An Examination of Aztec Human Sacrifice and Cannibalism
By John Valadez

Note: This article was written to examine the similarities between Aztec Cannibalism and the Eucharist. However, it was not written for the intention of equating the Holy Body of Jesus Christ to the rituals of the Aztecs by these similarities, but rather an investigation of how the Aztecs might have come to know the Divine Mystery through a ritual that was central to their life and culture. Just as the Orthodox missionaries in Alaska investigated the pagan rituals of the natives in order to bring them to Christ and His Church, so this article attempts to do the same.

Introduction

In the middle of the second century AD, Saint Justin Martyr wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius on behalf of the persecuted Christian people, urging for justice and demanding the charges brought against them be investigated. Included in his First Apology is an explanation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist in order to dissuade the accusation that Christians practiced cannibalism. Some 1400 years later, the events leading up to Tenochtitlan’s fall brought numerous missionaries to the New World. Through European eyes, the Spanish conquistadors, as well as the missionaries, documented the religion of the Mesoamerican people, which included a ritual that horrified them most: human sacrifice and cannibalism. In this essay, I intend to expose the relationship between the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the ritualistic cannibalism of the Aztecs by a comparison between the worldview of the Eastern Orthodox Church and that of the Aztec people.

Where Heaven Meets Earth

To the Aztecs, the Temple Mayor was of the greatest importance, being at the very heart of Tenochtitlan. It was believed to be the “Axis Mundi,” where heaven, earth, and the underworld met.[1] It was also the center of the horizontal plane, being the center of the north, south, east, and west.  It was thus the axis of the entire cosmos and of extreme significance to Aztec religion and ritualistic sacrifice. At the top of the Temple Mayor the Aztec ideology of duality was embodied in two shrines: one to south dedicated to Huitzilopotchli and the other to the north dedicated to Tlaloc. Huitzilopotchli was the deity that not only led the Aztecs to the promised land of Tenochtitlan but was also a deity of war and death. Huitzilopotchli’s shrine represented Coatepec, or Serpent Hill, the sacred place of his birth[2] and where he defeated his sister Coyolxauqui and his siblings in avenging his mother. Tlaloc was a deity of life, fertility, and rain. His shrine represented Tonacapetl, or the Hill of Sustenance.[3] The entire temple faced east, allowing the sun to rise behind each of these shrines at respected times of the year, giving power to the roles of each deity. The temple being intersected by the duality of these two deities, the four cardinal directions, as well as standing between the heavens and the underworld, represented a structure that manifested an Aztec cosmological worldview, reflecting their prowess as people elected by the deities. It is here that re-enactments of creation myths and legends of the deities were played out by sacrificial victims, where blood was offered to the sun in order for it to rise the next day, and where many sacrificial victims, representing the deities, were divided to be consumed. Thus this temple existed throughout time and space, both participating in this world and in an unseen one, serving as a link to otherworldliness for the Aztecs.

The structure of the Eastern Orthodox church is in itself a statement of profound theology and it stands to witness that theology not only to its believers but also to the entire world. A simple church consists of a sanctuary, a nave, and the narthex,“according to the plan of the tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon.”[4] The sanctuary of the church is closed off by an icon screen, separating it from the other two parts of the structure and symbolizing heaven. Behind the icon screen, the clergy stand in prayer; it is where the Eucharist is consecrated and where the altar is located. When the royal doors of the icon screen are opened by the clergy to the faithful in the nave, “it is as if heaven is opened a bit,” for “it represents the house of God, ‘the heaven of heavens’ according to St. Simeon of Thessalonica.”[5]

The nave of the church is where the faithful, or the baptized, stand in worship, representing a new creation, transfigured by the incarnation of God. The narthex holds those not baptized, those preparing for baptism, or those not permitted by the Church to receive the Sacraments, thus it represents the world outside of the Church. The building itself then represents not only a Christian worldview, but also where the faithful experience the Divine. St. Germanos writes, “The church is a heaven on earth wherein the heavenly God ‘dwells and walks.’”[6] The Saint goes on further to say, “It typifies the Crucifixion, the burial, and the Resurrection. […] It was prefigured by the patriarchs, foretold by the prophets, founded by the apostles, and adorned by the angels,” thus revealing the church’s importance in the cosmos.[7] The Divine Liturgy celebrated within the church is a reflection of creation as well as the whole life of Christ, allowing the faithful to participate in events outside of time.[8] This is why the Orthodox service always celebrates feasts in the present, crying out at Pascha (Easter), “Christ is Risen!” not “Christ has Risen!”[9] Thus, the church serves on earth as a representation of heaven, of the Divine, and of the world being transformed into a new creation.

