History Essay Sample: Aztec Art and Ritual Sacrifices

Sep 5, 2021
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Art played an imperative role in the golden times of the Aztec empire. They raised monumental stone sculptures, created murals, featherwork, and mosaics. They were able to carve colossal sculptures from a single piece of a giant rock. They mimic natural designs in their art. Though the Aztecs were ancients, they showed expertise and craftmanship through their time-surpassing artworks. 

The Aztecs were known to be the original occupants of the current-day Mexican land and called themselves "Mexica"(Kilroy-Ewbank, 2018). The rich culture of this civilization has made them a common history research topic. The Aztec religion focused on the belief in a pantheon of gods and goddesses to whom they offer various sacrifices. However, they gave more importance to the gods "Huitzilopochtli" and "Tlaloc" which were essential for their empire's success. The Aztecs built towering monuments to worship these deities. They created temples where they held ritual sacrifices, offering their harvest or human sacrifices. This article will explore Aztec art and ritual sacrifices. It will also try to relate the Aztec art foundation to the ritual sacrifices that this ancient civilization made.

Aztec Art

Art is an important activity for ancient civilizations like the Aztecs.  They use art to convey political, religious, and cultural messages. They built large sculptures and architecture to show their wealth and power. The common Aztec people would see these grand displays and they would imagine the power it requires to construct and create the pieces of art.

While looking at Aztec art, one cannot fail to notice the influences that inspired the artworks. The Aztec civilization along with the "Olmecs", "Mayas", "Toltecs", and "Zapotecs" designed their art from the natural world and the image of their pagan gods. These civilizations created colossal stone sculptures, monumental architectures, and flamboyant potteries. The Aztecs were also involved in body art. They carved clays with geometric patterns that acted as stamps for body painting and designing fabrics.

The Aztecs created marvels of metalwork like statues and mini-sculptures made of gold and silver. The Aztecs also made accessories like golden lip piercings, pendants, earrings, necklaces, and rings. The Aztecs used animals, plants, and their gods as inspiration for these metalworks. Unfortunately, people melted down some of the gold and silver artworks to turn them into coins and currency.

Stone and wood sculptures in the image of pagan deities also comprise Aztec Art. Some of these sculptures are life-size or even larger than an average person. They paint some of these sculptures with vibrant colors. The Aztecs would occasionally splatter blood and offer precious gems to these idols. Some sculptures even have empty spaces where the Aztecs place the heart of their human sacrifices. 

Miniature works and gemstones were also a big part of Aztec artworks. The Aztecs used small animals, insects, plants, and shells as their subjects. They carved the images on precious rocks like amethysts, obsidian, carnallite, and jade. The Aztecs also used turquoise when creating mosaics and masks. Some examples are the masks representing the god "Tezcatlipoca" and "Xiuhtecuhtli" (Cartwright, 2018). The Aztec represented Tezcatlipoca with a turquoise mask-covered skull. They also used black lignite, oyster shells, conch shells, pyrite, and deerskin to decorate the skull. The mask of Xiuhtecuhtli had pearls for its eyes and conch shells for the teeth.

The use of ceramics was also a skill that Aztec culture featured predominantly. The Aztecs were able to create beautiful and hollow figures despite the absence of the potter’s wheel. For an early civilization, their potteries were well-proportioned and thin-walled. They produced carved lidded-urns, molded censers, spouted jugs, and hourglass-shaped cups. The Aztecs decorated their potteries with geometric, animal, and plant designs.

The Aztecs were enthusiasts of art from cultures that preceded them. They would find objects and art pieces from earlier civilization and keep them as offering to their gods. These older civilizations also inspired some of the Aztec artworks. The Aztecs made some artworks that were intentionally archaic.

Remarkably, the use of song and poetry was a facet that the Aztecs highly embraced in their culture. They used ceramic flutes and ceremonial drums. Like their statues, the Aztecs decorated the instruments with carvings of animals and pagan gods. The "Malinalco" drum is a great example of an instrument that the Aztecs covered with dancing animals that represent human sacrifices.

The "Sun Stone" or "Calendar Stone" is the most popular Aztec artwork and masterpiece. The large stone is made of basalt which was once part of an Aztec temple. The sun god "Tonatiuh" is present in the middle of the stone. The Aztecs represented their other gods by the four carved points in the stone. They also carved fire serpents on the edges of the stone. This masterpiece embodies a large part of Aztec culture, from their pagan gods to their incredible craftsmanship.

Ritual Sacrifices

Many think that an Aztec ritual sacrifice means sacrificing a living human being. Human rituals involved decapitation, skinning, and dismemberment of internal and external body parts. While this is true, certain ritual sacrifices only involved sacrificing agricultural produce and animals. The kind of sacrifice will depend on which god the Aztecs are trying to please. It is also important to note that for the Aztecs, ritual sacrifices are necessary for their worship and they believed that it will help guide mankind to prosperity. 

Human Sacrifices

The sacrifices in Aztec culture were carried out in special and hallowed places. A large circular stone that the Aztecs called "Tizoc" was used for human sacrifices. The human sacrifice will lie on top of its surface during the ritual. The Aztec also held sacrifices on top of large pyramids. The most common ritual is cutting open the sacrifice's chest and removing the heart. The Aztecs will then place the heart in a stone or wood figure of one of their gods.

Besides decapitations and skinning, another form of sacrifice is gladiatorial contests. This is where the Aztecs will force the sacrifice to fight against hand-picked warriors (Cartwright, 2018). The Aztecs will often tie down the sacrifice or give them useless weapons. This ensures the sacrifice's death and the integrity of the ritual. The Aztec's most barbaric method of ritual sacrifice is throwing the sacrifice into a pit of fire and removing their heart.

