A couple of weeks ago, I was at the Australian Museum in Sydney for a day out. Some time away from my research interests (hallucinations and child abuse), I thought.
The Museum had a special Aztecs exhibition on, so in we went for a quick look. I have to admit that I knew next to nothing about the Aztecs before this, other than that they were conquered by Cortés and the Spanish in the 1500s, that they were involved in human sacrifices on large pyramidal temples (and I wondered whether this had been a bit over-hyped and sensationalised), and, as with most topics, I had some vague recollection of Melvyn Bragg discussing it with an Oxbridge professor.
Let me take you inside the exhibition, and share some photos I took, so you can see what I saw.
First of all we come to a nice looking piece of stone.
So, what is this?
Well, it has feet sticking out of it, and in a culture that practiced human sacrifice, this is unlikely to be a good sign. But let’s not assume the worse, perhaps it’s an Aztec shoe box?
No. And the instinct that the pillar may have been for something not terribly nice was also wrong. In fact it was for something horrific. I’ll let the caption explain:
They groomed victims, and cut out their hearts.
And when they weren’t doing this, the priests were stoned out-of-their-minds?
Apparantly, the Aztec drugs of choice were ololiuqui, a chemical cousin of LSD, and teonanacatl, a form of magic mushroom (psilocybin), which was referred to as ‘flesh of the gods’.
Apparantly, they would drink a heap of chocolate, and then eat the mushrooms with honey.
There was even a word in the local language – monanacahuia – which meant to “mushroom oneself” (I know what you’re thinking. Stop that).
Anyway, sugared and stoned, what did the Aztecs experience? What didn’t they! Fray Bernardino (a 16th century Spanish Franciscan missionary) gives us an account (Fray Bentos gives a more meaty account, but let’s stick with Bernardino’s):
“Some saw themselves dying in a vision and wept; others saw themselves being eaten
by a wild beast; others imagined that they were capturing prisoners in battle, that
they were rich, that they possessed many slaves, that they had committed adultery
and were to have their heads crushed for the offense, that they were guilty of a
theft for which they were to be killed, and many other visions which they saw.
When the intoxication from the little mushrooms had passed, they talked over
among themselves the visions which they had seen” (source here).
As a hallucinations researcher, I find it interesting that many of these hallucinations, just like the voices that people hear today, include prominent themes of guilt, shame and punishment.
I also wonder what an Aztec priest’s diary would look like, if one were uncovered:
Anyway, to bring us back to horrifying reality with a bang, do you want to see the knives they used when cutting people open on stones such as the one above?
No, neither do I really, but here they are (and this is real):
Here’s the caption which accompanies the knives, just to show you that I’m not making this up:
The caption above gives us our first mention of Tlaloc, the Aztec God of Rain.
Here’s a container with a picture of him on:
Now at this point you probably don’t think things can get much worse than people being cut open with smiling knifes, their still beating hearts being ripped out, and their bodies thrown down pyramids.
It turns out things can get worse.
Here’s the caption explaining the above container.
And there’s more.
Wikipedia explains (and I can’t vouch for this information, as the source cited is in Spanish which I don’t read):
“Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrificed to Tlaloc… in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. In every case, the 42 children, mostly males aged around six, were suffering from serious cavities, abscesses or bone infections that would have been painful enough to make them cry continually. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, if children did not cry, the priests would sometimes tear off the children’s nails before the ritual sacrifice.”
Kamp (2001) notes that the children were sometimes purchased from their mothers. Kerkhove goes further and argues that “the earliest accounts concur that virtually all children slain in these rites were locals of noble lineage, offered by their own parents.”
Kamp explains how the children were “kept by the priests for some weeks before their deaths (those kindergartens of doomed infants are difficult to contemplate). Then, as the appropriate festivals arrived, they were magnificently dressed, paraded in litters, and, as they wept, their throats were slit”
There was a shrine to Tlaloc on top of the ‘great’ Temple of Tenochtitlan.
As you can see from illustration below, next to Tlaloc’s shrine was another one.
This one was to Huitzilipochtli.
Here’s a caption from the museum telling us about Huitzilipochtli.
What the hell were these people thinking?
We could just say to ourselves that these were bloodthirsty savages, nothing like us, damn them with every name under the sun, and thank God that our society is so much better than theirs. I could then end my blog here. But I don’t think that would be terribly helpful or informative (though it would be much easier!)
Let’s see if we can try to understand all this (in an amateur way, for which I must apologise, this is not my specialist area)
A lot of this sacrificing occurred in the capital city of Tenochtitlan (digital recreation, on the right). Wow.
This was a large, organised city, of perhaps 200,000 people, in an amazing location. It had beautiful buildings, and was by all accounts very clean (apart from the congealed blood). We are told that its inhabitants appreciated beauty, poetry and music, they’d created a written language and an incredibly accurate calendar. In many ways it was a lot nicer than many European cities of the time.
Furthermore, the Aztecs had strict laws against murder. Sacrificing priests had to be careful, helpful, never hurt anyone, and remain compassionate and loving towards others (taken from Ray Kerkhove’s paper Dark Religion? Aztec Perspectives on Human Sacrifice, a paper which I draw on extensively below).
Just labelling these people as bloodthirsty savages, and thinking that this accounts for the killings, is clearly not hepful.
But why was there an abomination at the heart of this society?
