The Aztec Culture of Sacrifice

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The concept of sacrifice is a fundamental basis of almost every religion. However, its manifestation in the form of human sacrifice is both more controversial and, as a result, rarely studied by anthropologists today. As one scholar observes: "The modern social anthropologist does not best endear himself to the elite of the Third World by an obsessive interest in how great-grandfather shrunk the heads he hunted or in the quality of the wood needed to burn great-grandmother alive" (Davies, 1981, p.13). While one may question the sense of humour evident here - and even its implication of a racist subtext - it must be acknowledged that the role of human sacrifice in the history of religious practices is seldom addressed.

There exists, in general, two analytical approaches to the practice of human sacrifice: one seeing it as an analogue to cannibalism, and a means of the community ensuring a supply of animal protein, while the other perceives it as a cultural construct fostered by a violent society. This essay will argue, through an examination of the role of human sacrifice in the religious practices of the Aztec civilization, that human sacrifice should be interpreted primarily as a cultural activity that is firmly integrated into the signification and value system of the community as a whole.

Human Sacrifice (a) - Theory
To individuals operating within a modern, Western paradigm, the concept of human sacrifice is fundamentally repugnant. It may be this, more than any other factor, that accounts for the limited number of anthropological studies of the incidence of human sacrifice in the history of human religious practices. However, violence to the human body has historically been an integral part of religious practices, whether it be mass suicides, as in India; prolonged torture, as in Oceania, North America and Europe; ritualized cannibalism, as in Fiji; people being buried alive, as in ancient Ur and South America; or the dead being exhumed and devoured, as in New Guinea (Davies, 1981, p.199).

In terms of theoretical analyses of the specific practice of human sacrifice, there may be seen to be two general approaches. There are those anthropologists such as Michael Harner and Marvin Harris who seek an explanation for human sacrifice in the physical realm. They argue that what appears to be a religious ritual is actually a manifestation of cannibalism, and a means for a community to compensate for an absence of animal protein in their diets. As such, incidents of human sacrifice in religion may be seen as an exception rather than a cultural norm (Davies, 1981, 14).

On the other hand, there are those theorists who seek an explanation for human sacrifice in the rituals that accompany the act of sacrifice. Rene Girard and Walter Burkert argue that human sacrifice, in one form or another, is a common factor in almost every human religion. Girard, in his work Violence and the Sacred (1972) argued that human sacrifice exists as a part of religious rituals as a means of the community redirecting the socially disruptive forms of violence that are endemic to human cultures. The victim of the sacrifice becomes a surrogate for the group itself, and his/her killing purges the community of its violent tendencies ((Burkert, 1987, p.8).

The classic example of this practice in Western culture is the Hebrew ritual of scapegoating, where a goat was chosen to bear the sins of the community and exiled into the wilderness, while another goat was sacrificed. For a number of years, anthropologists identified analogues of "scapegoating" in many cultures; although this practice is perceived as an "outmoded anthropology" today (Burkert, 1987, p.74). However, variations on this practice of collective sacrifice of an individual for the good of the group have been noted in many cultures. The ancient Greek institution of the pharmakos ritual, for example, demonstrates that such practices are not found only in non-European...
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