General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Nov 2020/5 Flower
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Mexicolore contributor Dr. Kay Read

The Aztecs and Cannibalism

We are most grateful to Dr. Kay Read, Professor Emeritus, Religious Studies, DePaul University, for writing specially for us this illuminating introduction to the historically controversial subject of the role of cannibalism in Mexica (Aztec) society.

Pic 1: The fate of an Aztec ‘bathed slave’ on feast day 1-Death: ‘And it was said: “He will die sacrificed as a war captive. They will cook him in an olla and eat him”’; Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 1: The fate of an Aztec ‘bathed slave’ on feast day 1-Death: ‘And it was said: “He will die sacrificed as a war captive. They will cook him in an olla and eat him”’; Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

Ritual cannibalism – the eating of human flesh and bones for religious purposes – was an age-old tradition shared throughout a large portion of the Mesoamerican world. Splintered human bones appeared in the garbage at the Preclassic Olmec site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz (ca. 1200-900 B.C.) suggesting that someone had gnawed on them. Sixteenth century reports of the practice come from the Tarascans in Michoacan and the Lacandon Maya in Guatemala. Christopher Columbus regrettably named the practice after the Carib Indians of the Caribbean. He claimed the Caribs ate their neighbors, but this idea lacks strong evidence. Other Spanish explorers, however, experienced cannibalism first hand. One of Hernán Cortés’ eventual translators, Jerónimo de Águilar, watched the ritualistic consumption of four of his shipwrecked companions. This spurred him and his remaining friends to escape from the wooden cages in which they were imprisoned by their Maya captors. The Aztecs continued this tradition of eating their captives, although sometimes with a more “familial” feel.

Pic 2: Cannibalism during the feast of Tlacaxipeualiztli. In the festival old men carried the body to their ‘capulco’ (houses) ‘where they dismembered it and divided it up in order to eat it’; Florentine Codex Book II
Pic 2: Cannibalism during the feast of Tlacaxipeualiztli. In the festival old men carried the body to their ‘capulco’ (houses) ‘where they dismembered it and divided it up in order to eat it’; Florentine Codex Book II (Click on image to enlarge)

Spanish sources suggest that the majority of Aztec cannibalistic ritual offerings were slaves captured in either battle or as booty from vanquished cities. The majority of these seem to have been men and, of them, largely warriors. Sometimes the most valorous warrior slaves of noble heritage were chosen because of their great fortitude and skill, especially if the sacrifice demanded a difficult, ritualized battle. According to Spanish sources, after the sacrifice was offered to the deity, it was common to first remove the heart, then the head and, sometimes, flay the offering. Once this was done, old men called the Quaquacuilton put poles through the body and carried it back to its owner waiting in the neighborhood’s calpulli house or some other ritual meeting place. The owner could be someone who had bought a slave in the marketplace or the warrior who had captured his offering in battle. Usually, the ritual meal was held in the appropriate meeting house. The sixteenth-century friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, tells us that, in the case of a warrior, the captor’s family could partake of the captive; but not the captor himself. He was considered the captive’s symbolic “father” and it was not proper for him to eat his own “son.”

Pic 3: ‘And when they had slain them [captives], then they cut them to pieces there and cooked them. They put squash blossoms with their flesh... Then the noblemen ate them... but not the common folk’ Florentine Codex Book II
Pic 3: ‘And when they had slain them [captives], then they cut them to pieces there and cooked them. They put squash blossoms with their flesh... Then the noblemen ate them... but not the common folk’ Florentine Codex Book II (Click on image to enlarge)

Another sixteenth-century friar, Diego Durán also tell us that only the nobility had the right to offer humans for sacrificial feasting; commoners offered things like quail and other edible delicacies. This was because providing a human for a sacrificial meal was the most “honored obligation” and so was reserved for the noble class. As Durán reports, this food was “delicious, tasty, hot for the gods, since that flesh was sweet and pleasant to them.” Cannibalistic dishes varied, although the most common method was to cook corn in one pot, the meat in another and, when done, serve up bowls of stewed corn topped with “small pieces” of cooked, human flesh. These dishes would be flavored with aromatic seasonings and could contain beans, chilies or squash blossoms.

Pic 4: ‘Cosmic sustenance’: an Aztec stone maize altar, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 4: ‘Cosmic sustenance’: an Aztec stone maize altar, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Theories for why the Aztecs practiced cannibalism vary widely. They range from those who argue that cannibalism was merely a Spanish fabrication justifying conquest, to the claim that cannibalism served as a correction for a dietary deficiency of protein, or provided an extreme form of political and social control. First, while the Spanish invaders surely exaggerated the magnitude, frequency, and ferocity of Aztec sacrifice (Durán, for example, seemed to revel in anything especially bloody); a large amount of material and historical evidence supports cannibalism as a long-term, wide-spread indigenous practice. Second, evidence is lacking for showing that cannibalism was capable of correcting protein deficiency, if one even existed. And third, cannibalistic rituals focus on far more than only political or social issues. Although a shortage of resources, political power, criminal punishment and war could serve as reasons for expanding sacrificial activities in general, cosmic sustenance was often the main reason given for cannibalism. Hence, more fruitful explanations come from those who also attempt to discover the underlying religious reasons for cannibalism.

