The Aztec civilization existed between 1325 and 1525 and this historical period coincides with the period in which sacrifices were carried out. When the Spaniards came to Mesoamerica in 1517, they encountered violent ritual practices by the Maya and Aztecs (Cummins 172). These rituals were public, and people knew that they were only parts of the calendar. Ritual human sacrifice was practiced even before the Aztecs came to the valley of Mexico in the first half of the 14th century (Wade). There is evidence that ritual killings were committed in the 2nd millennium BC. This paper aims at discussing the role of sacrifice in ancient American cultures, as well as the role of art in sacrifice and religion.
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Several sources give evidence that several Mesoamerican cultures sacrificed people. First of all, manuscripts that contain images of the scenes of sacrifices have survived. There are also records of conversations between Spanish priests and the Aztecs, made during the conquest of Mexico. The most impressive source of knowledge about sacrifices is the Florentine Codex, which is now kept in the Laurentian Library in Florence. The Florentine Codex is a collection of transcripts of conversations that took place in Mexico from 1540 to 1580 (Cummins 177). The main source is the found remains of people who were sacrificed. It is clear from the footprints on their skeletons that they underwent this ritual (Wade). Besides, there are various sculptures and artworks depicting scenes of sacrifices. Thus, there are four main sources of knowledge about sacrifice among the Aztecs: manuscripts with images of scenes of murders, witness records, conversations between the Spaniards and the Aztecs, and Aztec archeology.
Aztec theology justified human sacrifice and, according to it, the human body had two essences: a shell and a divine spark, which was laid by the deities at the time of conception. The gods and the world that they created had to be periodically energized through sacrifices and the release of divine energy from the bodies of people, plants, and animals. Ritual death released divine sparks that descended to the Earth into the underworld and founded a new matter (Trever 27). When plants, the Sun, the Moon, animals, or people reappeared, they contained that transformed divine spark that continued to live in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Blood was considered one of the carriers of the divine spark. Heart and blood played the role of “food” for the deities, symbolizing the Earth and the Sun (Wade). The ceremony was a sign of renewal and recognition that human beings had to sacrifice themselves for the universe to exist.
Thus, one of the foundations of the Moche religion was the cult of blood and the corresponding rituals and ceremonies. These included ritual battles, the sacrifice of prisoners, during which their blood was collected in bowls, as well as the delivery of blood to the priest-ruler (Trever 21). The scenes depicted in the paintings give a definite sequence of events that took place according to a single scenario of ritual acts within the framework of the blood cult. The Moche culture was famous for its massive human sacrifices of various kinds, which accompanied not only blood ceremonies. Therefore, prisoners were usually used for sacrifices, and battles between the valleys could also be organized specifically and by mutual agreement to obtain prisoners (Trever 22). Various bottles in the form of captive men were found in Moche culture that represent prisoners who were used for sacrifices (Figure 1). They had similar hairstyles, garments, and represented non-Moche people, perhaps from other valleys.
The defeated person in a ritual duel offered no resistance to the winner. Apparently, tying a rope around the neck was a purely symbolic act. As it is seen in the artwork, it hung loosely from the back of the prisoner, which confirms the voluntary nature of the victim. The sacrifice was perceived as a big honor and glory. It was an elevation, and while family members were saddened by the loss of a loved one, Mesoamericn ideology saw the victims as divine sparks that helped fuel the Earth. Thus, the sacrifice was a way to revive life by offering food to the gods so that they, in turn, would benefit humans (Nielsen & Helmke 463). Ritual battles are also depicted on various vessels found in Moche culture (Figure 2).
Studying the tradition of sacrifice, scientists have discovered another curious fact. At some point, the wars in Mesoamerica became so sacred that the main task of the belligerent parties was no longer to kill soldiers but to capture them to subsequently sacrifice them to the gods.
Today there is no doubt that human sacrifices not only took place in the life of the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica but were also an integral part of their religious and socio-political tradition. Religious sacrifices, including human ones, were considered necessary by the ancient people, and were a means of maintaining the life of the gods, and, therefore, a guarantee of preserving the existing universe. The nature and methods of sacrifices were determined by the idea of supernatural magical powers that permeate all levels of the world. The human body filled with such forces was considered a cosmic unifying entity. Sacrifice was not just an attempt to propitiate the gods, but the process of constant exchange of magical energies between gods and people, the ultimate goal of which was to preserve life. Understanding the foundations on which the religious life of the ancient Mesoamerican people was based allows not only a better understanding of the social and political life of the Maya people, the Moche people, and the Aztecs, but also the social, political, and religious life of many other cultures of Central and South America.
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Nielsen, Jesper, and Christophe Helmke. “Spearthrower Owl Hill: A Toponym at Atetelco, Teotihuacan.” Latin American Antiquity, 2008, 459-474.
Trever, Lisa. “A Moche Riddle in Clay: Object Knowledge and Art Work in Ancient Peru.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 101, no. 4, 2019, 18-38.
Wade, Lizzie. “Feeding the Gods: Hundreds of Skulls Reveal Massive Scale of Human Sacrifice in Aztec Capital.” Science | AAAS, 2018, Web.