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Human Sacrifice: Why The Aztecs Practiced This Gory Ritual

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Religion, which is defined as a particular system of faith and worship, and dates back to the beginning of time, has played a major role in decision making. Throughout history, we have witnessed how religion has impacted individuals in their daily life, including major life decisions. Ranging from whom they can marry, to being able to donate their organs and such. Although the darker aspects of religion are not often displayed, religion has often been a vessel for individuals to commit crimes, such as genocide, mass murders, shootings, and suicide. Religion can manipulate these events so much that they can become normalized and if practiced for generations, become an important role in the lives of these individuals. In the case of the Aztec religion, human sacrifice was normalized and deemed necessary in insurance for survival and abundance of crops and health. In today’s society, these acts would not be seen under the same microscope and many would even deem it as murder. As we have progressed in our knowledge of the universe and our belief systems have shifted, we can now analyze how religion has been used by different societies to maintain order and instill fear.

The Aztecs wandered in search of a place to stay after being forced out of Chapultepec after sacrificing the daughter of King Culhuacan in a worshipping ritual. After wandering for some time and receiving a sign from their God, they are known to have arrived in central Mexico, claiming their city Tenochtitlan. They are believed to have arrived during the beginning of the 13th century, originally as hunter-gatherers (prehistoric nomadic groups that harnessed the use of fire, studied plant life, and refined technology for hunting and domestic purposes). They brought about the demise of the Toltecs and began creating treaties with neighboring tribes to greater expand their tribe. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “It is possible that their migration southward was part of a general movement of peoples that followed, or perhaps helped trigger, the collapse of the Toltec civilization.” The Aztecs had several gods they worshipped and offered sacrifices. Huitzilopochtli, who was their sun god was more idolized and respected. Although Huitzilopochlti’s origin is not fully known, in Aztec mythology it is believed he was the offspring of Coatlicue an Aztec deity who was the earth-mother goddess. Huitzilopochtli was associated with gold, war, and rulership, all things of which the Aztecs needed in abundance, and so their sacrifices and rituals became normalized.

Human sacrifice has been around and practiced all around the world far longer than the Aztecs, however, they formalized the event including specific ceremonies and rituals. Human sacrifice rituals were of greater importance in the ancient Aztec religion and were thought to keep the gods content, as well as ensure the world would continue to exist. In most human sacrifice rituals, the priest performing the ritual would slice into the human torso and remove their still-beating heart. The Aztecs believed they had a blood debt with the ancient gods, which essentially meant they had to keep the Gods happy by offering blood. They believed that through these sacrifices the world would continue to exist and they would be blessed with crops, water, and health. Though the Aztecs likely saw human sacrifice as crucial for their survival, every month there was at least one major religious ceremony, during which the sacrifices would take place. During these rituals, the Aztecs would usually cut themselves and offer their blood, they would sacrifice animals, as well as humans. The selection of the victims included that the chosen would be painted and often would be dressed to impersonate the God that was being celebrated until it was time for the sacrifice. A priest would then cut into the chosen torso and remove their still-beating heart, then they would toss their victims down El Templo Mayor, a shrine. Although there has been extensive research done, there is not an exact number of all the sacrifices done. According to Spanish sources, up to 20,000 people were put to death as part of a ceremony to dedicate the Templo Mayor (or Great Temple) in Tenochtitlán in 1487.

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According to History, “Human sacrifice was an integral part of the Aztec religion - as it was for many other societies in the New World. One of the central beliefs of the Aztec world was that Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun, needed constant nourishment in the form of human blood - seen as the sacred life force - to keep the sun moving from east to west across the sky. Those who were sacrificed included both volunteers, who saw their choice as the height of nobility and honor, and prisoners captured by the Aztecs during their frequent wars.”

Today in modern Mexico, Organized Crime Cartels use similar human sacrifice methods, although they have modified them to increase torture and often display them to create fear. In a similar manner to the Aztecs, they often display the severed heads of those they have killed. La Santa Muerte, who is a Mexican deity known to be a personification of death has been used as a medium in many illegal human sacrifices and rituals, which has angered her devotees because it brings the wrong message about who she is and instead is being associated with violence and crime. The FBI stated that “Santa Muerte ideology has developed in Mexico for approximately a half-century and has spread into the United States and Central America. The cult’s popularity has increased with its ties to illicit narcotics trafficking in Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a “saint of last resort,” Santa Muerte has always had a following among those who live in extreme circumstances. As one expert explains, “The Santa Muerte cult could best be described as [following] a set of ritual practices offered on behalf of a supernatural personification of death…she is comparable in theology to supernatural beings or archangels.” Therefore, Santa Muerte is a theology.

Furthermore, there have been a few cases including a case In December 2009 and January 2010 in Ciudad Júarez, “perpetrators murdered individuals in apparent Santa Muerte ritual killings. Regarding one incident, authorities found at the crime scene the remnants of an apparent altar and the words “Santa Muerte” and guidos flake (take care of us, skinny) spray painted. In the second crime, gang members burned a victim behind a house containing an altar and a small Santa Muerte statue. Interviewed neighbors said that the killers - part of the Hillside 13 Gang - asked for “something big”; as a result, the perpetrators performed multiple human sacrifices.” as well as in April 2010 in Camargo and Miguel Aleman, “perpetrators tortured and decapitated individuals, carved the letter “Z” into their chests, and placed the victims’ heads on the roof of a desecrated, graffiti-covered roadside chapel. Based on the graffiti messages, the victims belonged to the Gulf Cartel. The perpetrators comprised members of the Los Zetas Cartel, which has embraced Santa Muerte as its patron saint. Many of the group’s members have tattoos of her image on their upper arm or chest.”

Modern scholars have analyzed human sacrifice in the context of “each culture and discern that culture’s unique ideologies and practices. The latest trend in scholarship reveals the multivalent symbolic value and multidimensional functions of sacrifice while recognizing the diverse orientations and purposes of these rites within particular cultures. The same considerations have been given to complex Aztec sacrificial schemes.” each religion and culture has its kind of ideology and theology. Some might have just been extremely bloodthirsty and for others, it was simply a pleasure.

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Human Sacrifice: Why The Aztecs Practiced This Gory Ritual. (2022, February 26). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
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