Our earliest evidence of human sacrifice can be traced back to the Mesopotamians from around 6,000 BC. This vulgar practice in our society today is known by its legal term as “ritual murder”. Often it involves the killing of one or more than one human in order to fulfill a religious or ritual motivation. Human sacrifice was practiced amongst many different races of people and one of the most interesting was amongst the Aztecs. The Aztecs believed that as part of the human race they owned the gods a ‘blood debt’. This was because their gods had sacrificed their own blood in order to give mankind a new lease of life. Whether you would call it a myth or a creation story, legend states that the Aztec god of wind, Quetzalcoatl, and the ‘trickster’ god, Tezcatlipoca, drizzled their own blood over the bones of the extinct human race to bring them back to life. To help the reborn human race thrive, these two gods, sacrificed and tore the goddess of Earth, Thaltecuhtli, in half to make the worlds between heaven and earth and all the things needed to sustain human life. The gods also offered their hearts to recreate a new sun to move around in the sky. This sacrifice made by the gods ushered in the new age. (The fifth sun myth.)
To pay for this blood debt, the Aztecs immersed themselves in a culture of human sacrifice, from blood-letting by individuals and priests to extensive human sacrifice, usually made up of captives or enemies of the Aztecs. Why ? Because the Aztecs believed that the gods craved or were hungry for blood having given up a part of themselves to humanity. Thaltecuhtli, in particular, cried out in the night for the hearts of men to devour. As a result the Aztec believed they had no choice but to offer up the beating hearts of the sacrificed.
Who were the sacrificed? These were victims usually from neighboring cultures or enemies of the Aztec state. Aztec warriors would go out on skirmishes to capture but not kill their sacrificial victims. This Aztec practice was referred to as the ‘Flowery War’ which brought about a constant reign of fear in the Aztec world. It is estimated that some 80,000 captives on one occasion in the 1480’s were sacrificed at the site of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. Though occasionally the Aztecs would provide their own blood in what is referred to as autosacrifice, a form of bloodletting, which helped satisfy and nourish the gods in general too.
The Flowery War would eventually come to an end partly because people outside of the Aztec empire became disillusioned by the never-ending steam of blood that flowed from Aztec temples. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, people like the Tlaxcala in Mexico rebelled and joined the Spanish against the Aztecs. In a short period of time, some 80 years, the Aztecs through defeat and disease were decimated from a population of around twenty million down to only one million.
The header image is a depiction of Aztec human sacrifice as shown in the Codex Magliabechiano. Image is in the public domain.