Mischaracterized: Ritual Sacrifice & The Aztec Empire
A response to “Capital Punishment and Aztec Sacrifice.”
The Aztecs do not deserve to be known for cruel practices of sacrifice because they failed to stand out regarding the cruel nature of said practice. However, they do deserve to be characterized as having maintained unique sacrificial practices, as they were carried-out at an unusually-large scale.
Recent efforts to portray indigenous American societies in a more objective or culturally-relativist light are a justified response to the misinformation that has been typified as it pertains to Mesoamerican society in our modern imagination, as this mischaracterization is an unsurprising result of the biased nature of the colonial voices that compose much of the available primary sources. However, an attempt to invalidate the stereotype of the Aztecs as “cruel sacrificers” by comparing their practices to the questionable nature of execution in Texas is problematic.
Execution in Texas is a matter of Crime and Punishment, and while the questionable ethics of the practice- in the context of its odd persistence within the current paradigm of human rights- is odd, its origins are notably practical. Execution was once a global norm regarding crime and punishment, and the Aztecs were no exception to this.
The Aztecs had a system of laws, and being unable to field prisons, execution filled a central role in legal arbitration. Sacrifice was a separate phenomenon entirely, and even so, it would be no surprise that the Aztecs executed criminals at a higher rate than any modern state, as this was the case for virtually all societies of the era. Comparing the state of capital punishment in Texas with sacrificial practices in the Aztec empire seems requires one to cast-aside the clear parallel between the nature of crime and punishment; ignoring the execution of criminals to focus on sacrifice.
While the nature of the comparison is intellectually dishonest, the question of whether there is justification for the ascribed title of “cruel sacrificers” is still worth investigating. In order to do so, a distinction must be made between Mesoamerican society and the imperial Aztec state.
Mesoamerican society, being made up of various interrelated but distinct societies that occupied different parts of the region at different times, does not deserve this title. While ritual sacrifice, the humiliation of prisoners of war, and more-common traditions like bloodletting were shared components of the Mesoamerican network of interrelated religious tradition, the nature and scale of these practices were distinct from the Aztecs.
The Aztecs were a Uto-Aztecan people, originating from the region now known as the American Southwest. They invaded Mesoamerica from the north, and established themselves in the Valley of Mexico, thereby appropriating the customs and culture of the region’s previous inhabitants, much like how the various invaders of Mesopotamia, Northern India, or China did in across history.
The cruel nature of sacrifice in the Aztec Empire was symptomatic of the notably militaristic nature of the Aztec state. To ascribe such a title to the people of the Aztec peoples would be just as inaccurate as describing people in the Timurid Empire as cruel oppressors on the grounds of the policies supported and upheld by the state; without consent from the people being ruled.
One could claim the elites of the Aztec empire were guilty of cruel practices, but you could not make the same claim about people that lived within the empire. The Aztec empire, just as all great empires ruled by a ruling minority who invaded from foreign lands, subjugated its people. Additionally, it should be noted that the Aztecs ruled over the most militaristic society the region had ever seen, with an empire stretching farther than any Mesoamerican state before it.
The Aztecs subjugated not only the masses, but the adjacent states that they either annexed or subjugated through conquest, which manifested as a tribute system that made up the core components of their tax collection network. In order to uphold this status quo, the state had to maintain a monopoly on violence, or else the repressive nature of their tributary system and the impressive diversity within the empire would have been their downfall.
Warfare and sacrifice were characteristic of the Aztec rise to power before they settled in the valley of Mexico, and the origins of these practices are very deeply rooted in their nomadic origins. Once the Aztecs had established themselves in Mesoamerica, they had to maintain aspects of their nomadic identity in order to maintain their heritage and keep the ruling class in power, but they had to also fit themselves into the Mesoamerican cultural epigene to help maintain control over their (now) large and diverse population.
The practice of sacrifice characteristic of the migratory Aztecs before they settled in Mesoamerica was generally tied to warfare, ad was a foundational part of their political system, though on a smaller scale. When the Aztecs becoming Mesoamericans, this relationship between sacrifice, war, religion, and politics persisted. Aztec ritual sacrifice was influenced by the traditions of humiliation in war and bloodletting in religion which had existed in Mesoamerica long before their arrival. What were once relatively tame acts of piety and celebration transformed into something much more intense when these traditions were combined with their own military tradition of sacrifice.
The Aztec state was a brutal militaristic empire, and the cruel nature of their ritual sacrifice made up an unsurprising part of that. The Aztecs- in terms of the ruling elite- could be characterized as “cruel sacrificers.” However, the Mesoamericans, and therefore the people of the Aztec empire, were not. Aztec sacrifice could be viewed as a perversion of Mesoamerican religion and tradition designed to fit the Aztec rulers’ preferred strategy of expansion and hegemony, so any attempt to compare the practice to criminal execution in Texas is intellectually dishonest.