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Codex Laud human sacrifice, animated by Mexicolore

‘Nearly everything you were taught about Aztec “sacrifice” is wrong’

We’re most grateful to Dr. Gilbert Estrada, History Professor at Long Beach City College, California, for writing specially for us this stirring and thought-provoking article on the contentious question of ‘Aztec human sacrifice’, setting it into a much-needed global context, and challenging our use of antiquated and culturally loaded terms.

Pic 1: Hearts flow in streams of life-giving blood between earth and the Sun, from the Codex Laud pl. 18 (detail)
Pic 1: Hearts flow in streams of life-giving blood between earth and the Sun, from the Codex Laud pl. 18 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Google ‘human sacrifice’ and undoubtedly, that act is mainly attributed to Brown people. Killing people for god(s) has become racialized and ancient Mexicans are to blame. But they’re wrong. Dead wrong. While there is no doubt ancient Mexicans publicly killed people, nearly everything you were taught about Aztec ‘sacrifice’ is wrong and grossly misleading.*

Pic 2: Blood-soaked paper is burnt and rises in the form of a Vision Serpent as a gift to (Maya) gods; Yaxchilan lintel no. 15, British Museum
Pic 2: Blood-soaked paper is burnt and rises in the form of a Vision Serpent as a gift to (Maya) gods; Yaxchilan lintel no. 15, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Terminology
First, ancient Mexicans have zero concept of what we understand as ‘sacrifice’. For us, ‘sacrifice’ is doing something we really don’t want to do, but we do it for a diet, karma, or as a religious submission. Common contemporary sacrifices are going to work, doing your homework, or not having that extra slice of cake (geez, what an Aztec warrior you are and what a sacrifice). As Davíd Carrasco, the preeminent Mexica scholar has shown, a better term would be ‘pay-back’ or ‘payment’.
Why did ancient Mexicans want to payback their gods? Because the gods provided life for them. It’s a concept shared by many religions: give to the god(s) who have given so much for us. Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for transgressions is also ubiquitous. People also pray and make sacrifices in order to garner favor with their god(s). In essence, it’s what people do. It’s what the Aztecs did because it was deeply embedded in their worldview.

Pic 3: Aztec women offering maize to the gods; Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 3: Aztec women offering maize to the gods; Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

A better way to understand Mexica teotl offerings (gifts for gods) is to use the term gift or offering (the Nahuatl word is nextlahualtin); don’t use the term sacrifice because it’s inaccurate and taints any other understanding of Mesoamerican History. It’s academically sound to call the entire gift an offering, and that’s exactly what they were: gift offerings. It wasn’t a sacrifice. The Aztecs weren’t going to complain; they had duties and they were carried out. Period. Ancient Mexicans were the most dedicated gift givers in history, but it’s not how or what you think.

Pic 4: A cache of sacred offerings, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 4: A cache of sacred offerings, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Most common offerings
What was the most common gift given to the gods? Well, gifts. The most common gift offering, not sacrifice, were regular items given as gifts even today, such as flowers, pottery, and art. Mexica offerings were also masks, jewelry, idols, tobacco, cacao, food, and even dancing were considered sacred gifts to their pantheon. Within the Templo Mayor, the most important building within the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, more than 12,000 of these gifts were discovered in recent archaeological digs. These types of gifts were likely given daily.

Pic 5: Quetzalcóatl does penance by piercing his leg with a cactus spine; Florentine Codex Book 3
Pic 5: Quetzalcóatl does penance by piercing his leg with a cactus spine; Florentine Codex Book 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

What’s the second most common offering in the Mexica world: human blood. But not from “sacrificing” others, but from acquiring blood from oneself through a process known as bloodletting. Be clear, people weren’t killing others or themselves with this process.
High ranking officials, mostly priests and rulers (tlatoani) were mandated to shed blood; it was a requirement of leadership. This was usually done by piercing themselves with cacti needles, stingray tail spines, and obsidian shards or blades, among other objects. Common places to draw blood were earlobes, tongues, shins, and genitals (for priests).

