Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Mystery of Aztec Sacrifice

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Mystery of Aztec Sacrifice

Article excerpt

"Aztec Human Sacrifice as Expiation" by Michel Graulich, in History of Religions (May 2000), Univ. of Chicago Press, 5720 S. Woodlawn, Chicago, Ill. 60637.

In the centuries before the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, the Aztecs of Mexico ritually sacrificed at least 20,000 people a year. What was their intent? The usual explanations given by scholars are that the Aztecs wanted to propitiate their gods, to nourish them with the victims' hearts, or to revitalize these deities by symbolically killing them. Graulich, director of religious studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, in Paris, suggests that the Aztecs had a complex theology in which sacrifice had one basic--and what some might deem more exalted-- purpose: atonement.

The primary purpose of sacrifice, Graulich maintains, was "expiation of sins or transgressions in order to deserve a worthy afterlife." Whose sins were erased? First, those of the victims, nearly all of whom came from "guilty" classes: prisoners of war, slaves, and, in a more limited way, criminals. The author notes that Aztec texts such as the myth of Quetzalcoatl's victory at Mixcoatepec "present prototypical victims of human sacrifice as transgressors. …

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