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Pre-Columbian Sacrifices

Nora Raggio

Art History 193--Spring 2000


Pre-Columbian Andean Sacrifices

Pre-Columbian Andean Sacrifices--An Introduction
Figure 1 Figure 2

Machu Picchu ("Old Peak") in Figure 1--once named "The Lost City of the Incas" by Yale University Professor Hiram Bingham, who first excavated the site in 1911-- apparently eluded the Spanish, who conquered the Incas in the 16th Century, and destroyed or looted most of the magnificent Inca cities and temples they encountered on their way.

The Incas "officially" came to power under Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (1438-71) and expanded their empire to include other indigenous cultures including the Chimú. The Inca's domain was vast, powerfu, and rich, its rule based on a universal language, Quechua, and a 14,000 mile-long network of roads which extended into what today is north of Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia. The Incas were the supreme rulers when the Spanish conquest, led by Pizarro in 1532, first came into contact with the Andean cultures. They were by no means the first indigenous civilization--they had been preceded by powerful empires such as the Chimú, Huari, Moche, Nazca, and Chavín.

The powerful Inca empire was hierarchical in nature, with the Inca ruler considered to be a direct descendant of the sun god, Inti, who was in turn the son of the creator god Viracocha.

The Inca sacrifices, excluding the sacrifices committed during war, were linked closely with religion, although the subtext was also one of the survival of the community and the maintenance of established political power. The Inca religion was based primarily on the worship of nature gods such as the sun, the moon, the rain, and the mountains--which dominated the landscape. Inca ritual included elaborate forms of divination and the sacrifice of humans and animals.

Figure 2 shows the mummy of a young girl named "The Ice Maiden" or "Juanita", excavated in the mid 1990s by Johan Reinhard (PBS Nova, Peru). Based on the archaelogical evidence and on accounts of child sacrifices documented by the conquering Spaniards, Juanita was a young girl who was sacrificed in the name of Inca religion. She was found above 18,000 feet on the peak of Ampato, northwest of Cuzco, the capital of the Inca empire, preserved by ice, richly covered in textiles and accompanied by an abundant array of burial artefacts.

To date, more than a hundred sacred Inca ceremonial sites have been excavated at an elevation of over 15,000 feet on several Andean peaks. Most of these have been found from central Chile to Southern Peru.

In this chapter of the exhibit, we will review Pre-Columbian Andean sacrificial practices, and explore some of the theories behind the motivation for these cruel sacrifices.


Sacrificial Practices of Pre-Columbian Andean Cultures
Figure 3 Figure 4

Human or animal sacrifices were practiced by the Incas and by previous Andean indigenous cultures (as we shall soon see) only on important occasions (Britannica Online, keywords: Pre-Columbian Sacrifices). Guinea pigs (also known as cui), alpacas, llamas (Figure 3) , prepared food, coca leaves, and chicha (Figure 4--an alcoholic maize beverage) were used in Inca sacrifices.

Many sacrifices were simple, daily rituals performed at sunrise to celebrate the sun's appearance. For example, a fire would be made and corn tossed over the fire, with prayers that would encourage Inti, the sun god, to eat the offering and to acknowledge the Incas as children of Inti.

The Incas had also developed an elaborate calendar (Britannica Online, keywords Inca calendar) based on nature's cyclical patterns and the observation of stars. It is said that the calendar aided in predicting weather and was therefore was helpful to crop cultivation. On the first day of every lunar month, 100 llamas were driven into Huayaca Pata (Britannica Online, keywords Pre-Columbian Sacrifices), the square in Cuzco. The procession of animals were shown the images of nature gods, and then were assigned to 30 priests, each representing a day of the month. The llamas were then killed, their flesh thrown into the fire and the bones ground for other rituals. At these events, people would offer woven garments to the fire. It is said that the Inca ruler wore his poncho only once: it was sacrificed to the sun god each day.

Libations of chicha (see Figure 4) would be offered at these festivals, either to the gods, to the grave of a sacrificial victim, or to the participants in a sacrificial festival.

Human Sacrifice in Pre-Columbian Andean Cultures
Figure 5 Figure 6

"Beautiful beyond belief" is how one Spanish chronicler described Tanta Carhua (PBS Nova online, Peru, The Sacrificial Ceremony). Carhua was a ten-year old girl whose father had offered to the Inca ruler as a "Capacocha" or "Capac Hucha" sacrifice. She was led to Cuzco by priests where she met the Inca Emperor, and on the way to the mountain where she would be killed, her entourage--which consisted of a procession of priests, witnesses to the sacrifice, porters for carrying the food, and llamas-- passed her home town. According to the story, Tanta Carhua told the villagers: "You can finish with me now because I could not be more honored than by the feasts which they celebrated for me in Cuzco" (PBS Nova online, Peru, The Sacrificial Ceremony). Before she was killed, the girl was fed and given chicha to drug her and then was buried alive. She thus became a goddess, and the mountain was named after her.

"Juanita" or the "Ice Maiden" (Figure 5) is another example of a sacrificial girl, found in 1995 by Johan Reinhard at the top of Ampato, a peak situated north of Cuzco, the Inca capital. Notice how her eyes and mouth are wide open. Her eyes seem to be imploring and her mouth gasping for air. Reinhard has mentioned that Juanita has a skull fracture on the back of her head. It is still debated whether these children where sacrificed violently. Reinhard believes that these victims were knocked out with a blow against a towel held at the back of their heads. Thus they would be unconscious when they were buried and would not suffer the pain of the cold and harsh elements as much as if they were fully conscious. (PBS Nova online, The Sacrificial Ceremony).

Notice too Juanita's richly woven garments. These children were apparently feasted and dressed to the hilt for the occasion. Another mummy discovered by Johan Reinhard's expedition, Sarita, was found to be wrapped not only in fine clothes, but with an outer garment generally worn by males. This finding has been interpreted as the child carrying the dress for her future husband in the world-to-come. It could well be that the garment was offered by the male officiating priest or that it was given to her by her father as protection for her trip in the other world.

