Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture

Stephanie Schoppert - April 5, 2017

The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that spoke Nahuatl and dominated large parts of central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Many people in Mexico today can claim to be descendants of Aztecs and their capital city of Tenochtitlan is now modern-day Mexico City. The Aztecs had an advanced society and a rich culture, but it is their brutal tradition of human sacrifice that many remember today. Here are just a few startling facts showing how the Aztecs were so much more than just sacrifices.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Aztec ball court.

They Had Celebrity Athletes

The Aztecs played a ballgame that was popular with Mesoamerican cultures which they called ullamaliztli. The game was played on a large narrow ballcourt with slanted sides. At the top of each side wall was a vertical hoop that the players would bounce a rubber ball through in order to score a point. Players could only use their hips to hit the ball, though some versions may have allowed for elbows or knees.

The game had religious significance for the Aztecs, and the largest ballcourt in the capital of Tenochtitlan was even called Teotlachco (the holy ballcourt). The game represented the battle of the sun god Huitzilopochtli against the forces of night led by the moon goddess and the stars. The game was also played for fun and not just as ritual, and while it may have been enjoyed by children, it was mostly a pastime of the nobles.

Children were taught how to play the sport while in school and just like today, if a child showed skill in the sport they could become famous enough to play the sport professionally. Successful players would travel to different city wards where they would play for large crowds. The crowds would participate with heavy betting in order to try and make money through the skill of their favorite ballplayers. A ballplayer that frequently won would find themselves something of a celebrity in the towns that they visited.

The sport was so prized and so popular that citizens would do just about anything to be able to bet on it. When Spanish chronicler Diego Duran visited the Aztec cities he was shocked to see that people were willing to sell their own children in order to have money to bet. If they were without children, a person might stake their own life, becoming a slave if they lost a bet. In 1528, Cortes even sent a team of ballplayers to Spain to perform for Charles V, where the Europeans became fascinated with the bouncing rubber balls.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Depiction of Mictlan.

They Believed How a Person Died Determined Their Afterlife

The Aztecs were very focused on death and believed that it really didn’t matter how a person lived in terms of where they ended up in the afterlife. What truly mattered to the Aztecs was how a person died. There were different underworlds or paradises that a person could be sent to, where they would wait for 4 years in order to be reincarnated.

The Aztecs believed in Mictlan, 13 levels of heavens where the Gods resided and where only certain souls were sent. Babies who perished and men waiting to be reincarnated would be allowed to reside in one of the levels of heaven until their time came to be reincarnated. Mictlan also included the 9 levels of the underworld.

People who died normal deaths would go to the paradise of the North where they would reside before moving through the nine trials of the underworld. The soul would have 4 years to complete the trials which included a level where they would be pierced by arrows and a level where they would be beheaded. They would have to face icy winds or wild beasts and pass mountains. It was therefore common for Aztecs to be buried with things that would help them on their journey to reincarnation.

There were three other paradises in the underworld where a soul could be sent. The paradise of the East was the home of the souls who had been sacrificed to the Gods or died in combat. These souls would return to Earth as hummingbirds or butterflies after four years. The paradise of the West was the place for the souls of women who had died in childbirth. According to some myths, these women would return to earth as phantoms. The final paradise was that of the South and was reserved for those who drowned, were struck by lightning, or died from illnesses associated with the god of water and rain.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Bronze casting done of Nezahualcoyotl.

Poetry Was Highly Regarded

The Aztecs relished the arts, from their carvings, paintings, and mosaics to their sensitive poetic ambitions. There are a number of Aztec poems that survive to this day and give insight into the more emotional side of a culture that is often seen as brutal and unforgiving. They would recite poems at festivals or ceremonies, and a skilled poet could find himself renowned throughout the region.

Poetry to the Aztecs was referred to as “flower and song,” which were metaphors for art and symbolism. It was believed to be the highest of all art forms and it expressed the transient nature of life of earth for the Aztecs. Since the Aztecs believed that their principal god Omeoteotl achieved immortality through his creativity, it was the goal of Aztec poets to achieve the same.

One of the most famous poets was Nezahualcoyotl (meaning hungry coyote). His poems are still renowned to this day for their symbolism, myth, and style. They greatly influenced other poets, and for generations after his death, his poems continued to be recited and shared. Nezahualcoyotl was an important figure who was an architect, engineer, city planner, philosopher, and lawgiver, but it is his work as a poet that endeared him to the Aztec people.

The poems of the Aztec people were also used to show their depth of emotion and their mourning over those they lost. When the Spanish conquered, the Aztec people used their poems to express their grief and sadness at having lost not only the lives of those close to them, but also their homes and their culture.

Nothing but flowers and songs of sorrow

are left in Mexico and Tlatelolco,

where once we saw warriors and wise men.

We know it is true

that we must perish,

for we are mortal men.

You, the Giver of Life,

you have ordained it.

We wander here and there

in our desolate poverty.

We are mortal men.

We have seen bloodshed and pain

where once we saw beauty and valor.

