Human Sacrifice in Aztec Culture

Bloody Rituals Played a Key Role in Mesoamerican Religion

Although the extent of the practice is debated by scholars, human sacrifice played an important role in Aztec religion and culture

The first Spaniards to have sustained contact with the civilizations of Mesoamerica in the 15th Century reported that human sacrifice was a common practice.


Excavations conducted from the 1970s onward at the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan and the Pyramid of the Moon have provided undeniable physical evidence for human sacrifice as an integral component of Aztec religion.

The Role of Sacrifice in Aztec Culture

Sacrifice was a common theme in Mesoamerican civilization. Aztec mythology told of how the gods died to save humanity. Some time shortly after the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish Conquistadores, a group of Franciscan friars confronted what remained of the Aztec priesthood, demanding that the Aztecs stop sacrificing humans to their gods. The Aztecs defended the practice saying that, “life is because of the gods; with their sacrifice they gave us life…they produce our sustenance…which nourishes life.” To the Aztecs the ritual of human sacrifice was an affirmation in the eyes of their gods, that all things were composed of what the Aztecs referred to as “spiritual flesh-hood.”

The Flower War

It has often been claimed that the Aztecs utilized a form of ritual warfare known as the Flower War. The Flower War is traditionally thought to have been developed by the Aztecs as a way of acquiring victims for their sacrificial rituals. Some researchers have begun to question the purpose of the Aztec Flower Wars. They feel that the Flower Wars came about as a result of a treaty between the Aztec Triple Alliance and the kingdoms of Tlascala and Huexotzingo during a famine. This alternate view is based on the writings of a Dominican friar named Diego Durban.

Because the object of Aztec warfare was to capture and not to kill, Aztec tactics and weapons evolved over time to only injure an opponent. Once a town have been subjugated, its inhabitants were no longer considered possible candidates for sacrifice. However, they were required to pay a yearly tribute to the Aztecs.

Along with prisoners of war, slaves could also be sacrificed, but only if they were considered lazy and had been sold three times.

Aztec Sacrificial Rituals

The Aztecs’ sacrificial rituals were complex and required more than two people, in order to be carried out properly. The most common procedure required the victim to mount the temple where he would lie down on a stone slab. The victim was held down by four priests, while a fifth made an incision in the victim’s abdomen with an obsidian knife. A second cut was made in the diaphragm and the victim’s beating heart was ripped out. It was then placed in a bowl held by a statue of the particular god being honoured.

The Aztecs had different methods of sacrificing their victims, depending on which god they were appealing to. Human sacrifices to Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec god of war and chaos took the form of ritual combat. When sacrificing to Huehuetocatl, the Aztecs prepared a large feast, at the end of which the victims were burned alive until they were nearly dead. They were then pulled from the fire and their hearts were cut out. Victims could also be shot full of arrows, drowned and flayed alive.

Explanations for Human Sacrifice

There are several explanations for why the Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice on the scale that they did. One school of thought is that the Aztecs conducted human sacrifices as a precursor to ritual cannibalism. The belief is that the Aztec diet did not contain sufficient quantities of protein. This has been called into question over lack of evidence. It has also been suggested that Aztecs used human sacrifices as a means of exerting psychological control over their allies.

Works Cited

Matos-Moctezuma, Eduardo (1986). Vida y muerte en el Templo Mayor. Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Stevenson, Mark.”Evidence May Back Human Sacrifice Claims.” Live Science. Mar.27/09

Live Sciens Staff. “Grisly Sacrifices Found in Pyramid of the Moon.” Live Science. Mar.27/09

Nicholson, Henry B. (1971). (in) Handbook of Middle American Indians. University of Texas Press. p. 402.

Duverger, Christian (2005). La flor letal. Fondo de cultura económica. p. 81.

Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España (op. cit.), p. 83

Duverger (op. cit.), pages 157-167

deMause, Lloyd (2002). The Emotional Life of Nations. NY: Karnac. pp. e.g., pages 31, 312, 374, 289–90, 410.


The copyright of the article Human Sacrifice in Aztec Culture in Aztec History is owned by Terry Long. Permission to republish Human Sacrifice in Aztec Culture in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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