Aztec Rituals

Imagine a civilization tied to an elaborate calendar of events and holidays, where each day carries its own spiritual charge based on its numerical and magical designation, and you will have a sense of the importance that the Aztecs placed on rituals within their culture. Every aspect of life had its own religious significance, and practices to ensure continued prosperity, luck, fertility, and good fortune made up a large part of the daily routine.

Many people are aware of the importance of the calendar to the Aztecs, because of the frequent depiction of it in popular literature, based on the well-known stone carving of the Aztec calendar that was discovered in a Mexico City excavation in 1790. However, that carving isn’t in fact, a carving of a calendar but a ritual shield for the Sun God that was used as an altar (it does contain “day signs” which is where the confusion comes from). In spite of that misperception, it is true that the Aztec calendar was of paramount importance in their culture, and some understanding of it is necessary to grasp the nature of Aztec ritual life.

The Aztecs actually used two separate calendars. One worked on a 365-day cycle somewhat similar to our Western system. This calendar corresponded to the solar year, and was divided into 18 months of 20 days each, with five “unlucky days” at the end. The rituals associated with this calendar are seasonal and agricultural rituals for good crops, weather, etc.

The second calendar, called “the day count”, had 260 days that were sacred to one of the numerous Aztec gods. This calendar was designed to keep track of the rituals needed to keep the heavens in order. In Aztec mythology, the gods were constantly in conflict with one another.

The rituals of the day count were therefore critical in keeping the gods appeased and in avoiding the possibility that their conflict might spill over and disrupt and destroy human society. For this reason, the day count is considered the more important of the two calendars when thinking of Aztec ritual life. Every 52 years, the closing of the two calendars coincided, and the priests performed a “New Fire” ritual that “bundled” the previous period and kindled new hearth fires for everyone in a symbolic rebirth of the world.

While the rituals of the majority of the Aztec citizenry included offerings of corn meal, fruits, and flowers to the gods in order to ensure their good will for agriculture, trade, good health, and the like, the most notable aspect of formal Aztec ritual practice involved human sacrifice. Numbers may have been exaggerated in some cases, but it’s estimated that somewhere between 25,000 and 250,000 people (mostly made up of captives taken in frequent wars, although some people volunteered for the sacrifice to ensure blessings for their families) were killed annually. The priests, using obsidian knives, would cut the hearts from their victims on the tops of the massive pyramids and temples that dominated the Tenochtitlan skyline, and the bodies would be rolled down the steps to be collected and (in some cases) consumed in ritual cannibalism by the people below.

The bloody nature of the Aztec religion was one of the characteristics that disgusted the Spanish conquistadors. In 1521, the final victory of the Spanish brought an end to the grand scheme of the Aztec culture, although vestiges of the less bloody aspects are practiced in the indigenous population of Mexico to this day.

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