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In a culture that valued the accomplishments of its warriors in battle, the Aztecs needed a way to lift their greatest warriors up on a pedestal through a method that was understood by everyone in their society. They also needed a closely-guarded means of upward social mobility, which likely created a desire for Aztec warriors to perform well in battle, and gave them superior motivation to conquer their neighbors and survive as a cultural unit. Human sacrifice was a crucial part of the creation of iconography and the religious elite (Carrasco, 1999, pp. 23). Without this practice, it would have been extremely hard for the kings and high priests to exert social control on the culture, in the absence of an equivalent practice. Just as in the modern world, religion and social structure hold value in maintaining social order, and the Aztecs were no exception to this fact.
Warfare and Expansion
There are other relevant cultural functions of human sacrifice relating to the warrior class besides providing a means of upward social mobility and recognition. Much social value was put on being a successful warrior, similar to the way much social value is put on sports stars or celebrities in modern western cultures. Human sacrifice was a method of not only controlling their own social structure but also a way to intimidate and humiliate the Aztec's enemies and rivals (Carrasco, 1999). The knowledge that, if a one group of Aztecs lost in battle to another that they would likely be taken captive, sacrificed, and potentially cannibalized would have likely given a huge psychological advantage to the Aztec warriors. This psychological advantage would not only cause warriors from other civilizations or city-states to become fearful of other warriors, it would also solidify the superiority of the winning group's warrior class, and the idea that the gods had possibly pre-ordained the success of certain groups of Aztecs (Carrasco, 1999). In a way, human sacrifice was a self-fulfilling prophesy for many Aztec groups. It was a way in which to appease the gods, honor successful warriors, and maintain the social structure on both the micro and macro-societal level.
Final Thoughts: Conclusion
Human sacrifice is one of the most ancient aspects of Mesoamerican culture and there is evidence for human sacrifice among its earliest complex societies (Conrad and Demarest, 2002, pp.19). The Aztec practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism is greatly misunderstood. Many modern cultures regard both practices as barbaric and savage. It must be remembered however, that these practices were undertaken with a ritualistic, religious undertone, and the entire Aztec culture was influenced by them. These practices also helped keep the social, political, and religious structure of the culture intact through the reinforcing of the social norms and the agendas of the elite. Human sacrifice was but only one method of keeping a population under control and was sometimes used in a similar manner to today's death penalty, as a way of punishing cultural and societal insubordinates in a public way. Human sacrifice was built into the Aztec's religious rituals and practices so that it could be more easily accepted and justified by the masses as a means for the gods and the political and social elite to maintain their hierarchical monopoly.
The practice of human sacrifice served a very real purpose for the Aztecs as well as many other neighboring and non-neighboring cultures. Without a doubt there is evidence that this practice helped to create the means for the social and warrior elites to rule the general population. There is much evidence that human sacrifice is a, "central religious performance in the construction of social order and the authority of city-states" (Carrasco, 1999, pp.3). So instead of looking at human sacrifice through the lens of modern-day religious and social understanding, it is necessary to understand the roots and functions of human sacrifice and ritualistic cannibalism in order to fully understand it in its correct cultural context. It is with a renewed sense of cultural understanding that the associations of "brutal," "savage," or "inhumane" can be stricken from the subject of Aztec culture and social structure, or at the very least the cultural context that the sacrifices took place inside of can be more fully recognized.
Carrasco, David. (1999). City of Sacrifice: Violence from the Aztec Empire to the Modern Americas. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Conrad, Geoffrey W. And Demarest, Arthur Andrew. (2002). Religion and Empire: the Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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Harner, Michael. (1977). The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice. New York, NY: Michael Harner.
Ingham, John M. (1984). Human…[continue]
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