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Mexicolore contributor Kay Read

In which festivals did the Aztecs practise cannibalism?

In response to a question recently sent us by a member of the public, we asked a world expert for an entry-level answer, and are delighted to upload this most helpful response, from Dr. Kay Read, Professor Emeritus, Department of Religious Studies, DePaul University, Chicago. The full question reads ‘[In] which rituals did the Aztecs practice cannibalism? Panquetzalitzli, probably, or Tlacaxipehualiztli, assuredly, but which others?’

Pic 1: Cannibalism depicted during the Aztec festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli; Florentine Codex Book II
Pic 1: Cannibalism depicted during the Aztec festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli; Florentine Codex Book II (Click on image to enlarge)

Yes, cannibalism was practiced during both Panquetzaliztli and Tlacaxipehualiztli [see pic 1] and, as the questioner suspected, we do know of more cannibal feasts in the Aztec yearly, agriculturally based, calendrical round of ceremonies. The sixteenth century clerics, Fray Diego Durán and Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, reported at least eight more of the round’s eighteen months that included ritual, cannibalistic feasts. Most of these feasts appear to have been part of high state ceremonies in the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan. However, at least two or three of these were held in other Aztec cities. The friars’ reports do not always agree. Cannibalism also occurred on several other occasions, which I’ve summarized below,
I’ve listed the months which held ritual, cannibalistic banquets. I’ve also included the main deity or deities honored each month, where it was held if not in Tenochtitlan, and which Friar reported cannibalism, if there was a discrepancy between their reports:-

Tlacaxipehualiztli: Xipe Totec
Toxcatl: Tezcatlipoca
Etzalcualiztli: Tlaloc, Tlaloques (Durán)
Xocotl Huetzi: Xiuhtecutli (Tecpanec ritual in Coyoacan) (Durán)
Ochpaniztli: Toci, Chicomecoatl, Atlatonan (Durán)
Tepeilhuitl: Mountains (Sahagún)
Panquetzaliztli: Huitzilopochtli
Atemoztli: Tlaloc, Popocatepetl, Ixtaccihuatl
Tititl: Camaxtli, Yemaxtli (maybe a ritual in Tlaxcala or Huexotzinco) (Durán)
Itzcalli: Quetzalcoatl (ritual in Cholula) (Durán).

Pic 2: Cannibalism depicted in the Codex Tudela, fol. 64
Pic 2: Cannibalism depicted in the Codex Tudela, fol. 64 (Click on image to enlarge)

The differences between Durán’s and Sahagún’s reporting may suggest local variations in cannibalistic practices. Similar sacrificial festivals were held throughout the Aztec area, although cities adapted this culturally shared, monthly cycle to their own local needs.
Other cannibalistic feasts included things like a weekly sacrifice of a war captive for the voracious goddess, Cihuacoatl. Once the priest removed his heart, his body was considered ‘”leftovers’” and was sent back to the offering’s captor to give to his family to eat. More examples include a bi-yearly event on the day “4-motion” in the military temple called the “House of Eagles” (Cuacuahtinchan); funerals of warriors brought down in battle; and the coronation of Lord Motecuhzuma. Durán told a story about a discussion of the skull rack (tzompantli), on which many skulls of sacrificial offerings hung in neat rows. He asked if the skulls were “set up flesh and all, and everyone said, no; after the flesh had been eaten, only the skull was brought to the temple.”

Pic 3: Cannibalism depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 73
Pic 3: Cannibalism depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 73 (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, with the exception of those festivals that focus on the scarcity or abundance of water, and the mountains from whence water comes, the bulk of these cannibalistic feasts occurred in the fall and winter and celebrates war. As Lord Motecuhzuma put it, war was the “marketplace” from which Aztec warriors bought “fresh tortillas” for the hungry gods. War sustained and nourished those gods so they could feed people in return. Perhaps then, it made sense for people to share those meals with them in the ceremonies that honored them.

Sources:-
• Durán, Fray Diego. 1971. Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar, trans. Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden. OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
• (Do.) 1994. The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden. OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
• Sahagun, Fray Bernardino de. 1950-1982. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. 12 vols., trans. and ed. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. NM: School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.

Picture sources:-
• 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
• Image from the Codex Tudela scanned from our own copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
• Image from the Codex Magliabechiano scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 11th 2020

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