The largest temple in the great square of Tenochtitlan was dedicated to the cult of Huitzilopochtli (wee-tseel-o-POACH-tlee), the god of war. Some three hundred feet long at the base, it was about one hundred and fifty feet high. A Spanish chronicler described it as the altar upon which human sacrifices were offered by priests who smelt of blood and sulphur. Tezcatlipoca was the god of the breath of life- the racial god of the Nahuatlans-whose cult was practiced in the same temple as that of the god of war. Tlaloc was the Aztec god of rain and fertility. Quetzalcoatl was the feathered god of order, enlightenment, and humaneness-the fair god of romance.
The god of war, Huitzilopochtli, had guided them in their journey and advised them to go to an island where they would findan eagle with a serpent in its mouth. This was the location on which they were to build theircity. This is the same symbol used today on the Mexican flag. Untutored in the arts andsciences of earlier Indian civilizations, the Aztecs were warriors who gradually conqueredthe sedentary people in the valley. The fearful war-god of the Aztecs, whose worship was accompanied by a shedding of human blood that has never been equalled elsewhere, originally sprang from an entirely inoffensive conception of nature. He is the incarnation of the sun's beneficent power, which in the early spring begins a fruitful reign, and in the autumn fades away and dies before the burning heat and the drying winds. Legend tells of his miraculous procreation, of his battle with the hostile twins, and of his death, proceeding in exactly the same manner as among the most different peoples in the Old and New Worlds. Human sacrifices played an essential part in all Nahuatlac worship; but the great extent to which they were carried in the Aztec worship of Huitzilopochtli arose from the unusually ferocious disposition of the Nahua national character.
Aztec sacrifice has persisted in puzzling scholars. No human society known to history approached that of the Aztecs in the quantities of people offered as religious sacrifices: 20,000 a year is a common estimate. The worship of Huitzilopochtli is notorious for the horrible bloodshed connected with the human sacrifices offered to him in almost incredible numbers - seventy thousand victims were slaughtered at the dedication of his great temple in AD 1486. No doubt it was their complete faith in this deity that gave the necessary illusion which enabled the Aztecs to seize and hold their commanding position in Anahuac-for it seems that they brought their faith in Huitzilopochtli with them when first they came into that region. Where the faith in Huitzilopochtli was strong enough his worshippers must have fought with complete self-abandonment and disregard of their own lives against their enemies, and this must have tended to increase the power of the Aztecs.
In the early summer of 1521, the Spaniards found themselves on the lakeshore, looking toward the great capital. They had just been driven back from the city by the Aztec army. Sixty-two of their companions had been captured, and Cortés and the other survivors helplessly watched a pageant being enacted a mile away across the water on one of the major temple-pyramids of the city. As Bernal Díaz later described it.:
"The dismal drum of Huichilobos sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments. It was a terrifying sound, and when we looked at the tall cue [temple-pyramid] from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortés defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had hauled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols we saw them put plumes on the heads of many of them; and then they made them dance with a sort of fan in front of Huichilobos. Then after they had danced the papas [Aztec priests] laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them.... Then they ate their flesh with a sauce of peppers and tomatoes."
It was a glimpse of hell. Cortés and his men were the only Europeans to see the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, for the practice ended shortly after the successful Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire.
In 1946 Sherburne Cook, a demographer specializing in American Indian populations, estimated an over-all annual mean of 15,000 victims in a central Mexican population reckoned at two million. Later, however, he and his colleague Woodrow Borah revised his estimate of the total central Mexican population upward to 25 million. Borah, possibly the leading authority on the demography of Mexico at the time of the conquest, also revised the estimated number of persons sacrificed in central Mexico in the fifteenth century to 250,000 per year, equivalent to one percent of the total population.
Cannibalism was practiced in America at the time of the conquest among the Caribs ; in the islands of the Pacific, where the natives had for their only sustenance cocoanuts and fish ; and in Australia, where the soil was so poor that not only was man a cannibal, but he was furthermore constrained to limit the population. But no tribe, however savage, having at hand-whatever the trouble might be of securing the prey-bears, reindeer, horses, or oxen, is ever cannibalistic. But cannibalism, had its rise among tribes having no cattle, no hunting-grounds, and having for their maintenance only vegetable food, or an insufficiency of food.
In these days of unbelief there are some who doubt the accounts given by both Spanish and native historians of human beings kept to fatten like cattle in a stall, of still-palpitating bodies thrown from the high altar down to the captor and his friends, who stood waiting to receive this horrible provision for a decorous feast to be eaten as sacred food at the command of the gods. But these writers, though differing from each other in many things, agree in their testimony concerning this. Cortez, who is apt to be more moderate in his statements than his followers, says of one of the Nahua tribes in his letters to the king, "These people eat human flesh-a fact so notorious that I have not taken the trouble to send Your Majesty any proof of it." During the siege of Mexico the Tlascalan allies of Certez subsisted largely on the bodies of the slain, and Montezuma himself was reproved by his Spanish visitors for this horrible practice.
Through cannibalism, the Aztecs appear to have been attempting to reduce very particular nutritional deficiencies. Only those who single-handedly took captives several times gained the right to eat human flesh. All authorities, furthermore, agree that human sacrifices constituted an essential part of their religion, and that, as a nation, they were addicted to cannibalism, and probably forced the adoption of its practice among the contiguous nations whom they invaded and possibly subjugated.
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