The iconography of the Aztecs lead us to believe that they were an especially blood-thirsty culture. But consider the scenario where there was some major catastrophe in the USA, reducing the population to barbarism. A future archaelogical team unearthing all the crime-thrillers, the end-of-world science fiction, and the war video games could possibly conclude from this that the USA was a particularly bloodthirsty culture.

Our current perception is that the average citizen of the USA is generally non-violent. It is entirely possible that the average Aztec, during the height of their existence, considered themselves to be generally non-violent, though having certain ceremonies, that might be considered barbaric from a modern Western perspective.

Has any research been conducted that would indicate how the Aztecs perceived themselves, or even how other tribes may have perceived them?

  • Cultures are all different. In the days of sailing ships, when you went past the equator for the first time, you'd be dunked into the ocean and towed for a while. If we did that today, it would be illegal.
    – Russell
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 5:43
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    @Russell - They still have the Shellback initiation on US Navy ships when equator is crossed. See youtube.com/watch?v=p3gjoi15n2Y
    – jfrankcarr
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 11:31
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    While I find the Aztec question interesting the current US reference don't really do much to frame the question. If you could remove them that would be preferrable. We like questions that do not solicit debate (and despite your parentheticals it may), so please focus on the question at hand and it can be framed pointedly to what you are asking.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 11:37
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    Or looking at the incarceration rate in modern USA, they would conclude that it was a society of prison wardens...
    – quant_dev
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 12:38
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    Since Aztecs had no real writing, documentary evidence we have comes only from the Spaniards who conquered them, and of course it can be biased. However there is plenty of material evidence, like the piles of skulls in their temples, which you can see even today.
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 30, 2021 at 10:51

7 Answers 7


I wrote a paper related this topic, for peer review.

Basically, the general story (maybe "propaganda") of state ritual sacrifice was that those sacrificed were becoming god-like, and so were elevated to the holiest status achievable - perhaps (in a distant way) like suicide bombers today.

The Aztecs saw that representing yourself as one of these Divine Powers ("teotl") was a 'holy' thing - but only those representing the 'big 4' divinities had the national stage, and even then the selection process was something of a random lot. No one charged toward it.

Being chosen for one of the lesser Divine Powers was probably even less attractive, to the individual. Whether this was a way to 'clear out undesirables' is not yet clear. Certainly, it is known that these people (ixiptla) were drugged.

The way that songs were written, and evolved over time, about these ixiptla, we can infer that people took this practices as vital, if not serious, part of the cycle of life.

In my paper, I present evidence that the priestly classes saw the sacrificial practice as a way to glean necessary insights about the future of the civilization. A mix of augury and science.

edit: this excellent paper, on ixiptla and Toxcatl, was published by Izabela Wilkosz. It goes into many important details, as well.

  • Were all social classes represented in those who were sacrificed?
    – James
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 8:32
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    @James All evidence points to yes, actually. The ritual of the Tezcatlipoca ixiptla demanded 'a perfect specimen' — and this was, as we would call it, a body-mind thing. Generally this would be the defeated captain of another's fighters — a role that would not be assigned to a low-class person regardless of how fit and attractive. *I'm glad to get contradicted on this if someone wants to point to a paper. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 19:36
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    For some reason I hadn't noticed this answer, this was what I was looking for 'any research conducted into how the Aztecs themselves percieved human sacrifice'. Thanks. Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 7:32
  • 'Those sacrificed become god-like' reminds me of Agambens Homo Sacer. Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 7:34
  • @MoziburUllah sacrificing them did not make them god-like.... those who were made to become god-like were sacrificed. Death wasn't the door into having more teotl. Oddly, I propose that Homo Sacer is the opposite: these ixiptlas' initiation/'evolution' made them only suitable for sacrifice, and similarly they were guarded and chaperoned. Maybe I am unfamiliar with Agamben's interpretation. Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 13:16

Your question is framed oddly. Human Sacrifice, and lots of it, were common in pre-columbian Mesoamerican cultures: not just the Aztecs, but the Mayans and a bunch of others, too. No apocalyptic justifications apply, they just killed a bunch of people for their religious rites. It got so bad, the client states of the Three Part Alliance, who had to supply the bulk of the sacrifices, despite massive depopulation due to disease, basically revolted as soon as Cortez showed up. (Showing once again, it's better the devil you know than the one you don't...)

On the other hand, as Charles C. Mann points out in his book 1491, pre-modern European cultures were just as bloodthirsty, per capita, as the mesoamerican cultures: they called them executions rather than sacrifices. While some of these executions were of murderers and other scoundrels, a lot of them were for petty political and religious reasons - exactly the sort of thing that gets you nominated for this year's sacrifice in Tenochtitlan. On page 134:

Between 1530 and 1630, according to Cambridge historian V.A.C. Gatrell, England executed seventy-five thousand people. At the time, its population was about three million, perhaps a tenth of the Mexica empire. Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire.