We are crushed to the ground;

we lie in ruins.

There is nothing but grief and suffering

in Mexico and Tlatelolco,

where once we saw beauty and valor.

Have you grown weary of your servants?

Are you angry with your servants,

O Giver of Life?

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Codex depicting how parents would teach their children.

School Was Required By Law

When it came to school, the Aztecs felt it was very important for all children to attend. Unlike other cultures of the period, both boys and girls of all levels of society (including slaves) were expected to attend school. Starting at the age of 5, children were taught by their parents. They would learn of sayings known as the huehujetlatolli, which the children would be regularly tested on and expected to recite.

When the children reached the age of 15 they would be sent to school. Noble children would be sent to the calmecac, which would prepare them for noble life and duties. Especially bright commoners might also be given the honor of attending the calmecac. Here boys would learn literacy, history, geometry, calendrics, military arts, and religious rituals. The commoners school was known as the telpochcalli, and it was there that boys would learn history, religion, agriculture, fighting techniques, and either a craft or trade that they showed promise in.

Girls did not attend the calmecac or the telpochalli, instead they were sent to a school that taught them household skills as well as religious rituals, singing, dancing, and crafts. If a girl was particularly talented she would receive the full training of a healer so that she could become a midwife. Girls who were talented in singing or dancing would be sent to a special school to refine those skills.

Education for the Aztecs was compulsory for all citizens, as it was believed necessary for a functioning society for everyone to be as well-educated and prepared for their role in life. Even commoners were given choice in the craft or trade they would learn, and women, though they were subordinate to men, could improve their position in life by excelling in their studies. A commoner could move up to being an important person in their city if they truly excelled in school.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Aztec codex showing Aztecs drinking chocolate.

Chocolate Was More Than Just Dessert

Aztec chocolate was something that was highly prized. It had religious basis, social basis, and financial basis. Cacao seeds could be used as money, and one single cacao seed could be traded for a tomato, three beans, an avocado, a rabbit, 200 beans, and a turkey cock. It was highly prized, because getting authentic cacao was hard since it was only harvested in the Mayan lowlands.

The Aztecs saw the cacao as a symbol for sacrifice, as the seeds spilling out of the pod were thought to resemble blood spilling out of the body when the heart was torn out. In turn, some of the chocolate drinks made by the Aztecs would be dyed red to represent blood. One yearly ritual had a male slave wearing the jewels of the gods for 40 days, during which he drank chocolate mixed with blood from sacrificial knives and danced. At the end of the 40 days, the man himself would be sacrificed.

The Aztecs never consumed chocolate in bar form like is common today. Instead it was more of a cold drink. One Spanish missionary reported that the Aztecs became intoxicated when they drank too much of it. This has led some to wonder if the drink was fermented or mixed with alcohol. There was one drink that was made from fermented green cacao pulp as well. The flavor of the chocolate was much different as well, it was bitter, strong and spicy, nothing like the sweet treat it is today.

Chocolate was also a status symbol, meant only for nobles, merchants, and warriors. If a commoner was seen with chocolate, it was believed to be a bad omen. The Aztecs would serve it with tobacco after a banquet and emperors would be served copious amounts in golden cups. The chocolate drink was also said to lead to “success with women.”

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Aztec human sacrifices.

They Sacrificed Children

Human sacrifices by the Aztecs were seen as necessary to appease the gods. If the gods ever became angry due to lack of sacrifices, there would be punishments, either through bad harvests, losses in battle, bad weather, or the end of the world. Sacrifices were deeply steeped in mythology, and those who were sacrificed were seen as honorable and prized people and they were rewarded in the afterlife.

Children were not exempt from sacrifice, and they were needed as part of the sacrifices to the most important god of all, Tlaloc, the rain god. It was said that if enough sacrifices were not made to Tlaloc he would not bring the rain and the crops would not grow. It was believed that Tlaloc required the tears of the young in order to wet the earth. To that end, children with painful conditions such as cavities, injuries, or bone infections were often picked for the annual sacrifice so that they would cry and offer their tears to Tlaloc.

If the child was not crying, they would sometimes tear off a fingernail in order to prompt them to cry. So far, the remains of 42 children have been discovered, believed to have been sacrificed to Tlaloc. Children, may have also been drowned, a method of death associated with the water god in order to bring about the end to a drought.

The practice horrified visitors to the region. Sahagun wrote in History of the Things of New Spain that in the first month of the year, parents would approve their children for sacrifice and then eat the remains. There were five months out of the year that children would be chosen for sacrifice to certain gods, and one historian has claimed that one in five Aztec children were sacrificed.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Aztec God of Drunkenness.

Alcohol was Banned

The Aztecs had a traditional drink called pulque, which was a sort of fermented agave juice. It played a very important part in religious rituals for the Aztecs. But it was a drink that was only reserved for the very old. Anyone who was young and found drinking pulque would face severe punishment. For the worst offenders of alcohol consumption before the appropriate age, the punishment was death by strangulation.

