Violence in the Aztec Society

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Violence in the Aztec Society
Zachary A. Carter
A.P. World History

“The dismal drum of Huichilobos sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments. It was a terrifying sound, and when we looked at the tall cue (temple-pyramid) from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortes’ defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had haled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols we saw them put plums on the heads of many of them; and then they made them dance with a sort of fan in front of Huichilobos. Then after they had danced the papas (Aztec priests) laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them. Then they kicked the bodies down the steps, and the Indian butchers who were waiting below cut off their arms and legs and flayed their faces, which they afterwards prepared like glove leather, with their beards on, and kept for their drunken festivals. Then they ate their flesh with a sauce of peppers and tomatoes.” -Spanish Conquistador, Bernal Diaz (The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice by Michael Harner (1977:46-50))

The Aztecs were a tribe in central Mexico during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. They were located in Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, on an island in Lake Texcoco. The Aztec community was highly advanced for their time period in things such as architecture and mathematics. They developed a complex calendar, irrigation systems, exquisite art, advanced agriculture, canals used in transportation, chinampas (floating gardens), and were the first civilization to require their children to go to school. Yet, they were extremely violent and resorted to barbaric acts. It appears from the Spanish records and archaeological findings that the Aztecs were most definitely a violent society, but were they inherently violent or did they have rational reasons related to non-violence explaining their behavior?

The main reason scholars think that the Aztecs were seen as a malicious group was their ritual of human sacrificing. Spanish records of the Aztecs have been known to exaggerate their descriptions of human sacrificing but archaeological research done in 1960 and 1969 tends to support the conquistadores’ accounts. Headless human rib cages completely lacking the limb bones were found at Aztec sacrificial sites. Although these remains were found, many scholars perceive this as a religious act pertaining to the Aztec’s belief that humans must sacrifice that, which was most precious to them, life, in order to receive in return the sun, rain, and other blessings of the gods that make life possible. Ortiz de Montellano (1978,1990) attributed the Aztec practice of human sacrifice to their belief that the gods required it. He went on to say that the majority of human sacrifice during harvest periods indicated that it was “a gesture of thanks and reciprocity to the gods (1978:614).”

The Aztecs often went to war with their neighbors to bring back prisoners for human sacrifice; this was called the flowery wars. Although the Aztecs did take prisoners to be sacrificed, some scholars believe that the flowery wars were not only for obtaining sacrificial victims. Hassig (1990) linked human sacrifice to their unstable economic position. He analyzed the flowery wars as an empire-building strategy that was used to wear down stronger enemies rather than as a deliberate procedure to capture people for sacrifice. Price (1978) and Isaac (1983) similarly thought that the flowery wars reflected the shifting of power between neighboring cities and their inability to conquer the Valley of Mexico (Tlaxcala-Pueblan Valley). Price suggests that the failure of military conquering made human sacrifice an ideal excuse to explain this lack of success. King Moteuczoma characterized the wars as rituals for obtaining...
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