Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

A Brief Survey Of Historical Aztec Autosacrifice

Today I’m going to give a quick overview of the types of autosacrifice performed by the Aztecs during the days of the Empire in order shed some additional light on this very important religious practice.

Traditionally, the Aztecs would collect blood from their ears, lower legs (calf, shin, or just above the ankle), lip, tongue, or penis. The tools and methods used would vary depending on the worshipper’s preferences, the ritual context, and in at least some cases, the instruction of a priest.  The Florentine Codex records the rite of confession to Tlazolteotl, and according to Sahagun, the confessor priest would prescribe required penances to atone for the disclosed sins — these penances often included various forms of bloodletting.

The most common methods of getting the blood were by pricking the flesh with a sharp instrument. Maguey (agave) spines are the tool most frequently mentioned in the historical texts, though slivers of obsidian and special perforators made from a spike-shaped piece of sharpened bone were also used. (Incidentally, Quetzalcoatl, the First Priest, is often shown in the codices holding a bone perforator or two.) From what I’ve read, it seems that maguey spines were particularly associated with piercing the ears and the legs, probably because their large size would be sufficient to draw blood from the legs. The individual would pierce himself or herself in the chosen location, and once the thorns were sufficiently bloodied, would carefully arrange them on a bed of cut fir boughs, or stick them into a ball of dried grass.

Alternatively, the Aztecs would nick their earlobes with an obsidian knife, and the blood would be allowed to drip on the ground, be sprinkled into a fire, or flicked towards the sun, symbolically giving the life-energy to Tonatiuh.

Finally, there was a final type of personal blood offering, that of passing straws or cords through the body. This rather severe form of autosacrifice was a multi-step process. The person would first select a place to pierce. In the texts I’ve read, the tongue seems to be the most common choice for this kind, though the ears, legs, and possibly penis were used as well. (I haven’t the slightest idea of how that last one worked, it’s definitely not something the Spanish friars would’ve recorded the details of!) Then they would poke a hole with a sharp sliver of obsidian, and pull a number of straws or thin cords through the hole. This sacrifice was typically done in a temple or at the side of the road. Wherever it was done, the bloodied straws were left behind as offerings. Interestingly, this practice was apparently only done on days that had a proper sign according to the ritual calendar (tonalpohualli), but I’ve never come across what daysigns those were. Finally, this practice of drawing straws is usually listed as a priestly activity, not something done by ordinary people, though occasionally the nobility appear to have done it as well. Priests who did this often were obvious, as their tongues would be extremely scarred, damaged to the point where they were said to have had difficulty in speaking.

Quetzalcoatl Holding Bone Perforators, Codex Borgia

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7 responses

  1. xuchilpaba

    Awesome. Somewhere theres a picture of the Mayans (not Aztecs :-S ) that have those wires through their penieses.

    Priests had scarred tongues? Cool. You learn something new everyday. 🙂

    April 21, 2008 at 3:55 PM

  2. cehualli

    I’ve read descriptions of that particular Mayan ritual, but I’ve never seen a pic. Is it a carving, or in one of the codices? Either way, OUCH!!!

    Yeah, apparently some of the priests would do the straws through the tongue offering enough times to scar it up. I’ve seen that one mentioned in several places, including an extract from one of the Inquisition trials involving a Mixtec noble in the book on the Mixtecs of colonial-era Oaxaca that Shock pointed me to over on B&R a month or so back. (Good book, too.)

    April 23, 2008 at 5:29 AM

  3. Xuchilpaba

    I think this is the reason my gods respond positively & encouraged me to get a tongue person. I noticed that they like peircings. i would love to see your blog.
    Fuck, wordpress keeps signing me out!

    April 24, 2008 at 11:47 AM

  4. Xuchilpaba

    And I meant *tongue peircing there

    and that I would love it if you blogged about some of the piercings the Aztwcs had. I have a really neat eagle lip piercing piece picture, but I think its Mixtec.

    April 24, 2008 at 11:48 AM

  5. Weird stuff like is is proof that the Q god is bizarre, and should be abandoned.

    February 2, 2009 at 12:07 AM

  6. cehualli

    One could say the same thing about the gods and practices of every religion, Marianne, if one chooses to judge based on specific practices one doesn’t like or understand. I could blow my entire allotment of space on WordPress if I felt the need to write a catalogue of “weird stuff” in just the current major world religions alone. But I won’t, because that’s not what this blog is about.

    Instead, I invite you to study these practices and the theology underpinning them to understand them better. They’re not so strange then, nor are they without value. Granted, not everything is right for today, but it’s a different time and place, so that’s a no-brainer.

    -Best,
    Cehualli

    February 2, 2009 at 2:34 AM

  7. Jessica

    Interesting, I have been doing this for years and here it is on the web. I was taught about it as a follower of aleister Crowley.

    November 13, 2010 at 1:04 AM

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