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    While I'm sure that Medieval Europea was at least as brutal in warfare and probably took far more lives through the course of its history (naturally, as there were far more competing powers and peoples in limited space) -- I don't think it's fair to say that European cultures were quite so bloodthirsty and villainous to their own people, for the most part. Human sacrifice at least was a very rare occurrence in medieval Europe, not least because it was seen as occult and anti-Christian.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 22:04
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    @Noldorin are you suggesting burning the "witches" was not a human sacrifice? What's the difference?
    – o0'.
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 10:06
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    @jfrankcarr - "Between 1530 and 1630, according to Cambridge historian V. A. C. Gatrell, England executed seventy-five thousand people. At the time, its population was about three million, perhaps a tenth that of the Mexica empire. Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to Braudel." - Charles C. Man, "1491" danielnpaul.com/CharlesCMann-1491.html Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 12:50
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    @jfrankcarr - No, he was extrapolating on a per-capita basis, a valid statistical analysis backed up by recorded history, not offering a counter-factual. Also, Political Correctness was a facet of New Left philosophy that hasn't been in vogue since the late '80s, and any other use of the term is ill-defined at best. Say what you mean rather than use code-words. Do you believe he gives minority ethnicities preferential treatment? Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 16:09
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    I don't like this unnecessary and self-righteous trend of political correctness to portray the conquered indigenous peoples of the New World as having cultures or societies that were equally civilised in every respect. Fact was, many simply weren't, at least by the prevalent Western standards of civilisation. Others were more so; but most had the habit of slow stagnation.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 22:07

First of all, there is an attempt by some current historians to use cultural/moral relativism when it comes to Europeans and Mesoamerican cultures in this time period. They'll attempt to equate things like the Spanish Inquisition (if they're on the anti-religious political left) or modern day abortion (if they're on the religious political right) with the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs. This "noble savage" or "romantic racism" train of thought attempts to obscure and downplay the brutality found in certain, non-European, cultures, such as the Aztecs.

Some of this romanticization and obfuscation was in reaction to earlier historians who regarded Aztecs as uncivilized savages, which was also false. The Aztecs were both quite civilized and quite brutal.

The truth of the matter is that the Aztecs weren't rivaled in the deliberate wholesale killing of civilians until the 20th century by the Nazis. While there is some debate over the scope, even the low estimates far outstrip what the Europeans or Asians ever did during the same time periods.

Culturally, it was a culture of fear, the common result of an authoritarianism. The common people lived in constant fear that they would be next up upon the pyramid of death. They could be whipped up into a bloodthirsty frenzy being motivated by self-preservation and group psychological dynamics.

So, yes, the Aztecs were a violent society. While individually, the everyday people were probably just typical people for the most part, as a group, they are easily one of the most internally violent and bloodthirsty cultures to have ever existed beyond the tribal level.

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    IMHO you have to use a certian amount of "moral relativisim" when analyzing extinct cultures so completely foriegn to the one you happened to be raised in. You just have no real conception of what it is like to live under the set of limitations and abilities they had. The place to reassert your morals is in discussions about how your own culture should behave.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 16:00
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    ...I suspect your real complaint (certianly it would be mine) is about people who instead use our moral revulsion to certian aspects of other cultures to attack things they don't like about our own. This question IMHO is of that ilk. I can dislike our huge incarcaration rates and ancient human sacrifice without somehow being bizzarely forced to relate the two.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 16:06
  • @T.E.D. - I just noticed there's a philosophy.stackexchange.com. Might be a good place to ask about universal vs absolute vs relative morals and ethics.
    – jfrankcarr
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 18:52
  • @T.E.D: The attack wasn't entirely unintentional; but my main concern at the time was pondering how the notion of blood sacrifice might transcend cultures by changing its aspect; to be fair, it's probably not a historical question Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 7:21

The closest literary source I have encountered that involves a perspective of these Native Americans is the journals of Bernal Diaz. In the book Victors and Vanquished you can find several of his eye witness accounts that seem to be somewhat unbiased.

From what I have read, these three tribes were indeed "bloodthirsty" but not in the sense of a serial killer. They seemed to believe that the consumption of a superior peer's blood and organs would inevitably improve their well being, agility, intelligence, what have you.


While, as the other answer says Mesoamerican civilizations did not shed much more blood than European ones, they did it in a different way.

Aztecs sacrificed random people, Europeans executed scoundrels.

E.g., if you are a random law-abiding yeoman in England, chances are the Law will not come after you. However, a random guy in an Aztec-subjugated village can easily become a sacrificial tribute.

IOW, people find it easier to associate themselves with the victims of the Aztec cults than with victims of the European justice system.

PS. This is somewhat similar to my other answer.


Most of what we know about human sacrifices among the Aztecs is known from post-conquest codexes such as Ramirez Codex, Codex Tudela, or Codex Magliabechiano, written by baptized Christian Aztecs.