Juanita was very well preserved because she was an "ice mummy". Most of her hair, her skin, and her stomach remained intact as well as her sumptuous clothing. DNA studies were conducted to track her ethnicity and the contents of her stomach were sampled to learn more about the Inca diet.

Other young girls who were sacrificed included the "Chosen Women" or the "Virgins of the Sun". These were beautiful young girls, between 8 and 10 years old, chosen by the Inca officials throughout the vast empire. They were taken into a temple, for example in Machu Picchu, (were several corpses of young women were found), and were forbidden to leave for six to seven years. Their duties included keeping a fire always burning (does this remind us of the vestal priestesses of Rome?), making weavings used for ceremonial rituals. Although they were considered to be virgins, they were available for the pleasure of the Inca ruler or his nobles. At the end of their stay at the temple, they were either released, turned into concubines, or married into nobility. These young women were sometimes chosen as sacrificial victims. It is said that some of the Virgins of the Sun in the Cuzco temple of Coricancha were killed along with llamas, their blood painted on the Inca nobles by the leading Inca ruler.

Figure 6 shows the remains of a sacrificial male boy found in Chile's El Plomo peak. His hair is elaborately braided, and miniature gold figurines were buried with him. He is in a fetal position, possibly bracing himself against the elements. Even though being buried alive must have been terrifying, nobles would willingly give their most prized children for sacrifices. It was believed that these sacrificial children had to be perfect in every way, physically and morally. Thus, they were offering their best to the Inca, "Son of Sun", the living incarnation of Inti.

Other graves have been found with pairs of children. According to Colin McEwan and Maarten van de Guchte in "Ancestral Time and Sacred Space in Inca State Ritual" (Kathleen Cohen, Web of Art and Culture, Pre-Columbian 70), some of the children married in pairs by the Inca and were sent back home finely clad. Other pairs were

immolated for a marriage in Inca heaven.

The traditional interpretation of these children sacrifices seems to be that this act provided youth and well being for the Inca, and thereby insured the survival and health of the entire population. These sacrifices would also appease the mountain gods and provide rain and abundant food--protection and order for the population.

Human sacrifices were made for outstanding events such as the death or accession of an Inca ruler, earthquakes, eclipses, droughts, famine.

Inca Sacrifices--Other Interpretations
Figure 7 Figure 8

A more radical interpretation for some of the human sacrifices is postulated by Liesl Clark (PBS Nova online, Peru, The High Mummies). She believes that some of these sacrifices could have been made in conjunction with the expansion of the Inca empire.

According to Liesl, many sacrificial sites are located in peaks near the crossroads of important routes in the extensive network of Inca trails (Figure 7). The extensive roads in the southern region were critical to the expansion of the empire southward. Near trans-mountain or cardinal-crossing roads, Incas chose high peaks, built platforms and made sacrifices, sometimes human, ostensibly to bless the route and to assure safe and continued passage for effective communication across the enormous empire.

Liesl believes that the mummy of a young boy (Figure 8) on Mount Aconcagua was related to those kinds of sacrifices, since his burial is close to a crucial trans-mountain pass which today is a major international highway connecting Argentina and Chile.

Burial Artifacts found in Sacrificial Tombs
Figure 9 Figure 10

Figure 9 shows a beautiful human figurine that was found buried together with Juanita (see Figure 5). These figurines have been found in all of the burial sites associated with sacrificial children that have been excavated to date (PBS Nova online, Peru, Burial Artefacts). These figurines are interpreted to be companions for the sacrificial victims in their afterlife journey. They could also be interpreted, in my opinion, as icons for Inti to recognize these children as specially chosen for him.

These figurines are generally made out of cast and stamped metal, clothed in textiles that identify their status and rank. Some of the figurines, such as the one shown, have exquisite feather headdresses. To my knowledge, feather headdresses were worn mainly by male nobles and Inca rulers, although they may have also been worn by women of nobility. The rich yellow-orange feathers may be symbolic of the sun, to which the offering was destined. It is not easy to identify the gender in this figurine given that it is swathed in rich weavings, however, there does seem to be a shawl pin fastening the garments, indicating that the figurine would be female.

Figure 10 shows a miniature spondyllus llama. Spondyllus, an oyster shell from the shores of Ecuador, was greatly valued by the Inca. Animal figurines such as the spondyllus llama along with pottery, statuettes, castings made from gold and silver, and wood carvings, were found buried along with the sacrificial victims, and were often wrapped in lavish textiles as were the mummies.

Similar to most all ancient cultures that we have studied, burial sites of significance are often decked with valued objects that are either destined to accompany the dead or are additional offerings to the deity.


Pre-Inca Andean Sacrificial Cult
Figure 11 Figure 12

Although much more is known about Inca sacrificial rites from the accounts of Spaniards who conquered the Incas, the cult of sacrifice does not seem to have been an Inca original idea.

Figure 11 shows a Moche style vase or drinking vessel that depicts a human sacrifice to the mountain gods. On the very bottom of the vase is a severed head with what seem like blood coming out of its mouth. On top of the head is a man with hands held up in the form of offering a sacrifice to the mountain gods that look from above. This vase dates from 100-700 CE, well before the Inca empire was established. The Moche civilization was a Northern Andean civilization which seems to have been absorbed by the Chimú.

Figure 12 shows a Chimú sacrificial knife. It is made out of gold and the figure on top has a headband and earrings incrusted with precious or semi precious stones (turquoise?). The figure, with what seem to be rays protruding from the headband, could represent a sun deity of the Chimú or perhaps a priest or ruler "incarnating" a deity. Whether this knife was actually used in sacrifices or is a piece representing a sacrificial knife is not clear. It is not known whether this knife was used for animal or human sacrifice.

Pre-Inca Andean Sacred Landscape and Sacrifices
Figure 13 Figure 14

Figure 13 shows the excavation site and the modern model of Tihaunaco, by lake Titicaca. This sacred place in the high mountains was revered in after it dwindled in 600, and was thought to be the center from which the Incas were blessed with their mandate to reign.

