The Aztec civilization was a militaristic society that controlled Mesoamerica from the beginning of the 14th century CE to the start of the 16th century CE when it was defeated by Spanish conquistadors (“Aztecs,” 2009). While the Aztec empire was defined by warfare, religion also played an important role in their society. In fact, the Aztecs chose the location for their capital city, Tenochtitlan, because of an eagle that was sitting on a bush near Lake Texcoco, which they interpreted to be a sign from their god, Huitzilopochtli, indicating that they should build there (“Aztecs,” 2009). After its founding in 1325 CE, Tenochtitlan continued to be vital to Aztec culture because it was the base of religion in the empire. In particular, Tenochtitlan was home to the Templo Mayor, a large temple in the middle of the city that the Aztecs viewed as “the center of the cosmos” (Burhenn 4). Thousands of prisoners of war were sacrificed annually at the Templo Mayor, and in times when there were not enough prisoners even local residents of Tenochtitlan were sacrificed by the Aztec priests (Pennock 286). The need for lots of sacrifices heavily influenced the Aztec military in that they created weapons designed to wound people, but not kill them. Allowing their enemies to live in combat gave the Aztec priests the opportunity to sacrifice them. The Aztecs culture emphasized human sacrifice, which in turn dictated their warlike nature.
In order to understand why human sacrifice and war were such prevalent parts of Aztec culture, it is necessary to analyze their religion. The Aztecs believed that there were many gods in the universe and that in their battle for dominance of everything, they had already destroyed the universe four times (Burhenn 3). In the fifth cycle of the conflict between the gods, which was the same time period as that of the Aztecs, the gods decided that something needed to change. The Aztec gods agreed to create both humanity and the sun, which would sustain organic life, by giving up their own blood (Pennock 286). However, the Aztecs had a prophecy that the fifth age would also end in the destruction of the universe. The only way to prevent that fate was by releasing enough human blood (and the powerful life energy believed to be inside of it) to replace the blood of the Aztec gods that they originally sacrificed to create humanity (Burhenn 3). Because of the “blood debt” between the Aztecs and their deities, the Aztec culture viewed human sacrifice as a way of saving the world. The only way of obtaining enough people to sacrifice was by conquering the region and capturing its people. Therefore, not only were human sacrifice and war accepted in Aztec society, they were expected.
The countless rituals and large number of people sacrificed integrated the practice of human sacrifice and the taking of lives into everyday Aztec culture. On average, human sacrifices were performed one in every four days per year in Tenochtitlan (Pennock 289). In addition, experts have estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people were sacrificed per year, although this number is debated (Pennock 279). For the official dedication of the Templo Mayor in 1487 CE approximately 20,000 to 80,000 people were sacrificed (Burhenn 2). Based on this evidence, it is clear that the Aztecs were frequently exposed to human sacrifices.
The tradition of human sacrifice was a normal aspect of Aztec culture because of how the individuals being sacrificed were viewed and treated. Prior to the ritual sacrifices, the victims were revered by their peers (Pennock 286). Being sacrificed was regarded as both a privilege and an honor because by giving up their own lives, the victims were not only saving the lives of everyone else, but the Aztec gods as well. In addition, if an Aztec willingly volunteered to be killed, he was given a few months to live in luxury (Pennock 286). This provided poor Aztecs with the opportunity to experience what living with wealth was like, even if just for a few months. Although the prisoners of war did not receive the same treatment, their deaths were seen as honorable as well (Pennock 286). According to Aztec culture, everyone, regardless of their background, who was sacrificed was guaranteed to prosper in the afterlife (Pennock 286). This belief encouraged everyone to take part in the sacrificial ceremonies.
Every member of the Aztec community had a role to play in human sacrifice rituals. The Templo Mayor was tall enough that it could be seen throughout the city, so everyone was able to witness the sacrifices being performed (Pennock 289). In order to “participate” in the ceremonies, local Aztec men, women, and children would pierce their ears, tongues, and genitals to give some of their own blood to the gods (Pennock 290). However, anyone who was being sacrificed was typically carried to the top of the temple, where they were placed over a stone dais (Burhenn 2). A priest then cut out the victim’s heart, raised it to the heavens as a tribute to the gods, and rolled the body down the side of the temple. Aztec elders would then collect the bodies and chop them up to be distributed to the natives, who cooked the limbs and ate them in a traditional soup (Burhenn 3). The skulls, however, were saved and put into “pyramids” that could have as many as 100,000 human skulls (Pennock 283). Because sacrifices had many functions within Aztec society, the Aztecs constantly had to obtain large amounts of people through war.
In order to capture a lot of prisoners, the Aztecs developed militaristic technologies that would prevent them from killing their enemies. One such weapon was the atlatl, otherwise known as a “spear-thrower” (Hassig 76). However, despite its name, the atlatl was used to shoot darts, not spears, from long distances. Most atlatls were around two feet long and a foot and a half wide, so they were easy to carry for Aztec warriors (Hassig 76). Many also had two slots for darts, which suggests that a common practice was to fire two darts at the same time. In addition, the Aztecs created different types of darts for various types of situations. For instance, three-pronged darts were used by hunters to kill wild birds, but the barbed darts were used by the Aztec military (Hassig 79). Darts thrown by the atlatl had the capability of going through armor, so barbed darts used with an atlatl were very likely to wound an enemy soldier, but not kill him (Hassig 79). Although injured, this would allow the Aztec warriors to capture the wounded fighter and bring him back to Tenochtitlan to be sacrificed. In addition to the atlatl, the Aztecs were also fine marksman with the bow and arrow (Hassig 80). However, unlike many other tribes, the Aztecs did not poison their arrows (Hassig 79). By using arrows without venom, it gave troops a greater chance of survival, which also gave the Aztecs a better chance of capturing them alive. The use of the atlatl and non-toxic arrows directly reflect the Aztecs desire to keep their enemies alive until they could be sacrificed to the gods at the top of the Templo Mayor.
Many people today consider the Aztecs to be a barbaric civilization because of their empire’s emphasis on war and human sacrifice. In fact, we dehumanize the Aztecs because we believe that we could never commit the same sacrificial acts as them, especially on the enormous scale that they did (Pennock 297). However, does the world today not have more violence than any other period in time? Do countless lives not get taken every day? Perhaps the nations of today’s world are not as different as the Aztec empire as we like to think. It is unfair of us to judge the Aztecs actions without understanding the civilization’s cultural context. Based on their religious beliefs, the Aztecs fought to prevent the destruction of the world, and letting out human blood was the means by which they could achieve that goal. If saving the world was the Aztecs objective, can we really call them evil? They were simply acting on the cultural environment that they lived in, so it is a hard question to answer. The reality is experts today may never unanimously agree about whether or not the Aztecs were uncivilized, but we cannot continue to criticize the Aztecs when we do not know fully understand what their society was like.
Burhenn, Herbert. “UNDERSTANDING AZTEC CANNIBALISM.” Archiv Für Religionspsychologie / Archive for the Psychology of Religion 26 (2004): 1-14. Web.
Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
History.com Staff. “Aztecs.” History, A+E Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/aztecs. Accessed 4 Oct. 2016.
Pennock, Caroline Dodds. “Mass Murder or Religious Homicide? Rethinking Human Sacrifice and Interpersonal Violence in Aztec Society.” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung37.3 (141) (2012): 276-302. Web.