The Aztec Empire

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How significant was human sacrifice to the Aztecs and what role did it have in their daily lives?

The Aztec Empire was the largest and most powerful empire in Mesoamerica and it was also known as the Aztec Triple Alliance. This included the people who spoke the Nahuatl language but also the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan. The Empire's capital was located in the Valley of Mexico and it was called Tenochtitlan, founded in 1325 AD; this city now lies beneath the pavement of the Zocalo, the name given to the city centre in Mexico City. In 1100 AD the Aztec people, who are referred to as the Mexica as the Aztec Empire hadn't yet been created, left their home of Aztlan to find their new home following the prophecy that stated that they should settle in the destined site for a great city whose location would be signalled by an eagle eating a snake while positioned on a cactus. This is one of the many prophecies that the Aztecs believed in. The actual origins of the Aztecs are hardly known due to the lack of information available to historians; some historians believe that they were located in Aztlan in the north of the Valley of Mexico and others believe this is just a myth as Aztlan means “the place of the origin”[1] . Aztec society was well structured, based on agriculture and mainly guided by a religion that controlled almost every aspect of their lives. Human sacrifice in the Aztecs was common and it was particularly linked to religion although it was used for other reasons such as war related, political and social reasons. Human sacrifice has been a constant question to historians and its importance has been questioned by many and by through this essay I attempt to determine its importance and its role in society.

The Mexica began their new life in Lake Texcoco by farming and as they eventually finished building their capital city and named it Tenochtitlan in 1325 AD. During the following century the Aztecs paid tribute to stronger groups in the surroundings in particular the Tepanecs. During this century they grew in number and established a “superior military and civil organizations”[2]. After sometime they revolted against the Tepanecs and gained territory in the mainland and in 1427 AD they formed alliances with Texcoco and Tlacopan. After these alliances the conquests for more territories began and eventually the Aztec Empire expanded and it extended from central Mexico up to what now is the Guatemalan border. This meant that the Empire included several different ethnic groups which weren't all happy under the command of the Aztecs but still were forced to pay tribute to them. It was at this point that Tenochtitlan became the main dominant power of the Empire. Whilst all the Aztecs reached a position of power they also made themselves more and more enemies. The Aztecs took a lot of citizens from the weaker tribes nearby to be sacrificed and this caused hatred to be developed against the Aztecs however, they were very weak compared to the Aztecs and were unable to defend themselves. Some of the major enemies of the Aztecs were the Texlacans, the Huaxtec, the Purempecha and the Mayans. Although these tribes were very powerful too they still didn't manage to overtake the Aztecs. The Spanish Conquistadores are also considered enemies of the Aztecs although in this case it is a different situation.

The everyday life of the Aztecs depended on what part of society you were born into because in the Aztecs you were born into and it was either a commoner or a lord, there was also another social class but it wasn't exactly considered a class and this were the slaves; slavery came upon people through debt or punishment and many people sold themselves into slavery when they found themselves unable to support themselves, this mostly happened during famines such as the one in the 1450's. Within the commoners there were two classes, the peasants and the calpolli and the urban commoners. The calpolli were small groups of family composed of peasants who worked for the same lord. In this case the commoners were dependent upon their lord and their land was dependent upon them as well. The nobles and lords who lived and worked in palaces and regardless their rank they all shared the same common interest to keep their privileged positions and lifestyles. Only 5 percent of society was composed of lords and nobles however they kept a tight grip on the rest of the Aztec society. This influenced them into making orations that said things such as “human fate is in the hands of the gods”[3] and as said before the commoners had to venerate their lords as they all had to venerate the Gods. This meant that the commoners had to accept their social class and not question anyone's position, either theirs or the nobles. We could then say that the quick explanation would be that the commoners basically treated the nobles like Gods and the nobles controlled mostly everything; however it is actually more complex than that. Although social classes were extremely important in the Aztec Empire because they actually were the basics of its structure however gender also had an important role.

Men typically worked outside the home whilst women did most of their work at home. Men usually spent all day out working as most of them were farmers; this again didn't depend that much on the social class because even if the man of the family wasn't a farmer he worked outside the home. Spinning and weaving were some of the most important activities for women, both for commoners and noblewomen given that this was an important part of their roles as women regardless which social class they were in. Women also performed most of the domestic rituals for the Gods. Although they didn't involve any type of sacrifice it was the way for women to venerate the Gods in an everyday way. They constantly took offerings to the temples which they offered to the Gods and they swept their houses which for us seems like a boring useless activity for women the power of the broom was their weapon in the “battle against the forces of disorder and darkness”[4] and therefore this linked the priests and women as they did the same at the temples. Men in the Aztec Empire proved their manhood through war and their success as warriors by bringing back victims for sacrifice.