In the 1980s, a burial site with several dozen decapitated bodies was found Tihuanaco. Buried with them were keros or drinking vessels most often associated with the drinking of chica. The bodies were arranged in a geometric layout. This configuration of bodies would argue for a sacrificial ritual rather than a mere act of war.

Tihuanaco at one point is believed to have sustained a population of 150,000 people. The pyramid at Tihuanaco seems to have been constructed as a reservoir together with a network of sewers and canals that served the city. Some have interpreted this system as simulating the function of mountains in nature. This extreme reverence for the mountain and its gifts was perpetuated until the time of the Incas, who built ceremonial sites, such as Machu Picchu high on the mountain top.

Another interesting conjecture is that there may have been a connection between Tihuanaco and Teotihuacan in Mesoamerica. Although the hypothesis is tenuous because the sites are so many miles away, separated by extreme terrain, it is interesting to note that these sites were fairly contemporary, Tihuanaco predating Teotihuacan. The fact that there had never been an architectural form in Mesoamerica the likes of Teotihuacan, and the clear one to one relationship of the Pyramid of the Moon with Cerro Gordo, is another similarity with Tihuanaco, a sacred site of mountain worship.

Figure 14 shows Cerro Blanco, a mountain on the North coast of Peru. Fifty bodies were found in a shrine at the base of this mountain and numerous offerings at the top of the mountain. A pyramid called the Pyramid of the Moon (does that ring a bell with Teotihuacan?) built by the Moche was found at the base of this mountain. You can see the remains of it to the right of this picture. There was also a Pyramid of the Sun, built out of adobethat did not withstand the passage of time. This site seems to have been sacred even before the Moche took over. This site, dating from circa the 700s, has a striking similarity with Teotihuacan, miles away in the Valley of Mexico.

Could this have been mere coincidence?

Conclusion--Andean Sacrificial Practices

The common thread to Andean cultures is the worship of nature, particularly that of mountains (as evidenced in Cerro Blanco, Tihuanaco, and the burial sites of child sacrifices at the peaks of mountains) and the sun, as identified with the Inca ruler-god.

The worship of mountains is no surprise. The Andean cordillera is one of the highest mountain ranges in America, its peaks carry an austere and imposing beauty. The mountains provided the streams that watered the crops and the association with fertility is clear. The sinister side of mountains was erupting volcanoes and earthquakes. Having lived in California, I can well relate to the landscape being "angry" when it shakes so vigorously.

The human sacrifices took place in Inca times apparently only for the most momentous occasions, such as famine, pestilence, earthquakes, the death of a ruler-god, or on a more "positive" side, the accession of a ruler.

I find the insistence on child sacrifice hard to believe. Child sacrifice was performed in ancient Israel (Abraham and Isaac) and in Greece (Agamemnon and Iphigenia) although the practice then shifted to other types of sacrifices. It has been argued that putting the most beautiful, cherished children to death was the greatest sacrifice that could be offered by people. The logic is that if one sacrifices what is most dear, the benefits are the greatest ("no pain, no gain" is the vestige of this logic).

It is said the Pizarro easily conquered the Incas because of the easy access provided by the Inca route and because of the disease brought by the Spaniards. Although accounts say that the nobles willingly gave their children for sacrifice, I wonder if that might have persuaded the subjects of the Inca empire to welcome a new type of rule.


Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Sacrifices

Introduction--Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Civilizations' Sacrifices
Figure 15

Figure 15 situates us geographically for the next cultures we are about to focus: the Pre-columbian Mesoamerican civilizations. Most of the pictures shown in this module are from Dr. Kathleen Cohen's Web of Art and Culture CD 2000 or from her website at http://gallery.sjsu.edu. The bibliographical references are listed at the end of this module.

My preconception in studying the sacrificial practices of Mesoamerican civilizations was that the Aztecs (who were conquered starting 1521 by the Spaniards, led by Cortés) were by far the most vehement in the use of human sacrifice.

Although my research into the topic seemed to confirm that preconception, I was amazed to find the bloodthirstiness of the Maya. Even the Olmecs, as we shall see, seemed to have practiced human sacrificial rites.

So, prepare yourself for a bloody module, together with some interpretations of how and why these practices emerged and continued. Before, we begin, however, let's situate these cultures historically and geographically (sources--Cohen):
Culture Approx. Time Period Approx. Location
Aztec 1350-1521 (conquered by Cortés) Valley of Mexico
Toltec 900-1200 Valley of Mexico
Maya 250-900 Southern Mexico & Central America
Teotihuacan 150 BCE-750 CE Valley of Mexico
Olmec 1200 BCE-400 BCE Gulf Coast of Mexico

This module will be organized primarily in a descending timeframe, starting with the Aztecs, although I may skip back and forth occasionally.

Aztec Culture--Observations on the Heart Sacrifice Ritual
Figure 16 Figure 17

Figure 16 (69822) and Figure 17 (85077) (Bridgeman Library online) clearly show the place and the object of Aztec sacrifice. Most of the Aztec sacrifices took place either on the square facing a pyramidal temple or on the pyramidal temple itself. The object of the sacrifice was the human heart (almost always belonging to prisoners caught in wars) which was then fed to the sun god, to ensure its survival against the ever-powerful forces of the night and stars.

According to the Bridgeman Library the source of the figure to the left is from a Mexican Codex . The figure to the right originates from a Spanish 16th Century manuscript and depicts human sacrifice at the temple of Tezcatlipoca (more on this god later) from a History of the Aztecs and the Conquest of Mexico (pen and ink). Judging what I've seen of Pre-Columbian Mexican codices, the figure to the left seems highly influenced by the Spaniards. The way the figures are drawn much more resembles the Spanish manuscript style to the right than the more geometric, stylized figures we will encounter in Aztec style later in this module. Thus, even though it may be a Mexican codex, it was probably done several years after the Spanish had conquered the Aztecs. The deity on the left is still portrayed as a plumed animal (either Quetzalcoatl or Huitzilopochtli--more on these gods later) symbolizing the human heart-feeding sun or supreme deity. What I find "subversive" about the picture to the left is that it shows a blond-bearded human being sacrificed. This could be interpreted as "literal", i.e. some of the Spaniards were actually caught by the Aztecs before their defeat, and were used as sacrificial victims to feed the sun god, or--this may be a wish of the Mexican artist who depicted the scene.

