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aztec, human sacrifice

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Introduction
When you think of the Aztec, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the Spanish conquistadors or their beautiful capital at Tenochtitlan. What comes to mind for a lot of people is their practice of human sacrifice. In class, we learned a lot about the civilizations of the Maya and the Inca but not much about the Maya. Chapter 13 of the assigned readings talks about the Aztec and how they came to power and their collapse. One paragraph in the chapter, although morbid and disturbing, caught my attention. “The victim was stretched out over the sacrificial stone. In seconds, a priest with an obsidian knife broke open his chest and ripped out his still beating heart, dashing it against the sacrificial stone.” These sentences refer to the ritual of human sacrificed practiced by the Aztec priests.
Body
The Aztec believed that they owed everything to the gods who created themselves as well as the world around them. The would perform sacrifices in order for a good crop yield or good weather among other things. They believed that the best way to repay them was to offer up blood to them in regular rituals. Although many just assume this was human blood, they also sacrificed animals as well. Some offerings weren’t outright killings as well. They would have been cutting oneself and offering the blood shed to the gods. Archaeologists estimate that a few thousand people would have been sacrificed each year. Some were members of the Aztec community but they believe that most were prisoners of war. Instead of killing their enemies in battle, they would sometimes capture them and take them back to the capital to be offered up to the gods. In one ritual, the prisoners were forced to walk up the many stairs of the temple. Once they reached the top, the priest would cut open their stomach from throat to stomach. They would rip out their heart to offer it to the gods. The bodies were then pushed down the stairs. At the bottom, the body would be dismembered or carried off depending on the ritual.
Its hard to believe this sort of activity happened regularly, especially as a public event where people would gather in the square to watch. Human sacrifice was not only an Aztec event. It happened all over the world in several different cultures. It was a part of their religion and a way to please the gods so the Aztecs would avoid disaster. No amount of human sacrifice could have stopped their collapse at the hands of the Spaniards.
Human sacrifice was practiced to some extent by many peoples in Mesoamerica (and for that matter, around the world) for many centuries. But it was the Aztec empire that really took the ritual to new heights. How many people were sacrificed by the Aztecs? We don't know how many were sacrificed over the years - it's possible that some accounts are exaggerated - but it was probably thousands each year - tens of thousands or more all together. Some estimates claim 20,000 a year.

The Aztecs had 18 months in one cycle, and for each of the 18 months there was ritual sacrifice. The victim would be painted as a part of the ritual, they would be placed on a slab where their heart would be removed and held up to the sun. The body would be thrown down the stairs of the temple/pyramid.

The body would be disposed of in various ways, such as feeding animals at the zoo or putting on display (the heads). There are some accounts of cannibalism, but it's uncertain if this was practiced to any great extent.

Life is because of the gods; with their sacrifice they gave us life.... They produce our sustenance... which nourishes life.

