Sacrifice was a common theme in the Aztec culture. In the Aztec “Legend of the Five Suns”, all the gods sacrificed themselves so that mankind could live.
Some years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, a body of the Franciscans confronted the remaining Aztec priesthood and demanded, under threat of death, that they desist from this traditional practice. The Aztec priests defended themselves as follows:
Life is because of the gods; with their sacrifice, they gave us life. … They produce our sustenance … which nourishes life.
What the Aztec priests were referring to was a cardinal Mesoamerican belief: that a great and continuing sacrifice by the gods sustains the Universe.
A strong sense of indebtedness was connected with this worldview. Indeed, nextlahualli (debt-payment) was a commonly used metaphor for human sacrifice, and, as Bernardino de Sahagún reported, it was said that the victim was someone who “gave his service”.
Both Sahagún and Toribio de Benavente observed that the Aztecs gladly parted with everything.
Even the “stage” for human sacrifice, the massive temple-pyramids, was an offering mound: crammed with the land’s finest art, treasure and victims, then buried underneath for the deities.
Human sacrifice also served another purpose in the expanding Aztec empire of the 15th and 16th century: intimidation.
The ritual killing of war captives and the large-scale displaying of skulls were visceral reminders of the strength of the empire and the extent of its dominion.
DNA tests of recovered victims from the Templo Mayor site show that the vast majority of those sacrificed were outsiders, likely enemy soldiers or slaves.
Across history and cultures, the rise of ritual human sacrifice often coincides with the emergence of complex societies and social stratification.
It’s a particularly effective method of intimidating rivals and keeping your own people in line.
Also, as hard as it is to imagine, many captured soldiers, slaves and Aztec citizens went willingly to the sacrificial altar.
To give your heart to Huitzilopochtli was a tremendous honor and a guaranteed ticket to a blessed afterlife fighting in the sun god’s army against the forces of darkness.
In addition to slicing out the hearts of victims and spilling their blood on the temple altar, it’s believed that the Aztecs also practiced a form of ritual cannibalism.
The victim’s bodies, after being relieved of their heads, were likely gifted to nobleman and other distinguished community members.
Sixteenth-century illustrations depict body parts being cooked in large pots and archeologists have identified telltale butcher marks on the bones of human remains in Aztec sites around Mexico City.
While it was long theorized that Aztecs only engaged in ritual cannibalism during times of famine, another explanation is that consuming the flesh of a person offered to the gods was like communing with the gods, themselves.