With the rise of new and deeply disturbing violent extremist movements across the face of the world in the past few years, some of which ritualize and glorify their violence in the form of high-definition recordings shared across the internet, social media, and messaging applications, there has been a renewed interest in the nature of human violence.
Violence has been a part of life since the beginning of humankind. As long as there have been cultural rituals, there has been a ritualization of violence. But in some cultures and times, violence – especially bloody, lethal violence and individual as well as collective sacrifice – was especially ritualized and “mainstreamed.” Historic accounts of these cultures and their traditions can be helpful when trying to understand what makes extremist groups such as ISIS tick and why they do the public and terrible things that they seem to revel in.
One such society that ritualized violence – in the form of human sacrifice – to an even more extreme and numerous extent, was the Aztec empire. Human sacrifice on a massive scale was a regular part of Aztec public life and rule, and it was a private practice as well – Aztec citizens would pierce themselves and spill their blood inside temples as an offering to the gods. There is little in known human history that can beat the ritual slaughter practiced by the Aztecs in honor of their gods, and one god especially – Huitzilopochtli.
As the god of sun and war, Huitzilopochtli (also known as Huatzilpochtli) already occupied an important place in the pantheon of the Aztec gods. It was a sign of Huitzilopochtli – an eagle devouring a snake upon a rock – that told Aztec priests where to found their new capital – the famous Tenochtitlan – after the long migration of the Aztec people from Aztlan, their legendary ancestral homeland, to the Valley of Mexico. Born from a bundle of hummingbird feathers that fell from the sky to earth, his nagual or animal form being that of an eagle, and wielding a “turquoise serpent” as a weapon, Huitzilopochtli was undoubtedly the god of warriors. As the god of the sun, Huitzilopochtli occupied a central role in Aztec cosmology – their world being that of a “fifth sun” that had come after four previous ones. The sun needed “nourishment” – tlaxcaltiliztli – or else it would disappear from the heavens forever. It was the duty of the Aztecs to wage a holy, spiritual war that would provide this special nourishment to the sun to keep it going. The tlaxcaltiliztli, of course, took the form of human sacrifice. This sacrifice could take many forms, with the most prestigious being dying in battle as well as being sacrificed in the main temples of the Aztecs. And as the Aztecs decided in the early 15th century, the more tlaxcalitilizlti, the better.
The year 1428 was when the imperial vizier, Tlacaelel, elevated Huitzilopochtli to the central position in Aztec mythology. This elevation coincided with Tlacaelel’s push to codify the Aztec religion, expand the state’s territory, and develop the military. Huitzilopochtli took on a role similar to Zeus – one of many gods, but indisputably their leader. Spanish conquistadors and priests recorded this tradition of human sacrifice, and its details were grim. Men, women, and children were taken by Aztecs in what were known as “Flower Wars” – campaigns consisting of ritualistic battles where warriors fought to injure, not kill, enemies on the battlefield – or as tribute from non-Aztec communities under the rule of Tenochtitlan. Throughout the 18-month year of the Aztec calendar, humans were sacrificed on a regular basis during the holy days of each month. These ritual holidays and celebrations sometimes lasted for several days. The “offerings” to Huitzilopochtli were taken to the top of the massive ‘Templo Mayor’ or ‘Major Temple’, two Aztec pyramids making up the main religious temple in Tenochtitlan (one of the pyramids was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the other to the rain god Tlaloc.) There, an Aztec priest plunged a razor-sharp obsidian knife into their chest, cutting them open, tearing out the still-beating heart, and offering it to the sun. Despite a ceremonious burning of white copal resin, ritual cannibalization – taking a bite out of the heart or eating it entirely – was not uncommon, as it was the most religiously charged and powerful part of the sacrifice. In many cases, other parts of the body, such as the thighs, would be removed and consumed by Aztec priests and nobles. In other locations, Spanish witnesses wrote of sacrificed prisoners of war and kidnapped enemy civilians having their rib-cages opened outwards, arms chopped off, and large parts of the thighs removed, with the torso placed on an idol or statue of a gof. At the Templo Mayor, the sacrificial victim would have their heart removed, after which they would be decapitated and skinned. Their body would be then be thrown down the steps to the base of the pyramid, where the Coyolxauhqui Stone lay. The stone, found in 1978 during archaeological excavations, shows Huitzilopochtli’s sister, Coyolxauhqui, being dismembered in the same way.
