The Death Obsession of the Aztec

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The Death Obsession of the Aztec

The ancient Aztec civilization, considered one of the greater empires to have ever existed, was a society rich in practice and belief. Death among the Aztec was an integral part of their culture, and one could say it ruled over many of their more deep-rooted beliefs. There are several points I will bring up in an attempt to educate and prove to the reader that this is quite evident in this great civilization’s history. To begin, I will develop a brief history of the Aztec to give the reader a better understanding of their culture. Then I will include several main points about the Aztec’s beliefs about death which I believe to be relevant, including the importance of human and blood sacrifices, the Aztec obsession with time, basic burial practices, and the Aztec concept of the afterlife.

The Aztec empire is believed to be the most influential and powerful Mesoamerican civilization of all time. This was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual realm that stretched for more than 80,000 square miles from central Mexico to what is now the present day Republic of Guatemala. The majority of the Aztec peoples spring from a relatively unknown group of settlers known as the Mexica, which, according to legend, moved from an island known as Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico during the 12th and 13th centuries A.D. Their increasing military strength by the 15th century A.D. made the Aztec a formidable force, and their capital city, Tenochtitlán, prospered indefinitely. At what could have been the height of their civilization, around the 16th century A.D., the Aztec were conquered by Spanish conquistadors, the most famous being Hernando Cortez. The Spanish brought with them guns, diseases, and missionaries that basically wiped out the civilization and its practices.

The importance of religious rites and ceremonies in the ancient Aztec civilization were related to the various aspects and needs of life. The Aztec had many rituals that differed from place to place, but they all followed a basic structure that consisted of preparatory fasting, purification of the body, and offerings to deities—after which came blood and human sacrifices that were an act of major importance for the Aztec; for without death, there could not possibly be new life. It was widely believed by the Aztec that the gods gave things to human beings only if the gods were nourished by human beings, thus blood sacrifices by those of importance were very common and vital to Aztec life. Priests and people of status could practice blood-letting, but it was well known by the Aztec that a living heart sacrificed to the gods was the best way to cater to their needs. The Aztec were always in search of sacrificial victims, and this lead to widespread wars of conquest to capture them. Some sacrifices were very minimal, but some were great events in which hundred or even thousands of war captives were sacrificed. Sacrificing was a strict system, and was always performed in the same way according to the type of sacrifice offered. Most commonly, the victim was held down by four priests on a raised altar or pyramid while an officiant made an incision below the rib cage. The beating heart was then removed and burned, and the corpse of the victim was pushed or carried down the steps of the temple, depending on their courage or nobility; the more noble the victim, the more respect was given, and many times, the more brutal the sacrificial method. There were even more brutal types of sacrifice, most notedly those to Huehueteotl, the god of fire. Victims were first drugged, most likely with a hallucinogen, and then thrown into a fire. Before they were consumed and killed by it, they were pulled from it by hooks and the living heart was removed and thrown back into the fire. Although human sacrifice is one of the more dramatic and appalling elements of the Aztec culture, it was seen by them as a way to influence the balance of the universe. It...
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