The reason for the hatred of alcohol for the young was due to the myth of the 400 drunken rabbits. According to legend, the Goddess of Flower gave some pulque to the King of Tula. The King promptly drank too much and became drunk, at which point he raped the Goddess. It was decided that drinking would only be allowed for men who were old and experienced, and could therefore control themselves.

The Aztecs had a phrase for someone that partook of too much alcohol and that was that they were as “drunk as 400 rabbits.” The phrase comes from the rest of the myth of the Goddess of Flowers. After her rape, she became known the Goddess of Pulque. She had 400 breasts that all produced the fermented drink. She had an infinite number (often represented as 400) of children with her husband Petecatl who was the god of fermentation. Her children were depicted as rabbits and they were referred to as the Gods of Drunkenness.

Some of the rabbits even had specific names. One was known as Straw Mirror (for when you are so drunk your vision is like looking into a mirror made of straw) or Five Rabbit (the god of hangovers). The god of Hanging was also one of the drunken rabbits, because it was not uncommon for drunk Aztecs to accidentally hang themselves.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Artist rendering of Aztec farms.

They Were Highly Skilled in Agriculture

The Aztecs lived in an area that was very dry and not ideal for farming. They did manage to find a way around that problem through the use of Chinampa. These were essential in getting a range of crops to grow in the dry climate and be able to weather some of the droughts the region experienced.

To create a Chinampa, farmers would stake out an area in a lake bed, typically about thirty by two and a half meters. After they fenced the area off they would fill it with mud, sediment, and compost to rise the ground above the level of the lake. Trees would also be planted in the corners in order to help secure the artificial island. These small islands in the middle of shallow lakes then became areas of rich soil with easy access to water.

The Aztecs also practiced terrace farming in which they would create walls of stone in hillsides. These walls would then be filled in to create areas of deeper soil that could be used to plant crops even in areas were the land was not flat. One problem the Aztecs faced was retaining nutrients in the soil. They had two ways of dealing with that issue. The first thing they did was rely heavily on what they called the “three sisters.” The three sisters referred to maize, squash, and beans, which would be planted together because they would keep the nutrients in the soil. Aztecs farmers would also rotate their fields in order to allow some of the land to lay fallow and regenerate nutrients.

Agriculture was a trade that was taught in school and the knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. In addition to maize, beans, and squash, Aztec farmers also grew avocado, tomatoes, and guava, as well as cotton and rubber trees.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
Aztec Healer.

Some Of Their Herbal Remedies Are Still Used Today

The Aztecs were highly devoted to herbalism and learning about the body. Healers were encouraged to spend time in the gardens of the nobles to find cures for common ailments. Some are quite strange by today’s standards, but others have proven to be effective and are still used today.

One of the ways that historians have learned about the Aztec practice of herbs and healing is through the Badianus Manuscript, an illustrated text from 1552 that detailed the use of over 180 trees and plants for treating a variety of illnesses or pains. One treatment detailed in the book told of using gold turquoise, red coral and the burned heart of a stag in order to cure “a pain or heat in the heart” which could have referred to heartburn. The cure for a headache was more likely to make the headache worse than better as it involved cutting into the skull with an obsidian blade.

One Aztec cure that has been substantiated is the use of what they called chicalote, which was used to treat pain. It was later discovered to be a substance found in a plant called Argemone Mexicana, which is closely related to opium poppy. Both plants have analgesic properties.

Healers would also use the sap of the agave plant as a way to clean and treat wounds. It is now known that this sap can be effective in killing staphylococcus aureus and E. Coli bacteria. An herbal remedy that is still used today is passionflower. The Aztecs used it as a sedative and it is used today as a way to fight insomnia and agitation.

Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture
The Cochineal Beetle.

They Created the Red Dye That Changed the World

Prior to the Spanish conquering the Aztecs, the European world had never been able to dye their fabrics a deep scarlet color. The Europeans up until the early 16th century used a plant extract that was known as madder red, but it made a color that was paler than the red the Aztecs were able to create. Therefore, as soon as the Spaniards saw the rich fabrics they were determined to know how to make it for themselves.

The secret ingredient to the rich scarlet of Aztec cloth was the use of the cochineal beetle. The beetle lives on the prickly pear cacti and one quarter of the bug’s body consists of carminic acid. It is that acid which creates the red dye. The beetles are small, which means creating the dye is incredibly time consuming. It took 70,000 of the beetles to make just one pound of dye.

Once the Spaniards knew the secret, they did everything they could to keep it from the rest of the world and they started exporting the dye immediately. It would then become a staple of the Spanish economy for the next 300 years. Due to the number of insects needed to create the dye, it was only used for the wealthiest people and the most high-quality fabrics.

Redcoat officers in the British army had their uniforms dyed with the cochineal beetle dye, but the regular enlisted men only had madder dyed uniforms. The rich red that Catholic cardinals became known for was due to the dye of the cochineal beetle. Even today, the dye is still used as a completely organic food dye.