 

A Sacrifice of Praise

The ritual of human sacrifice, offered the deities back the blood of life that they sacrificed for the creation of the world. The majority of Aztec sacrificial rituals consisted of a sacrificial victim that played the role of a deity. Creation myths involved the personification of a deity through a sacrificial victim, being rituals of great importance to Aztecan cosmology. The rejuvenation of the world and the function of the universe rested upon them.[10] These myths and their reenactments reminded the Aztecs of their origins, their cosmology, and who they were as a people. In these acts, the sacrificial victim was believed to become the deity, thus tying the past to the present and the spiritual to the temporal in a ritual that existed outside of time. The events leading up to the cannibalism of the sacrificial victim portrayed and brought to mind the acts of the deities that were essential to the life of the world.

The Divine Liturgy, the service in which the Eucharist is consecrated, is a service that reminds the Christian of the whole of creation. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for all things God has done for mankind. In the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, moments before the consecration of the Divine Gifts, the priest says a prayer that recounts all of the works God has done in behalf of the world, from our creation to the future judgment. This prayer is of great significance and pours out the theology of the Church upon the faithful before they partake of the Eucharist. The whole of the service acts to bring the cosmos together. Nikolaos of Andida, writes in the text Protheoria, that the liturgy symbolizes the life of Christ. It is a service that brings the faithful into this life, allowing them to participate in Christ, thus becoming a service existing both in the past, present, and future, molding all of time into one.

Thine Own of Thine Own

The Aztecs believed they were indebted to their deities that brought them life through way of agriculture, natural sustenance, warfare, and a variety of other means. The deities created the world by giving their blood, so the Aztecs were obligated to give their own blood as a sacrifice back to them. It was a way in which they repaid the sacrifice their deities made in order for their world to exist and they recognized this, willing to give this life back to them.[11] This reflects the cosmos in an order of tribute. Not only did the Aztecs demand tribute from the lands they conquered, but also their deities demanded tribute of them. When paying this tribute, they were giving the deities back what already was part of the deity—life-giving blood.

The worldview of an Orthodox Christian is revolved around the incarnation of Christ, for through this God became man and redeemed His creation that fell through the disobedience of Adam. The various troparia and kontakia that are sung on the Church’s feasts reveal that every act of Christ redeems creation and brings new life. The troparia that is chanted on Holy Friday fills the church with this deep theology as the choir proclaims: “Thou hast redeemed us from the curse of the Law by Thy precious Blood. By being nailed to the Cross and pierced with a spear, Thou hast poured immortality on mankind. O, our Saviour, glory to Thee.”[12] The blood of Christ gives life to the world. It is through His blood that Adam is restored and creation is brought back to God, bringing about a new creation and a new life.[13]  In the Divine Liturgy, moments before the Eucharist is consecrated, the Orthodox priest holds up the chalice and diskos which hold the wine and bread exclaiming, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee…” This is an act of great piety of reverence. The greatest miracle, in which an Orthodox believer will participate in, is revealed in the moments after this proclamation, when it is believed that the bread and wine are turned into the body and blood of Christ.[14] Even before this great miracle takes place, the Orthodox Christian is reminded that God Himself created the wheat, the yeast, the grapes, and the other ingredients that make up the bread and wine that is offered. Thus, the bread and wine that become the body and blood of Christ, giving life to the faithful, are in fact from God Himself.

This Is My Body

The sacrificial victim, becoming himself a deity through the reenactment of Aztec myths, becomes a vehicle by which the Aztecs not only participate in another world and pay tribute to their deities, but also commune with them. After the sacrificial victim was slain and his heart offered to the sun, his blood spilled out like “most precious water,”[15] and the priests dismembered his body in order for it could be consumed. Through the medium of the human body, the deity that the sacrificial victim had become was consumed with great reverence, for eating the flesh of the person was communing with the deity itself.[16] Thus the act of cannibalism was an act of intimacy with the deity, for the deity through ingestion became a part of them. This practice allowed the people to participate in the whole of the cosmos, for the deity was made flesh and now gave itself to them as food.