Most human sacrifices were captive warriors from other Aztec groups. The Aztecs prefer to sacrifice captive warriors who were the bravest or most good-looking.  They believe that these sacrifice candidates will please the gods. The Aztecs also had ball games that could decide who will become a sacrifice for their gods. A member of the losing team will often become a sacrifice candidate. The candidate can be the losing captain or the entire losing team. The Aztecs believed some gods, like "Tlaloc" the rain god, prefer child sacrifices. They believed that the tears of the sacrificed children will please the pagan god and bless them with rain.

Slaves are another source of human sacrifices for Aztec rituals.  In the Aztec civilization, a person can become a slave as a punishment for their crimes. Captive warriors can also become slaves if the Aztecs did not sacrifice them. There were also records of individuals who became slaves as payment for a debt. The Aztecs required slaves to follow their masters to death. This means if a slave master becomes a ritual sacrifice, the slave will also become a sacrifice. Aztec merchants also offer slaves as offering to the pagan gods to bless their business.

The Aztecs also have god impersonators. These are individuals that the Aztecs believed to be a personification of their gods. The Aztecs treat these impersonators as royalties. They give them the most elegant clothes, pieces of jewelry, and an abundance of food. Aztec priests even educate these impersonators to act similar to their pagan god. The special treatment can last for a year until the date of the sacrificial ceremony.

The Aztecs displayed the heads of human sacrifices in racks. Sometimes, the priests who conducted the ritual and the individuals who captured the sacrifice will eat human flesh. Anthropologist Marvin Harris claimed that the Aztecs view the consumption of human flesh as a reward since protein is not part of the Aztec diet.

Non-human Sacrifices

Though people always think of human sacrifices when hearing about Aztec rituals, the Aztecs also practiced non-human sacrifices. This included offering agricultural products, farm animals, wild animals, precious gems, and blood. The type of sacrifice will depend on which deity the Aztecs are trying to please. The Aztec believed some gods require human sacrifice while others only require a drop of blood or blood of any living creatures.

Some non-human sacrifices include the burning of blood-soaked papers, tobacco, and incense. The Aztecs also offered creatures like snakes and butterflies to their gods. They also gave precious gems like jade which they buried during rituals. Researchers also found figures of Aztec gods made from dough. The Aztecs mixed human blood and honey with the figures and burned or ate them during rituals.

Examples of Aztec Sacrifices 

The subject of Aztec Sacrifices was dependent on the type of deity that the Aztecs were trying to gain the favor of. One example is the Water Deity, "Chalchihuitlicue". She symbolizes the importance of water and the different bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes, ponds, and springs. The Aztecs see "Chalchihuitlicue" as a fertility goddess. They offer sacrifice to her with the aim of good harvest and strength for babies. The Aztecs sacrificed babies to the Water Deity to gain her favor and experience her blessings.

Another deity that requires child sacrifice is the Maize Deity, "Chicomecoatl". Similar to the Water Deity, the Aztecs also viewed "Chicomecoatl" as an agricultural fertility god. The sacrifice includes offering a girl child to the deity by beheading and skinning her. Consequently, the priest who is performing the ritual will wear the skin of the child.

The Aztecs also sacrificed dough images to "Huitzilopochtli", the god of war and sun. They made the images from amaranth grain and honey. The Aztecs paraded the images through their streets and into their temples. The Aztecs will then eat pieces of the images that the ritual priests distributed. The consumption of the dough images represented the power of gods to give life to the Aztecs.

Correlation of Aztec Art and Rituals

Aztec art plays a significant role in ritual sacrifices and the everyday life of the early civilization. The Aztecs created monumental architecture like temples where they held ritual sacrifices. They created large sculptures like the "seated god Xochipilli". This sculpture did not only serve as an art piece but also a figure where the Aztecs would leave offerings like corn, flowers, and insects. Some pieces like the "Sun Stone" were art masterpieces that the Aztec also used as a calendar to mark significant events like ritual sacrifices. Some sculptures also have empty vessels that priests used during rituals as a container for human hearts.

Conclusion

The foundation of Aztec art was an integral step to developing their ritual sacrifices. The Aztecs cherished their gods more than anything. They were willing to sacrifice children, men, and women to gain the favor of their deities. Their mastery of sculpting and molding was the result of their strong devotion to their faith. The Aztecs created sculptures, architecture, and other artworks with ritual sacrifices in mind. The human sacrifices that the Aztecs practiced may garner negative impressions from outsiders. People may see them as cannibals and barbarians, however, the Aztecs became a successful empire due to their strong reverence and sense of culture.

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Bibliography

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Cartwright, Mark. 2018. 'Aztec Sacrifice.’ Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed June 17, 2021. http://www.ancient.eu.com/Aztec_Sacrifice/.

Cartwright, Mark. 2018. 'Aztec Art'. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Accessed June 17, 2021. https://www.worldhistory.org/Aztec_Art/

Kilroy-Ewbank, Lauren. 2018. Introduction to the Aztecs (Mexica). Smarthistory. Accessed June 17, 2021. https://smarthistory.org/introduction-mexica/

Miller, Mary Ellen. 2001. The Art of Mesoamerica. 1st ed. London: Thames & Hudson

Pasztory, Esther. 1976. Aztec Stone Sculpture: Exhibition catalog, December 8, 1976–January 30, 1977, the Center for Inter-American Relations. New York: Center for Inter-American Relations.

Umberger, Emily, and Cecelia F Klein. 1993. 'Aztec Art And Imperial Expansion.' Latin American Horizons, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 295--336.



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