The figure to the right is an interesting Spanish perspective on the Aztec sacrifice. The deity is the sun, but it is clearly represented as a "European sun", with its round form and wavy rays, similar to the sun seen in European cartography of the 16th Century.

In both figures we clearly see the manpower demanded by these sacrifices. In the Mexican codex figure we see the officiating priest tearing the heart off the victim and offering it to the deity along with the person holding the prisoner's feet. There's another person dragging the previous victim off the steps of the pyramid and a series of onlookers. This brings to mind the crowds of onlookers as wild beasts destroyed prisoners of the Romans in the Coliseum. Although this took place almost a millennium before the Aztec sacrifices, victims of the Inquisition were being burned at the stake at around the same time of the Aztec sacrifices--and there were plenty of onlookers then too.

The Spanish manuscript version shows many more people needed to keep the poor victim down as he approaches his horrific bloody fate. His heart too, is depicted as being held high, as an offer to the sun. It's hard to tell what the "fluted broken vessels" falling off the pyramid steps are. Perhaps they are the sacrificial knives being tossed. However, the knives were made out of precious stone so that it's hard to believe they would crack as they fell down the steps.


Aztec Culture--Other Blood Sacrifices
Figure 18 Figure 19

Although human heart sacrifices were a crucial aspect of Aztec religion, other types of blood sacrifices were also welcomed.

Figure 18 shows a deer (Bridgeman Library online) being sacrificed. The animal seems more like a coyote or fox to me--yet, I will go by the book. The figure comes from an Aztec manuscript, and here we do indeed see more of the Aztec style in the iconography. Notice the use of "windows", like in cartoons, that is a feature of some of the indigenous codices, as well as the wide-eyed and polka dot depiction of several animal heads on the "ladder-like" pictograms to the right of the sacrificial animal. The animal's blood itself is depicted with gruesome and vivid dynamism, with the blood spurting out like sunrays from the animal's body and mouth.

Figure 19, from a Mexican-Aztec codex dated after the Spanish conquest (1540-1600) shows that not only prisoners were involved in the "act of shedding blood". Even though few priests have ever been shown giving their hearts and life away, here they are shown bloodletting. From the picture you can see that almost all parts of their body were used for "donating" blood, in particular, their tongue, as seen in the figure letting blood on the left--and, if Mayan practice was still followed, even their penis. Specific piercing instruments--which were thought to originate from spines of cacti or fish--and which were then elaborately made of stone and other materials, were found in temple cities were bloodletting took place. The "baskets" worn by the bloodletting figures may be containers in which the blood was gathered, which could then be placed as an offering to the gods. The particular god on top of the pyramid seems to be the jaguar god Tezcatlipoca, the god who tricked Quetzalcoatl. Notice that a fire is lit in this particular ceremony.

Blood was an important offering because, as we shall see later in our study of Aztec mythology, it reciprocated the sacrifice the gods had made for humans in creating them, and it also fed the "good gods" (e.g. Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilpochtli), keeping them healthy and alive against the "bad gods" (e.g. Tezcatlipoca).

Aztec Culture--Tenochtitlan, Center of Sacrifices
^ Figure 20 ^ Figure 21
< Figure 22

Figure 20 is a modern model of what the center of Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs, looked like when it was first encountered by Cortés, the Spanish conqueror who arrived in Mexico in 1521.

Cortés documents with awe to the King of Spain the magnificence of this city, which he later destroyed. "I know what I shall say, although imperfectly told, will appear so wonderful that it will hardly seem credible, for even we, who see with our own eyes the things I describe, are unable to comprehend their reality." Of Moctezuma, the ruling Aztec, Cortés says: "He was so feared by the present, as well as the absent, that there was never prince more so. He had many pleasure houses, within and outside the city, each well constructed for its particular pastime as could be desired for so great a lord. Within the city he had residences so marvelous that it is almost impossible to speak of their excellence and grandeur. So I limit myself to saying that there is nothing comparable to them in Spain."

All this power, sumptuousness, and luxury came at a cost. In two hundred years, the Aztecs had emerged from being a small, poor, wandering Chichimec group to become the supreme rulers of Mexico. The legend says that their hummingbird god, Hutzilpochtli, directed them to build a city where they found an eagle on a cactus holding a serpent in its beak. (Does this image remind any one of the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl?). This they did, on the marshes of Lake Texoco, near the modern Mexico City. So how did the magnificence and beauty of Tenochtitlan, together with its emphasis on manners and educational facilities for the Aztec nobility, jive with the brutality of human sacrifices? Often great "civilization" is acquired at a great price (e.g. Egyptian pyramids with slaves, Roman coliseums with prisoners of war).

Aztecs rulers taxed the people they dominated heavily: they demanded tribute in form of food, clothing, weapons, building materials, precious stones, labor, and life (i.e. sacrifice). Tenochtitlan grew ever wealthier as new conquests were made. Some of these wars, called the "Flower Wars" were specifically made to provide sacrificial hearts for the increasingly hungry Huitzilpochtli. No public celebration took place without sacrifices. In exchange for their sacrificial offerings, Huitzilpochtli, assured the Aztecs more successful conquests.

Figure 21 and 22 show sacrificial knives. The reason I included two pictures of knives, is that many knives were needed! Notice how exquisitely made these knives are, carved out of precious stone, their handles often inlaid gorgeously. Most of the handles show a representation of a bird with open beak, either as a headpiece for a human or as a simple or composite animal.

