How Important Was Human Sacrifice to the Aztecs?

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The Aztec empire is famous for many things – its thunderous conquest of Central America, its fascinating religion and culture, its enormous pyramid temples, its spontaneous demise, and much more.

One thing that’s been a subject of a lot of speculation over the years, however, is the ritual of human sacrifices. For centuries, this alleged practice had given the Aztec civilization a “black spot” of sorts. At the same time, many historians had claimed that the stories of human sacrifices and cannibalism are largely exaggerated as there was little physical proof left. After all, it’s logical for the Spanish conquistadors to be less-than-truthful about their enemies in the years after their conquest.

Recent archeological discoveries have shed a lot of light on the subject, however, and we now have a very good idea of the extent to which the Aztecs practiced human sacrifices.

Aztec Human Sacrifices – Myth or History?

Human sacrifice Aztec
Human Sacrifice depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano. Public Domain.

From everything we know today, the Aztecs truly practiced ritual human sacrifices on a massive scale. These weren’t just one-sacrifice-a-month-for-rain kind of ritual – the Aztecs would sacrifice thousands and tens of thousands of people all at once on specific occasions.

The ritual mostly centered around the victims’ hearts and blood as those were what the Aztec priests wanted to “gift” to the god of war Huitzilopochtli. After the deed was done, the priests would focus on the victims’ skulls. They were collected, the flesh was removed, and the skulls were used as ornaments in and around the temple complex. The rest of the victim’s body was typically rolled down the temple’s stairs and then discarded in mass graves outside the city.

However, there were other types of sacrifices too, depending on the month and the deity. Some rituals included burning, others incorporated drowning, and some were even done by starving the victims in a cave.

The biggest temple and sacrificial sight we know of today was the capital of the Aztec empire – the city of Tenochtitlan in Lake Texcoco. Modern-day Mexico City is built over the ruins of Tenochtitlan. However, as most of Tenochtitlan was leveled by the Spanish, archeologists and historians have had a hard time proving the exact scale of the human sacrifices practiced by the Aztecs.

Recent excavations in 2015 and 2018 managed to unearth large parts of the Templo Mayor temple complex, however, and we now know that the Spanish conquistadors were (mostly) telling the truth.

How Accurate Were the Reports of The Conquistadors?

Skull rack
The skull rack, or tzompantli, of the Great Temple

When Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors entered the city of Tenochtitlan, they were reportedly horrified by the sight that welcomed them. The Aztecs were in the middle of a large sacrificial ceremony and thousands of human bodies were rolling down the temple as the Spanish approached it.

The Spanish soldiers talked about tzompantli – a giant rack of skulls built in front of the Templo Mayor temple. According to reports, the rack was made from over 130,000 skulls. The rack was also supported by two wide columns made of older skulls and mortar.

For years, historians doubted the reports of the conquistadors as exaggerations. While we knew that human sacrifices were a thing in the Aztec empire, the sheer scale of the reports seemed impossible. The much more likely explanation was that the Spanish were overinflating the numbers in order to demonize the local population and justify its enslavement.

And while nothing justifies the acts of the Spanish conquistadors – their reports were indeed proven to be correct in 2015 and 2018. Not only have large parts of Templo Mayor been discovered, but so has the tzompantli skull rack and the two towers made of mortal remains near it.

Of course, some of the reports may still have been somewhat exaggerated. For example, the Spanish historian Fray Diego de Durán claimed that the latest expansion of the Templo Mayor was celebrated by the mass sacrifice of 80,400 men, women, and children. However, other reports claim that the number was closer to 20,000 or as “few” as 4,000 over a four-day ceremony. The latter numbers are undoubtedly much more believable, yet, at the same time – still incredibly horrifying.

Who Were the Aztecs Sacrificing?

By far the most common “target” for human sacrifices in the Aztec empire were prisoners of war. These were almost always adult men who were captured in battle from other Mesoamerican tribes.

