Guest author: History Raetold

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The Utterly Bizarre Human Sacrificial Practices of the Aztecs; or, Hey Guys, Let’s Go to MurderFest™

I love the Aztecs. The Aztecs are my #1 favourite ancient civilisation. Did you know they chose the site of their capital city (which is in the middle of a river) because they saw an eagle dismembering and eating a snake on top of a cactus and were like “this is suitably metal as fuck, I vote we make a city here”? Love. The. Aztecs.

So the Aztecs, as you may know, were a mad Mesoamerican civilisation in central Mexico in the 1300s–1500s, known for human sacrifice, fantastic colourful prints, excessive amounts of gold, that weird ballgame featured in cinematic masterpiece The Road to El Dorado, and eventually being conquered by the Spanish. 

Quite obviously, we’re going to focus on the human sacrifice, because that shit is fascinating.

The Road to El Dorado: bisexual masterpiece, greatest film of all time, completely historically accurate. Contains all the information you’ll ever need to know about the Mesoamericans; stop reading this and go watchThe Road to El Dorado.

Now, there are a bunch of civilisations that were super into human sacrifice at various points in history (including the Incas, which we’ll touch upon later because of some weird shit they did to their skulls), but nobody was quite as absolutely fucking nuts about human sacrifice as the Aztecs. They loved it. Were crazy about it. Doodled the words ‘human sacrifice’ on all their books with little hearts around them.

To put it succinctly, the Aztecs were absolute sluts for human sacrifice.

They weren’t always into human sacrifice in such a way. Up until around 1400, they were a reasonably normal civilisation of living people who kept their insides pretty consistently on the inside. But then, about 50 years into the empire, this murder-bro called Tlacaelel came along and declared Huitzilopochtli, the god of war (think Mars or Jupiter but with 100% more stylish prints and gold jewellery), the highest of all gods. From then on, it was human sacrifice city.

When I say they loved to sacrifice humans, I cannot emphasise enough how much they loved to sacrifice humans. At their height, they were sacrificing 250,000 people a year to the gods. Considering central America didn’t have the hugest population at that point, this was a pretty tricky level of human sacrifice to maintain for more than a year or two. Lots of people did volunteer for the great honour of having their heart ripped out and waved in the air for the gods, but not, like, quarter of a million volunteers a year. And herein lay the Aztecs’ problem: the supply of willing bodies was just not matching up to the ENORMOUS demand for murder.

*sings nervously* whaaaaat the fuck, guys.

So, naturally, our boys the Aztecs started INVENTING WARS. They’d just barge into neighbouring towns and villages and be like “HI THERE FRIENDS, WE’RE AT WAR NOW. COULD YOU POSSIBLY LEND US A FEW HUNDRED THOUSAND POWS TO SACRIFICE TO OUR MURDER GODS PLEASE”. Then they stepped up this PERFECTLY REASONABLE behaviour by setting up a deal with the neighbouring city-state of Tlaxcala, wherein they staged battles purely to get new prisoners to execute. Everyone was fine with this because it was a perfectly normal thing to do.

Often, prisoners of war would be offered the chance to win their freedom (and by freedom, I mean a place on the Aztec army, which, I’ll be honest, was less freedom and more delaying the inevitably bloody and brutal death) by playing a SUPER FUN and definitely not totally murdery sport. The Mesoamerican Ballgame, which developed into a game called ulama that’s still played today, was a little like squash meets basketball meets rugby meets dying violently. The general gist was that you had to knock a ball into a little stone hoop high up in the air, but couldn’t touch the ball with your hands or feet. This lasted until the sun hit a certain point, which could be a good few hours depending on how early you started the game (or really quick, if you started in the late afternoon), and then the losers WERE SACRIFICED TO THE GODS. Obviously. This was a particularly good approach, because they got a team of human sacrifices regardless of who won. Also, who doesn’t love a bit of sport?

My favourite part of this modern-day picture of a game ofulamais the small boy acting as a security guard in the background. Anyway, these people probably weren’t sacrificed to any deities regardless of how the game went.

This led us to the totally natural next step, which was, of course, MURDER FESTIVALS. The Aztec calendar was buzzing with MurderFests™, where they could ramp up the murder even more than normal. 