The general practice of human blood sacrifice appears to have been driven by the belief that the God Huitzilopochtli drove back the stars and the moon each day, and in order for this Sun God to have the strength to do this every day, he needed to be fed with the most sacred of all substances, human blood. Children may have been sacrificed because they were seen as especially effective communicants with the gods. Or, in relation to the God Tlaloc, it may have been thought that “The earth (Tlaloc) physically sustained the human body through its wild resources and fruits of agriculture— fruits of the human body (children) sustained the earth.” (Arnold, 1991, p. 226). In this sense, as Kerkhove argues, there was the belief that people must pay the debt for the gods bringing rain, and that if things weren’t paid for then there would be a disastrous cosmic imbalance results. Kerkhove hence notes that, human sacrifice was perceived by the Aztecs as “a natural obligation and so part of a mechanical tit-for-tat”.
Kerkhove also describes that sacrificial death was also thought to provide ‘an opening’ (‘a crack between the worlds’), with heaven being portrayed as a solid block above the world, occasionally punctured by a ‘wound’ through which deities could descend. Such openings were needed because the gods were often ‘stony’, i.e., inexorable, silent. Perforating the body, even to the point of death, was a way to ‘perforate, penetrate’ the ‘mount’ of God.
As an aside, one of my favourite stories which I came across whilst reading around this area was that when the Spanish friars demanded that the Aztecs destroy their gods, the priests replied, enigmatically, “our gods are already dead”. Boom! Take that Nietzsche!
Aside from religious reasons, other explanations have also been proposed for their use of human sacrifice:
- killing and eating people had nutritional benefits
- the Aztec elite did this to scare the masses, as well as enemy states
- drug-induced confusion between hallucination and reality created sufficient hysteria for murder to be instituted as a sacred rite.
But as Kerkhove notes, all these explanations have serious flaws. Instead, he argues that a seems sacrificial death was considered a glorious end, and notes that when the Spaniards criticised the rite, the Aztec were quick to ridicule the ‘weakness of the Christians’. He goes on to describe that:
“The captive/victim was the Aztec equivalent of a celebrity or rock star; they were ‘sighed for’ and ‘longed for’ by the audience. Their deaths merited a public announcement and their names were immortalised in the local ‘roll of honour’.”
There also seems to have been an element of atonement in some deaths. Kerkhove describes how tlatlacolli (‘sin’ or ‘insult’) was a deadly serious matter. “Tlatlacolli itself was viewed as an extremely dangerous force. Even a humble villager could, through an immoral act, unleash widespread natural disasters.” Kerkhove concludes that sacrificial death could sometimes blend capital punishment with personal atonement.
But of course, not everyone felt this way, these people were human like us. Kerkhove describes how:
“Even Aztec accounts mention some who wept, ‘faltered…weakened’ or lost control of their bowels. Amazingly though, these were such a minority that they were viewed as a bad omen and a tetlazolmictiliztli (‘insult to the gods’). A ‘weak’ victim was hurriedly taken aside and slain amidst the congregation’s sarcastic jeers of’he quite acquitted himself as a man”
Frankly, I still find it slightly hard to believe that this was all consensual. It’s known that enemies captured in battle were also sacrified. Were they happy about this? Perhaps this inability to conceive of voluntary cardiocide is because I have the final scene from the Wickerman burned into my mind. And the unbelievably powerful “Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!” moment, which still makes me feel ill.
And even if we do want to go along with Kerkhove’s ‘consenting adults’ theory, this still leaves us with children being tortured and killed. How were the Aztecs ok with that?
One explanation for why specifically children were killed, as this was seen as acceptable, can be found in the Aztecs beliefs about death and heaven. According to Kerkhove, “The Aztecs meticulously organised death into types and levels. Passing away at home constituted the lowest end of the scale. ‘A good death’ was braver or more torturous. Those who died sacrificially, or in war or childbirth, procured the second-highest heaven (death in infancy formed the highest).” This could have led the Aztecs to justify to themselves what they were doing to children was somehow good for them in the long-run. I still find it hard to conceive of parents ever behaving in this way though.
And one wonders why no-one thought to say, look, are you sure that the Sun won’t rise if we don’t kill anyone today, or that the crops will fail unless someone’s child has their throat slit? Perhaps we should hold off the killing and see what happens? Maybe? You know, just to be sure?
Either way, perhaps rather than simply wondering at, and condemning, the Aztecs, we should reflectively consider what, in our own ‘civilised’ society (which presumably the Aztecs thought they were too), may be viewed as almost inconcievable and a cancer at the heart of our society, in 500 years time? Fossil fuel usage? Inequality? Maybe, but we could start by looking at how children are currently treated in our society.
The Aztecs, although being a particularly salient example, obviously didn’t have a historical monopoly on child abuse. Dan Carlin’s always excellent podcast series, Hardcore History, has made this point in his Suffer the Children episode.
And we don’t need to go into a museum to encounter examples of child abuse:
- Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reports that “the best estimates are that one in three girls and one in seven boys in Australia have experienced some form of child sexual abuse in their lifetime” (interim report, volume 1, page 99).
- I’d strongly recommend Nick Davies’ book, Dark Heart, for an account of what is happening to some children on our streets.
- Then there is the physical and psychological abuse of children.
- Plus, we still have ritual abuse going on in our society.
So, I guess what it all comes back to for me, is not to simply condemn figures from the past, such as the Aztecs, from an ivory pulpit. That doesn’t really get us anywhere. My first draft of this blog was indeed just a sweary rant about how awful these people were. And I think these emotions can be useful. For example, they can help reiterate the need for us to stop children being abused today, and tomorrow, rather than to just make us feel morally superior to dead people.
But the Aztecs are not ‘these people’. They are us. Or at least they are much more like us than we would maybe like to admit. We need to understand why they did what they did, and reflectively consider what beliefs we hold that may be doing untold damage to our fellow people and planet.
And, frankly, its not too hard to work out where many of the tell-tale hearts are in our society, we just need to listen more, and act.