In fact, according to Diego Durán’s History of the Indies of New Spain the Triple Alliance of the cities Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan (known as the Aztec empire) used to fight Flower Wars against their most prominent opponents from the cities of Tlaxcala, Huexotzingo, and Cholula.

These Flower Wars were fought like any other battle but with mostly non-lethal weapons. While the traditional Aztec weapon of war was the macuahuitl – a wooden club with multiple sharp obsidian blades on its periphery – during the Flower Wars, the warriors would remove the obsidian blades. Instead of killing their opponents, they would try to incapacitate and capture them. This way, they would have even more captives for human sacrifices later on.

Once captured, an Aztec warrior would often be held in captivity for weeks or even months, waiting for the appropriate holiday to be sacrificed. In fact, many reports claim that most captives not just accepted their imminent sacrifice but rejoiced in it as they shared the same religious views as their captors. Supposedly, captives from Mesoamerican tribes that didn’t share the Aztec religion were less thrilled about being sacrificed.

Women and children were also sacrificed but usually on a much smaller scale. While most sacrifices of captives were dedicated to the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli, some were dedicated to other deities too – those sacrifices would often include boys, girls, and maids as well. These were usually single-person sacrifices, however, and not mass events.

Deciding who would be sacrificed was largely dictated by the month of the year and the god to which the month was dedicated. As far as historians can tell, the calendar looked like this:

MonthDeityType of sacrifice
Atlacacauallo – February 2 to Feb 21Tláloc, Chalchitlicue, and EhécatlCaptives and sometimes children, sacrificed by extraction of the heart
Tlacaxipehualiztli – February 22 to March 13Xipe Tótec, Huitzilopochtli, and Tequitzin-MayáhuelCaptives and gladiatorial fighters. Flaying was involved with the removal of the heart
Tozoztontli – March 14 to April 2Coatlicue, Tlaloc, Chalchitlicue, and TonaCaptives and sometimes children – removal of the heart
Hueytozoztli – April 3 to April 22Cintéotl, Chicomecacóatl, Tlaloc, and QuetzalcoatlA boy, girl, or maid
Toxcatl – April 23 to May 12Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, Tlacahuepan, and CuexcotzinCaptives, removal of the heart and decapitation
Etzalcualiztli – May 13 to June 1Tláloc and QuetzalcoatlCaptives, sacrificed by drowning and extraction of the heart
Tecuilhuitontli – June 2 to June 21Huixtocihuatl and XochipilliCaptives, removal of the heart
Hueytecuihutli – June 22 to July 11Xilonen, Quilaztli-Cihacóatl, Ehécatl, and ChicomelcóatlDecapitation of a woman
Tlaxochimaco – July 12 to July 31Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, and MictlantecuhtliStarvation in a cave or temple room, followed by ritual cannibalism
Xocotlhuetzin – August 1 to August 20Xiuhtecuhtli, Ixcozauhqui, Otontecuhtli, Chiconquiáhitl, Cuahtlaxayauh, Coyolintáhuatl, and ChalmecacíhuatlBurning alive
Ochpaniztli – August 21 to September 9Toci, Teteoinan, Chimelcóatl-Chalchiuhcíhuatl, Atlatonin, Atlauhaco, Chiconquiáuitl, and CintéotlDecapitation and skinning of a young woman. Also, captives were sacrificed by being thrown from a great height
Teoleco – September 10 to Semtember 29Xochiquétzal  Burning alive
Tepeihuitl – September 30 to October 19Tláloc-Napatecuhtli, Matlalcueye, Xochitécatl, Mayáhuel, Milnáhuatl, Napatecuhtli, Chicomecóatl, and XochiquétzalSacrifices of children and two noble women – removal of the heart, flaying
Quecholli – October 20 to November 8Mixcóatl-Tlamatzincatl, Coatlicue, Izquitécatl, Yoztlamiyáhual, and HuitznahuasCaptives sacrificed by bludgeoning and removal of the heart
Panquetzaliztli – November 9 to November 28HuitzilopochtliCaptives and slaves were sacrificed in massive numbers
Atemoztli – November 29 to December 18Tlaloques       Children and slaves decapitated
Tititl – December 19 to January 7Tona-Cozcamiauh, Ilamatecuhtli, Yacatecuhtli, and HuitzilncuátecExtraction of the heart of a woman and decapitation (in that order)
Izcalli – January 8 to January 27Ixozauhqui-Xiuhtecuhtli, Cihuatontli, and NancotlaceuhquiCaptives and their women
Nemontemi – January 28 to February 1The last 5 days of the year, dedicated to no deityFasting and no sacrifices

