The Aztecs are infamous for their apparently astonishing, and unparalleled, capacity for state-sponsored violence (indeed, when I tell people where my research interests lie I am often met with a rather startled face). To many, public examples of human sacrifice are the expression of Aztec religion. However, as I hope to show, this is not the whole story. While the spectacular rituals capture imagination, they are far from what an ordinary Aztec would have considered an exemplar of their religious practice.


The beginning of the rainy season in the Aztec imperial capital Tenochtitlan coincided with one the grand city’s most public expositions of religious devotion: the festival Tlacaxipehualiztli, known ominously to us as ‘the Festival of the Flaying of Men’. Of the cyclical round of public festivals, it is perhaps the most shocking to a modern audience. The main part involved the ritual human sacrifice of captive warriors who had been selected, bathed and dressed in the image of the Aztec agriculture god, Xipe Totec (‘Our Lord the Flayed One’, in whose honour the festival was held). These captive men lived for forty days as the deity’s representative. An exhausting night vigil signalled the approach of the festival’s bloody climax. The captives climbed (some apparently willingly, some dragged by force) up the steps of the temple. They were grabbed by the attendant priests who stretched them across the sacrificial stone. After the captive’s pulsating heart was struck out and offered up to the skies, the limp body was cast down the temple’s temple steps, ‘breaking to pieces it came head over heels’.[1] The corpse was taken to the original captor’s house, where a ritual cannibalistic feast took place. Most shockingly of all, the skin from the victim’s corpse was carefully flayed, and taken by priests who ‘wore’ the skin and performed mock battles throughout the imperial city.

By any standards, this is a distressing and confronting ceremony, the performance of which is almost unimaginable to a modern mind. It is inescapable that the Aztecs performed some brutal and startling rituals. However, it is wrong to assume that spectacular rituals like Tlacaxipehualiztli were the only channel for religious expression. I would suggest that what scholars refer to when they call ‘Aztec religion… a fantastic display of sound, sense, body, and fury’,[2] is actually public religion, which disregards domestic practice.

Image of Xipe Totec from
Image of Xipe Totec from

As historians, we are led by the material available to us for our analyses and interpretations. Sources inevitably have their biases which can skew or misdirect our understandings of the past. For example, historical texts should be seen as the product of writers with their own agendas and perspectives. Their writing can emphasise more remarkable, impressive aspects which we mistake for the complete picture. In the case of the Aztecs, the overwhelming majority of the documentary sources focus on official state religion. The early colonial chroniclers on Aztec religion, on whom we rely for our understandings, were gripped by a desire to eradicate what they saw as pagan barbarism. Driven by this motivation, they focused their writings on festivals like Tlacaxipehualiztli. These men were fearful of indigenous women’s perceived mystical power, therefore it is very unlikely that they would have ever entered an Aztec home. Because of this, we see little of the domestic sphere in their writings. Reliance on these documentary sources, coupled with a lack of archaeological investigation at Aztec sites, means that our current knowledge of Aztec religious practice is heavily skewed towards the grand state-sponsored ceremonies and official public religion. More nuanced research needs to develop so that we might truly understand how people lived in the past.

Broadly speaking, my PhD aims to look away from the imperial capital towards the hinterland, to build up a more complete understanding of religious practice throughout the Aztecs’ vast empire. Part of this work involves investigating what day-to-day religion might have meant to the mass of ordinary people. As mentioned, this is a far murkier world to understand, which in part explains why domestic religion remains poorly understood, and understudied. What we see on top of the grand temples is just one type of Aztec religion.  Beyond the imperial capital’s spectacular temples and grand precincts, men, women and children took part in private rituals which were a world apart from the bloody display of public human sacrifice, both in their choreography and context. These ceremonies took place firmly within a family setting, with women taking a central role. During these intense rituals, men and women filled their households with incense and their focus was on themes of divination, agricultural fertility, reproduction and curing. Archaeological evidence suggests that small ceramic figurines (objects rarely seen in public rites) were important in domestic rituals, although scholars debate their precise significance.[3]

With my PhD research I want to readdress the imbalance that promotes the brutal public rituals as representative of Aztec religion at the expense of a more subtle understanding. Combining investigation of both historical and archaeological sources, I hope to show that there’s far more to Aztec religion than the blood and hearts of sacrificial victims.

 Harriet has just started a PhD, for which she was awarded a Faculty Scholarship, researching religion in the Aztec empire. She recently completed the MA in Historical Research at Sheffield, where her dissertation was ‘Constructing the Aztec Warrior: Birth to Battlefield.’ You can follow her on twitter at @harrietlcsmart.

[1] Florentine Codex, Book 2, The Ceremonies, p. 48.

[2] Davíd Carrasco, ‘Give Me Some Skin: The Charisma of the Aztec Warrior’, History of Religions, 35.1 (1995), p. 10.

[3] See, for example: Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, ‘Figurines and the Aztec State: Testing the Effectiveness of Ideological Domination’, in Rita P. Wright (ed.), Gender and Archaeology (Philadelphia, 1996), pp. 143-66; Michael E. Smith, ‘Domestic Ritual at Aztec Provincial Sites in Morelos, in Patricia Plunket (ed.), Domestic Ritual in Ancient Mesoamerica (Los Angeles, 2002), pp. 93-114.

Feature image is Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, The Great Temple of the Aztecs (London, 1988), p. 87. The caption is the photo says: Level 1 of offering 7.


Tags : aztec historygenderhuman sacrificephdreligionritual
Harriet Smart

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