Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica
Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica

Larry Holzwarth - December 13, 2018

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica
Aztec warriors were used to slaying prisoners in mock gladiatorial combat as part of their festivals to the gods. Wikimedia

9. The Aztecs used mock gladiators as one means of worshiping the god of night

Tezcatlipoca was a god of night and darkness, including the dark arts of sorcery and witchcraft, and was associated with north. He was considered the most powerful of the Aztec gods, given his ability to disrupt harmony among the gods and people, creating war, which brought the Aztecs tribute for their empire, food for their people, slaves for their fields, and victims for their sacrifices. Although he was not the god of water he had the power to create drought, and he exulted in discord and confusion. Known by many names to the Aztecs, he was feared for his ability and proclivity to disrupt lives. He was worshiped through several rituals, one of which consisted of a young victim being leashed to a stake or wall, armed with wooden weapons, and forced to face armed Aztec warriors in combat, which was deliberately drawn out in order to entertain the god for as long as possible.

Another form of worship was the selection of a victim at the end of the month of Toxcatl (late April to early May). The young man selected was dressed as Tezcatlipoca and spent the ensuing year adorned in his attire and treated as if he were the capricious god among the living. He was given the gift of several women to be his companions throughout the year, and was given a flute to play whenever he appeared in the city, drawing attention to his presence and homage from his fellow Aztecs. When Toxcatl began the following year, the young man appeared at the Great Pyramid and following a feast of celebration signifying the rebirth of the year (spring) he ascended the pyramid, broke the flute over his head, and was taken by the priests to be killed in sacrifice to Tezcatlipoca. After the ritual was completed the young man’s successor was selected, which was considered a great honor among the Aztecs.

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica
A 16th-century codex depicts Xiuhtecuhtli at the center of Aztec values and beliefs. Wikimedia

10. There were more than one god of fire, worshiped in different manners and rituals

Huehueteotl was a highly ranked member of the Aztec pantheon of gods, recognized as more or less the god of fire, ranking above several lesser gods of fire which were also worshiped. He was usually pictured as an elderly man, bearded, and often withered and weak. As the god of fire, he was worshiped through fire. Sacrificial victims were burned in the flames in open hearths, but before dying they were removed from the flames, their hearts cut out, and the bodies then returned to the fires for destruction or in some instances were devoured by the worshipers. The hearts were then burned to ashes. Worship of Huehueteotl was in thanks for the two elements most associated with him, blood and fire, and rewarded the worshipers with protection against fire destroying their homes.

Xiuhtecuhtli was another god of fire, believed to have been the same god as Huehueteotl in a younger manifestation, and rituals for his worship occurred at the same time as those for the latter god. He also had a festival of his own which occurred once every 52 years, known as the New Fire Ceremony. The ceremony took place when Orion’s belt was aligned with a volcano outside of Tenochtitlan following weeks of preparation which included ritual offers of blood and other mandated behaviors such as periods of complete silence and the extinguishing of all fires. Failure to strictly observe all of the rituals was believed to bring on the end of the world through the wrath of the fire god. Near the top of the volcano the priests sacrificed a man by using a device they called a fire drill (the Aztec name for Orion’s belt) which they drove through the victim’s chest. The ritual allowed the fires throughout the empire to be relighted without angering the god of fire, and a new 52 year cycle began.

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica
The Aztec god Xipe Totec appeared skin partially flayed in the Codex Borgia, 16th century. Wikimedia

11. The god of rebirth was worshiped through the death of several victims each year

The god of rebirth, also considered a god of agriculture since the fields were reborn annually and a god of the seasons, was known as Xipe Totec. He was also known as the “lord of the flayed one” due to one of the rituals involved in his worship, the chief of which occurred during a twenty-day month which corresponded to February 22 – March 13 on the Gregorian calendar. Xipe Totec was believed to have provided food for humanity by flaying his own skin, and gods with similar attributes appeared in other prehistoric Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs believed that the art and act of war was a creation of Xipe Totec, and the warrior culture of the Aztecs worshiped him through the sacrifice of captured warriors, which were prepared for forty days by dressing as the god and being treated as he was believed to have been treated prior to his own sacrifice.

Xipe Totec was worshiped within his own temple during a festival which took place around the spring equinox. Each day of the twenty-day festival saw victims brought to the temple and killed in a variety of ways, including mock gladiator combat, the heart is cut out, beheading, and other means. Some were shot with arrows in a sort of archery firing squad. The skin was removed from the victims and worn by the victims assigned for the following day until their own execution. At the end of the festival, the skins of all the victims were worn by priests as they performed ceremonial dances. The hearts of all the victims were cut out and the bodies dismembered. Some were burned, others distributed to the warriors who had captured the victim and some were fed to celebrants of the festival. The victims were required to collect gifts from the Aztecs prior to their sacrifice, often their success or failure in collection was a factor in their manner of death.