When the Eucharist is consecrated, the Church participates in a miracle that is beyond comprehension and time. The bread and wine, which are given to the people through God’s benevolence, is transformed into the uncontainable God. This significant Sacrament of the Church brings all things together: the creation of the world, the disobedience of Adam, the Incarnation through the Virginal birth, as well as the Cross, the Death, the Resurrection, and Ascension. The whole of the cosmos is there, telling the story of man’s redemption through God’s mercy and the act of His Incarnation. As the faithful prepare to consume the body and blood of Christ, they stand in reverence saying, “I now partake of the Fire, though but grass—O awesome wonder—Yet bedewed am I past telling, like that bush of old on Sinai which was unconsumed though burning.”[17] This reveals a great mystery in the hearts and minds of the Orthodox believer, for he becomes a vessel holding the Uncontainable Creator and communes with God Who exists before time. Christ, through the Incarnation and this Sacrament, has become intimate with the world, giving His body and blood to the faithful for both food and drink.

Conclusion

Both traditions, in the theology surrounding their respective ways of communing with the divine, unveil the mystery of the unseen and call together a profound cosmological worldview. In the unraveling of reenacted myths as well as the Divine Liturgy, the whole of creation rests in the hearts and minds of its believers. The tenets of each faith are ones that reflect an extreme intimacy with the otherworld through the act of consuming the Creator or creators of life. Contrary to what the missionaries believed or wrote, the cannibalism of the Aztecs was not mere barbarianism or devilry, but reflected a profound worldview similar to their own. The Divine, becoming incarnate through the person of Christ, shed blood for the life of the world and gave Himself to be partaken of. In a like manner, a deity made flesh through the medium of a sacrificial victim sheds its blood for the life of the world and gives itself to the people for communion. Also, the recounting of the each faith’s origins and well as the theology behind each respective temple reveal the renewal and rejuvenation of creation through the sacrifice and intimacy of each respective divinity. Christians struggled in early times against a charge brought upon them that they were cannibals and almost 1400 years later the Spaniards would charge the Aztecs of the same crime. Though the Aztecs ate the flesh of their deity through the literal meat of a man, the ideology of the presence of Christ’s body in the Eucharist draw extreme parallels. For the Orthodox, the bread and wine are indeed His immaculate Body and indeed His precious Blood.[18] For the Aztecs, the flesh of the sacrificial victim was truly that of the deity’s. Therefore, both traditions participate in a worldview that revolved around a spiritual life closely connected to the world around them, one that involved the intimacy and reality of the Divine or divinities giving themselves to the believers to be consumed as an act of communion between the temporal and the eternal



[1] Eduardo Moctezuma Matos, The Great Temple of the Aztecs, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988), 66

[2] Huitzilopotchli was born of his mother Coatlique who became pregnant with him when a ball of feathers fell on her while she was sweeping the temple at Coatepec

[3] Eduardo Moctezuma Matos, The Great Temple of the Aztecs, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988), 67

[4] Leonid Ouspensky, Volume I: Theology of the Icon, (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1992), 24.

[5] Leonid Ouspensky, Volume I: Theology of the Icon, (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1992), 24, 28.

[6] Robert Ousterhout, Temporal Structuring in the Chora Parekklision, Gesta Vol. 34, No.1 (1995), 63.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Prayer Book, (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1960), chap. Pascha.

[10] Michel Graulich, “Aztec Human Sacrifice as Expiation,” History of World Religions. Vol. 39, No. 4 (2000), 355.

[11] Michel Graulich, “Aztec Human Sacrifice as Expiation,” History of World Religions. Vol. 39, No. 4 (2000), 355.

[12] Prayer Book, (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1960), Passion Week Troparia, 166-167.

[13] Revelation 5:9, Orthodox New Testament

[14] Bishop Augoustinos N. Kantiotes, On the Divine Liturgy Vol. II (The Insititute for Modern Byzantine and Greek Studies, 1999), 204-205.

[15] Inga Clendinnen, “The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society,” Past and Present No. 107 (May 1985), 77.

[16] Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano, “Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity?,” Science New Series, Vol. 200 No. 4342 (May 1978), 615.

[17] The Service of Preparation for Holy Communion (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2006), 63.

[18] The Service of Preparation for Holy Communion, (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2006), 66.