The first thing to understand about the Mesoamerican cultures and the Aztecs' use of human sacrifice is that they were not horrified by it. Instead, it was a natural part of life to them, necessary to keep the world balanced and going forward. Blood and sacrifice helped the sun to rise and move across the sky. Without it, their world would end.
That's not to say that all Aztecs and other Mesoamericans went to the sacrifice willingly. No doubt many did not want to be sacrificed or to die. Others, however, agreed to give of themselves for the greater good. When we picture victims being led to sacrifice, we see them as weeping, moaning and fighting to get free. For the most part, that simply didn't happen.
To die as a sacrifice was the most honorable death the Aztecs knew. When an Aztec warrior died in battle or an Aztec woman in childbirth, those were also good, honorable deaths. People who died as a sacrifice, as a warrior or in childbirth went to a paradise to be with the gods after death. In contrast, a person who died of disease went to the lowest level of the underworld, Mictlan.
Many scholars have devised theories to explain this “darkness” of the Aztecs, their love of human sacrifice. Some posited that Aztecs were savages and amoral, less than human. Others have said the Aztec leaders used human sacrifice to terrorize their population and the nearby cultures. Some stated that an essential protein was missing from the Aztec diet and they needed the “meat” from human sacrifices to feed themselves, using cannibalism to do so. None of these theories, however, have held up.
From its earliest inception, Mesoamerican cultures featured human sacrifice so it was plainly not “invented” by Aztec rulers to terrorize the people, nor was it a betrayal by the priesthood of Aztec spirituality. Studies of the Aztec's mainly vegetarian diet flavored with occasional turkey or dog revealed all necessary ingredients to sustain life. The Aztecs had laws against murder and injury, just as we do, so it wasn't that they were depraved savages.
Rather, it was a central part of their religion and spirituality, to give up their blood and lives in devotion and dedication to the gods who had sacrificed themselves to create the world and keep it going. Most religions contain an element of sacrifice-giving up meat in Lent, for example-and giving your life for a friend is a great act of love. The Aztecs accepted this as a necessary part of life. By dying as a sacrifice, they honored the gods. Still, we can't help but think that many didn't wish to die, but accepted it as inevitable.
After the Spanish Conquest, many Spanish priests and friars learned enough of the Aztec's language to talk with Aztec survivors of the battles and diseases. From them, the Spanish learned that many of the sacrificial victims were friends of the Royal House, or high-ranking nobility and priests. Every class of Aztec occasionally were sacrificed, and all ages as well. Children were sacrificed to the god of rain. Often enough, however, it was nobles and captured warriors whose hearts fed the gods. Remember, however, that being sacrificed was most prestigious way to die. While this shocks us today, we must nevertheless give the Aztecs their due-they found human sacrifice not only acceptable, but necessary and honorable.
This article is part of our larger resource on Aztec civilization. For a comprehensive overview of the Aztec Empire, including its military, religion, and agriculture, click here.