Last week’s blog post ended with the story of Aztec/Mexica human sacrifice during the New Fire Ceremony. I wanted to focus this week’s blog post on that topic for further clarification of why it was practiced and how it should be understood.
Why human sacrifice?
Human sacrifice was practiced by cultures all over the world for millennia. It is defined as the ritual act of killing another human being in order to appease a supernatural force or deity. We know that the people of ancient Mesoamerica practiced human sacrifice, and also frequently participated in self-sacrifice. These sacrifices took place in an attempt to secure a plentiful agricultural season or a successful war campaign. They also occurred at the inauguration of a new ruler or the birth of an heir.
What kinds of sacrifice were used?
I mentioned last week that the Aztec/Mexica would sacrifice their victim by carving the heart out of the chest. This was the most common form of sacrifice used by the Mexica.
On some occasions, they would then flay the skin of the individual, and one of their priests would wear the skin in imitation of the god Xipe Totec (SHE-pay TO-tek), who was associated with springtime. As the skin dried, it would fall off the priest and the “new” skin would emerge, similar to how the outside of the seed splits and falls off as the seedling germinates. As gruesome as it sounds to us, I hope you can see the beautiful analogy intended: sacrifice brings out the birth of new life and a new season.
The Maya as well as the Mexica would also practice another form of sacrifice: self-sacrifice. Kings and queens would offer up their own blood, which was considered a sacred substance. They would pierce their ears, tongue or genitals, gather the spilled blood, and burn it.
Sacrifice and Torture in Mesoamerica vs. Europe
However, the biggest problem that exists when we talk about human sacrifice in Mesoamerica is that people use it to suggest that the Maya or the Aztec were “barbaric” and “primitive” when compared to other civilizations in the “Old World”.
However, a quick Google search will pull up many heinous and unthinkably cruel torture methods practiced in Europe during the Medieval period (5th to 15th centuries AD) that are just as barbaric and primitive. Here’s one for the morbidly curious— but I warn you, it is very gruesome.
A recent discovery of a huey tzompantli, or skull rack, belonging to the Mexica culture confirms that a large number of victims were sacrificed and decapitated, and then had their skulls placed on display for all to see. Does that sound gruesome and barbaric? Sure. But how gruesome do we consider the ossuaries of Europe, which do the same thing? An excellent example is the Sedlec Ossuary in Prague:
Both displays could be considered gruesome; however, both are artistic representations of the use of the human skeleton in a religious setting. So why should one culture be labelled as “primitive” or “barbaric” for doing the exact same thing that was done in Europe and considered art?
Have more questions about human sacrifice? Leave a comment below and I’ll direct you towards some great resources!