Human Sacrifice in Aztec Religionexternal image aztec4figure15.jpg

Religious Reasons for Sacrifice
Eagle offering vessel - the heart of a sacrificed person in ritual would be placed in this
Eagle offering vessel - the heart of a sacrificed person in ritual would be placed in this

"The sole purpose of the Mexica in this earthly realm was to ensure that the universe was kept alive via the blood of sacrificial subjects. The human sacrifice done in the name of their gods resulted in the continued existence of the Aztec world, and without them everything would cease to exist" (3). The main sacrifices were of males and captives sacrificed to the sun in order to ensure its place and that it will rise again. The men came from volunteers who would ensure themselves an elevated place in the afterlife, and mostly from captives of war. Some even imitated a particular god (1). All sacrifice was done within a spiritual or religious context. As warriors chosen to be sacrificed and guaranteed a place in the highest heaven, it was a great honor to the Aztecs to be chosen for this task (3). If sacrifice was not made, the Gods would have the power to punish for lack of 'food' by sending storms or droughts or anything threatening to the welfare of the people. The people's goal was to sustain the balance in the universe, and receive the benefits of food and life from their gods, which was only attained through sacrifice (1).
According to Michel Graulich, the reasons for sacrifice were complex even within a religious/ritualistic context. Some of these meanings include "reactualizing mythical killings, rejuvenating deities, ...revitalizing them and nourishing other deities, ...placating or conciliating deities in order to obtain something; transmitting messages to the other worlds; accompanying the deceased to the hereafter; consecrating or strengthening certain places, altars, buildings or ; and expatiating transgressions or sins to win a glorious or happy afterlife"(5). This idea of expatiation was the foundation for his paper Aztec Human Sacrifice and Expatiation and explains why some people would want to be sacrificed. He also describes that (according to many codices and historical writings) the prisoners of war, captives to be sacrificed, were often "called "pentitents," they impersonated Mimixcoas, who drank pulque and slept with women instead of doing their duty. Therefore, they were given pulque, and sometimes women, before their immolation"(5). According to Burr Cartwright Brundage, priests would act on behalf of the entire community, depriving themselves and engaging in acts of self-sacrifice or bloodletting as a means for penance for the people he serves (8).

Ritual Sacrifice had different forms (3,5):
1. Tlacamictiliztli or extraction of the heart.
2. Decapitation
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Handle of sacrificial blade (1)

3. Tlacacaliztli or "riddling with arrows".
4. Rolling off the top of a pyramid.
5. An arrow shot to the throat.
6. Being placed in a cave and buried alive.
7. Drowning.
8. Tlahuahuanaliztli or gladiatorial service.
9. Removal of the skin.
10. Being thrown into fire
and less common:
11. Bludgeoning to death
12. Stoning
13. Impailing
14. Tearing out of entrails
15. Being scratched to death.
16. Making the roof of a house fall in on a person.
17. Squeezing a person in a net.
All of these would have been done to a live person, and most were described in Fray Bernardino de Sahagun's Florentine Codex (5).


How often did sacrifice occur?
This answer depends. When the Templo Mayor was dedicated in Tenochtitlan, is is believed that 20,000 people were slain there in one ritual. In a smaller town the number could be about 30 people per year, and in a tribal capital an estimate is about 400 people per year (1).



Tudela Codex picture depicting sacrifice and bloodletting
Tudela Codex picture depicting sacrifice and bloodletting



Ritual Bloodletting

Many people preformed self-sacrifice in a way that blood was released from their body in an offering to the gods (see picture above). Aztecs would pierce their tongues, earlobes, thighs, arms, or genitals with sharp objects in order to bleed. Priests would practice some form of bloodletting ritual daily. The act of releasing blood through self-sacrifice or bloodletting, or ritual human sacrifice was essential for the world to have access to all the elements through the appeasement of the gods that control those elements. The shedding of blood was seen as a debt to the gods, that living things and gods were interconnected, and life energy was constantly in motion through all things (3).

The Role of Warfare in Sacrifice

Warriors were rewarded for bring in captives to be sacrificed with higher status in society. A person's wealth or land or status was not normally passed down after death, so warriors had to work hard to move up the ranks of society. A way to do that would be to become a great warrior and bring in numerous captives. With a higher status, one would be able to have a political position where they would oversee others and would no longer have to farm (2).
There was a complex balance between warfare for expansions and political control and for bringing back sacrifices to appease the gods. For more information on the other motivations for warfare, see Mumford's Aztec war motivations page.
Cora Mumford's page also contains great information on the role of the warrior in Aztec society and in their strategies for battle. War was a tool for gaining status in Aztec political life. For these pages click here: Mumford's page on the Aztec Warrior and Mumford's page on Aztec Battle Strategy.


