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Which Aztec ceremonies did not include human sacrifices?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Gabrielle Racine: Which Aztec ceremonies did not include human sacrifices? It’s hard to find information on that matter, as I believe it has been highly disregarded, with Spanish chroniclers only writing about the sacrifices and greatly exaggerating the number. (Answered by Dr. Ximena Chávez Balderas)

Pic 1: Sacrifice to Tlaloc, god of rain; Florentine Codex Book 1
Pic 1: Sacrifice to Tlaloc, god of rain; Florentine Codex Book 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

(NOTE: Gabrielle first posted this question as feedback on another page - follow link below to read it, and to read extra comments by Professor Susan Toby Evans...)

Español: Cuando nos referimos a los rituales mexicas, generalmente pensamos en las fiestas del calendario ritual. Sin embargo, existían muchos tipos de ceremonias igualmente importantes, como las entronizaciones, las inauguraciones o clausuras de los edificios religiosos, los funerales o las peticiones extraordinarias de lluvia.

When we talk of Aztec rituals, we generally tend to think of the festivals in their ritual calendar. However there were plenty of other ceremonies every year that were just as important, such as coronations, inaugurations and closures of religious buildings, funerals or exceptional pleas to the gods for rain (pic 1).

Pic 2: The coronation of King Ahuitzotl in 1487 and inauguration of the Templo Mayor. A large number of captive warriors were sacrificed at this event; Codex Telleriano-Remensis, fol. 39r (detail)
Pic 2: The coronation of King Ahuitzotl in 1487 and inauguration of the Templo Mayor. A large number of captive warriors were sacrificed at this event; Codex Telleriano-Remensis, fol. 39r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Durante algunos rituales no se llevaba a cabo el sacrificio humano, por ejemplo, en los funerales de los ciudadanos comunes, pues la inmolación de los acompañantes sólo se llevaba a cabo en las exequias de los dignatarios. Para los funerales colectivos de los guerreros tampoco tenemos noticia del sacrificio humano.
Respecto a la coronación de los gobernantes, tenemos noticia que durante la ceremonia del rey Ahuítzotl se inmolaron cautivos, pero no hay noticia que esto hubiese sucedido con todos los gobernantes. Sin embargo, parecería que en las coronaciones de todos ellos hubo sacrificio de codornices.


In some rituals human sacrifice was absent: for example in commoners’ funerals (servants were sacrificed only at the funerals of dignitaries). Nor do we have records of human sacrifices taking place during collective funerals of warriors.
With regard to coronations of rulers, we know that (many) captives were sacrificed for the enthronement of King Ahuitzotl (pic 2), but records do not show that this happened at all ruler enthronements. What we do know is that at all these events quails were sacrificed (pic 3).

Pic 3: ‘The head of a sacrificial quail thrown on the earth or the swallowing of darkness by the earth at sunrise’, based on an image in the Codex Borgia
Pic 3: ‘The head of a sacrificial quail thrown on the earth or the swallowing of darkness by the earth at sunrise’, based on an image in the Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

En las fiestas del calendario ritual se realizaban sacrificios humanos y animales; estos últimos eran más numerosos, si contamos toda la diversidad de fauna que existe al interior de las ofrendas.
En todas las fiestas del calendario ritual se realizaba la ofrenda de vida humana. Las víctimas solían representar deidades o a sus acompañantes y no eran sacrificios masivos, por ejemplo, en la veintena de tlaxochimaco, solamente se inmolaba un individuo que representaba al dios del inframundo. Los rituales que involucraban el sacrificio de un mayor número de personas eran aquellos llevados a cabo durante la inauguración del Templo Mayor.


In festivals of the ritual calendar both human and animal sacrifices were made - the latter being more numerous, based on the wide diversity of fauna discovered inside temple offerings (pic 4).

Pic 4: Evidence of widespread sacrificing of animals, birds, fish and reptiles, in an offering excavated at the Templo Mayor
Pic 4: Evidence of widespread sacrificing of animals, birds, fish and reptiles, in an offering excavated at the Templo Mayor (Click on image to enlarge)

Human sacrifice took place during every festival in the ritual calendar. Victims usually represented deities or their servants. They were not mass sacrifices; for example, in the 20-day ‘month’ of Tlaxochimaco, a single individual was sacrificed, representing the god of the underworld. Those rituals involving large numbers of victims were carried out during the (periodic re-)inauguration of the Templo Mayor.

Es importante entender que el sacrificio humano es un componente más de la ofrenda de vida, donde la inmolación de animales era central. En las excavaciones arqueológicas de Tenochtitlan se han descubierto cientos de miles de ejemplares de fauna, que fueron dedicados a las deidades, entre los que destacan los moluscos, los peces, los reptiles, las aves y los mamíferos, principalmente.

It’s important to grasp that human sacrifice is just one more component in the ritual offering of life, in which the sacrifice of animals was central. In archaeological excavations of Tenochtitlan hundreds of thousands of examples have been found of fauna dedicated to deities, the most common principally being molluscs, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals.

We’re most grateful to Ximena Chávez for writing this answer specially for Mexicolore.

Image sources:-
• Pic 1: Image from 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
• Pic 2: Image from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis scanned from our own copy of the facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Pic 3: illustration by an anonymous artist, scanned from Art and Life in Ancient Mexico by C.A. Burland, Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1948
• Pic 4: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

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

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