As many Mesoamerican people did, the Aztec/Mexica believed that sacrifice to the gods was necessary to ensure the continuity of the world and the balance of the universe. They distinguished between two types of sacrifice: those involving humans and those involving animals or other offerings.
Human sacrifices included both self-sacrifice, such as bloodletting, as well as the sacrifice of the lives of other human beings. Although both were quite frequent, the second one gained the Aztecs the fame of being bloodthirsty, brutal and to worship cruel deities. Furthermore, the Spanish went to a great deal of trouble to relate the brutality of Aztec religion and they often used it to justify their religious persecutions and killings.
Meaning of Aztec Sacrifices
For the Aztecs, human sacrifices fulfilled multiple purposes, both at the religious and socio-political level. They considered themselves the “elected” people, the people of the Sun who had been chosen by the gods to feed them and were responsible for the continuity of the world. On the other hand, when the Mexica became the most powerful group in Mesoamerica, human sacrifices acquired the added value of political propaganda.
The rituals connected with the sacrifices, such as ceremonies, and "flower" wars intended to obtain war captives and slaves, served the Aztecs to subjugate their neighbors and to send a political message to both their own citizens as well as foreign leaders.
Forms of Aztec Sacrifices
Human sacrifice usually involved death by heart extraction. The victims were chosen carefully according to their physical characteristics and to the gods to whom they would be sacrificed. Some gods were honoured with brave war captives, other just with slaves. Men, children and women were sacrificed. Children were especially chosen to be sacrificed to Tlaloc, the rain god. The Aztecs believed that the tears of new-born or very young children could ensure rain.
The most important place where sacrifices occurred was the Huey Teocalli, the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) of Tenochtitlan. Here a specialized priest removed the heart from the victim and the body was thrown down the steps of the pyramid, while his head was cut off and placed on the tzompantli, or skull rack.
However, not all sacrifices took place on top of pyramids. In some cases mock-battles were organized between the victim and a priest, where the priest fought with real weapons and the victim, tied to a stone or a wooden frame, fought with wooden or feathered ones. Children sacrificed to Tlaloc were often carried to the god’s sanctuaries on top of the mountains that surround Tenochtitlan and the Basin of Mexico in order to be offered to the god.
The chosen victim would be treated as a personification on earth of the god until the sacrifice took place. The preparation and purification rituals often lasted more than 1 year, and during this period the victim was took care of, fed, and honored by servants.
AA.VV. 2008, La Religión Mexica, Arqueología Mexicana, Vol. 16, Num.91
Van Tuerenhout Dirk R., 2005, The Aztecs. New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO Inc. Sanata Barbara, CA; Denver, CO and Oxford, England.