The War of Flowers

When the Aztecs were not at war, sacrifice still had to occur. Instead of taking captives, they would make a mock war called the War of Flowers. Prisoners were taken from a number of cities close by where they had the opportunity to fight each other, and take the captives necessary for the ritual sacrifice (1).
For additional information on the flower wars, including other motivations for performing the War of Flowers besides sacrifice, see Mumford's page on the Flower Wars.


Anthropological questions:

Did the Aztecs engage in cannibalism? If so, what is the evidence?

The Aztecs did engage in some cannibalism, but if so it was under religious context. Many codices show pictures of people's body parts being cooked or of people eating human flesh after sacrifice. The bodies of the sacrificed were cooked under strict guidelines, and shared in a ritualistic banquet-like setting. Relatives of the deceased were invited and honored, their status elevated just by being related to the honorable person sacrificed, and would spend a lot of money to have this ritual banquet performed. The idea was that the Gods themselves would be ingesting the flesh of the honored dead and that the dead became those gods. Through this consumption, the dead would commune with and become part of the Gods. The Gods needed human blood and flesh for energy for continues survival of the universe, and the people sacrificed were seen as helping to ensure the world's survival. (3)
Anthropologist Marvin Harris cites many examples of Aztec cannibalism in written text and pictures in the codices and the writings of Bernadino de Sahagun and Diego Duran (4). Brundage also cites examples of ritualistic cannibalism including after the sacrifice of "ixiptla" (or likeness - a person sacrificed who impersonates a god) (8).
Codex Magilabechiano. Notice the body parts in the pot and the people eating (7)
Codex Magilabechiano. Notice the body parts in the pot and the people eating (7)

If so was the reason an ecological need for protein or religious reasons?

Some have researched that cannibalism may have been performed by people as a need for protein in their diet, but this does not match with the solely religious principles of sacrifice to begin with.If human sacrifice only occurred in a religious context, then it wouldn't happen in a ecological context for a need for meat. Other reason presented that the Aztecs sacrificed to neutralize violence in the community, and again, this would not match with the religious reasons widely accepted (3). Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano wrote a paper called "Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity?" which examined all the proposed evidence for cannibalism for protein and refuted all of it (6). There just is not enough valid evidence to support this claim.

Were they the only ones?

No. Sacrifice was common among Mesoamerican cultures, and not just with the Aztecs, but the Aztecs probably sacrificed the most people due to sacrifices being performed all across villages in the entire empire (3). With the increased numbers of sacrifice, and evidence of cannibalism, the study is often focused on the Aztecs. Marvin Harris writes that the Aztecs were not the first to sacrifice, following after the Toltecs and Mayans. He believes that peoples all over the world and especially in Mesoamerica practiced sacrifice, with evidence shown in band and village societies before state-level religions developed, and we know that others besides the Aztecs practiced similar cannibalistic rites (4). Many of the rituals the Aztecs performed had their roots in earlier civilizations/states and the common elements can be seen across Mesoamerican cultures. Graulich also describes many Aztec rituals having almost exact correspondences (besides the names of deities) as in Mayan rituals. See John Robertsons's Page on Mayan Religion for more information on the religion of the Maya. Victoria Van Gaasbeck's page on the Moche of Peru, a pre-Inca civilization in the Andean mountains of South America, cites evidence of sacrifice there as well. Dresdner Schenker's page on Andean Warfare shows Moche art on ceramic vessels depicting warfare and sacrifice of captives. He also highlights terror through sacrifice as a possible militairy tactic for the Incas, click here for that page. Ferrer's wikion warfare in the Andes disputes the idea of real warfare in that region, and believes that much of the archaeological artifacts depict mythical scenes. While anthropologists/archaeologists have evidence and ideas about what they believe was happening, much more reasearh needs to be done to cement these ideas into history of the New World. While the strongest evidence in relation to the Aztecs may be found in other Mesoamerican cultures, sacrifice throughout history has been found all over the world.



1. Burland, C. A., and Werner Forman. 1985. The Aztecs: gods and fate in Ancient Mexico. Echoes of the ancient world. London: Orbis.
2. Katz, Friedrich. Apr.,1958. The Evolution of Aztec Society: Past & Present, No. 13, pp. 14-25 Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/649866
3. Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. 2006. Handbook to life in the Aztec world. New York: Facts on File.
4. Harris, Marvin. 1977. Cannibals and kings: the origins of cultures. New York: Random House.
5. Graulich, Michel. May 2000. Aztec Human Sacrifice as Expiation: History of Religions. 39(4):352-71. University of Chicago Press. Accessed 11/14/2010.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3176544
6. Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. May 1978. Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity? Science 200(4342):611-17. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Accessed 11/14/2010. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1746929
7. Gruzinski, Serge. 1992. Painting the conquest: the Mexican Indians and the European Renaissance. Paris, France: Unesco.
8. Brundage, Burr Cartwright. 1985. The jade steps: a ritual life of the Aztecs. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.