Teotihuacan – City of Aztec Sacrifice and Ancient Religion

The city of Teotihuacan was the site of the infamous Aztec sacrifice made to the sun god and was at the centre of the Aztec religion.

Teotihuacan was founded and sustained through an elaborate system of militarism, ritual and sacrifice. The actual form of government has been the subject of debate for some time. It is thought that there was a social and political system directed by many governors, each associated with a particular area of the city. The idea of a single autocratic ruler has not been discounted however.

To this day, there is no inscription nor tomb painting discovered that depicts the actions of the rulers. It seems that whether it was a single ruler or several, they wished to remain anonymous to posterity.

Aztec Religion

Recent archaeological findings at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and at the Temple of the Moon have allowed experts to further understand the cosmology and worldview of the inhabitants of Teotihuacan and the role that Aztec human sacrifice played within it.

It was the god of death and rebirth, the Feathered Serpent, and often the morning star, associated with war, known as Quetzalcoatl, who was most venerated by the official cult of the Aztec religion. It was thought that he was also the giver of maize to mankind. Tlaloc, the god of rain and thunder was also highly venerated.

These gods ensured that life continued its rhythm and it was thought that they required blood in order to nourish themselves. This possibly stemmed from the legend where Quetzalcoatl went to the underworld and created the fifth age of man from the bones of previous races, using his own blood, from a wound on his penis to give the bones new life.

The pantheon of gods worshipped by the Aztecs was similar to those found throughout Mesoamerica and continued for centuries. Many sculptures and paintings of jaguars (‘ocelots’ in Nahuatl, the Aztec language), birds and snakes suggest they had significance in the Aztec religion.

Like many early societies, the Aztec religion was dependent on the priests, who played a crucial role, as it was they who organised the many rituals designed to obtain favours from the gods. These took the forms of fertility, political and military dominance and perhaps most importantly, the renovation of the cosmos.

Aztec Human Sacrifices

Recent discoveries at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan uncovered the skeletons of eighteen males, all with hands tied behind their backs and linked together, reconfirming the existence of Aztec human sacrifices on a grand scale. All the skeletons found in burial pits have had their heads turned towards the temple and are grouped in 4, 8, 9, 18 or 20, these numbers being used in the ritual and solar calendars in Mesoamerican civilisations.

It is thought that the majority of the sacrifices were prisoners of war, sacrificed to ensure the prosperity of the city, however, high ranking Aztecs are also thought to have had to sacrifice themselves. Sacrifice took different forms, some were decapitated, others had their hearts cut out, whilst others were buried alive.

Teotihuacan Pyramids

The Teotihuacan pyramids were where the grand public rituals and large-scale human sacrifices took place, most specifically at the Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon and the smaller Temple of the Feathered Serpent. At the present time, there is no definitive evidence as to which deities the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon were dedicated.

The Pyramid of the sun is the third largest in the world, after the pyramid at Cholula and the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Pyramids are situated at points of astrological significance for the Aztecs, and many phenomena with mythological importance can be viewed clearly from them. The horizon point of the setting sun on April 29 and August 12, a divinatory calendar year apart can be seen from the Pyramid of the Sun.

The culture of Teotihuacan, the nature of Aztec sacrifice, the Aztec religion and the purpose of the Teotihuacan pyramids are complex questions that are still in the process of being unravelled.

Sources for this article include research from INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) in Mexico, the Teotihuacan exhibition at Musee de Quai Branly Paris, The Myth of Quetzlcoatl by Enricque Florescano and Lysa Hochroth and Archaelogical Research at Teotihuacan, Mexico by Sigvald Linne.

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