What the Aztec priests were referring to was a central Mesoamerican belief: that a great, on-going sacrifice sustains the Universe. Everything is tonacayotl: the "spiritual flesh-hood" on earth. Everything —earth, crops, moon, stars and people— springs from the severed or buried bodies, fingers, blood or the heads of the sacrificed gods. Humanity itself is macehualli, "those deserved and brought back to life through penance". A strong sense of indebtedness was connected with this worldview. Indeed, nextlahualli (debt-payment) was a commonly used metaphor for human sacrifice, and, as Bernardino de Sahagún reported, it was said that the victim was someone who "gave his service".
Human sacrifice was in this sense the highest level of an entire panoply of offerings through which the Aztecs sought to repay their debt to the gods. Both Sahagún and Toribio de Benavente (also called "Motolinía") observed that the Aztecs gladly parted with everything: burying, smashing, sinking, slaying vast quantities of quail, rabbits, dogs, feathers, flowers, insects, beans, grains, paper, rubber and treasures as sacrifices. Even the "stage" for human sacrifice, the massive temple-pyramids, was an offering mound: crammed with treasures, grains, soil and human and animal sacrifices that were buried as gifts to the deities. Adorned with the land's finest art, treasure and victims, these temples had become buried offerings under new structures every half a century.
The sacrifice of animals was a common practice for which the Aztecs bred dogs, eagles, jaguars and deer. Objects also were sacrificed by being broken and offered to the gods. The cult of Quetzalcoatl required the sacrifice of butterflies and hummingbirds.
Self-sacrifice was also quite common; people would offer maguey thorns, tainted with their own blood and, like the Maya kings, would offer blood from their tongue, ear lobes, or genitals. Blood held a central place in Mesoamerican cultures. The Florentine Codex reports that in one of the creation myths Quetzalcóatl offered blood extracted from a wound in his own genital to give life to humanity. There are several other myths in which Nahua gods offer their blood to help humanity.
Common people would offer maguey thorns with their blood.
Much like the role of sacrifice elsewhere in the world, it thus seems that these rites functioned as a type of atonement for Aztec believers. Their sacrificial hymns describe the victim as "sent (to death) to plead for us", or "consecrated to annul all sin".[14] In one such poem, a warrior-victim announces that "I embrace mankind... I give myself to the community". Aztec society viewed even the slightest tlatlacolli ('sin' or 'insult') as an extremely malevolent supernatural force. For instance, if an adulterer were to enter a house, it was believed that all turkey chicks would perish from tlazomiquiztli ("filth-death"). To avoid such calamities befalling their community, those who had erred punished themselves by extreme measures such as slitting their tongues for vices of speech or their ears for vices of listening, and "for a slight [sin they] hanged themselves, or threw themselves down precipices, or put an end to themselves by abstinence".
A great deal of cosmological thought seems to have underlain each of the Aztec sacrificial rites. The most common form of human sacrifice was heart-extraction. The Aztec believed that the heart (tona) was both the seat of the individual and a fragment of the Sun's heat (istli). To this day, the Nahua consider the Sun to be a heart-soul (tona-tiuh): "round, hot, pulsating". In the Aztec view, humanity's "divine sun fragments" were considered "entrapped" by the body and its desires:
Where is your heart?
You give your heart to each thing in turn.
Carrying, you do not carry it...
You destroy your heart on earth
—Nahua poem
Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, Tlacahuepan, Cuexcotzin
Sacrifice of captives by extraction of the heart
Tláloc, Quetzalcoatl
Sacrifice by drowning and extraction of the heart
Huixtocihuatl, Xochipilli
Sacrifice by extraction of the heart

Xilonen, Quilaztli-Cihacóatl, Ehécatl, Chicomelcóatl

Sacrifice of a decapitated woman and extraction of her heart
Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, Mictlantecuhtli
Sacrifice by starvation in a cave or temple
Xiuhtecuhtli, Ixcozauhqui, Otontecuhtli, Chiconquiáhitl, Cuahtlaxayauh, Coyolintáhuatl, Chalmecacíhuatl
Sacrifices to the fire gods by burning the victims
Toci, Teteoinan, Chimelcóatl-Chalchiuhcíhuatl, Atlatonin, Atlauhaco, Chiconquiáuitl, Cintéotl
Sacrifice of a decapitated young woman to Toci, she was skinned and a young man wore her skin; sacrifice of captives by hurling from a height and extraction of the heart
Xochiquétzal
Sacrifices by fire; extraction of the heart
Tláloc-Napatecuhtli, Matlalcueye, Xochitécatl, Mayáhuel, Milnáhuatl, Napatecuhtli, Chicomecóatl, Xochiquétzal
Sacrifices of children, two noble women, extraction of the heart and flaying; ritual cannibalism
Mixcóatl-Tlamatzincatl, Coatlicue, Izquitécatl, Yoztlamiyáhual, Huitznahuas
Sacrifice by bludgeoning, decapitation and extraction of the heart
Huitzilopochtli
Massive sacrifices of captives and slaves by extraction of the heart
Tlaloques
Sacrifices of children, and slaves by decapitation
Tona-Cozcamiauh, Ilamatecuhtli, Yacatecuhtli, Huitzilncuátec
Sacrifice of a woman by extraction of the heart and decapitated afterwards
Ixozauhqui-Xiuhtecuhtli, Cihuatontli, Nancotlaceuhqui
Sacrifices of victims representing Xiuhtecuhtli and their women (each four years), and captives. Hour: night, New Fire

The sacrifice would then be laid on a stone slab by four priests, and his/her abdomen would be sliced open by a fifth priest with a ceremonial knife made of flint. The cut was made in the abdomen and went through the diaphragm. The priest would grab the heart and tear it out, still beating. It would be placed in a bowl held by a statue of the honored god, and the body thrown down the temple's stairs. The body would land on a terrace at the base of the pyramid called an apetlatl
Conclusion
In this research project I learned that they have high religious significance to the Aztec sacrifice. And I learned that the incredible loss of human life because of the sacrifices would weaken an otherwise powerful nation.

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