One of the most spectacularly gruesome events took place during the consecration of the temple of Huitzilpochtli, shortly before 1490, when it is said that at least 20,000 prisoners (some accounts say 80,000) (Web of Art and Culture, Kathleen Cohen) were sacrificed. Ahuitzotl, the Aztec ruler, along with his relatives, who were officiating priests, took turns performing the sacrifice on these poor prisoners. When they tired, other less important nobles continued sacrificing human victims for four full days. The ceremony ended in blood, rotting bodies and plenty of skulls.

It is not surprising that, two decades after this event, it was not difficult for Cortés to defeat the Aztecs with the help of other indigenous tribes who often allied with the Spaniards.

Aztec Culture--The Gods Who Demanded Sacrifices
^ Figure 23 ^ Figure 24
^ Figure 25 ^ Figure 26

I'm rather disappointed that in my research for this project I was unable to find a picture of Huitzilpochtli, the fierce hummingbird mascot of the Aztecs, who demanded human heart sacrifices. In Aztec mythology, however, Huitzilpochtli was identified with Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, who was a symbol of the sun god.

Another god, however, who needed to be fed blood and human hearts was Quetzalcoatl, the serpent bird composite deity, who had been worshipped by Mesoamerican cultures preceding the Aztecs.

Figure 23 is one of the Aztec versions of Quetzalcoatl, certainly not very friendly, with his beautiful mosaic face made of precious stones (turquoise, jade?), his earnest eyes, and his teeth-laden mouth ready for more victims. Figure 24, on the other hand, is a more organic depiction of Quetzalcoatl, but it is not an Aztec depiction. This picture of the deity corresponds to Teotihuacan, and here he is seen as the plumed serpent, towering the skies, yet also providing rain to irrigate and fertilize the crops. In Asia, dragons are related to the clouds and rain too. This fresco of Quetzalcoatl, is believed to have been created some time between 200-750 BCE, almost a millennium before the one created by the Aztecs. In terms of fierceness, Quetzalcoatl, you've come a long way!

Quetzalcoatl, had both mythical and possibly historical representations. The etymology of Quetzalcoatl is a composite between Quetzal, a beautifully colored bird living in Mesoamerica, and coatl, a Nahua word describing serpent. Thus, Quetzalcoatl, represented both sky and earth, and was believed to be born from the sun god and the earth goddess Coatlicue (see Figure 25). A Mayan legend describes that the gods had sacrificed themselves to create the earth, but weren't getting a lot of respect. Therefore, they created humans out of maize and water for that purpose. There was then a reciprocal relationship between the gods and humans, since the gods provided the needed ingredients for human sustenance (such as earth, rain, water), and the humans had to sacrifice themselves for the gods by providing them with offerings, and blood, the "lifeblood" of humans. One hundred sacrificial victims were discovered in one of the pyramids of Teotihuacan. Human sacrifice was essential perhaps to appease the gods when cataclismic natural events occurred.

The historical Quetzalcoatl is a mystery, too. Some experts believe he appeared around the time of Jesus, others tend to identify him with a Tula ruler, who lived around 986. The story goes that this dude was averse to human sacrifice, was compassionate, and was leading his people away from these barbaric practices. Everything was turning out just right, until Tezcatlipoca (figure 26) appeared and tricked Quetzalcoatl into getting drunk. While drunk, he fornicated with his sister. When he awoke from his stupor, he was so embarrassed that he built his own funeral pyre and burnt himself, his remains rising to heaven as the planet Venus. A more popular version makes him a blond ruler, who after the embarrassment, sailed off to the east, promising to return. It was this legend that had Moctezuma in a tizzy, for according to the Aztec calendar, the time was near for Quetzalcoatl's return. This may have been one of the reasons he allowed Cortés to take over the powerful Aztec kingdom.

Needless to say, all of the Aztec depictions of gods shown here are pretty scary. Coatlicue, mother of Quetzalcoatl and "eater of filth", presided over many of the human sacrifices in Tenochtitlan. As goddess of life and death, she was fierce-looking, 15 feet tall, with clawed feet, a necklace of skulls, her skirt and headdress intertwined with snakes.


Aztec Culture--The Calendar's Role in Sacrifices
Figure 27 Figure 28

Figure 27 shows the Aztec calendar, carved in stone. It is carved in black porphyry, more than 12 feet in diameter and weighing over 20 tons. Aztecs certainly ascribed importance to this calendar. According to Joseph Campbell (Campbell, The Mythic Image, pp 151-160), the center of the calendar corresponds to solar mask and to "4 Olim", the word olim, signifying "movement, motion", also meaning earthquake. The two earlike projections at either side of the central mask show hands with eagle claws clutching human hearts. Four glyphs flare from the rim of this center, referring, according to Campbell, to the four mythological eons supposed to have preceded the current Aztec era. In the ring immediately encircling this center appear the days of the 20-day Aztec month. The spearlike indicators seem to point out at the cardinal points. Enclosing the whole circle are two great feathered serpents. With their open jaws, showing human heads within, these serpents confront each other below.

According to George Vaillant in The Aztecs of Mexico, there's a reason why the Aztecs became ever more bloodthirsty. Four previous ages (as depicted in the Aztec calendar) had ended in destruction. The Aztec lived now lived in the fifth age. The age had begun in Teotihuacan by the creator gods sacrificing themselves in the Divine Fire in order to create the celestial bodies. Earlier myths had prophesized that nothing could stop the destruction at the end of each age. However, the Aztec priests believed that the death of the sun could be averted if it were fed sufficient human hearts. Each day, the sun fought a battle against the moon and stars, and was victorious. The Aztecs believed they had a key role in helping the sun keep its vitality and force by providing the deity with lifeblood.

In order to provide these enormous amounts of blood, the Aztecs had to resort to wars, in order to gain enough captives whose heart was to feed the sun god. These wars, solely to gain sacrificial victims, were called the "Flower Wars".

In Figure 28 we see a close up of one of those warriors engaged in that holy war. Warriors were often priests in Aztec times. Notice how this particular warrior seems to be carrying the Aztec calendar under his arm. Time and blood were of essence.

Toltec Culture--Sacrificial Symbols
Figure 29 Figure 30

The Toltec Empire preceded the Aztec Empire, although both cultures lived in approximately the same "area" of Mexico, the Valley of Mexico.