Through the evidence that is available for historians to investigate human sacrifice historians were able to discover a constant political and war related factor. “War and battle were dominant themes running throughout Aztec culture”[5] and their captives were used for human sacrifice was a public ceremony to which thousands of citizens would attend, some by force and others voluntarily. Sacrifices were used as a form of propaganda used by the Empire to demonstrate to the other Kings and their people that the Aztec Empire had large amounts of power and were blessed by the Gods. A specific message was transferred to these other Kingdoms which showed them that the Aztecs were superior, and this was done by having the enemy rulers attend their big public ceremonies where their own people were sacrificed right before their eyes. The effect of this was the creation of fear from other Empires towards the Aztecs which was their ultimate aim. However, certain historians also believe that there was a “mutual agreement, a battle would take place from time to time at an appointed place, and prisoners would be captured by each adversary for sacrifice”[6]. This was not only done to other Kingdoms but also to the commoners and this is now referred to as “propaganda by terror”[7] and this is why most sacrifices took place in big public demonstrations in highly visible areas such as the top of pyramids or the big main plaza. Propaganda by terror means that the State used human sacrifice to scare the people; this allowed the government to show the population that they should think twice before revolting or showing any sort of resistance against the government. In these occasions the commoners had to watch an innocent child, a slave, an enemy or just a random commoner be sacrificed. Given the fact that success in warfare was one of the most important parts of a male identity in their culture and that their success was measured in the number of captives this was an incentive for war. This is then linked to their motivation for capturing enemy victims and this was also because there was a great need “to capture enemies for sacrifice”[8] and this also greatly influences the reasons of fighting for the Aztecs. Aztec rulers also measured their strength in the amount of sacrifice that occurred under their Kingdom which therefore meant that sacrifices would be more frequent or less and at different scales as the Kings change due to their wanting to be the most powerful emperor. An example of this is Ahuitzotl who was King from 1486 until 1502 and to demonstrate his strength and power historians have calculated through the evidence that was available to them that at least 20,000 sacrifices took place under his reign. Politics and war are closely related to religion as religion was a “very important part of the daily lives of the Aztec people and it was fiercely guarded”[9] therefore religion was an influential factor for politics and war.

Religion was one of the most important parts of Aztec life. Their religion, like many others around the continent at the time involved large numbers of religious festivals and most of these usually involved elements of sacrifice. The sun, the moon and the planet Venus were very important as they all held different symbolic and religious meanings for them. They venerated several Gods however the ones that were more important to them remained Tlaloc the god of rain, Huitzilopochtli the tribal god and also god of war and sacrifice, Quetzalcoatl god of civilization and order and Tezcatlipoca god of destiny and fortune. The Aztecs built temples for each of these gods at Tenochtitlan. The most important temple in Tenochtitlan was the Templo Mayor which was a double pyramid 35 metres high with two separate temples at the top. One of the temples was for Huitzilopochtli and the other one for Tlaloc. Religion was one of the main links between the different social classes that the Aztecs had in their society as they all venerated the same Gods. However as previously explained each level of society had their own rituals and all the rituals at each level contributed in part to the larger rituals of the community. The religious side of human sacrifice is simply explained as the Aztecs believed that they had a constant debt to the Gods because they had sacrificed themselves for humankind so now human kind had to offer the Gods something in return. As said by many historians the Aztecs at the time thought that “blood was the most precious thing you had to offer”[10]; This was one of the main reasons for human sacrifice although another important reason was that the Aztecs believed that they had to sacrifice themselves in order to keep the sun from rising every morning, setting every night and rising again the next day. This meant that it was the only way to sustain life on Earth. Basically these are the two main religious reasons for human sacrifice, but we also have to keep in mind that the Aztecs performed other sacrifices such as auto sacrifice and animal sacrifices and that other way were used to honour the Gods which didn't involve sacrifice at all. The sacrifice of burning was usually only performed in honour of the God of fire «Xiuhtecuhtli», this sacrifice represented the birth of the God and the rising of new life from death.

The victims for human sacrifice differed one from the other and for the Aztecs they weren't considered «ordinary mortals» as each person that was to expect sacrifice represented a specific God and therefore before sacrifice they were treated as Gods would usually be treated, they were venerated. The preparations began long before the actual sacrifice and on the day of sacrifice they walked to meet their fate with honour. Most victims were enemy warriors that were captured in battle; others were commoners that were used as a political threat and others worked according to the game of the Gods. This simply shows how the victims weren't really considered victims by the Aztecs particularly because before they were actually sacrificed they were treated just as if they were Gods because they represented a specific God and so they venerated them.


[2] aztecs

[3] The Aztecs by Michael E.Smith

[4] The Aztecs by Michael E. Smith

[5] The Aztecs by Michael E. Smith

[6] The Aztecs by Nigel Davies

[7] Documentary: Temple of Blood by Discovery Civilization

[8] The Aztecs by Michael E. Smith

[9] aztec religion

[10] Documentary: Temple of Blood by Discovery Civilization