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

It is incomprehensible to us from today’s point of view how a society could sacrifice people including children on a large scale, tear out their hearts, skin them and bathe in their blood and all that in public, daily.

However, this is exactly what many of the 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 could also lead to death. The extent to which these peoples did this was already a horror to the Spanish conquerors. They told of cannibalism and infants cut into pieces.

Their horror and ours is explained by our upbringing. According to Freud, the human being possesses a “superego”, i.e. 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 influenced by Christianity, we feel guilty when we cause pain to a person or even kill him. Who does not recognize this? We see a wound and we feel sick. We see someone die violently and we vomit or suffer shock. In the worst case, there is a loss of consciousness or amnesia. We can’t help it. 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 creeped out, ashamed or horrified?

Probably not. They enjoyed an education that presented killing people not 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 necessarily generated a completely different “superego” and conscience than ours. It can be assumed that Maya or Aztecs felt bad if they did not kill and not vice versa. 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 remains 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 often 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 opposition is evident in the widespread support of the Spanish conquistadors in their conquest of Mexico.

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