Human Sacrifice: Mayans vs Aztecs
by Jade Adkins, Madison Perry, Ann Marie Stieglitz
The term “human sacrifice” often has modern cultural connotations associated with it as an ancient practice performed by “uncivilized societies”. However, in order to understand these societies, it’s important to look past the modern viewpoint and more at the specifics of the ritual itself. By examining the remains of the sacrificial victims, one can better understand how the Aztec and Mayan empires understood the human body and what they deemed important about the body itself. Within the Aztec empire, those sacrificed were often done so while they were still alive; the priest performing the ritual would slice open their chest and remove their heart, oftentimes showing the still alive sacrifice their own heart before they died . The body was then moved to another ritual space where it would be placed on a table face-up. The priest would take an extremely sharp obsidian blade and make an incision in the back of the neck that would decapitate the victim. The Aztecs had studied the human body, so the incision was made precisely between two vertebrae, which made the decapitation fairly quick. The priests would then remove the skin and muscle of the face, then take the leftover skull and carve two holes in the sides before placing it on a wooden stick. Typically, the body was disposed of by being thrown down the temple stairs and dismembered; in general, the body was of little importance. These skulls were places in Tenochtitlan’s tzompantli, which was a rack of skulls that was placed in front of the Templo Mayor .
Skulls removed from the tower near the tzompantli 
In a bone analysis of over 200 skulls from the tzompantli tower, it was found that over 75% were men between 20-35, which at that time was “prime warrior age”. The remaining 25% belonged to women and children, with women making up 20% of the skulls and children 5% . The diversity in ages and gender falls in line with the Spanish claim that people were sold in markets for the purpose of a later sacrifice . The technicality behind this ritual is important for understanding how it fits into society as a whole. The priests had studied the human body enough to identify the necessary locations that cuts had to be made in order to have the process go as smoothly as possible. Furthermore, to be picked as a sacrifice was a great honor in Aztec society, as they believed that those who died via sacrifice went to a greater paradise after death. Not all victims of the sacrifice were willing, but a large number of Aztecs volunteered to be part of the process . This makes the ethics of their sacrifice, which will be discussed in greater detail further down, more complicated.
In addition to human sacrifices, evidence of cannibalism has been found in the Aztec empire. However, the overall extent and frequency of the practice have been debated among researchers. In one study conducted in Tenochtitlan, 140 burials were found, as well as those skulls that were placed on the wood stick. In studying 100 skulls, scientists found that those sacrificed were between 18 and 40 years old, with 43 female and 57 male. There does not seem to be an age discrimination or gender preference; victims appear to be random. When analyzing the remains, they were found to have been placed over a constructed patio with a fire on top, typically “mixed with animal bones, potsherds, and red pigment” . However, the precise dates and overall food availability is unknown in reference to the area where the study was conducted. Therefore, the function of the cannibalism–either out of necessity, or due to starvation or another ritualistic purpose–is unknown. One study claims that human sacrifice and cannibalism can be explained not as “population pressure and famine” but rather as a way to commune with gods. Aztecs received large quantities of food tributes and that, coupled with the extensive farming that the Aztecs engaged in, should have provided enough food so that no one was starving . Additionally, they had protein sources available in the form of animals and insects that were regularly consumed, and so did not need to revert to cannibalism to stay alive. Therefore, the function was interpreted to be ritualistic in nature . However, another study directly contradicts this claim, and instead claims that cannibalism was part of the diet of those upper-class wealthy Aztec citizens because their diet was lacking in necessary proteins for survival . In conclusion, the exact function and purpose of cannibalism in Aztec societies are not agreed upon in the scientific community, and further studies would need to be conducted to determine its exact purpose.
Mayan human sacrifice rituals were actually influenced by the Aztecs, particularly the removal of the heart. However, they also used methods like decapitation and arrow sacrifice as well . Additionally, in contrast to Aztecs, Mayans thought of blood as the ultimate offering, rather than the heart. Their choice of the victim also differed as they tended to be prisoners of war; however, not just any prisoner could be chosen, only ones that had the highest status . However, the greatest contrast between the sacrifices of Mayan and Aztecs was that Mayans would torture the sacrificial victim before the act itself took place. The victim would be tied down, and once the heart was removed, it would be handed to a secondary priest called the “Chilan”. The body was then thrown down the temple steps. It would then be skinned and then worn by the “Chilan” while a sacrificial dance was performed .
Mayan depiction of a sacrifice 
It is interesting that these two cultures had different belief systems but that their methods of sacrificial dismemberment, as well as what parts of the body they deemed most important, overlapped. This is most reflective of the scientific understanding of the body during this time period, which viewed the heart as the source of life and the key to most sacrifices. Additionally, the heart remains the cornerstone of human life and suggests a great understanding of the human anatomy during a time period that had very little in the way of scientific tools or equipment . This idea is further supported by a case study attempting to replicate sacrificial methods used by Mayans on human cadavers. The method typically used involved vivisection across the abdomen before the heart was pulled out from under the rib cage instead of going through it. This was also typically done while the victim was still alive and struggling. The process would most likely have taken 8 to 10 minutes . Rudimentary human anatomical knowledge could not have done the ritual as efficiently, and so priests performing the rituals would have needed to undergo some kind of training. The time and effort put into these rituals displays their importance in these societies.
In contrast to the rack of skulls that the Aztecs created to display their sacrifices, Mayans would dispose of the bodies in graves with no indication of their ritualistic death. In a study of one such grave, 5 bodies were found, one infant around the age of 3, one young adult around the age of 15 and 3 other adults, one female, another most likely male, with the third unidentified. Analysis of the skeletal remains indicates the bodies were butchered, stabbed, dismembered, flayed and exposed to heat. This further corroborated their death in a ritual as they were most likely tortured before their death. However, by the overall lack of regard to the victim, it seems that their purpose in the ritual is the act itself and whatever obtained, blood or the heart, was of the most importance and the body just served as a vessel for the act .
While it seems that cannibalism served some role in the Aztec empire, there is no such mention of evidence that it occurred in the Mayan empire. Instead, it seems that bloodletting became somewhat analogous to cannibalism in the Aztec empire. Mayan nobles would pierce their “genitals, lips, ears, or tongue” and collect the blood on bark paper and then burn it . Additionally, Mayans used stingray spines in these bloodletting rituals, which typically would release toxins into the body, causing paralysis as well as tissue death. By losing quantities of blood, paired with an injection of the stingray venom, the resulting psychoanalytical effect would be what they considered opening a door between themselves and the gods they worshiped. Symptoms of stingray venom also include intense pain in the limb where the sting occured . This, too, falls in line with their rituals as victims of sacrifice were typically tortured before their death. This suggests that pain was key in their understanding of communication between themselves and their gods but also that it was a necessary experience. By using a venomous agent, it suggests a degree of forethought into their discovery of something that would induce necessary symptoms without killing them.
It may be concluded that through extensive practice and medical knowledge the act of human sacrifice was practiced with a great degree of scientific knowledge. These cultures did not act with wild passion, randomly stabbing until the heart was removed, but instead studied the human body and were able to remove the heart with efficiency as well as with accuracy. Their goals overlapped in using parts of the human body and the human experience to communicate with what they believed to be a higher being.
It is hard to imagine that the practice of human sacrifice could be condoned by any of the major religions that are represented heavily in the populations of the world today. However, just as Muslims practice a call to prayer and Christians tithe, the Mayans and the Aztecs sacrificed life as an offering to their gods. These two Mesoamerican cultures made the ultimate sacrifice in order to repay the gods for their creation as well as the creation of the world around them.
There are two common origin stories within Aztec mythology that detail the root of human sacrifice and the the reason why they practiced it in order to appease their gods. The gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca took apart a great reptilian monster named Cipactli, and with its body parts they were able to create the Earth and the sky, with the rest of the world created by their own body parts. In order to keep the spirit of Cipactli at bay, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca promised the sacrifice of human hearts and blood. Another common tale to explain human sacrifice also stems from mythological roots as the story of the god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who used stolen bones from the Underworld to create the human race. Consequently, human sacrifices ensued as an apology of their creation to the Gods. Both of these stories explain a cosmology for human sacrifice.
Similarly, the Mayans believed that human sacrifice would appease the gods and that if this practice was not carried out, the world would cease to exist. In their ritual practice of human sacrifice, they often sacrificed humans at their capital in Tenochtitlan, at the the top of the Templo Mayor, to create a dramatic display. While these practices were for religious purposes, they also played a role in Mayan rule and the conquering of surrounding areas. This symbiotic relationship of religion and rule was created in order to keep the Mayan people attentive to the needs of the ruling class of citizens who controlled their knowledge of these human sacrificial practices. For the Mayans, momentous events such as a dedication to a new ruler or even a new building required the task of human sacrifice, through which the aid of the gods would bestow luck upon the new ruler and any buildings constructed would be beneficial for their society.
Though human sacrifice seems to largely benefit the religious side of both the Mayan and Aztec cultures, this practice was also used for political intimidation in order to induce fear within their enemies. For instance, the Aztecs were engaged in the Xochiyaoyotl, or Flowery Wars, from 1450-1519. These wars were not the traditional wars we think of today. In times of peace between warring kingdoms, the Aztecs would often make a theatrical display of human sacrifice on the great altar of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs would sacrifice their enemies in order to “bewilder them, fill them with fear,” and instill the idea of dominance as the invited leaders of other kingdoms bore witness . Similarly, within the culture of the Mayans, human sacrifice became a double-edged sword, through its power to cause intimidation and subjugation which kept the Mayan society’s political elite above the rest of the ordinary citizens. Not only was human sacrifice incorporated into religious and political life, but it reached further into the daily llife of Mayan society at the hands of the “ballgame.”
The ballgame, which was played by only Mayan men, was “an expression for Maya ideology and group solidarity” that influenced human sacrifice, often presenting the severed heads of decapitated human sacrifice victims on the ball courts they were played in . Often times the ball players were sacrificed, which “ensured the continuation of Mayan cosmology” by continually perpetuating the idea of plentiful agricultural yields . The ballgame also has ties to Mayan mythology, as the “mythic Hero Twins” would engage in this ballgame with the lords of the underworld. Through this development, the ballgame forever created a connection with ritualistic practices of Mayan culture, such as human sacrifice.
Both cultures had similarities between their religious and political motivations that kept human sacrifice a viable practice within their own societies. Subsequently, through their mythological cosmologies of being and political motivations of expansion and power, the Mayans and Aztecs continued their practices for the benefit of their society and the continuation of power of their social and political elite.
The Aztecs were particularly ruthless in their ritual sacrifice of men, women, and children, though reports of the specifics were most likely exaggerated by their authors, namely the Spaniards during the Spanish Conquest . Non-human sacrifice also took place, in the form of burning tobacco or incense, offering other animals, or giving of food or precious items. Still, the large presence of human sacrifice cannot be understated. Many sacrificed people were the “god impersonators”, who “were dressed as a particular god before the sacrifice” and sometimes were even “treated like royalty … prior to the sacrificial ceremony” before their brutal execution .
Could any of this be considered ethical? To the Aztecs, it absolutely was: the god of the sun and war, Huitzilopochtli, “had to be well-nourished, vigorous, and healthy … in order for life to continue” . As Huitzilopochtli’s “major source of sustenance was human blood, human sacrifice was a necessary part of religious rites and the securing of victims through warfare an important function of the Empire” . From the standpoint of least harm or utilitarianism, protecting the entire civilization, or even the entire world, by returning a few people to the gods seems like a fair trade. In addition, in some cases suffering was minimized in the time leading up to the sacrifice. However, waging war on neighboring empires to steal people for sacrifice blatantly violates the victims’ autonomy and is incredibly unjust. By modern standards of ethics, there is no way to justify the actions of the ancient Aztecs.
What about the Mayans, then? According to Christopher Morehart and Noah Butler, “in ancient Maya society … the notion of the sacred invokes enduring obligations to spiritual entities” . Sacrifice was expected of the Mayans as repayment of “an original debt established by their forebears, one they are compelled to maintain across generations … commonly in the form of the sacrifice of the products of social reproduction” . The Mayans had perpetual obligations to their deities, with the two groups connected in a “sacred covenant” not unlike ones found in other Mesoamerican settlements. Due to this covenant, “the sacred appears, then, not simply as an attribute or category, but also as a structured relationship, described as a reciprocal transaction, a quid pro quo relationship, or a debt” . Morehart and Butler add, though, that “unlike debts among humans … this obligation … never can be repaid in full”, hence the continual sacrifice of humans to the deities. As stated in discussion of the Aztecs, from the point of view of several principles of ethics, there is nothing wrong with this ritual of thanksgiving, but from another this may be perceived as a monstrous display of evil.
Ultimately, the ethics of a civilization and what they consider ‘ethical’ are based on their religious beliefs. To the Mayans and Aztecs, it was perfectly ethical to sacrifice people to the gods. Giving a few members of their civilization back to the gods was a small price to pay in thanksgiving for the lives of the entire civilization. To modern-day scholars and casual observers, this may be considered shocking, horrid, and even inhuman, but this should not color the discussion of their respective religious and ethical practices. How ethical or unethical the practices of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans were cannot be judged according to our modern standards, because those standards are completely irrelevant. They were not present in these ancient societies, and so no decisions were made with them taken into consideration. We tend to judge their actions from our position far in the future and, while this is hard to avoid, it is not conducive to good scholarship. In today’s world, where suffering is viewed as something to be avoided and eliminated, there is present “the assumption that we know suffering well enough in these cases that we don’t need to know anything else about it before either making appropriate judgements about whether it can or should be tolerated, or forming appropriate politics as a response” . We as outsiders pass judgement on the suffering of others, which ignores the larger reality of those suffering. Our perspective as those who “know better” should be minimized, and we should try and place ourselves in the ancient culture which we are studying in order to better understand and, if we must, judge.
Do we have the right to pass judgement on these civilizations past when human sacrifice is still alive in this day and age? It may look different, but “the practice is alive and well in modern society” and we are simply “trying hard not to notice it” . Sacrifice is “characterized … as involving the acceptance of a regrettable loss, a loss that ought to be regretted” . Human sacrifice, therefore, is an instance of “regrettable loss of human life”, and where does that occur in today’s world? War, for example. Both those serving in the Armed Forces and civilians caught in the crossfire are deemed acceptable casualties of war in order to achieve the desired outcome, whatever it may be. The Aztecs waging war in order to capture people for sacrifice was deemed vile and monstrous, but this is tolerated as just a part of modern warfare. The double standard in our judgement of human sacrifice highlights the tricky, liminal nature of the study of ethics. Whether the practice is ethical is up to context.
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