Pic 6: Giving a symbolic small gift to the gods by bloodletting was a daily duty for all the Mexica; detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
Pic 6: Giving a symbolic small gift to the gods by bloodletting was a daily duty for all the Mexica; detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Evidence suggests that the more meaningful (and painful) locale where blood was collected, the better the offering. Aztec leaders weren’t looking for the least painful way to draw blood, such as a modern-day glucose test where less pain is optimal. The ancient Mexican worldview was based on rebirth, pain and hard work was necessary, even in their gift giving.

Pic 7: Detail from Yaxchilan Lintel no. 24, British Museum, showing Lady Xoc in a bloodletting ritual
Pic 7: Detail from Yaxchilan Lintel no. 24, British Museum, showing Lady Xoc in a bloodletting ritual (Click on image to enlarge)

A famous example of ritual bloodletting is found in the British museum. In this great Mayan artwork categorized as Lintel 24 from Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico (725 C.E.), Shield Jaguar (not shown), holds a torch over his consort, Lady Xoc, as she pulls a rope with obsidian shards through her tongue (pic 7). The blood is collected in bowls lined with paper (pic 2). Then, the gift is then given to their deities by burning the paper and blood. Although this example was farther south and attributed to the Maya, Aztec bloodletting was very similar.

Pic 8: Crocodile offering, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 8: Crocodile offering, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The most common ritual killing that was offered to Mexica deities were animals. Animals were held in high regard and were avatars for many Mexica deities. As such, they made great gifts. They were important. In the Templo Mayor, more than 400 animal offerings were discovered in 140 caches after careful excavations by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Bioarcheologist Ximena Chavez Baldera, Ph.D., and others have written on this important ritual. Large avian offerings were discovered within the Templo Mayor adorned with jewelry, such as shell pendants and copper bracelets. At the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City, multiple Aztec animal offerings are displayed.

Pic 9: Puffer fish offering, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 9: Puffer fish offering, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

These include eagles, crocodiles (pic 8), sawfishes, puffer fishes (pic 9), mountain lions (pic 20), and multiple birds including seventeen hummingbirds from four different species (pic 19). The Codex Borgia displays multiple offerings, including the offering of a jaguar, a highly regarded animal and offering.
Finally, what was the least common offering in the Mexica world? Human offerings. Because they were likely the most important, they were the least common gift offered. David Carrasco elaborates that human offerings in ancient Mexico date back to the Tehuacán Valley around 5,000 B.C.E. By the time of the Mexica, there were a variety of offering styles. The most common was probably a captured male offering marched up the Templo Mayor, offered with an obsidian knife, in a symbolic retelling of the Coatlicue, Coyolxauhqui, and the Birth of Huitzilopochtli narrative. In her recent work, Fifth Sun: A New History of The Aztecs, Camila Townsend reminds us ‘although Aztec political life has been assumed to revolve around… human sacrifice… the annals indicate that this notion was never paramount for them.’

Pic 10: Juan de Zumárraga y Arrazola, first archbishop of Mexico City
Pic 10: Juan de Zumárraga y Arrazola, first archbishop of Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

How many offerings?
The next greatest error taught about Aztec offerings is the number of gifts offered. The bonafide answer is no one knows; it’s uncertain. What is clear is the number of human offerings has been greatly exaggerated for European political and cultural purposes. As Professor Matthew Restall and many others have shown, the numbers of human offerings make great stories and helps justify 300+ years of Spanish brutality in the Americas, but they are grossly inaccurate. Restall outlines the myths made over the centuries of alleged annual offerings that range from 20,000 as Zumárraga claimed, 50,000 as Gómara claimed, or 50-100,000 people as Las Casas, the great Native Protector, claimed. Most exaggerated are the offerings for the special ceremonies, such as Motecuhzoma II’s coronation or temple rededications where an additional 50, 80, or 120,000 people have been alleged to been offered over several days. Restall adds an ‘authoritative’ and frequently cited work by Sherburne Cook, ‘By removing a heart every 15 seconds, a team of Aztec priests could indeed have sacrificed 88,320 people in 4 days.’ These numbers are false, of course, and other academics like Manual Aguilar Moreno for a History Channel series show the folly of such claims. Juan de Zumárraga, Inquisition leader in New Spain who killed thousands, falsely claimed that two million children were killed in the century before the Spanish saved ancient Mexican barbarians: this helps prove that Spanish accounts of human offerings are implausible and no evidence exists to support their claims.