Pic 5: Traditional Huichol woven yarn ‘painting’ expressing profound reverence for maize (corn)
Pic 5: Traditional Huichol woven yarn ‘painting’ expressing profound reverence for maize (corn) (Click on image to enlarge)

Cannibalism needs to be understood as a variety of the more widely spread practice of sacrifice, both human and non-human. Some argue that all sacrifice based itself on a feeding exchange among the world’s diverse living beings, which could include not just hungry people and animals; but also such beings as gods, trees, streams, and mountains. In every sacrificial ritual, someone fed someone to someone else. The meal usually consisted of no more than perhaps an animal, or a bit of blood from one’s ear lobe. In some rituals, however, actual humans served as the meal. In Mesoamerica, humans often were equated with corn; for, as they ate corn to sustain their life, so too were they corn that sustained other lives. The Aztecs were no different on this account.

Pic 6: Mexica cannibalism depicted in the (post-invasion) Codex Tudela, fol. 64
Pic 6: Mexica cannibalism depicted in the (post-invasion) Codex Tudela, fol. 64 (Click on image to enlarge)

Cannibalistic rituals performed during the yearly calendar-round of monthly agricultural rites occurred during those periods that most effected this eating exchange. The core months for cannibalism were in the winter (roughly November-February), when the world was dry and the Aztec warriors were abroad battling for captives. None occurred during the core, wet, summer months (roughly June-September) when all were busy growing food. But cannibalistic rituals did occur at the nerve-racking height of dryness when drought threatened (roughly May-June) and just before the rainy season was supposed to begin. Another came at the end of the growing season (September) when both windy, dangerous thunderstorms and the fall equinox marked the shift from agriculture to the up-coming season of war.

Pic 7: The legendary priest, Ce Acatl Topilltzin Quetzalcoatl in a blood-letting ceremony; Florentine Codex Book III
Pic 7: The legendary priest, Ce Acatl Topilltzin Quetzalcoatl in a blood-letting ceremony; Florentine Codex Book III (Click on image to enlarge)

A story tells how the Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl fashioned people from corn-like dough made out of blood the god Quetzalcoatl let from his member onto ground ancestral bones. This myth ends with the admonition that both gods and humans were born because they gave of themselves. In another myth about how Quetzalcoatl gathered corn from a mountain, it was said that, in that mountain, the gods chewed up corn and placed it on our lips, making us grow strong. Sacrifice honored and fed the gods so that they might feed humans in return. In other words, without sacrificial nourishment the universe would fall apart. Sharing a meal with the gods created a communal bond. It said that we are all in this together. We feed you and you feed us and, sometimes, we eat the same food because we all live in the same world.

Pic 8: Dough figures made for the Tepeilhuitl ‘Feast of the Mountains’ (mountain glyph at top); Primeros Memoriales (Sahagún), early colonial, fol. 252r (detail)
Pic 8: Dough figures made for the Tepeilhuitl ‘Feast of the Mountains’ (mountain glyph at top); Primeros Memoriales (Sahagún), early colonial, fol. 252r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, the festival Atemoztli honored the rain god (Tlaloc), two volcanoes (Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl), and other gods and mountains. Durán tells us that, while the nobles were sacrificing slaves in Tenochtitlan, commoners sacrificed dolls made of amaranth dough (tzoalli). According to Sahagún, they fashioned eyes and teeth from different seeds, dressed them in small paper clothes, offered them little tamales and pulque (fermented drink) in tiny bowls, and sat vigil all night with them, singing songs and playing music. In the morning, priests bent back the dolls’ necks, extracted their hearts and decapitated them. Then the remains were returned to their makers who dismembered them and ate them. So here is a question: was it cannibalism if these dough dolls were likened to humans?

Parts of this article were drawn from my earlier entry on “Cannibalism” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures (originally published 2001), 2006 Online Edition, UK: Oxford University Press.

Resources:-
Codex Chimalpopoca. 1992. In History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca. Trans. John Bierhorst. AZ: University of Arizona Press
Codex Chimalpopoca. 1992. In Codex Chimalpopoca: The Text in Nahuatl with a Glossary and Grammatical Notes. Ed. John Bierhorst. AZ: University of Arizona Press
• 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
• ----- 1994. The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden. OK: University of Oklahoma Press
• Sahagún, 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
• Smith, Michael E. 2012. The Aztecs. 3rd edition. UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 2, 3 & 7: images 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 4: photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: image from the Codex Tudela scanned from our own copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
• Pic 8: image from Primeros Memorialies (original in the Palacio Real de Madrid) - public domain.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 10th 2020

‘In which festivals did the Aztecs practise cannibalism?’ by Dr. Kay Read

‘Which Aztec ceremonies did not include human sacrifices?’

‘The Aztecs, cannibalism and corpse medicine ‘

‘FOOD FOR THE GODS Or, You Are Who You Eat in Ancient Mexico’
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