One popular MurderFest™ was the Festival of Toxcatl, where one man would be chosen for the great honour of representing the god Toxcatl for a month. He was specifically chosen because he was a hottie, with nice skin and long hair. His skin was painted black and he was dressed up all fancy in nice clothes and a flower crown (because it’s a festival), and for the next month he was treated like a god. He got four wives to do with as he pleased because, you know, women are objects, and was showered with gifts and food and whatever he wanted, while he pranced around the city playing the flute so people could honour him. And then, at the end of the month, he skipped merrily up to the top of a pyramid, still playing the flute, and was laid across an altar where some priests carved open his chest with a stone knife, cracked open his sternum, and ripped out his still-beating heart, holding it up to the sky, where the gods presumably lived. They’d cut his head off and pop it in their skull rack (kind of like a wine rack, but with skulls). His skin was then flayed and made into soup to be fed to the nobles, because nothing makes a festival like some good old-fashioned cannibalism.

Just standard festival stuff, you know.

Let’s be completely honest, far worse stuff has happened at Glastonbury and you know it.

Fun fact: they still make this soup in parts of Mexico today, but with pork instead of people. When the Spanish came over and introduced (read as: violently enforced) Christianity and made them switch to pork, the Aztecs said it tasted a lot like human flesh. So in case you were wondering what human flesh tastes like – probably pork.

Another popular and perfectly normal festival was the aptly-named Festival of the Flaying of Men.

Look, the Aztecs were not a people for subtlety.

During this particular MurderFest™, prisoners, particularly prisoners of war (are there even any other types? Not in Aztec country there’s not), were given the chance to earn their freedom by winning in hand-to-hand combat. Or, to be more specific, hand-to-multiple-stronger-and-far-more-heavily-armed-hands combat. They would be popped in a ring and made to fight seven powerful warriors. They were usually armed with wooden sticks. The warriors were armed with actual weapons that weren’t made of wood but were instead made of stronger materials such as metal and death. Also the prisoner was chained to a rock. Good odds.

Stories say that one man actually did win this bizarre Trial by Uneven Combat. Tlahuicole, chief of the Tlaxcalan tribe (they were mentioned before, yeah? Come on, I’m expecting you to remember all these ’T’ names. There’s going to be a test later) was defeated in battle and, as was normal, was offered the chance to win his freedom in this way. He was chained to a rock (of course), armed with some blunt wooden weapons (naturally), and set upon by a gang of heavily-armed warriors (what else?).

And he killed them all.

Check out the happy lil silhouette in the background, living his best life.

Obviously, he was a bit bloodied by the day’s activities, what with losing a battle and then being beaten up while chained to a rock, but the Aztecs were nonetheless impressed by his badassery and offered to clean him up and give him a post as captain in their army.

But our boy Tlahuicole was having NONE of this, because he was a badass but also an utter loon who had completely bought into all this mad shit, and instead of taking this lifeline, he was like “NO it would be a DISHONOUR to serve for your lame army, I’d rather DIE”.

Fucking drama queen.

So anyway they dragged him up a pyramid before he bled out on their football pitch, and sacrificed him to the gods.

Human sacrifice was generally pretty common around the time – fellow murder-mad Mesoamerican civilisation the Incas would designate babies as sacrificial from birth, an honour that was only given to the children of high-born families. Their sacrifices were a little less showy – they liked to drug their sacrificees and leave them on a mountain to freeze to death – but they made up for this tame shit by binding their heads as babies to make them pointy, resembling the mountains they were to be sacrificed on. Which is like… ok? Mutilate the babies you’re planning to murder, I guess? Cool. Nice work guys. If you’re interested in this, there are a bunch of pointy Inca skulls in museums. I’m not sure which ones. Some of the museums.

(I considered doing a full thing about Incan sacrifice because of some cool mummies that were discovered, but they were WAY bigger on child sacrifice and there are very few ways to make murdering kids funny).

The odd thing was, loads of people saw being sacrificed to the gods as a huge honour. They believed that, in dying this way, they’d get to live with the gods and watch over their people forever. In fact, when the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and freed a bunch of prisoners, loads of them were FURIOUS that they were being robbed of their chance to be carved open on an altar. So, I guess, if that’s your thing, that’s your thing. You do you, guys.


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