Pic 11: An archaeologist at work at the Tempo Mayor at the site of the ‘huey tzompantli’ or Aztec skull rack
Pic 11: An archaeologist at work at the Tempo Mayor at the site of the ‘huey tzompantli’ or Aztec skull rack (Click on image to enlarge)

Examining the evidence at the Templo Mayor, among other evidence, helps prove the aforementioned tales as nonsense. After 30 seasons of intensive excavations at the Templo Mayor, the remains of only 126 people were located. Only three complete human skulls were found, a far cry from the alleged millions. Sacrificial knives were also found, but they were never used and were left with the 12,000 other gifts discussed earlier. More sacrificial human remains were unearthed at Teotihuacan than the Aztec capital where ‘rivers of blood’ were common, according to the History Channel. Mathematically, only 0.0021% of archeological evidence reaching any of the aforementioned fables have been found since digging began in 1978. No evidence approaching 1/100th of the alleged tens of thousands of killings for the 1486 ceremony has been found. And although the INAH rediscovered the Huey Tzompantli (skull rack), Restall argues it only produced a small percentage of the Spanish alleged 130,000+ skulls. Still partially buried under Mexico City, a full excavation of the entire rack is unattainable; some 180 complete skulls have been uncovered.

Pic 12: The sacrifice of Polyxena, daughter of the king of Troy, by the triumphant Greeks, Trojan War, c. 570–550 BCE
Pic 12: The sacrifice of Polyxena, daughter of the king of Troy, by the triumphant Greeks, Trojan War, c. 570–550 BCE (Click on image to enlarge)

Comparative ‘Sacrifice’
Almost never discussed in primary or secondary school education is the fact that the Romans, Greeks, Japanese, Chinese, Africans, Andeans, and Egyptians also practiced ritual killings of humans, often in high numbers. Their violence is mostly taught as empire building, legal punishments, or ignored, leaving ancient Mexicans as the sole savages. In fact, Carrasco reminds us there is zero evidence the Mexica offered more people than any other group in world history. Although ancient Mexicans are alleged barbarian killers par excellence, no evidence exists to substantiate that fantasy. Evidence of European or “Old World” human sacrifice is ever-present, even the Bible is a source of human offerings.

Pic 13: Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, Uffizi Palace, Florence
Pic 13: Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, Uffizi Palace, Florence (Click on image to enlarge)

Hiel the Bethelite rebuilt the City of Jericho by burying his eldest son beneath a gate, according to Camilla Townsend. God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and was in the process before he was ordered to stop by his deity, according to the Book of Genesis. In Psalm 106:37-38, ‘they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils, and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood.’ The Canaanites sacrificed children by fire or stabbing them first. If not burned to death, their blood was used to anoint the altar. The Celts also immolated humans by fire. They placed offerings inside a straw structure called “Wicker Man,” then set it ablaze. Within English lore, Townsend reminds us that Geoffrey of Monmouth had to talk his way out of becoming a foundation sacrifice for a king’s tower.

Pic 14: The ‘pear of anguish’ torture instrument
Pic 14: The ‘pear of anguish’ torture instrument (Click on image to enlarge)

Moreover, Christians burned countless people at the stake for centuries, and in this regard, Europeans and Old World cultures were far superior to ancient Mexicans. For ancient Mexicans gift giving was serious, whose main purpose was payment to their gods. But Inquisition authorities went further and also boiled people alive, subjected people to the rack, entombed people in iron maidens, ripped orifices with the Judas Cradle and pear of anguish (pic 14), tore limbs by strappado hangings, slashed and burned people in the interrogation chair, and inflicted a variety of pain through state of the art torture devices. Many Christians, non-Christians, and people of other faiths were tortured. This occurred in at least four continents and in the name of their God. The Mexica did not have this kind of technology or imagination as part of their worldview. In fact, many of these acts would be considered barbaric to the Aztecs, and we know this because that was their response to Spanish atrocities in Mexico since 1519.

