On the Relativity of Slaughter – Sacrificial Rites of the Maya, Aztecs and Toltecs

The idea of sacrificing people, including children, on a large scale, tearing out their hearts, skinning them, and bathing in their blood in public on a daily basis is incomprehensible from today’s point of view. However, this is exactly what many Latin American peoples did in pre-Columbian times. They sacrificed captives, slaves, and sometimes their own children, depending on the feast day and need. Self-sacrifice also occurred, usually limited to injuries, but it could also lead to death.

The extent to which these peoples did this was already horrifying to the Spanish conquerors. They told of cannibalism and infants being cut into pieces. The horror we feel towards these practices is explained by our upbringing. According to Freud, humans possess a “superego,” which consists of social norms, morals, and conscience. It is acquired through education and also forms the ideal that guides each person. In the Western world, which is heavily influenced by Christianity, we feel guilty when we cause pain to a person or even kill them.

Who cannot recognize this? We see a wound, and we feel sick. We see someone die violently, and we may vomit or suffer from shock. In the worst case, we may experience a loss of consciousness or amnesia. Large parts of the superego are unconscious and fixed from a certain age. Tearing people apart would be a horror to us.

But how did the Maya, the Olmecs, Toltecs, or the Aztecs feel? Didn’t they feel horrified, ashamed, or creeped out?

Probably not.

They received an education that did not present killing people as an abomination but as a duty. As archaeologist Raúl Barrera Rodríguez explains, “In Mesoamerican cosmogony, people existed to worship the gods and provide them with offerings. This was a requirement for continuing to live.”

This sacrificial duty generated a completely different “superego” and conscience than ours. It can be assumed that the Maya or Aztecs felt bad if they did not kill, not the other way around. Sacrifice was a duty. For example, Diego de Landa wrote in 1566 about self-mutilation at sacrificial feasts, “…their children began to engage in it from an early age, and it is frightening how much they loved it.”

Accordingly, sacrifice was ubiquitous in these Central American societies. The tzompantli, for example, was an altar in the form of a frame on which rows of skulls were placed in public view to worship the gods. It celebrated life, not death. The skulls exhibited in the tzompantli were consecrated through rituals and placed opposite the temple of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun. These offerings to the god served to give continuity to the cycle of the sun so that it rose again each day.

Probably the best-known and largest Tzompantli altar is that of the Templo Mayor in Mexico, which was estimated to contain about 60,000 human skulls at the time of the Spanish arrival in 1521. To date, about 1000 of these skulls have been archaeologically verified in this tzompantli. Significant amounts of blood remain have also been found. Each temple was built over from time to time, and the old temple underneath was soaked with blood.

Many human remains were also found in the sacred cenotes, flooded karst caves. On their bones were found the clear traces of flaying in the form of cuts. Mostly, boys or young men were sacrificed, not young women, as initially claimed.

After all this, it can be concluded that the feelings of the Maya or Aztecs when sacrificing people were completely different from those that we would have felt. Probably their feelings were somewhere between solemnity and joy. However, the fact that this rampant practice of sacrifice was nevertheless not only met with applause is evident in the widespread support of the Spanish conquistadors in their conquest of Mexico.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: