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Human Sacrifice: Why the Aztecs Practiced This Gory Ritual

October 11, 2018 in History

By Dave Roos

In addition to slicing out the hearts of victims and spilling their blood on temple altars, the Aztecs likely also practiced a form of ritual cannibalism.


An Atztec human sacrifice atop the Mesoamerican temple pyramid.

When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1521, they described witnessing a grisly ceremony. Aztec priests, using razor-sharp obsidian blades, sliced open the chests of sacrificial victims and offered their still-beating hearts to the gods. They then tossed the victims’ lifeless bodies down the steps of the towering Templo Mayor.

Andrés de Tapia, a conquistador, described two rounded towers flanking the Templo Mayor made entirely of human skulls, and between them, a towering wooden rack displaying thousands more skulls with bored holes on either side to allow the skulls to slide onto the wooden poles.

Aztec Encounter (TV-PG; 1:28)

Reading these accounts hundreds of years later, many historians dismissed the 16th-century reports as wildly exaggerated propaganda meant to justify the murder of Aztec emperor Moctezuma, the ruthless destruction of Tenochtitlán and the enslavement of its people. But in 2015 and 2018, archeologists working at the Templo Mayor excavation site in Mexico City discovered proof of widespread human sacrifice among the Aztecs—none other than the very skull towers and skull racks that conquistadors had described in their accounts.

While it’s true that the Spanish undoubtedly inflated their figures—Spanish historian Fray Diego de Durán reported that 80,400 men, women and children were sacrificed for the inauguration of the Templo Mayor under a previous Aztec emperor—evidence is mounting that the gruesome scenes illustrated in Spanish texts, and preserved in temple murals and stone carvings, are true. Why did they carry out such brutal ceremonies? John Verano, an anthropology professor at Tulane University, explains the practice held spiritual significance for the Aztecs.

“It was a deeply serious and important thing for them,” says Verano. Large and small human sacrifices would be made throughout the year to coincide with important calendar dates, he explains, to dedicate temples, to reverse drought and famine, and more.

The rationale for Aztec human sacrifice was, first and foremost, a matter of survival. According to Aztec cosmology, the sun god Huitzilopochtli was waging a constant war against darkness, and if the darkness won, the world would end. The keep the sun moving across the sky and preserve their …read more

Source: HISTORY

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