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica
The greatest warriors who died bravely in battle were allowed to join the pantheon of gods ruled by Huitzilopochtli, seen here in the Borgia Codex. Wikimedia

12. The Aztec hierarchy continued in the afterlife

Aztec society was highly stratified with the Emperor at the top, followed by the members of the nobility, the warriors, merchants, clerks, commoners, and farmers. At the bottom were the peasants and slaves. None of the members of Aztec society possessed social mobility other than the warriors, who could elevate their status through military success. The social status of women was entirely dependent on her husband. Thus there was great motivation to achieve military prowess and success and respect as a warrior. The lack of social mobility meant that if a person was born poor he was likely to remain poor unless he created a military career, which as has been seen meant the successful capture of an enemy. The Aztecs also believed in an afterworld, though their concepts considering life after death and eternity remain vague and debated among experts.

It is known that the Aztecs believed that the status of life was retained after death, and a poor commoner in this world remained a poor commoner in the next, with no opportunity to change status. The manner of death affected the station in the next life as well, a warrior dying in battle went to the second-highest level of reward (the highest was occupied by the gods and emperors) as did those who died in sacrificial rituals – as long as they died bravely and willingly rather than resisting. Those who died of illness or accident went to the lowest level, the netherworld. The beliefs of the Aztec afterworld were taught by parents and the priests throughout Aztec society, justifying and enshrining the brutality of life and death in the Aztec world as a means of achieving a better afterlife either through sacrifice as a warrior or as a willing offering to the gods.

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica
The Tovar Codex – attributed to a 16th century Jesuit missionary – contains this picture of a skull rack in an Aztec temple. Wikimedia

13. The Aztecs kept relics of their sacrifices as symbols to others

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico they encountered numerous symbols of Aztec culture which they found shocking and heretical. In Aztec towns and near temples and shrines to their gods, the Aztecs mounted racks of skulls which were bleached and in some cases painted or covered with symbols and icons. The violent deaths of the persons represented by the skulls were sometimes evident in the bone. Piles of clearly human bones were found near statues and artwork, near the skull racks, and even in private homes, rather than being interred or cremated. They also found masks used in religious rituals made of human skin, as well as whole human skins, highly decorated and adorned, carefully folded and stored in a manner similar to clothing. Priests informed the shocked Spaniards that the skins were used in religious rituals and dances.

The Aztecs preserved the bones and skins of their sacrificial victims as religious relics, considering their victims to have been elevated spirits equivalent to saints in some ways. Worship of the victims began while they were still alive, during the periods of preparation, and they served as the centerpiece of the ritual in which they died. The preservation of the remains of their victims gave the Aztecs a reminder of their sacrifice and the role in which sacrifice stood within Aztec society. To the Aztecs, the slaughter of children – which included severe torture to ensure they went to the gods in tears – was a purely religious act and one which actually benefited the victims, since it raised them to a higher level of the afterlife they otherwise would never have been able to achieve.

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica
An Aztec priest offers the heart of a victim to the god Huitzilopochtli. Library of Congress

14. Aztec methods of killing their victims were varied and grisly

The Aztecs had specific methods of killing the victims they offered as human sacrifices to their gods, dictated by diverse factors. The attributes of the god being worshiped were one factor. The festival is celebrated was another. The social class of the victim and whether he or she was a captured enemy or slave was a consideration. In Aztec society criminals were executed by the state, but not as sacrifices to the gods, as they would be deemed by the gods as unworthy. Some of the methods have already been explored, others included killing by drowning, by starvation, by throwing victims from great heights, and by exsanguination. Following the execution of the victims, the heart was nearly always extracted for burning, with the smoke carrying the sacrifice to its recipients.

The Aztec calendar bore a cycle of 52 years, at the end of which the end of the world threatened, which was averted by the New Fire Ceremony. Each year was divided into 28 “months” which corresponded to roughly twenty days and were called festivals by the Aztecs. The year began on what corresponds to February 2 with the twenty-day festival to Tlaloc and lesser gods, and ran through the end of the yearly cycle, with each succeeding festival containing worship rituals dedicated to a different god or gods, containing specified methods of exterminating the victims. Thus the Aztecs conducted human sacrifice rituals year round, most of them in the three main cities. The only exception was the five-day period from January 28 to February 1 known as Nemontemi, a time of fasting throughout the empire.

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica
The Spanish explorers witnessed human sacrifices conducted by priests – which was a military rank achieved through the steps depicted here – before the arrival of Cortes. Wikimedia

15. The Aztec practice of human sacrifice was known to the Spanish before the arrival of Cortes

One of the earliest Spanish explorers of Mexico was Juan de Grijalva, who explored the coastline in company with Juan Diaz. On an island near Veracruz, the Spaniards observed firsthand a sacrificial ritual, though neither knew what it was they had witnessed. Diaz wrote of the incident in the Itinerary of Grijalva, “the Captain asked him (an Aztec) why such deeds were committed there and the Indian answered that it was done as a kind of sacrifice…and that the heart was taken out of the breast and burnt…parts of the arms and legs were cut off and eaten”. Another member of the expedition corroborated Diaz’s account, describing the “altar” on which the ritual killing occurred and recounting that the Spaniards named the islet “Isle of Sacrifices”. Diaz wrote of the human sacrifice before Cortes and the Spanish conquest took place.

Much later in another work, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Diaz described a human sacrifice which the Spanish witnessed at a temple dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. “That day they had sacrificed two boys, cutting open their chests and offering their blood and hearts to that accursed idol”. When the conquistadores reached Tenochtitlan Diaz described the scenes of sacrifice within the Great Temple and the practice of the priests and nobles eating the arms and legs of the victims. While the Spanish were approaching Tenochtitlan Diaz reported encountering cages guarded with armed warriors which held future sacrificial victims being fattened before their slaughter. Diaz reported seeing the practice of human sacrifice every day on the march through Mexico, before finally noting that the “readers will be tired of hearing of the great number” of sacrifices observed. “I shall go on with my story without saying any more about them”.

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica
Despite the contemporaneous codices and the later discoveries by archaeologists, many denounced reports of Aztec barbarity as Spanish propaganda. Wikimedia

16. There are apologists for the brutality of the Aztecs today

For many years the practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism among the Aztecs was denied by many, and their brutality towards prisoners presented as a reflection of the equally brutal treatment they received at the hands of the Spanish conquerors. As archaeological evidence revealed that the Aztecs practiced both human sacrifice and cannibalism, other motivations were presented, including the belief by one scholar that the practice of eating human flesh was caused by lack of other sources of protein. The reports by Diaz, Hernan de Cortes, and other Spanish eyewitnesses to human sacrifice and cannibalism were long dismissed as propaganda by the Spanish to support their destruction of the Aztec culture, but archaeological excavations provided physical evidence which corroborates what the Spanish claimed to have seen, at the sites where they reported seeing them. They are further corroborated by the Aztec’s pictorial codices.

The Aztecs were not the only culture encountered in the New World by arriving Europeans who were reported to practice cannibalism. There are reports of the practice among the Mayans and among the tribes in New England and Canada. Few lives were ever one of more brutality than those lived by the Aztec, informed at the moment of birth that their life would be one of affliction and sacrifice. It is somewhat ironic that the best known of the Aztec gods today is arguably Quetzalcoatl, who in his portion of the creation legend was against the sacrifice or taking of human life. For centuries it was thought that the Aztecs had believed Cortes to be the return of Quetzalcoatl, a belief now widely discounted as the creation of Cortes for self-serving reasons, spread by Franciscan missionaries, and bearing no truth.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Aztecs”. Michael E. Smith. 2002

“Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control”. Ross Hassig. 1998

“The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society”. Frances Berdan. 1989

“Daily Life of the Aztecs: People of the Sun and Earth”. David Carrasco. 1998

“General History of the Things of New Spain (the Florentine Codex)”. Bernardino de Shahgun. World Digital Library edition. Online

Conquistadors sacrificed and eaten by Aztec-era people, archaeologists say”. Alan Yuhas, The Guardian. October 10, 2015

“The 8 Most Important Gods and Goddesses of the Aztec Empire”, Léonie Chao-Fong, History Hit, 3 Sep 2021

“The History of the Indies of New Spain”. Diego Duran. 1581 (1994).

“Brutality of Aztecs, Mayas Corroborated”. Mark Stevenson, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times. January 23, 2005

“Ancient Aztec Festivals, Celebrations and Holidays”, HAUNTY, Owlcation, JUN 3, 2019

“Aztec Thought and Culture”. Miguel Leon-Portilla. 1990

“Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures”. Anthony F. Aveni. 2000

“Ancient Aztec Perspective on Death and Afterlife”. Melissa Bjordal, The Chrisit Center. February 11, 2013. Online

“Tower of human skulls found in Mexico City dig casts light on Aztec sacrifices”. Reuters report, The Guardian. July 1, 2017

“The Discovery of Yucatan in 1517 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba”. Marshall H. Saville. Full text at jstor. Online

“Aztec Sacrifices Laid to Hunger, Not Just Religion”. Boyce Rensberger, The New York Times. February 19, 1977

“Experts on Aztecs Deny Withholding Cannibalism ‘Facts'”, Boyce Rensberger, The New York Times, March 3, 1977