"There are a thousand hacking at the
Modern Myth Articles
Ancient Myth Articles
Ancient Saturn Worship
Site Section Links
RITES OF SACRIFICE
Both the Aztecs and Maya are known to have practiced sacrifice on a horrendous scale, in intimate correspondence with the gods. To honor the gods and heroes of former times, the priests performed rites ordained by these divine ancestors, with a meticulous reverence for the way things happened in ancestral times (the age of the gods). Critical events in the gods' own lives provided the ritual drama, and in these biographical rituals, sacrifice was usually the central episode.
In the Mesoamerican world view, it was a sacrifice of cosmic proportions that preceded the dawning of the present world age. As noted by Carrasco, the role of cosmic sacrifice in regenerating the world "was at the basis of the extraordinary practice of bloodletting and sacrifice throughout Mesoamerica."
The present age was created out of the sacrifice of a large number of deities in Teotihuacan, or elsewhere, depending on the tradition. It was believed that this age would end in earthquakes and famine. What is clear is that cosmic order is achieved in the Aztec universe out of conflict, sacrifice, and the death of humans and gods.
In addition to the calendrically ordained sacrifices, there were many other occasions on which the gods themselves seemed to call for sacrifice. For minor challenges in the course of daily life, offerings of food or ornaments might be sufficient, but in times of greater common need, particularly when the kingdom was beset by drought, or hurricanes, or plagues of locusts, the gods called for human victims. It does not appear that scholars as a whole appreciate the reason for this, however.
It is through sacrifice "that two realms of time, the time of the gods and the time of humans, are linked together and renewed," states Carrasco. But why did sacrifice fulfill the divine requirement? And why at strategic calendar moments, or on occasions of distress? Again, it is imperative that one distinguish between the archetype and the symbol. Numerous contexts in which we observe the ritual response will suggest that a drought was not seen as a thing in itself, but a SYMBOL of the greater ordeal in more ancient times, the archetypal "drought" which gave meaning to the symbols. In the same way, every hurricane became a symbol of the irresistible cosmic wind that once overcame the world; or a plague of locusts referred back to the devastating chaos hordes which had overtaken the world in the great cometary disaster.
A symbol is a reflection of some aspect of a prior experience. As such it does not, on its own, disclose the full character of that experience. Thus the researcher, to gain any sense of the true reference, must draw upon patterns revealed through the CONJUNCTION of symbols. Under the conventional analysis, however, the regional drought or the regional hurricane is the worst thing the analyst can imagine, so there is no prior reference for the symbol, only the symbol itself. Students of the culture are left, therefore, with a madhouse of symbols and meaningless, unexplained, barbaric practices and superstitions. Here, the ritual sacrifice has no broader significance than an apparent "bargaining with the gods" because the researcher does not see a relationship between the sacrifice and the events (drought, plague, storm) "calling" for it.
And yet, the mythical context of sacrifice leaves no question as to a connection. When the creator-king Quetzalcoatl died, his heart was removed from him. The primeval "sacrifice," in the various traditions, occurred at a time of cosmic upheaval, of great wind and drought, of darkness, earthquake and flood, with the god's own heart--the smoking star--presiding over the regeneration of the world. Mythically speaking, the rites of sacrifice CAME INTO BEING through the critical events in the life, the death, and the transformation of the god-king.
Why, then, did a drought or plague call forth a sacrifice? Because the sacrificial rites replayed, on a microcosmic scale, the overarching celestial drama, honoring the gods through remembrance, not just repeating the divine ordeal, but repeating the RESOLUTION.
The followers of Quetzalcoatl, as noted by Carrasco, insisted that "all ceremonies and rites, building temples and altars...imitated the ways of that holy man." That is what the Aztecs meant by the repeated statement that Quetzalcoatl was the exemplary king, the model upon which kingship arose. And more than one sacrificial rite served to mirror essential episodes in the god's life and death. Citing a native informant, Duran summarizes a commemorative ritual involving a mock king, a captured enemy warrior chosen for his beauty and physical perfection and dressed in the attire of the founding king himself.
For 40 days this human symbol of Quetzalcoatl was honored in feasts and celebration. "This living man was bought to represent the god for forty days, and he was served and revered as such," Duran writes. At the conclusion of his "reign," and with great ceremony, the assistants to the officiating priest laid the mock king on the sacrificial stone. Then the priest, with a crude stone knife, tore his heart from his body.
Removal of the heart was, in fact, the most common form of human sacrifice throughout Mesoamerica, a recurring pattern recalling a celestial power's own "sacrifice" in the age of the gods.
Interestingly, the officiating priests at the Templo Mayor bore the name quequetzalcoa, after Quetzalcoatl himself --suggesting that priest and sacrificial victim were, in their respective capacities, representing one and the same cosmic power.
In the common pattern of the sacrifice, when the priest tore the heart from the victim, he raised it, still steaming, before the sun--the sacred "steam" of the removed heart offering a poignant reminder of the COMET-LIKE, smoking "heart" of the great god himself "The high priest then opened the chest and with amazing swiftness tore out the heart, ripping it out with his own hands. Thus steaming, the heart was lifted toward the sun, and the fumes were offered up to the sun." Or again, "they opened his chest and took out the heart, and holding it up, they presented it to the Sun until its steam had cooled." Then, as if to re-play the mythic flight of the heart-soul, the priest turned and flung the heart toward the image of the god.
The "steam" of the removed heart thus stood in symbolic correspondence with the "plumes" of the transformed heart-soul as plumed star, and with the "smoke" of the heart-soul as smoking star. In illustrations of these events, we see the Aztec priest raising the removed heart of the victim, with the "steam" rising before the sun. But elsewhere it is rather the PLUMES that rise from the heart, while still other contexts involve a SMOKING HEART. In a widespread ritual counterpart to human sacrifice, the celebrants formed a model of the heart from copal or pom, a resin derived from the copal tree, and set it burning as incense. The dark smoke rising from the ritual "heart" thus provided a vivid reminder of Quetzalcoatl's burning heart-soul, the smoking star Venus, which we have recognized as the GREAT COMET. A conjunction of three symbols--steaming heart, plumed heart and smoking heart- meaningless in themselves, derives a self-evident and spectacular significance when referred to the celestial prototype, the ascending, comet-like heart-soul removed from the ancient sun god Quetzalcoatl.
The relentless practice of human sacrifice in every well- documented Mesoamerican culture, a source of horror to the conquering Spaniards, can produce great ambivalence in the treatments by historians, archaeologists and ethnologists. But what is really missing is the sense of context. How did such a widespread practice come to rule an entire civilization? Seeing the role of collective apprehension will bring the dark and fearful motives into the light of day, for the ceaseless acts of "remembering" and bargaining with the gods do become intelligible when referred to a world-shattering catastrophe, symbolically recalled every time a priest raised the sacrificial knife.
In sacrifice the practitioners remembered and "nourished" the gods, and the two aspects of the practice seemed to go hand in hand, fueled by the memory of the all-devouring, smoking star. Why were the Aztecs so "deeply concerned about where and when Venus might appear to reverse their fortunes" (Aveni's words)? Why was sacrifice so frequently regulated by the rising of Venus? Sahagun tells us that "Captives were slain when it emerged that it might be nourished. They sprinkled blood toward it, flipping the middle finger from the thumb, they cast the blood as an offering."
Seen from one vantage point, there is only meaninglessness in these rampant practices, by which whole nations responded to uncertainties large and small. Seen from another, there is the long shadow of celestial terror, when planets moved out of control and affected the fate of mankind.