There is no comprehensive and even quantitative data from any non-Christian source. It is known that Franciscan bishop Juan de Zumárraga burned all pre-Christian Aztec books that could shed any non-biased light at the pre-Christian Aztec customs.

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    There is objective modern archeological evidence that indicates massive human sacrifice took place.
    – jfrankcarr
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 11:49
  • @jfrankcarr: Modern Jain monks have a practise - Sallekhana - which could be termed as ritual sacrifice, where they starve themselves to death. However they regard suicide as a sin against life, and do not themselves view this as suicide. My question was referring to how the Aztec themselves viewed what we term human sacrifice. Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 13:52
  • @Anixx: It seems remarkable that Zumarraga had access to all such texts. Have any Aztec texts survived? I had assumed that they didn't have an elaborate literary culture. Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 13:58
  • There are surviving codexes but they are pictoral and mostly describe the Aztec calendar. Yes, they had no writing but the surviving pre-Spanish codexes do not depict the human sacrifices in images either and also there are no accounts by Spanish-speaking non-Cristian Aztecs (although the Aztec religion co-existed with Christianity for some time). The graves could be of any origin: for example, the killed by plague.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 14:20
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    @Anixx - Yes, plagues of knives cutting into chest cavities were common during the time period.
    – jfrankcarr
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 14:54

Injecting subjective, modern-day judgements on ancient civilizations like calling them "bloodthirsty" is just bad-mouthing ancient civilizations and not objective historically. If your goal is to look at ancient civilizations and just insult them or consider them inferior because their customs are denounced by your own civilization, you will have a hard time understanding history.

To correct Swamp Yankees answer, Aztecs were not "like" Mayans, they were Mayans. The Aztecs were a Mayan people that invaded and conquered central Mexico. Like all Mayans they believed that the god of the Sun needed to be propitiated by the sacrifice of human blood. Mayans often cut themselves and drained the blood into bowls for the purpose of sacrificing their own blood. One type of blooding involved thorns threaded on twine which they would pull through their own tongues to draw blood.

When the Mayans conquered the Mexicans they sacrificed as many as they could to the Sun, sometimes in large ceremonies where hundreds or thousands of prisoners had their hearts cut out and their blood drained in sacrifice to the sun.

As far as violence is concerned, the Aztecs were "violent" and were proud of it. Being a warrior was a privileged position in society and the Mexicans held the Aztecs in absolute dread. Not only the Aztecs but many of the surrounding Mexican tribes were very warlike and violent. For example, when Cortes was marching to Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), his force was attacked by a tribe called the Tlaxcalans who were especially warlike. In one battle, these men kept attacking the Spaniards until the men of Cortes were fighting in a pool of blood that came up to their knees and the number of bodies was in the thousands.

One of Cortes' lieutenants, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, wrote about a book about the march to Tenochtitlan which describes in detail many of the Aztecs and Mexicans whom they encountered, so if you are interested in their attitudes, you might read his book.

  • I'm no expert, but I think mainstream opinion among historians is that the Aztecs and Mayans are not at all closely related. The Mayans had been indigenous to the Yucatan vicinity since ca 2000 BC; the Aztecs migrated from northern Mexico/southwest US ca 1250 AD. The languages are entirely different: Mayan is its own family, Nahuatl is a member of the Uto-Aztecan family, which includes languages like Hopi that are still spoken in the US southwest.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 5:44
  • @jamesqf Its not a question of history, its a question of anthropology and possibly archaeology. The Aztecs are physiognomically and culturally identical to the Mayans and the only differences between them are due to the Aztecs being a more modern civilization, the Mayan civilization having declined for some unknown reason previously. The Aztec language and writing system is a devolved form of the Mayan writing system. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 8:05
  • Those who are more expert than I certainly disagree. As I said, the spoken languages are entirely different families. The written languages are similar only in being ideographic, but so are Chinese, Japanese, and ancient Egyptian. Culturally the similarities - building pyramids and going in for large-scale human sacrifice - are outweighed by the many differences. Physiognomy hardly matters, since culture is not genetic.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 19:13
  • @jamesqf The "old" anthropolgy analysis was that the Aztecs were a group of Mayans who invaded Mexico, conquered the locals and set up an Empire based in Tenochtitlan. Overtime the Central American Mayan civilizations declined, leaving the Aztecs as the most advanced culture in the area. I see absolutely no reason to abandon this fundamental theory. The idea that the Aztecs were not Mayans or came from some other place other than Central America and that they just "borrowed" Mayan culture, is a ridiculous and unsupportable idea. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 19:32
  • Who claims that the Aztecs borrowed Mayan culture? Everything I've read says that the cultures were quite different, perhaps no more similar to each other than each was to the ancient Egyptians. After all, they all built pyramids, used ideographic writing systems, and had a bunch of gods that seem pretty strange to us. And if the Aztecs did descend culturally and/or ethnically from the Mayans, why did they adopt a language similar to ones used by people living a thousand miles or so to the north?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 6:33

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