Figure 29 is a Chac Mool figure from Tula, the capital of the Toltec Empire. "Chac mool" is the name applied to sculptures of reclining figures that are found both at Tula and Chichen Itza, a key center of the Mayas. John Pohl, in Exploring Mesoamerica, believes that Tula and Chichen Itza reached their apogee at about the same time (850-1100) and that there were extensive exchanges between the Toltec and Mayan cities. According to Cohen (Web of Art and Culture, Pre-Columbian 81), the Toltecs invaded the Yucatan and conquered the Maya cities they found there. Pohl adds "It may be a Maya sculptural form employed to illustrate a uniquely Toltec theme". (Pohl, Exploring Mesoamerica, p 122). The chac-mool figure was the receptacle for human hearts, which Toltecs sacrificed in honor of the sun.

Skull racks and pictures of feathered serpents can be found in Tula as well as in other cities dominated by the Toltecs.

In Figure 30 we see a close up of a stone frieze of eagles feeding on human hearts found at Tula.

The Aztecs did not seem to have invented the bloody human heart sacrificial ritual, but probably borrowed it from the Toltecs they conquered.

Mayan Culture--Sacrificial Rituals
Figure 31 Figure 32


My misconception, before I began my research on Pre-Columbian sacrifices, was that the Mayans were a peaceful civilization that had been overtaken by warrior nations because of their pacifist nature.

My research unveiled something quite different.

Figure 31 shows a limestone lintel panel found at Yaxchilan. Lord Bird Jaguar, a Mayan ruler, stands towering above a captive noble, who, judging by his prostrate pose, has just let blood or is about to let blood. Bird Jaguar was officially installed as king in 752 CE, an event which took place only after the capture of noble prisoners. (Colin McEwan, Ancient Mexico, p 47).

In another harrowing fresco found at Bonampak, another Mayan site, not far from Yaxchilan (see Figure 32), a captive is clearly bloodletting through his nails. His nails were probably ripped off. Some captives were allowed to blood let in a variety of ways, until they were finally put to death.

Mayan Culture--Sacrificial Rituals of the Rulers
Figure 33

War captives were not the only ones to be sacrificial victims in solemn rituals required to invoke the presence of powerful ancestral spirits or the favors of K'ulk'ulcan, the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl.

Figure 33 is a close up of Lady Xoc, wife of Lord Shield Jaguar and father to Lord Bird Jaguar in another lintel found at Yaxchilan. The detail shows that she is pulling a thorn-lined rope through her tongue. In the whole lintel at Yaxchilan, the blood on the rope falls onto a woven basket holding blood-soaked strips of cloth.

In another lintel found at Xachilan, Lady Balam-Ix, another of Bird Jaguar's wives is also going through the tongue bloodletting ritual. Opposite her sits Bird Jaguar wearing a skull aned skeletal serpent headdress which suggests, by the long piercing instrument in his hand that he is about to perforate his penis in a common bloodletting ritual performed by the Mayans.


Mayan Culture--The Ball Court Game Sacrifices
^ Figure 34 ^ Figure 35
< Figure 36

Figure 34 and Figure 35 are details from the walls of the ball court at Chichen Itza, a Mayan site which flourished in the 9th and 10th century.

All Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures--from the Olmec to the Aztecs--seem to share the ballcourt game as a common element. Kathleen Cohen (Web of Art and Culture, Pre-Columbian 81) argues that the ball court game took on sacrificial overtones when the Mayans were influenced by the Toltecs.

The ball game was played in an "I" shaped field with a hard rubber ball. Players were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands or feet. They could however, strike the ball with their knees, elbows, buttocks or "yokes" which they wore around their waists. Spectators would wager much on the outcome.

There are several interpretations on what the ball games symbolized. Some experts believed that it was a ritual representing the movement of the stars and planets. Others, such as Colin McEwan in Ancient Mexico in the British Museum, seem to think it was a way of settling disputes or making important decisions between tribes.

The sinister, sacrificial aspect of the ball game was that the captain of the losing team was decapitated. Hence, the skull rack and the decapitation scene depicted in Figure 34 and Figure 35.

Figure 36 is a sacrificial well, or cenote found in Chichen Itza. Perhaps this is where the skulls were offered.

Figure 35 may also depict a scene from the Popol Vuh, a book dealing with Mayan creation myths. In this particular story, the lords of the underworld play against two human heroes who defeat them. Thus, the sacrifice re-enacting the victory over the lords of Xibalba (the Underworld) would provide both drama and excitement for those watching.

An unusual twist is given to the story of the ball court game in Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth, p108.

" CAMPBELL: The Mayans had a ball game in which the captain of the winning team was sacrificed on the field by the captain of the losing team. His head was cut off. Going to your sacrifice as the winning stroke of your life is the essence of the early sacrificial idea.

MOYERS: The idea of sacrifice, especially of the winner being sacrificed, is so foreign to our world. Our ruling motif today is winner take all.

CAMPBELL: In this Mayan ritual, the name of the game was to become worthy to be sacrificed as a god.

MOYERS: Do you think it is true that he who loses his life gains his life?

CAMPBELL: That is what Jesus says."

Although Campbell's theory seems rather implausible to me (the game would be, after all, rather boring if both teams wanted to lose), it is still an interesting perspective on sacrifice.

Teotihuacan--A Key Religious Center
Figure 37 Figure 38

Teotihuacan was a great city by 600 CE with over 100,000 inhabitants. It dominated the region surrounding it politically, economically, and religiously. By 750, it was destroyed--the motive of its decline, a mystery.

Figure 37 shows the Pyramid of the Moon framed against Cerro Gordo. One can clearly "feel" the link between Mesoamerican religion and nature in this picture. The correspondence between pyramid and mountain is one to one. From this site, one can start to understand the tremendous impact that the forces of nature had on the shaping of Mesoamerican religion.

The area is full of caves with natural springs, and since some Mesoamerican myths related the emergence of humanity from caves, this would have been a perfect place for a religious center.