Pic 15: The skeletons of a family in an ancient sacrifice pit in China
Pic 15: The skeletons of a family in an ancient sacrifice pit in China (Click on image to enlarge)

The comparative examples of human offerings are nearly endless. Retainer sacrifice was practiced in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Chinese Shang and Zhou empires also practiced retainer sacrifice, burying servants alive so they could serve their elite in the afterlife; some people had their heads chopped off and evidence suggests many servants didn’t want to follow their employers in the afterlife. Pigs, dogs, wives, concubines, bodyguards and other elite necessities were also sacrificed with their rulers. Wee Kek Koon writes, ‘When Duke Mu of Qin died in 621 B.C., 177 people were buried alive with him,’ largely based on Sima Qian’s historical records. Offerings also took place in India. Assyrians flayed people alive.

Pic 16: The ‘brazen bull’ torture method
Pic 16: The ‘brazen bull’ torture method (Click on image to enlarge)

Ancient Greece performed human sacrifice, as they did during the Trojan War (pic 12); animal sacrifice was also common practice. The Romans utilized incredible tools to inflict human pain, including the brazen bull (pic 16). The wretched victim was placed inside a metal bull, replete with horns. Once the fire was lit under the bull, the fire would heat the bull, along with the person inside. Inevitably, the burning victim’s screams would amplify outward through the bull’s horns in full acoustical effect, until their death. The Romans crucified countless people across multiple continents, the most famous was the crucifixion of the Christ. People like Vlad the Impaler found new levels of violence, especially with the use of a pike. In fact, evidence suggests impaling people was so perfected that a stake could be placed up a person’s anus, missing the vital organs and protruding out their shoulders or back so the victim was immobilized on the stake, and could survive for several days.

Pic 17: Spanish cruelty to indigenous people; Codex Kingsborough (British Museum)
Pic 17: Spanish cruelty to indigenous people; Codex Kingsborough (British Museum) (Click on image to enlarge)

French Anthropologist Jacques Soustelle states the obvious, ‘At the height of their career, the Romans shed more blood in their circuses and for their amusement than ever the Aztecs did before their idols.’ He continues, ‘The Spaniards, so sincerely moved by the cruelty of the native priests, nevertheless massacred, burnt, mutilated and tortured with a perfectly clear conscience. We, who shudder at the tale of the bloody rites of ancient Mexico, have seen with our own eyes and in our own days civilized nations proceed systematically to the extermination of millions of human beings and to the perfection of weapons capable of annihilating in one second a hundred times more victims than the Aztecs ever sacrificed,’ cited in Restall’s When Montezuma Met Cortes.

Pic 18: ‘A human sacrifice - from an ancient manuscript’; illustration by Keith Henderson
Pic 18: ‘A human sacrifice - from an ancient manuscript’; illustration by Keith Henderson (Click on image to enlarge)

Many of these public killings entertained large crowds who watched the ‘judicious tortures and exemplary maiming,’ often cheering and encouraging the deaths, according to Inga Clendinnen. Compared to Mexica public offerings, Camilla Townsend makes clear that during the early days of their rise, few people were offered for monthly religious festivals. Crowds were likely quiet and composed, not like the wild portrayals in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

Pic 19: Types of hummingbird offerings, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 19: Types of hummingbird offerings, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s clear, enough violence existed throughout world history so humans should share the honorific titles for violence and killings. Ancient Mexican offerings have been greatly exaggerated, which began when the Spanish invaded and killed hundreds of thousands of Mesoamericans, then spawned a genocide through slave labor and viral diseases such as measles, smallpox, and sexually transmitted diseases. No evidence exists to place ancient Mexicans as the greatest human offerers. In fact, archeological evidence lowers them significantly down this list, and placing the practice of human gift giving in comparative context further erodes popular notions of Mexica savagery.