Why Would the Aztec Sacrifice People?

Human sacrifices to commemorate the expansion of a temple or the crowning of a new emperor can be viewed as “understandable” to a certain extent – other cultures have done things like that too, including in Europe and Asia.

The sacrifices of prisoners of wars can also be comprehended, as it can boost the morale of the local population, while demoralizing the opposition.

However, why did the Aztecs perform human sacrifices every month, including sacrifices of women and children? Was the religious fervor of the Aztecs so fiery that they would burn kids and noble women alive for a simple holiday?

In a word – yes.

Helping God Huitzilopochtli Save The World

Huitzilopochtli human
Huitzilopochtli – Codex Telleriano-Remensis. PD.

The Aztec religion and cosmology are centered around their Creation Myth and Huitzilopochtli – the Aztec god of war and the Sun. According to the Aztecs, Huitzilopochtli was the last child of the Earth goddess Coatlicue. When she was pregnant with him, her other children, the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui and the many male gods Centzon Huitznáua (Four Hundred Southerners) grew angry with Coatlicue and tried to kill her.

Huitzilopochtli birthed himself prematurely and fully armored and chased his brothers and sisters away. According to the Aztecs, Huitzilopochtli/the Sun continues to protect Coatlicue/the Earth by chasing the moon and the stars away. However, if Huitzilopochtli ever grows weak, his brothers and sister will attack and defeat him, and then destroy the world.

In fact, the Aztec believed that this has already happened four times and the universe has been created and recreated a total of five times. So, if they don’t want their world to be destroyed again, they need to feed Huitzilopochtli with human blood and hearts so that he’s strong and can protect them. The Aztec believed that the world is based on a 52-year cycle, and every 52nd year, there is a risk that Huitzilopochtli will lose his celestial battle if he hasn’t eaten enough human hearts in the meantime.

That’s why, even the captives themselves were often glad to be sacrificed – they believed that their death would help save the world. The biggest mass sacrifices were almost always done in Huitzilopochtli’s name while most smaller “events” were dedicated to other gods. In fact, even the sacrifices to other deities were still partly dedicated to Huitzilopochtli too because the largest temple at Tenochtitlan, Templo Mayor, was itself dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tláloc.

Cannibalism in Honor of God Mictlantecuhtli

Another major god the Aztecs honored with ritual human sacrifices more often than other gods was Mictlantecuhtli. He was the Aztec god of death and the ruler of one of the three major afterlives.

Sacrifices to him didn’t serve the same cosmological purpose as those made to Huitzilopochtli nor was Mictlantecuhtli viewed as a benevolent deity. However, as death is a major part of life, especially the way the Aztecs viewed it, they still had great reverence for Mictlantecuhtli.

For the Aztecs, death was not just a part of life but a part of rebirth too. The Aztec myth about the creation of human life on Earth included the Feather Serpent god Quetzalcoatl going to Mictlan, the land of the dead, to gather human bones from Mictlantecuhtli. Those bones were of people who had lived in the previous world that got destroyed once Huitzilopochtli grew too weak to defend it.

So, the deaths of people from previous generations served to seed life in the world once more. Unfortunately, this tale made the Aztecs even more eager to sacrifice people in Mictlantecuhtli’s name. Not only that, but Mictlantecuhtli’s ritual sacrifices also included ritual cannibalism too.