Teotihuacan is laid out on a grid pattern, unusual for Mesoamerica at that time. However, in the Andean Pre-Columbian cultures, the Tihuanaco religious center had similar layout characteristics and flourished at around the same time--maybe slightly earlier. The North-South axis of Tehotihuacan, which ends at the Pyramid of the Moon, is intersected by another straight avenue linking Quetzalcoatl's Temple with an open plaza, used as a marketplace. Other Mesoamerican cultures, as well as the Aztecs, borrowed this carefully laid out plan for their own city-centers.

The Aztecs made pilgrimages to this center they called "the place of the gods" hundreds of years after its demise. It is interesting that the Incas, contemporaries of the Aztecs, made pilgrimages to Tihuanaco.

If I'm not mistaken, it is in Teotihuacan that Quetzalcoatl (Figure 38), the plumed serpent, depicted here as providing rain, first takes on a primary deity role. It was Quetzalcoatl who is depicted in later cultures as demanding human sacrifices. The Olmecs seemed more focused on the jaguar as a personification of the major god. As we have mentioned before, the Asian dragon is also identified with the clouds and rain. This type of sudden shift could give credence to the theory of diffusionism, stating that Pre-Columbian culture derives, not intrinsically but, from Asia, and possibly, other parts of the world.

Olmec Culture--Religious Beliefs
Figure 39 Figure 40


The Olmecs represent the oldest Mesoamerican civilization. The Olmecs flourished around the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps the most prominent artworks are the gigantic basalt heads discovered in the early part of the 20th century at La Venta.

Figure 39 is believed to depict a priest with a sacrificial (?) child carved in basalt. It is not known whether children were sacrificed by the Olmecs, but there may have been a child cult, since many "baby" sculptures that were found from this civilization. There is also a myth that making children cry will bring about rain, as if there were a "sympathetic magic" (Kathleen Cohen, Web of Art and Culture, Pre-Columbian 18) between the babies and the forces of nature. Again, the theme of almost symbiotic connection between humans and gods.

Figure 40 is a votive jade axe that combines the characteristics of a caiman, jaguar, and child (no teeth). The pronounced cleft in the middle of the head mimics the indentation found on the skulls of jaguars. Utilitarian objects were often represented in this way to personify the qualities and attributes of nature deities.

What seems interesting to me in connection with the Aztecs is that Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, was tricked by a jaguar god, Tezcatlipoca.

Could it be that the gods of cultures past, perhaps representing the unconscious, were forever taunting the "new" gods of power and "enlightment"?

Conclusion--Mesoamerican Sacrificial Practices

The brutality of Aztec sacrifices and the frequency of such acts seem to match only the brutality of sacrifices committed by the Spanish Inquisition.

The sacrifices were clearly related to nature worship, for it was the all-pervasive Mexican sun to which the human hearts of captives were offered. As we have seen, these bloody rituals seemed to have begun by the time of the Mayans, so that this practice lasted close to a millennium. That's a long time for such a reign of terror!

The giving of blood, however, is not new to cultures. Bulls were sacrificed in Minoan times and the blood was thought to fertilize the earth. The fact that nobility and rulers in Mayan through Aztec times practiced bloodletting would point out that they really believed that blood was necessary for the continued vitality and strength of the sun god.

What's interesting to me is that the Aztec myth emphasizes that the cyclical destruction that occurred in Aztec "eras" could not be avoided. However, the priests who were also warriors, had managed to convince ruler and populace that they had found a way to circumvent fate. Military rule in modern South America, for example, was pervasive until the 70s or 80s. Having lived a few years under that rule, it is annoying to find the ways that these bloodthirsty rulers find "rational explanations" for their massacres.

My interpretation is that the Aztec sacrifices had gone beyond religion and the reciprocity with gods, and were serving sustained political power under the guise of religion. The heavy taxation imposed by the Aztecs on their people as well as the "Flower Wars" that were conducted to round up captives for sacrifices must have instituted a reign of terror. It was no surprise that the Spaniards found allies in tribes that had been dominated by the Aztecs.


Conclusion--Pre-Columbian Sacrificial Practices

Although there may be evidence that there was religious interchange between Andean and Mesoamerican cultures by the similarities between Tihuanaco, Cerro Blanco and Teotihuacan, there is also evidence that these cultures developed nature worship in their own idiosyncratic way.

The worship of a sun god-king (Inti, Quetzalcoatl) is a common element, along with great sacrifices offered to those deities. Egyptians and Romans, however, practiced this sun god-king worship too.

The actual ritual of the sacrifices differed significantly for Andean and Mesoamerican cultures, particularly in Inca and Aztec times. For the Incas, children of Inca nobles were sacrificed in honor of the god. The practice involved mainly drugging the children and burying them alive in high mountain shrines wrapped in elaborate weavings and decked with precious offerings. The practices in Coricancha, Cuzco, however, where participating nobles were drenched by the ruler in the blood of llamas and Virgins of the Sun, reminds us of the blood rituals of the Aztecs. The Olmecs, on the other hand, seem to have had a focus on children and the gods, although there is no overwhelming proof that the kids were sacrificed.

The Aztecs, unlike the Incas, did not offer their lives for their sun god, although they did practice bloodletting. Instead they purposely campaigned to conquer other people to serve their hearts and lives to Quetzalcoatl. The nature of the sacrifice is quite different. Let's sacrifice others, not us, for our deity.

The political implications of the religious practices are different. The Inca empire demanded the most beautiful to be sacrificed in an elaborate celebration. It is said that most nobles willingly offered their best children to the Inca. For the Aztecs, a rule of terror had to be imposed because the victims did not want to be sacrificed. The Aztec victims were not celebrated and feasted, they were tortured (often letting them blood let for months or years before their heart was torn off). Thus, these blood sacrifices probably generated great animosity from the people who were offered as victims.