*The term Mexica is the appropriate term when describing what most people know as ‘the Aztecs.’ The Mexica spoke Nahuatl and called themselves the Mexica (Ma-shee-ka). Although the term Aztec is a Nahuatl word, it’s not what they called themselves. The label Aztec was popularized after William H. Prescott’s extremely popular ‘History of the Conquest of Mexico’ (1843). Moreover, although much of the focus for this essay is the Mexica, many ancient Mexicans and Mesoamericans practiced similar rituals. To avoid repetition, I use the terms interchangeably.

Pic 20: Mountain lion offering, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 20: Mountain lion offering, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

For further reference, see also David Carrasco, The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction (2012), Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (2019), and Matthew Restall, When Montezuma Met Cortes: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History (2018).

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: animation by Mexicolore; original image adapted from the Codex Laud pl. 8
• Pic 1: image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Laud, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1966
• Pix 2, 7 & 17: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 3 & 5: images from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 4, 8, 9, 19 & 20: photos by and courtesy Gilbert Estrada
• Pic 6: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pic 10: illustration from Wikipedia (Juan de Zumárraga)
• Pic 11: photo from INAH/Mexico News Daily
• Pic 12: illustration from Wikipedia (Human sacrifice): ‘Attic black-figure Tyrrhenian amphora, ca. 570-550 BC. Said to be from Italy’. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen
• Pic 13: Oil on canvas painting - image from Wikipedia (Sacrifice of Isaac [Caravaggio])
• Pic 14: photo by Klaus D. Peter/Wikimedia Commons (downloaded from https://allthatsinteresting.com/pear-of-anguish
• Pic 15: image downloaded from https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/2140189/how-chinas-history-human-sacrifice-led-ching-ming-festivals
• Pic 16: image downloaded from http://fatinvee.blogspot.com/2014/08/brazen-bull.html
• Pic 18: Illustration by Keith Henderson, scanned from our own copy of The Conquest of Mexico by William H. Prescott (vol. 1), London, Chatto & Windus, 1922.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 29th 2020

‘Synchronized blood-letting’

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Mexicolore replies: Another good question. According to Professor Anthony Aveni (on our Panel of Experts), the Maya ‘thought of it as the umbilical cord which connected heaven and the underworld to the earth. Some think of it as a great celestial roadway’ (‘Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico’, p. 97). He notes, incidentally, that the Incas saw it as ‘the celestial river, a continuation of the vital river system which flows through the valley of Cuzco, branching out to its remotest parts via a complex array of aqueducts’ (do., p. 297).
For the Mexica/Aztecs the goddess Citlalicue (‘Skirt of Stars’) personified the Milky Way. She resided in the second of the thirteen ‘heavens’. There’s an image of her in Durán’s Atlas. She was invoked, among other deities, when a newborn was named and held up to the heavens by the midwife. However some scholars believe the Milky Way was seen as the road built by Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, along which they travelled to and from the earth and heavens. And others associate the Milky Way with the god Mixcóatl (see Yólotl González Torres, ‘El culto a los astros entre los mexicas’) Complicated...!
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for positive feedback. We do our best, though we’re always learning too as we go...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for your comments. We do have an article ‘in the pipeline’ precisely on ‘teotl’, by Anastasia Kalyuta (on our Panel of Experts). Until that’s uploaded, the two articles that most touch on the concept already on Mexicolore would be:-
https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/aztec-philosophy and https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/gods/gods-of-the-month-ometeotl.
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks for this illuminating contribution, and for pointing out this misconception. Whilst it looks like the dating of some of these inventions may well be wrong (the brazen bull being far more ancient, the pear of anguish more modern...) the moral of the story remains sadly very true - that torture was a routine (and legal) method of extracting ‘confessions’ in Europe at the time Aztec civilisation was at its height, and that the methods employed - and the worldview behind them - would probably have been seen as utterly barbaric by and alien to the Aztecs.