At the time of the Spanish conquest, the religion of the Aztecs was polytheistic, based on the worship of a multitude of personal gods, most of them with well-defined attributes. Nevertheless, magic and the idea of certain impersonal and occult forces played an important role among the people. There was, in addition, among the uneducated classes tendency to exaggerate polytheism by conceiving of as gods, also, what to the priests, were only manifestations or attributes of one god ( Caso, 1987 ).
Even though there was a magical and impersonal background in the religion of the Aztec people, as well as an exaggerated polytheism, there is also evidence to support that Aztec priests tried to reduce the multiple divinities to different aspects of the same god. When they adopted the gods of conquered peoples or received gods from peoples of more advanced cultures, the priests would always try to incorporate them, like the Romans, into their own national pantheon, by considering them as diverse manifestations of the gods they had inherited from the great civilizations which preceded them and from which they had derived their culture ( Leon-Portilla, 1970 ).
Although the Aztec priests tried to unite in a single concept the different gods of the different tribes the people as a whole would not admit that their local god was subject to any other or that he was only an attribute of a superior being. An exception to this generalized thought was Huitzilopochtli, the Aztecs' own tribal god, and other deities associated with him in the national myths kept alive by Aztec pride. In later legends this god is associated with the creation of the world, occupying a space similar to that held by the traditional Toltec and Teotihuacan gods and by those gods worshiped by the people of the Valley of Mexico before the volcano Xitle covered their homes with lava, several centuries before Christ ( Caso, 1987 ).
However, a very ancient school of philosophy held that the origin of all things was a single dual principle, masculine and feminine, that had created the gods, the world, and man. Nezahualcoyotl, the king of Texcoco, already preferred to worship an invisible god that could no longer be represented. He was called Tloque Nahuaque, or Ipalnemohuani, "the god of the immediate vicinity, that one through whom all live," who was placed above the heavens and in the highest realm and on whom all things depended. Even though this appears to be a monotheistic attitude it still acknowledged the existence and the worship of the other gods, it does indicate however, that in exceptional mentalities the philosophical desire for unity had already appeared and that men were seeking a single cause to explain all other causes, and a single god superior to all other gods ( Caso, 1987 ).
Therefore, when Nezahualcoyotl built a temple upon a pyramid of nine terraces representing the nine heavens, he did not place in the sanctuary that crowned the pyramid any image representing the god, since he could not be portrayed and must be conceived as pure idea. This single god of Nezahualcoyotl did not have much following, nor did he affect the religious life of the people. The gods of philosophers have never been popular, for they arise from the need of a logical explanation of the universe, while the common people require less abstract gods who will satisfy their sentimental need for love and protection ( Leon-Portilla, 1970 ).
When you think of the Aztec, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the Spanish conquistadors or their beautiful capital at Tenochtitlan. What comes to mind for a lot of people is their practice of human sacrifice. In class, we learned a lot about the civilizations of the Maya and the Inca but not much about the Maya. Chapter 13 of the assigned readings talks about the Aztec and how they came to power and their collapse. One paragraph in the chapter, although morbid and disturbing, caught my attention. “The victim was stretched out over the sacrificial stone. In seconds, a priest with an obsidian knife broke open his chest and ripped out his still beating heart, dashing it against the sacrificial stone.” (pg. 340) These sentences refer to the ritual of human sacrificed practiced by the Aztec priests.
The Aztec believed that they owed everything to the gods who created themselves as well as the world around them. The would perform sacrifices in order for a good crop yield or good weather among other things. They believed that the best way to repay them was to offer up blood to them in regular rituals. Although many just assume this was human blood, they also sacrificed animals as well. Some offerings weren’t outright killings as well. They would have been cutting oneself and offering the blood shed to the gods. Archaeologists estimate that a few thousand people would have been sacrificed each year. Some were members of the Aztec community but they believe that most were prisoners of war. Instead of killing their enemies in battle, they would sometimes capture them and take them back to the capital to be offered up to the gods. In one ritual, the prisoners were forced to walk up the many stairs of the temple. Once they reached the top, the priest would cut open their stomach from throat to stomach. They would rip out their heart to offer it to the gods. The bodies were then pushed down the stairs. At the bottom, the body would be dismembered or carried off depending on the ritual.
Its hard to believe this sort of activity happened regularly, especially as a public event where people would gather in the square to watch. Human sacrifice was not only an Aztec event. It happened all over the world in several different cultures. It was a part of their religion and a way to please the gods so the Aztecs would avoid disaster. No amount of human sacrifice could have stopped their collapse at the hands of the Spaniards.
Chapter 13 of the textbook