In terms of influence from cultures other than the Americas, we might think of the cult to the sun along with the pyramids built throughout the Americas as influenced by the Egyptians. However the Pre-Columbian cultures did not use the pyramids as tombs, but rather as ziggurats (Sumerian) so that, high up, they could be closer to their gods. Whether the exchanges ever took place between the Americas and Egypt is possible but improbable. The Asian influence is perhaps more likely. The appearance of the jaguar cult with the Olmecs and the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacan reminds us of the dragon deity venerated in Asia. We know that throughout the Shang dynasty in China, captives were used as sacrificial victims, which is what the Mayans, Toltecs, and Aztecs practices--way beyond the time it was practiced in China.

Studying these human-sacrifice oriented cultures made me think about what we sacrifice today, and for what motives. In Silicon Valley, where I live, people sacrifice their well-being and often their health for achievement, money, and fame. Although the sacrifice is not immediate, it is a slow, often decades-long sacrifice for a benefit that has little to do with our relationship to nature.

Notes on the Figures

Figure 1. Machu Picchu. This image is taken from Section 3 of "The Lost Empire", part of the "Ice Mummies of the Inca" series, which is a companion to the Nova series of the same name, November 24, 1998. Web site content written by Liesl Clark, photographs by Michael Barnes. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/worlds/empire3.html

Figure 2. Juanita mummy. This image is taken from "The High Mummies" section of the "Mummies of the World" web site. This is part of the "Ice Mummies of the Inca" series, which is a companion to the Nova series of the same name, November 24, 1998. Web site content written by Liesl Clark, photographs by The Mountain Institute. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/mummies/high2.html

Figure 3. Live llamas. See Figure 2 notes for copyright information. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/mummies/high2.html

Figure 4. Chicha offering. This image is taken from "The Sacrificial Ceremony", part of the "Ice Mummies" web site. Liesl Clark. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/worlds/sacrifice1.html

Figure 5. Juanita displayed. This image taken from "The Ascent", part of the "Ice Mummies" web site. Text by Liesl Clark. Photographs by Liesl Clark and The Mountain Institute. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/expedition/ascent2.html

Figure 6, Plomo mummy, This image taken from "The High Mummies", part of the "Ice Mummies" web site. Text by Liesl Clark. Photographs by Chris Openshaw and Michael Barnes. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/mummies/high1.html

Figure 7, Inca road network, This image taken from "Lost Empire", part of the "Ice Mummies" web site. Text by Liesl Clark. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/worlds/empire2.html

Figure 8, Aconcagua mummy, This image taken from "The High Mummies", part of the "Ice Mummies" web site. Text by Liesl Clark. Photographs by Chris Openshaw and Michael Barnes. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/mummies/high1.html

Figure 9, Burial figurine. This image taken from "Burial Artefacts", part of the "Ice Mummies" web site. Text by Liesl Clark. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/worlds/artefacts2.html

Figure 10, Spondyllus llama artifact. This image taken from "More Artefacts Found!", part of the "Ice Mummies" web  site. September 18, 1996. Text and photographs by Liesl Clark. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/newsflash/newsflash2.html

Figure 11, Bottle with human sacrifice scene. Close up from: Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 70.

Figure 12. Chimu Sacrificial Knife. Cohen, Kathleen. World Art Database.http://gallery.sjsu.edu

Figure 13. View of Tihuanaco with modern model. Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 37.

Figure 14. View of Cerro Blanco. Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 60.

Figure 15. Map of Mesoamerica, close up from: Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 16.

Figure 16. Aztec ceremony of human sacrifice from a mexican codex. Bridgeman Library Online, #69822.

Figure 17. Human sacrifice at the temple of Tezcatlipoca from a history of the Aztecs and the Conquest of Mexico (pen and ink), Bridgeman Library Online, #85077.

Figure 18. Sacrificial deer; aztec (manuscript). Bridgeman Library Online, #68849.

Figure 19. Bloodletting ritual by aztec priests. Cohen, Kathleen. World Art Database. http://gallery.sjsu.edu

Figure 20. Tenochtitlan model. Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 85.

Figure 21. Aztec sacrificial knife. Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 82.

Figure 22. Aztec sacrificial knives. Cohen, Kathleen. World Art Database.http://gallery.sjsu.edu

Figure 23. Mask representing the god Quetzalcoatl or Tonatiuh. Aztec c1500 (turquoise shell on wood). Bridgeman Library Online #3305.

Figure 24. Quetzalcoatl fresco at Teotihuacan. Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 59.

Figure 25. Coatlicue. Cohen, Kathleen. World Art Database. http://gallery.sjsu.edu

Figure 26. Tezcatlipoca. Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 84.

Figure 27. Aztec Calendar. Cohen, Kathleen. World Art Database.http://gallery.sjsu.edu

Figure 28. Aztec Warrior waging Holy War. Cohen, Kathleen. World Art Database. http://gallery.sjsu.edu

Figure 29. Chac-mool. Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 81.

Figure 30. Detail of eagle eating human heart. Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 82.

Figure 31. Prisoner before Lord Bird Jaguar. Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 71.

Figure 32. Mayan prisoners at Bonampak. Image copyright 1997-2000, David R. Hixson. http://studentweb.tulane.edu/~dhixson/bonampak

Figure 33. Detail of Mayan noble lady bloodletting. Cohen, Kathleen. World Art Database. http://gallery.sjsu.edu.

Figure 34. Skull rack relief on ball court game wall at Chichen Itza. Cohen, Kathleen. World Art Database. http://gallery.sjsu.edu.

Figure 35. Decapitation of captain at ball court game, stone frieze. . Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 80.

Figure 36. Chichen Itza cenote. Cohen, Kathleen. World Art Database.http://gallery.sjsu.edu.

Figure 37. Teotihuacan. . Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 55.

Figure 38. Quetzalcoatl fresco at Teotihuacan. . Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 59.

Figure 39. Olmec priest with child carved on basalt. . Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 18.

Figure 40. Were-child jade axe. . Cohen, Kathleen. Web of Art and Culture CD 2000, Lesson Sequence: Pre-Columbian 19.

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Von Wuthenau, Alexander. Terracotta Pottery in Pre-Columbian Central and South America. London, 1965.

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