
A. This was cut off and placed on a skullrack
Q. Was the body eaten, cannibal-style?
A. ONLY on certain ritual occasions, with certain parts being consumed by the family of the warrior who had captured the victim and others by members of the ruling elite. It was far more of an act of ‘communion’ with the dead warrior; and you’re right, the idea of the Aztecs needing to eat people for extra protein has now been widely discarded
Q. What evidence has been found for human sacrifices?
A. Not nearly as much as you might expect! Leading researchers at the Templo Mayor have found less than a couple of hundred skeletal remains during the recent - major - excavations there.

Two of the best chapters you can read on Aztec/Mexica human sacrifice - we think - are from scholars on our Panel of Experts in books readily available today:-

• Chapter 7 (‘Where the Jaguars Roar: Aztec Human Sacrifice as Debt Payment’) in Daily Life of the Aztecs by Davíd Carrasco with Scott Sessions (Greenwood Press, London, 1998) and
• Chapter 8 (‘Aztec Human Sacrifice’) by Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Luján, in The Aztec World, edited by Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman (Abrams, New York, 2008).

Image of ritual Aztec cannibalism from Book 4 of the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence), scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

Notes on the three souls, spirits, animistic entities

‘The fate of your tonalli after death’

Comment button

Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Honestly, we can’t find a single one! Prof Manuel Aguilar-Moreno includes two detailed lists of the 18 ‘monthly’ festivals and the ritual practices and sacrifices they included, in his superb sourcebook ‘Handbook to Life in the Aztec World’ (pp 155-6 and 295-8). The only subgroup ‘safe’ from being sacrificed, it seems, were old folks like us (way past our best...!).
Prof Susan Toby Evans has kindly sent us this comment:-
’There may indeed be an over-emphasis on human sacrifice, both because of the Spanish political and religious goals and because of native beliefs that this was the most prestigious and expensive way of honoring the gods - at least until the Spanish Inquisition was instituted in Mexico, showing that the Spaniards, too, believed that a higher power was pleased by the sight of people being tortured to death. In fact, many native ceremonies were less “expensive” and in fact were celebrated by dancing and feasting. Duran’s “Book of the Gods and Rites” and “The Ancient Calendar” (available in a paperback from U. of Oklahoma Press) present a fascinating overview - Duran grew up in Mexico in the 1540s and 1550s, when many native traditions continued and his views are sympathetic.’
And Dra. Ximena Chávez Balderas (also on our panel of experts) has written to advise that a) ‘not all ceremonies included human sacrifice’, b) there were other ceremonies held during the year (such as funerals), which often included the sacrifice and offering of animals, and that c) it’s probably more helpful to use a broader phrase such as ‘life offering’ rather than human sacrifice, which is too specific.
We now have a fuller answer to this excellent question, in this same section...
Mexicolore replies: Er, where did you get these ideas from?! Bones don’t and didn’t make effective swords and the whole idea that the Mexica ate people for nutritional or medical reasons has long since been dismissed by scholars.
Mexicolore replies: Quite right. Samuel Martí, a great scholar of pre-Hispanic music, points out that use of bone, whether animal or human, was associated with growth and with magic, ‘ensuring life and resurrection.’
Mexicolore replies: You’re right, cremation was certainly common, fire being an ancient force for transformation (remember how the Fifth Sun was created, by the gods leaping into a huge fire to become the Sun and the Moon...) And you’re right about the tonalli too; we’ve now uploaded a couple of features on the fate of the three ‘souls’ - see links above.