Today, we will have one of the most direct references to human sacrifice in all the literature of the Aztecs. It can be found in the Codex Magliabecchiano on page 70r and looks like this:
I won’t write about the Codex page so much today – it is all very obvious. The priest cuts open the chest of the victim which lies on the techcatl (a holy block of stone), the heart goes out (which is nicely depicted) and blood gets put to the temple. After all that the victim gets thrown down the stairs, where it is taken away.
From this technique we can assume that the sacrifice was done for Huitzilopochtli. Other gods received differently safrificed victims – burned, pierced by arrows, skinned and so on. What we can’t assume is, that everything really happened like that.
When the texts that reference the numbers of sacrifices were written, the Spaniards had already arrived and they, as well as the Aztecs, had an agenda. They wanted to present the wild Indios, the people at home had heard about. And the Aztecs wanted to seems strong. All in all the reports about how many victims were sacrificed are contradictory. Modern archeological findings don’t support the theory of tens of thousands of victims per year: there have to be bones somewhere near the temples or cities. Still, the fact that nobody eher found bones is not a proof. Many Indigenous today claim, that the whole sacrificial cult is mere invention of the Spanish missionaries.
We won’t find out the truth here, but let’s have a look at a very famous example: the sanctification of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan.
In 1487 emperor Auitzotl sanctified the newly constructed Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan with a sacrificial ceremony. According to some Aztec sources 84,400 people had been sacrificed within 4 days. 84,400 in 4 days! That’s a lot of bodies and sounds like hard work. Let’s do the math:
4 days have 96 hours, which are 5,760 minutes.
To kill 84,400 people in 5,760 minutes, the priest had to be fast, namely around 15 kills per minute. Easy enough, but it’s not just killing, but opening the chest, taking the heart, cutting the blood vessels, presenting the heart, using the blood on the temple and throwing down the body. 15 times that in one minute seem highly exagerrated, even if it would have been done by several priests at the same time.
I would assume a duration of 5-10 minutes per victim. So in the best case, a priest could kill 1,152 victims in 4 days if he had a collegue at hand, when his muscles ached.
Maybe the Aztecs said that number, because it seems really big, to honor Huitzilopochtli even more – it could therefore be symbolic. Then again, the Aztecs had a very exact understanding of numbers. Probably we will never find out. But we should read all reports about sacrifice with healthy criticism.