Aztec Human Sacrifice: Energizing the Sun Fuels National Expansion
by Charles T. Clark
Leading up to the 15th century, various tribes in North America had practiced human sacrifice, but none with the devotion and efficiency of the Mexica, the foremost people of the Aztec Empire. The cosmology of the Mexica determined that humans must be regularly sacrificed to nourish the sun, so that it would not lose its daily battle with the forces of darkness. Sacrifice as cosmic law led to a perpetual state of war with neighboring tribes and fueled an extraordinary territorial expansion.
The imperial Mexica priests believed that death released surplus energy, and they sought a way to harness that energy. Since the energy freed through a natural process of death was uncontrolled, interrupting the natural course of life could prevent this loss. Thus ritual murder became a method of controlling and channeling energy to where the priests thought it would have the most benefit. To generate a steady supply of offerings, they linked the ritual with martial honor--enemy warriors sacrificed on the altar of Huitzilopochtli, the Sun God, were promised a wonderful afterlife in the House of the Sun.
During the 15th century, the rate of human sacrifice reached incredible proportions, with thousands of captive prisoners killed in single, daylong ceremonies. The ritual consisted mainly of a priest slicing open an outstretched victim's upper abdomen and quickly ripping out the heart, holding it up to the sun as offering, then placing it on a ceremonial container. The body was thrown off the temple pyramid to the bottom steps, where the warrior's captors gathered it up. Meanwhile, at the top of the temple, another warrior had already been carved open.
Perpetually fueling the sun required the Mexica to conquer and control many surrounding nations. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, and ultimately destroyed Aztec civilization, the empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf coast, and from central Mexico to the present-day Republic of Guatemala.