"Human sacrifice, practiced by most other Mesoamericans, had become the central rite of Aztec religion." (Honour and Fleming 522)
In this quote I found the concept of a religion that commits acts that show such outright disregard for humans, in some cases their own kind, to be intriguing. Yet, in the quote, the human sacrifice by the Aztecs is attributed to religion, and nothing more. This is one thing I disagree with to some extent. I believe that the Aztecs must have had multiple underlying reasons for sacrifice, ranging from religion, to nutrition, and economic state. There are many accounts and estimates by various authors regarding the number of sacrifices made annually by the Aztecs. Some say it was three to four thousand (Cortes 24) to random estimates ranging from 20,000 to 250,000 based on remains at Tenochtitlan and Xocotlan. What we do know however, is that no matter what the exact number of annual human sacrifices was, it was much more than most of us would like to ponder over.
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I personally believe that the Aztecs had various purposes for human sacrifice. These purposes ranged from the main factor of religious beliefs, to their economy, and nutritional protein received through cannibalism. Regarding the religious aspect, the Aztecs believed that the universe ran on an energy called tonalli, or "animating spirit". In humans, tonalli is said to be in the blood stream and when a man is frightened at his moment of death by sacrifice, the tonalli concentrates in the heart. This is why the hearts of the sacrificed were torn out and given to the gods. It was this that they believed nourished the gods and kept the sun in constant rotation. The gods need for tonalli is continual and essential in driving the universe. The Aztecs believed that without tonalli, everything would stop.(Graulick 393) Yet, human sacrifice by the Aztec peoples cannot be solely attributed to religious beliefs. This is due to the treatment of the sacrificed after the ceremonies. In what other religion does the body of a sacrificial victim get thrown down a set of stairs to be dismembered and consumed at the bottom? This is one factor that leads me to believe the Aztecs had more than one reason behind such numerous sacrifices.
With the number of people being sacrificed by the Aztecs, and the fact that they did practice cannibalism, the most logical reasoning behind this would have to lean towards nutritional benefit. It is a proven fact that the Aztecs, after having sacrificed a human, dismembered him and to some extent consumed him, both from depictions in art and statements in literature. Some say, due to the lack of animals aside from lizards and insects, that cannibalism was essential to the Aztec’s diet. Beans and maize were the Aztecs sole sources of protein, and unless eaten together in massive amounts, they would not have gotten enough essential amino acids to lead reasonably healthy lives. (Harner 117) Cannibalism was an easy source of nourishment and provided the required proteins not necessarily acquired from their staple foods. And even if the proteins were carried by produce, not a sufficient amount would be gained because of lack of agriculture due to an economy not able to support it’s population.
The Aztecs were not an economically sound culture, specifically food production in the city of Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan, as a city, was not able to "fend for itself" in the sense that it’s population could not be supported solely by it’s local agriculture. The agriculture in general, was advanced in comparison to other local cultures, yet not to the extent to support the needs of it’s growing population. To compensate for this, a system of tribute’s arose. Tributes were collected from nearby states, through the trade of goods and services to compensate for domestic deficits. (Cortes 10) Yet tributes or not, the Aztecs in many cases had to take things into their own hands. I believe that in regards to the economy, mass human sacrifice was beneficial in more ways than one. Through sacrifice of their own, which was not generally the case, but far from infrequent, there was both an increase in food and a resulting decrease in population to provide for.
The Aztecs, however interpreted, did what they felt they had to do to survive, whether it be physically surviving through the consumption of humans for their required protein and nutrients or through sacrifices to the gods, keeping them pleased and the sun in constant rotation. Although human sacrifice was the central rite in Aztec religion, it was not only their religion that it fell into. Human sacrifice benefitted the Aztecs in multiple ways, even if religion is what it is most commonly related back to. Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming.
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