I came across a brief article today on the Past Horizons website noting that archaeologists at the site of Tehuacan in Puebla, Mexico believe they’ve identified a mid-fourteenth century shrine to the Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli (pron. Mict-lan-te-cuht-li) or ‘Lord of the Land of the Dead’.
Just last night I wrote a post about hosting my first Dia de los Muertos celebration, so I’d already been thinking about Mexico’s deeply rooted views that life and death are fundamentally interconnected.
In the Aztec religion, Mictlantecuhtli ruled the underworld (Mictlán) with his wife Mictecacíhuatl. Mictlán, consisted of nine distinct levels and that’s where most people went when they died. This idea that the dead go on to “live” in an underworld is not unique in the world. For instance, the Ancient Greeks had Hades (both god and place) and the Egyptians had their realm of the dead, the Duat.
The Aztecs believed in a natural cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. The rebirth was to the Land of the Dead, but life continued nonetheless. In fact, it was believed that to die was to wake from the dream of life.
Another form of rebirth was related to the sacrifice of human blood, seen as the sacred life force. The Aztecs did not fear or begrudge this sacrifice. After all, the gods had sacrificed themselves to create the sun, allow the sun to rise and set, and to create people. The world inhabited by humans was created through the sacrifice of the gods.
The Aztecs believed that blood nourished the gods and kept the natural world in balance. Their sacrifice meant the sun would continue to rise, food would continue to grow, and all would be right with the world. Avoiding the sacrifice meant the world would end. The Aztecs believed it was their duty to delay the world’s destruction.
Those who were sacrificed were either volunteers or captured warriors. Volunteers saw their choice as the height of nobility and honor. The captured warriors probably weren’t as excited about the opportunity, but brave warriors provided ideal sacrifices and I suspect it didn’t take long before the Aztecs realized that sacrificing their own warriors would have a negative impact on their ability to defend their lands and way of life.
It’s also worth noting that those who died as a sacrifice would skip Mictlán all together and go straight to live with the sun god. This was also true for warriors who died in battle and women that died during childbirth. It was only if a person died a normal death that his or her soul would take a difficult four-year journey through the nine levels of the underworld before reaching their final destination in Mictlán. With that in mind, perhaps it’s understandable why some would volunteer to be sacrificed. They were not only saving the world, but they were also nicely rewarded.
During the Pre-Hispanic and Early Colonial period, Mexico was experiencing a series of severe and prolonged “megadroughts” that are estimated to have lasted as long as 19 years at a time. This has been read from the Aztec codices and confirmed by Scientists using dendrochronology (the study of tree rings). The Aztecs likely thought their gods were angry or malnourished and that the end of the world was imminent. This probably explains why the Spanish Conquistadors described human sacrifice on such a large scale. Although, one can argue that reports may well be exaggerated to make the Aztecs look bad and justify the Spanish conquest. It’s hard to say, but most certainly the Spanish had no context or understanding for what they were witnessing. The lengthy drought would have contributed to their surprisingly rapid downfall since the health and strength of the Aztecs were already compromised. It might also help explain why the Spanish were initially welcomed as gods. I imagine the Aztecs where praying for a savior to deliver them from their hardships. Ironically and sadly, they got the opposite.
Although human sacrifice was an important part of the Aztec culture, it’s not clear how bloodthirsty they actually were. And, I think it is important that we endeavor to focus as much attention on the magnitude of their various accomplishments in architecture, mathematics, medicine, language, farming, and technology. To learn more, I highly recommend a visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) in Mexico City. I thought it was incredible and surprisingly vast. The official website is in Spanish, but you can read TripAdvisor reviews here.