Sunday, February 25, 2007

Human sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli

In summer 1521, the small army of the conquistador Hernán Cortés had been expelled from Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs, 62 of his soldiers taken prisoners during the fight. From outside the lake of the mexica capital, Cortés saw, powerless, the Aztec priests dispose these prisoners on the pyramid-temple altars, opened their chests and offered their beating hearts to the god Huitzilopochtli.

The chronicle of the swordsman Bernal Díaz tells these facts. Ritual sacrifice was perceived by Cortés as a threat and intimidation from the Aztecs. It probably arised a feeling of rejection and revenge in him, that influenced the later extermination of Aztec culture. However, the ritual sacrifice had a very different meaning.

In Aztec culture, human sacrifices were common during celebrations or natural disasters. Spilling human blood was a means to be humilliated in order to express gratitude and pay the debt towards the gods, for the sacrifice they did themselves in the creation of the world. Auto-sacrifice was the most widespread way, being common the fact of perforating sometimes several parts of the body with obsidian (especially ear, tongue and penis).

When the sacrifice involved offering the life of another person, this was rarely a slave (as the sacrifice became less valuable). It was usually a free person voluntarily offered or a war prisoner. The latter type of sacrifice, in which a jaguar warrior offered his prisoner to Huitzilopotchli, god of Sun and War, was the most widespread among Aztecs. The rite usually consisted in a ritual dance performed by both victim and warrior, and later the priest took the heart out from the victim's chest on the sacrifice altar. Right afterwards, the victim's body was offered to the warrior's family. They then ate his flesh and carried his skin for several days. What explanation has such an extravagant rite?

A complex meaning

In Meso-American cultures, the concept of the individual is relative. The nature of the "me" does not exist as itself, but as other individuals see it. This way, a jaguar sees other jaguars the same way a human sees other humans. The sacrifice rite is, in this context, a ceremony of assimilation, of an attempt to become the other. By eating his flesh, and carrying his skin, the warrior and his family personify their enemy, who defines who are themselves. In this manner, the sacrifier becomes, momentaneously, a singular individual, not relative but absolute.

For the better quality of the rite, the victim must be as similar as possible as the sacrifier, that is, from a near origin. That is why, the sacrified that came from the nearby city of Tlaxcala were more ppreciated than those come from further. Spanish were, thus, a second-class type of victim.

An interesting aspect in the ritual sacrifice, is that the sacrifier assumes also the role of the victim (result of the assimilation of the other). When the family ate the victim's flesh, they were in mourning, and it was frequent to cry during the ceremony, same as if it were their relative who was dead.

So, although difficult to understand by the Western invaders, the true reason of the sacrifice was much more complex than they thought.


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