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why was human sacrifice important to the aztecs

The Aztec sacrifice rituals are a great topic of interest to Archaeologists, especially when one considers how in an empire of such magnificence, such acts of barbarism occurred. When the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, he was astonished to discover that the cityБs size dwarfed that of the cities in 16th century Europe. However, the sight of human sacrifice quickly made Spanish conquerors view the Aztecs as nothing more than devil worshiping savages. Upon arriving at the city center (Where the temples of the war god, Huitzilopochtli, and the rain god, Tlaloc, stood) Spanish conquistadors recorded in their diaries some of the gruesome scenes that they witnessed. For example, the temple stairs were stained with blood, and along the bottom of the temple stairs sat rows of wooden pulls upon which skulls were placed on like meat on a cabob, hence giving them the name Бthe skull racks. Б By the skull racks were some small shops that were selling limbs and body parts of sacrificed victims to the public. Also, when Cortes met with the Aztec priests, he noted that their hair was stained in blood and they reeked of the stench of rancid meat. An Interesting event that occurred during CortesБ encounter with the Aztecs was that while he and some of his men were visiting in Tenochtitlan, a smaller company of Spanish men, women, and horses were resting in the jungles nearby waiting for CortesБ orders to come and help him conquer the city. Before they got word from Cortes, however, they were ambushed in the night by an elite group of Aztec warriors. As was custom for the Aztecs (who used obsidian clubs to impair rather than kill their enemy), the warriors took most of the Spanish as prisoners and took them to the abandoned city site of Teotihuacan.

Upon arriving at Teotihuacan, the Aztec warriors had a priest sacrifice all of the Spanish captives. The evidence for this came both from a grave of the remains of men, women, and horses near Teotihuacan as well as from a Spanish diary written by a man who had recorded the scene that followed the capture of the Spanish group. In the diary, thereБs a drawing of a skull rack holding the heads of women, heavily bearded men, and horses. This drawing gave archaeologists evidence of this incident in that the Aztecs did not often have beards as were depicted in this picture, and horses had not yet been released in Mesoamerica, thus leaving the Spanish as the only possible people depicted in the drawing.
Although some maintain that the notion that the Aztecs (Mexica) practiced human sacrifice is a myth that originated with the Spanish conquistadores to justify and legitimate their conquests, in fact, abundant evidence demonstrates that the state, like many other pre-Columbian Mesoamerican and Andean polities, regularly practiced ritual human sacrifice. The evidence also shows that the Aztecs institutionalized this practice, elevating it to a high art form, the state s most important public spectacle, and a key state function essential to the well-being of the cosmos. This evidence includes scores of Spanish and native accounts composed during and after the, along with abundant archaeological and textual artifacts that predate the Spanish invasion. The religious and cultural beliefs inspiring Aztec ritual human sacrifice had deep roots in Mesoamerican society and culture.

Many pre-Columbian polities in the Americas are known to have ritually sacrificed human beings to their gods. These included many Maya kingdoms and city-states, Monte AlbГn and subsequent Zapotec polities, TeotihuacГn, the Toltecs, and others. Such practices were rooted in a pan-Mesoamerican corpus of beliefs concerning the spiritual power of human blood, and the everyday intervention of the gods in human affairs. States transformed these broad cultural understandings into state ideologies and spectacles. Ruling groups portrayed public offerings of human blood as payment of a debt owed to the gods. By propitiating the gods with the most valuable substance in the universe human blood states terrorized foes and depicted themselves securing a larger social and cosmic good. Public and private bloodletting rituals in the service of the gods were common across Mesoamerica, and ritual human sacrifice was the most extreme form of bloodletting. The Aztecs took the practice to an extreme, sacrificing people on diverse occasions in propitiation of many divine beings. Of the 18 ceremonial events that occurred during each of the 18 months of the Aztec solar year, eight included ritual human sacrifice. These included the ceremony of Quecholli ( Precious Feather, October 31 November 9), in which priests ritually slew and sacrificed captives dressed as deer, and the ceremony of Atl Caualo ( Ceasing of Water, February 13 March 4), in which infants and children were publicly marched in groups before being sacrificed. The gruesome sacrifice involved four priests holding the victim down on top of a large stone for another priest to cut open in order to remove the heart.

By ritual preparation and transformation, the victim was depicted as becoming the god to whom he or she would be sacrificed. There were many variations on these general themes. The most frequently propitiated divine entity was Huitzilopochtli, the god of the Sun and war, particularly at the end of each 52-year Aztec century. Without such offerings, the state claimed, the Sun would cease to rise and the universe would come to an end. After the Aztec Triple Alliance of 1428 joined together TenochtitlГn, Texcoco, and TlacopГn, the practice of human sacrifice was institutionalized at the highest levels of the Aztec state. Major events such as victory in war, inauguration of a new ruler, or dedication of an important public structure became occasions for large-scale human sacrifice. The most extensive such instance occurred in 1487 with the dedication of the Temple of Huitzilopochtli in TenochtitlГn, in which an estimated 20,000 people were ritually sacrificed over four days. The Aztecs also initiated prearranged wars with neighboring polities ritualized battles called the Flowery Wars in large part to secure sacrificial victims. In its meteoric rise to domination, the Aztec state made such practices integral to state ideology and imperial ambitions. Ritual human sacrifice displayed the Aztec state s awesome political and religious power, terrorized its enemies, worked as a cohesive ideological force among its subjects, and generated animosities against its rule among subordinate states that the later exploited in the conquest of Mexico.

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