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The Aztecs Sacrificed Humans to Repay Gods, and Other Reasons

Why did the Aztecs sacrifice humans to the gods? Learn more about what this ritual served, along with other purposes.

By Joshua Rapp Learn
May 9, 2024 6:00 PM
Skull Rack at The Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City
The stone skulls at the ruins of the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan represent the victims of human sacrifice. (Credit: Sailingstone Travel/Shutterstock)


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The traditional accounts of Aztec sacrifice are almost too gory to be true. In them, Aztec priests cut beating hearts from the chests of sacrificial victims before throwing them down the steep steps of pyramids. It is the most terrible and frightful thing,” an account from 1519 stated, shortly after the Spanish arrival in Mesoamerica.

But the Aztecs, or Mexica, whose empire controlled most of central Mexico in the 15th century, didn’t see sacrifice as quite so startling, nor as quite so simple. In fact, it wasn’t always what it was made out to be by the Spanish, who sensationalized sacrifice as an excuse for conquest, says Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at the University of California Riverside.

In truth, there were many motivations for the practice, and many methods for its accomplishment. Human sacrifice was undertaken on small, local levels (sometimes involving single individuals) and in large, state-sponsored events (sometimes involving thousands).

Sometimes there were spiritual motivations at play, and sometimes there were social and political ones. But most often, it was not deadly or even dangerous, as Aztec priests and others practiced sacrifice by parting with small amounts of their own blood.

“Sacrifice shouldn’t be understood as a single phenomenon,” Sugiyama says, though it still formed important part of the Aztec world view.

Read More: The Maya Civilization's Religion Was More Than Just Ritual Sacrifices

The Aztecs and Human Sacrifice

At its core, Aztec sacrifice was the act of offering gifts to the gods in the form of blood. As such, its performance was intrinsically rooted in Aztec religion. The Mexica believed that humans had to give back to the gods, who had sacrificed themselves to create the current cycle of the world. But while godly sacrifice had created the current world, it was human sacrifice that maintained it.

Fighting the moon and stars, the Mexica god Huitzilopochtli could only move the sun across the sky with the force of human blood, says Frances Berdan, an archaeologist at California State University, San Bernadino. “This nourished him as he fought off the powerful forces of the night,” she says, recounting one of the many Aztec myths about sacrifice.

“It has to do with a relationship, a reciprocity with these animating forces,” Sugiyama says. “It’s part of a debt repayment.” But this wasn’t the Aztecs’ sole motivation, as orchestrating sacrifices could also increase an individual’s social standing and political power.

Read More: Does the Grand Civilization of the Inca Empire Still Exist Today?

Origins of Human Sacrifice

Of course, whether spiritual, social, or political in nature, the Aztec traditions of sacrifice didn’t come out of nowhere. There were numerous cultural precedents for human sacrifice throughout Mesoamerica: Everyone from the Maya to the Toltecs of Tula practiced some form of it.

Archaeologists say that traditions of Aztec sacrifice likely trace back to the city of Teotihuacan, at least in part, which sat about 30 miles to the northeast of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Teotihuacan had been abandoned for centuries by the time the Aztecs began building their capital and its central temple, the Templo Mayor, but the city still influenced the Aztecs.

In fact, the name Teotihuacan is an Aztec one, meaning “the place where gods were created,” as the Aztecs believed Teotihuacan was where the current cycle of the world began. Archaeologists still don’t know what its original inhabitants called it, knowing it only through the Mexica term.

Certainly, some of what the Aztecs thought about Teotihuacan and other cultural predecessors was based on their own practices. But archaeologists have found evidence of mass human sacrifices with some similarities to those of the Aztecs in Teotihuacan, albeit not to the scale found in Tenochtitlan, suggesting that the tradition may have left an impression.

Read More: Who Built Teotihuacan, One of the Largest and Most Impressive Ancient Cities in Mesoamerica?

Who Was Sacrificed?

The type of sacrifice and of sacrificial victim depended on the occasion. Some mass sacrifices in Teotihuacan show signs of serving militaristic purposes, Sugiyama says. And the same is true in Tenochtitlan. Many sacrificial victims were captured through the Mexica war machine, and subsequently sacrificed on top of pyramids and temples, sometimes in a manner similar to that described by the Spanish. But this went two ways.

“Aztec warriors were likewise captured by their enemies in battle, and consequently sacrificed atop those peoples’ temples,” Berdan says.

While this type of sacrifice was widespread, its victims weren’t exactly fine with their fates. “It was not that they liked it,” Sugiyama says. “It was as terrorizing for them as it is for us.”

On a smaller scale, merchants and others would sacrifice slaves in public to increase their social status. But the most common form of sacrifice didn’t involve warriors or slaves or even death. While Aztec priests would let blood from their ears or other body parts, members of the public would sacrifice small amounts of blood at specific ritual ceremonies.

“The blood from these events was offered to one or another of the deities,” Berdan says.

Read More: How the Aztec Calendar Accounted for Leap Years

Massive Rituals

Though perhaps not the most common, the most prominent instances of sacrifice were those that occurred in massive, state-sponsored rituals. One such ritual took place in 1487, after an expansion of the Templo Mayor by the Aztec king Ahuitzotl. Some reports hold that 20,000 to 80,000 people were sacrificed at this ceremony.

“Even the lower number is probably exaggerated, simply considering the logistics of the sacrificial rituals,” Berden says. Nonetheless, both allies and enemies would have witnessed the killing of many captured warriors.

“This was a bald and intentional demonstration of Mexica power,” Berdan says, “with the end goal to intimidate them and inspire terror.”

Some state sponsored sacrifices also served to reinforce cultural beliefs, with some participants personifying gods before being sacrificed. The New Fire Ceremony, for instance, occurred every 52 years, when the 365-day solar calendar met with the ritual 260-day calendar.

During the celebration, victims’ hearts were removed, and fires were started in their chests. These flames were extremely important, because if they did not burn well, the Aztecs believed their world would end.

As in most other cases of human sacrifice, the New Fire Ceremony wasn’t merely intended to end lives.

“The Mexica (and others in Mesoamerica) believed that life and death were interwoven in an endless cycle,” Berdan says. “Human sacrifices contributed to this cycle, assuring life and sustenance.”

Read More: The Fall of the Aztec Empire: What Really Happened in the Battle of Tenochtitlan?

Article Sources:

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review them for accuracy and trustworthiness. Review the sources used below for this article:

Joshua Rapp Learn is an award-winning D.C.-based science writer. An expat Albertan, he contributes to a number of science publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, New Scientist, Hakai, and others.

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