Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture

Stephanie Schoppert - April 5, 2017

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Aztec codex showing Aztecs drinking chocolate. mexicolore.co.uk

Chocolate Was More Than Just Dessert

Aztec chocolate was something that was highly prized. It had religious basis, social basis, and financial basis. Cacao seeds could be used as money, and one single cacao seed could be traded for a tomato, three beans, an avocado, a rabbit, 200 beans, and a turkey cock. It was highly prized, because getting authentic cacao was hard since it was only harvested in the Mayan lowlands.

The Aztecs saw the cacao as a symbol for sacrifice, as the seeds spilling out of the pod were thought to resemble blood spilling out of the body when the heart was torn out. In turn, some of the chocolate drinks made by the Aztecs would be dyed red to represent blood. One yearly ritual had a male slave wearing the jewels of the gods for 40 days, during which he drank chocolate mixed with blood from sacrificial knives and danced. At the end of the 40 days, the man himself would be sacrificed.

The Aztecs never consumed chocolate in bar form like is common today. Instead it was more of a cold drink. One Spanish missionary reported that the Aztecs became intoxicated when they drank too much of it. This has led some to wonder if the drink was fermented or mixed with alcohol. There was one drink that was made from fermented green cacao pulp as well. The flavor of the chocolate was much different as well, it was bitter, strong and spicy, nothing like the sweet treat it is today.

Chocolate was also a status symbol, meant only for nobles, merchants, and warriors. If a commoner was seen with chocolate, it was believed to be a bad omen. The Aztecs would serve it with tobacco after a banquet and emperors would be served copious amounts in golden cups. The chocolate drink was also said to lead to “success with women.”

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Aztec human sacrifices. qz.com

They Sacrificed Children

Human sacrifices by the Aztecs were seen as necessary to appease the gods. If the gods ever became angry due to lack of sacrifices, there would be punishments, either through bad harvests, losses in battle, bad weather, or the end of the world. Sacrifices were deeply steeped in mythology, and those who were sacrificed were seen as honorable and prized people and they were rewarded in the afterlife.

Children were not exempt from sacrifice, and they were needed as part of the sacrifices to the most important god of all, Tlaloc, the rain god. It was said that if enough sacrifices were not made to Tlaloc he would not bring the rain and the crops would not grow. It was believed that Tlaloc required the tears of the young in order to wet the earth. To that end, children with painful conditions such as cavities, injuries, or bone infections were often picked for the annual sacrifice so that they would cry and offer their tears to Tlaloc.

If the child was not crying, they would sometimes tear off a fingernail in order to prompt them to cry. So far, the remains of 42 children have been discovered, believed to have been sacrificed to Tlaloc. Children, may have also been drowned, a method of death associated with the water god in order to bring about the end to a drought.

The practice horrified visitors to the region. Sahagun wrote in History of the Things of New Spain that in the first month of the year, parents would approve their children for sacrifice and then eat the remains. There were five months out of the year that children would be chosen for sacrifice to certain gods, and one historian has claimed that one in five Aztec children were sacrificed.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Aztec God of Drunkenness. lordsofthedrinks.files.wordpress.com

Alcohol was Banned

The Aztecs had a traditional drink called pulque, which was a sort of fermented agave juice. It played a very important part in religious rituals for the Aztecs. But it was a drink that was only reserved for the very old. Anyone who was young and found drinking pulque would face severe punishment. For the worst offenders of alcohol consumption before the appropriate age, the punishment was death by strangulation.

The reason for the hatred of alcohol for the young was due to the myth of the 400 drunken rabbits. According to legend, the Goddess of Flower gave some pulque to the King of Tula. The King promptly drank too much and became drunk, at which point he raped the Goddess. It was decided that drinking would only be allowed for men who were old and experienced, and could therefore control themselves.

The Aztecs had a phrase for someone that partook of too much alcohol and that was that they were as “drunk as 400 rabbits.” The phrase comes from the rest of the myth of the Goddess of Flowers. After her rape, she became known the Goddess of Pulque. She had 400 breasts that all produced the fermented drink. She had an infinite number (often represented as 400) of children with her husband Petecatl who was the god of fermentation. Her children were depicted as rabbits and they were referred to as the Gods of Drunkenness.