The Festival of Panquetzaliztli
The festival of Panquetzaliztli was when mass sacrifices of slaves and prisoners of war were carried out, but not before the sacrificial victims were painted in blue body paint and dressed up in Huitzilopochtli’s costume. Finally, there was a consecration (or reconsecration) of the Great Pyramid at Tenochtitlan when, over the course of four days, anywhere from 4,000 to 84,000 people were slaughtered to please Huitzilopochtli (the death count is dispute.) Even at the lower-end estimate of 4,000, that would still equate to roughly 1,000 people slaughtered every day for four days straight. The Aztecs were indeed a bloodthirsty culture, particularly in the waning days of their empire.
Why Would This Ever Take Place?
What was the point of such large-scale blood-lettings? Most rituals, even the most abstract and arcane, have certain systemic or environmental factors that played a role in their formation. Several theories have been proposed to explain Aztec human sacrifice. One theory was that the ritual cannibalization of the sacrificed was a way for the Inca elite to maintain a nutritious, balanced diet. A large and growing population that put pressure on food stocks and agriculture that focused on maize and other plant crops, with no domesticated herbivores, meant – so the theory went – that essential amino acids were lacking in a regular Aztec citizen’s diet. Sacrifices were one way for the elite, at least, to gain those amino acids. On the other hand, this theory has been challenged by the fact that meat was available from a large variety of different animals, including armadillos, fowls, weasels, and other animals that lived in the Aztec territories.
Another proposed theory was that human sacrifice simply played a central role in the social and cultural system of the Aztecs. Human sacrifices happened amidst a festive atmosphere, with music, troupes of dancers, carpets of flowers, feasts and banquets, thousands of spectators, and more. The victims themselves were honored, as those going to their deaths were doing so to appease the most important god the Aztecs had. Performing honorably in battle and taking captives was the only way to climb the Aztec social ladder and improve one’s standing in the societal hierarchy. These sacrifices were a way of establishing, publicly, the elevated positions of various successful warriors.
Finally, there was a wider social and political dimension to these sacrifices. Most of the humans that were sacrificed came from smaller societies that the Aztecs had subjugated. Since they were not people “of the sun,” their lives were not as valuable – so the logic went. The Aztec demand for live bodies to sacrifice was fulfilled by these smaller societies. Sacrifice was both a way of relieving food pressure caused by a rapidly growing imperial population as well as an instrument to control the smaller groups (chief among them the Tlaxcala people) that the Aztecs had conquered – using means of fear, submission, and demographic control through ritualized slaughter.
These subjugated societies were understandably furious about these practices. The Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes, were keen and quick to exploit this anger. The Tlaxcala, along with several other neighboring groups took up Cortes’ offer of an alliance against the Aztecs. They quickly converted to Christianity, a somewhat elegant and easy evolution seeing as Christ, too, was a sacrifice, but with the promise that after him there would be no need to sacrifice more sons and daughters to appease a hungry god. The Tlaxcala and other groups provided 250,000 troops for the siege and taking of Tenochtitlan by the Spanish, which, along with the religious changes brought about by the conquistadors and Christian priests, put a firm end to the organized Aztec religion and the central role of human sacrifice in it.
Even today, Huitzilopochtli’s emblem which told the Aztecs where to build their new capital is on the flag of Mexico – the image of an eagle eating a snake. The late-empire Aztecs were obsessed with death and apocalypse. The way that obsession expressed itself almost certainly contributed to their downfall as a state and society. But modern-day Mexico, too, is a violent place. And the methods of killing practiced by drug cartels and ISIS, as well as other extremist groups, can be compared to that practiced on the Templo Mayor and elsewhere for the glory of Huitzilopochtli. The killing of captives to cow enemies into submission. Public spectacles based on an apocalyptic ideology. The minority and elites controlling society through force. It seems as if Huitzilopochtli – and his demand for blood – has not disappeared anywhere after all, and has found and continues to find expression in other violent societies and movements.