The colonizers portrayed human sacrifice as barbaric. But it developed logically out of Mesoamerican military paradigms, which were more humane than European-style mass slaughter warfare.
One of the most common tropes evoked to illustrate the ‘savagery’ of Native Americans is the human sacrifice used in pre-contact Mesoamerica.
In this post, I will defend human sacrifice as being much more ‘civilized’ than how it’s understood or presented.
Before I do so, just to be clear: This should go without saying, but I’m not advocating for human sacrifice today. The idea of Aztec-style human sacrifice in 2020 is historically anachronistic. I can’t even imagine how, or why, the practice would exist in contemporary society.
There’s also a difference between sacrificing prisoners of war and child sacrifice. I’m specifically talking about sacrificing enemy soldiers, which was one of the most, if not the most, common form of sacrifice.
Child sacrifice isn’t worth defending. But I do want to contextualize it a bit. The children who were sacrificed were the children of local nobility, voluntarily offered by their parents for sacrifice. That doesn’t make it better, but it does undercut the image of the savage Aztec empire kidnapping peasant or hunter-gatherer children and torturing them to death.
Child sacrifice was also less widespread than it’s made out to be. There’s evidence of some child sacrifice in Maya, Teotihuacan, Olmec etc. cultures, but not much. It was ostensibly more popular with the Aztecs, but they did more human sacrifice overall.
But even still, the claim that Aztecs did a particularly high amount of human sacrifice is a generalization. When Spaniards made contact with the Aztec Empire, they were in the middle of the Flower War – a protracted war, that was concurrent with a drought. Because of this, human sacrifice was at, probably, an all-time high, which influences our narrative of the prevalence of Aztec human sacrifice.
One time I took a class on Korean Religions, and the professor said something that I think about a lot when I think about religion. Religion is an ideological technology. He said a big reason people converted to Buddhism, way back when, is Buddhists offered proper funerary services to people who did not have the means to properly bury and mourn their dead loved ones.
Human sacrifice is indeed a technological belief. It has a function. A lot of forms of human sacrifice were functional, and I’ll get into that in the rest of the post.
The function of human sacrifice is to neutralize opposing militaries. The way Europeans “sacrificed” people in similar types of warfare (ie, with arrows, swords, shields etc) was to massacre as many opponents as possible. Mesoamericans instead tried to, and often, took opponents as prisoners for labor.
That means, once soldiers were captured as laborers, it was functional to then kill the most important opponents who were captured. But, they didn’t want to just slaughter those people in vain, so they ritualized it by making it a tribute to a god. Seems more humane than slashing everyone in sight on a battlefield right?
So, while child sacrifice isn’t useful or humane, it’s an outgrowth of something that is: the sacrifice of military opponents. Just like all religions, there are elements that become accelerated in service of religious piety, in sacrifice of the original usefulness.
We can see a similar dynamic in psychology: people only do or think things because they’re useful. But sometimes we progress that too far into destructive or unproductive behavior, so it no longer remains useful – even though it’s in service of something useful originally.
The point is, child sacrifice isn’t a useful or good thing, but it logically follows military prisoner sacrifice, which was useful. As with all dialectical processes, the religious elements begin influencing the material elements, which leads to things like child sacrifice.
As mentioned earlier, if you go back to, say, the Roman Empire, the way they expanded their empire was militarily invading agrarian communities and enslaving the population. If that population had a local military, that military would be massacred. The Romans were particularly cruel, torturing, crucifying etc opponents. They used terrorism against local populations.
Mesoamericans operated war much differently. There were often societies very near the imperial core, or sometimes surrounded by the empire. For example, Tlaxcala, Teotitlan, and Yopitzinco were completely surrounded by the Aztecs.
Aztecs would war with these societies frequently – as all societies of a similar ilk did at similar points in time and development – but they prioritized ‘conquering’ them much lower than the Romans did. What they really wanted was to grow their workforce, and then neutralize the military through warfare. The Roman equivalent would be sacking and destroying the city.
Aztecs allowed their tributaries a lot more autonomy than Romans did. The Aztecs were more imperial than Mayas, who operated more like Ancient Greece, as a confederacy of city-states. But the Aztecs also allowed local governments to flourish, without imposing prefects, governors, viceroys, proconsuls, etc. As long as they paid tribute, it was okay.
When Mesoamericans waged war, they would send diplomats to negotiate ahead of time, and both governments would remind the others about the potential cost of war. They would both essentially agree to respect God’s wishes in combat (ie, people would be conquered and some would be sacrificed).
Then, the militaries would meet up. They’d begin by pelting each other with rocks, then throwing darts and spears. As they’d close in on each other, the top priority of combat was taking the opposing military as prisoner. Slaughtering them on the battlefield was good too, but it wasn’t the goal, and it wasn’t optimal.
In fact, the most respected Aztec warriors, Eagle Warriors, gained their renown for the amount of opposing soldiers they captured, not the amount of soldiers they killed.
Sounds more humane than modern US troop worship, where the American sniper was praised for slaughtering 100s of people, including women and children, and troops are pardoned for literally torturing civilians, right?
Another element that’s not highlighted much is a lot of the time, human sacrifices were willing participants. When people entered into battle, they knew that their fate could be as a human sacrifice, and they embraced it.
When it was determined that someone would be used as human sacrifice, they were given several duties. They would bless people, lead ritualistic songs and hymns, listen to commoner’s requests for the gods etc.
In other words, being the object of sacrifice gave people’s life religious meaning that they otherwise wouldn’t have. The conquistadors on arrival tried to free people destined for sacrifice. They refused, and insisted on being sacrificed.
To summarize, the Mesoamerican approach to war was premised on completely different paradigms than European approaches. The Aztec empire, and other societies around it grew, generally, by assimilating foreign soldiers into their slave workforce. European empires grew by killing foreign solders and moving onto their land, then turning the peasants on that land into their slave workforce.
Because of this, the Aztecs needed some method of neutralizing opposing militaries. To do so, the Aztecs would sacrifice some members of the prisoners of war, especially the ones with the most military power/respect.
The Europeans didn’t have this issue. They already killed the military, they didn’t need to neutralize the military by killing people later.
Earlier, I said religious views are adapted because they’re useful. This is why human sacrifice was useful to the Aztecs, but not to, say, the Romans. Human sacrifice, in its most basic and common use, was purely a side-effect of their military paradigms. Their religious beliefs then developed syncretistically with the way their warfare functioned.
Because of this, Mesoamericans allowed enemies to become part of their mythology. They became sacred, and the focal point of worship and tribute to their gods.
On the other hand, equivalent European militaries slaughtered, maimed, crucified, and tortured their enemies and left them to biodegrade in dirt.