While this may sound gory to us today, to the Aztecs this was a great honor, and they would likely have seen nothing abnormal about it. In fact, it’s possible that to the Aztecs, partaking of the body of a sacrificial victim who had been offered to the gods was like communing with the gods.

Child Sacrifice for the Rain God Tlaloc

The god of rain, water, and fertility, Tlaloc was an important god for the Aztecs as he met their basic needs. They feared Tlaloc, who they believed would become angry if he wasn’t worshipped properly. If he wasn’t appeased, the Aztecs believed that there would be droughts, crops would fail, and disease would come to the villages.

The child sacrifices offered to Tlaloc were uncommonly cruel. It was believed that Tlaloc needed the tears of children as part of the sacrifice. Due to this, young children would be subject to terrible torture, pain, and injury during the sacrifice. Remains found today at Templo Mayor show at least 42 children had been sacrificed to the rain god. Many show signs of injuries before death.

Human Sacrifice and The Rise and Fall of The Aztec Empire

The Aztec religion and tradition of human sacrifices weren’t just a quirk of their culture. Instead, they were strongly intertwined with the Aztec way of life and the rapid expansion of their empire. Without this tradition, an argument can be made that the Aztec empire would never have expanded as much as it did during the 15th century. At the same time, it can also be assumed that the empire wouldn’t have crumbled so easily to the Spanish conquistadors without this tradition.

A Lightning-Fast Expansion

The tradition of mass human sacrifices didn’t just serve to “feed” the sun god Huitzilopochtli – it was also instrumental to the rise of the “Triple Alliance” Aztec empire. The way the Aztec conquest of Mesoamerica worked was that they sacrificed their prisoners of war but they left the conquered cities to govern themselves as vassal states of the Triple Alliance.

Left with no army, with a mortifying terror of the might of the empire, and gratitude at being spared, most conquered tribes and states remained as permanent and willing parts of the empire.

This very practical “side effect” of the Huitzilopochtli Creation Myth has led historians to speculate that the god of war was elevated to his position as the main deity in the Aztec pantheon on purpose.

What’s more, the war god wasn’t that major of a deity when the Aztecs first migrated south into the Valley of Mexico. Instead, he was a minor tribal god. However, during the 15th century, the Aztec tlacochcalcatl (or general) Tlacaelel I elevated Huitzilopochtli into a major deity. His suggestion was accepted by his father emperor Huitzilihuitl and his uncle and next emperor Itzcoatl, making Tlacaelel I the principal “architect” of the Aztec empire.

With the Huitzilopochtli cult firmly established in the Triple Alliance, the Aztec’s conquest over the Valley of Mexico suddenly became much faster and more successful than it was previously.

An Even Faster Demise

Like most other empires, the reason for the Aztecs’ success was also a part of their downfall. The cult of Huitzilopochtli was effective militarily only as long as the Triple Alliance was the dominant force in the region.

Once the Spanish conquistadors entered the picture, however, the Aztec empire found itself lacking in not just military technology but also in the loyalty of its vassal states. Many of the subjects of the Triple Alliance as well as its few remaining enemies saw the Spanish as a way to tear down the rule of Tenochtitlan and, therefore, aided the Spanish instead of following the Triple Alliance.

Additionally, one can only wonder how much mightier the Aztec empire could have been if it hadn’t sacrificed hundreds of thousands of people over the years.

In Brief

Human sacrifice had been common in Mesoamerican cultures since ancient times, and even before the Aztecs formed their formidable empire. However, we don’t know much about human sacrifices in other Mesoamerican cultures, and to what extent this was practiced.

However, the records left by the Spanish conquistadors and recent excavations have proven that to the Aztecs, human sacrifice was a part of everyday life. It was an essential aspect of their religion and resulted in the sacrifice of not just prisoners of war, but members of their own population.

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