Some of the rabbits even had specific names. One was known as Straw Mirror (for when you are so drunk your vision is like looking into a mirror made of straw) or Five Rabbit (the god of hangovers). The god of Hanging was also one of the drunken rabbits, because it was not uncommon for drunk Aztecs to accidentally hang themselves.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Artist rendering of Aztec farms. userscontent2.emaze.com

They Were Highly Skilled in Agriculture

The Aztecs lived in an area that was very dry and not ideal for farming. They did manage to find a way around that problem through the use of Chinampa. These were essential in getting a range of crops to grow in the dry climate and be able to weather some of the droughts the region experienced.

To create a Chinampa, farmers would stake out an area in a lake bed, typically about thirty by two and a half meters. After they fenced the area off they would fill it with mud, sediment, and compost to rise the ground above the level of the lake. Trees would also be planted in the corners in order to help secure the artificial island. These small islands in the middle of shallow lakes then became areas of rich soil with easy access to water.

The Aztecs also practiced terrace farming in which they would create walls of stone in hillsides. These walls would then be filled in to create areas of deeper soil that could be used to plant crops even in areas were the land was not flat. One problem the Aztecs faced was retaining nutrients in the soil. They had two ways of dealing with that issue. The first thing they did was rely heavily on what they called the “three sisters.” The three sisters referred to maize, squash, and beans, which would be planted together because they would keep the nutrients in the soil. Aztecs farmers would also rotate their fields in order to allow some of the land to lay fallow and regenerate nutrients.

Agriculture was a trade that was taught in school and the knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. In addition to maize, beans, and squash, Aztec farmers also grew avocado, tomatoes, and guava, as well as cotton and rubber trees.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Aztec Healer. maxbonenbergeraztec.weebly.com

Some Of Their Herbal Remedies Are Still Used Today

The Aztecs were highly devoted to herbalism and learning about the body. Healers were encouraged to spend time in the gardens of the nobles to find cures for common ailments. Some are quite strange by today’s standards, but others have proven to be effective and are still used today.

One of the ways that historians have learned about the Aztec practice of herbs and healing is through the Badianus Manuscript, an illustrated text from 1552 that detailed the use of over 180 trees and plants for treating a variety of illnesses or pains. One treatment detailed in the book told of using gold turquoise, red coral and the burned heart of a stag in order to cure “a pain or heat in the heart” which could have referred to heartburn. The cure for a headache was more likely to make the headache worse than better as it involved cutting into the skull with an obsidian blade.

One Aztec cure that has been substantiated is the use of what they called chicalote, which was used to treat pain. It was later discovered to be a substance found in a plant called Argemone Mexicana, which is closely related to opium poppy. Both plants have analgesic properties.

Healers would also use the sap of the agave plant as a way to clean and treat wounds. It is now known that this sap can be effective in killing staphylococcus aureus and E. Coli bacteria. An herbal remedy that is still used today is passionflower. The Aztecs used it as a sedative and it is used today as a way to fight insomnia and agitation.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
The Cochineal Beetle. sprudge.com

They Created the Red Dye That Changed the World

Prior to the Spanish conquering the Aztecs, the European world had never been able to dye their fabrics a deep scarlet color. The Europeans up until the early 16th century used a plant extract that was known as madder red, but it made a color that was paler than the red the Aztecs were able to create. Therefore, as soon as the Spaniards saw the rich fabrics they were determined to know how to make it for themselves.

The secret ingredient to the rich scarlet of Aztec cloth was the use of the cochineal beetle. The beetle lives on the prickly pear cacti and one quarter of the bug’s body consists of carminic acid. It is that acid which creates the red dye. The beetles are small, which means creating the dye is incredibly time consuming. It took 70,000 of the beetles to make just one pound of dye.

Once the Spaniards knew the secret, they did everything they could to keep it from the rest of the world and they started exporting the dye immediately. It would then become a staple of the Spanish economy for the next 300 years. Due to the number of insects needed to create the dye, it was only used for the wealthiest people and the most high-quality fabrics.

Redcoat officers in the British army had their uniforms dyed with the cochineal beetle dye, but the regular enlisted men only had madder dyed uniforms. The rich red that Catholic cardinals became known for was due to the dye of the cochineal beetle. Even today, the dye is still used as a completely organic food dye.

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