Aztec Religion: the Foundation of a Civilization

The religion of the Aztec, including their beliefs, customs and religions, acted as a tremendous influence on their government, economy, and culture.

Religion was the foundation for the infamous culture of the Aztec Civilization. Through ceremonies of sacrifice, and the infusion of cosmology into their religion, the Aztecs sculpted a culture unlike that of any other civilization, and left behind a legacy to be studied and admired for generations to come.Religion ultimately shaped the unique civilization of the Aztecs, through cultivating the general outlook and values of the Aztecs, expanding the empire, and influencing the architecture and layout of their city. Sacrificial rituals acted as an important factor to the economy of their civilization and their general philosophies.

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The Aztecs believed that the Gods required consistent sacrifices in order to maintain peace, and constantly surrendered victims up to the Gods through gory and taboo rituals. However, death through sacrifice was not considered negative in their culture, but rather considered an honor.Only the finest, most accomplished and feared warriors were chosen to be sacrificed – in order to please the Gods with worthy victims. This custom was celebratory and a tradition of glorification and great recognition.

One form of sacrifice – the Ixiptla Sacrifice – symbolized and demonstrated the reincarnation of god through a chosen human. The preparations for this ceremony often took up to a year, and during this time, the chosen victim was treated as if he were a god among men for his remaining time on Earth.Preparations included: the physical and ritual cleaning and purification of the body and soul, the dressing up in the traditional attire of the given god, and rituals specified for the god, such as dancing, singing and ceremonial processions. The chosen human was given luxuries such as food, and women for sexual pleasure, and attended by several priests.

This ritual was consummated through the public sacrificing of a human. It was considered a great honor to be chosen for the ixiptla sacrifice, especially for the family of the chosen human.After the sacrifice had taken place, the family followed the event with an honorific meal in which the consume a portion of their family member3. However, this was not for nutritional purposes.

The purpose was to honor the victim’s memory. They believed by in-taking a part of the deceased, they were connecting the dead with themselves through having a part of them inside of their body. Because of the celebration of ceremonies such as this, death came to be commemorated rather than avoided. The Aztec included several skulls and crossbones as decoration in their art and jewelry.

These symbols represented the health of fertility, holding a positive connotation rather thanholding a negative significance; as Marco A. Almazan mentions, “It was also held that human sacrificial death was necessary in order for there to be life. For twentieth-century people, this notion is repellent. For the Aztecs, however, it embodied a positive value”.

This is similar to the Mexican culture of today, where a holiday – “Dia de los Muertos”, or “Day of the Dead” – exists to celebrate the remembrance of the deceased.It is a cheerful day as opposed to a day of solemnity and mourning. To the Aztecs, death was instrumental in the perpetuation of creation and gods and humans alike had the responsibility of sacrificing themselves in order to allow life to continue. Through the urgency of sacrificial rituals, and the vitality of the process, death was regarded as a casualty rather than a tragedy.

Through the decreasing the significance of death, Aztecs hesitated less to the act of killing, as it was viewed as an accepted and common action.Consequently, the culture adapted to celebrating death, and encouraging death; one of the distinctive characteristics of the Aztecs that evoked their feral reputation. In addition to shaping the general values of the Aztecs, sacrificial rituals also provided an efficient method of dealing with war prisoners. There were two main objectives in Aztec warfare.

The first being political political: the subjugation of enemy city states in order expand the empire and demonstrate power and superiority.The second objective was religious and socioeconomic: the taking of captives to be sacrificed in religious ceremonies. According to Friar Diego Duran’s accounts of the Aztec civilization, Tlacaelel – a king of the Aztec Empire – arranged with leaders of other Pre-Columbian city states to engage in ritual battles that would provide all parties with enough sacrificial victims to appease the gods. Tlacaelel reigned over a period of great famine in the empire in year 1450.

The Aztec Religion believed that Gods required sacrifices to keep all running smoothly. There were several gods that the Aztecs worshiped to for agricultural purposes, for example: Tlaloc, who sends rain and nourishes maize7, Centeotl, the god of maize in general, Teteoinnan, the god of agriculture as well as sexual fertility, and Xipe Totec, god of rituals and sacrifice8. The Aztecs believed that through worshipping certain gods, and generously providing them with a steady supply of sacrifices and blood, the gods would in return keep things balanced.When there was not enough victims, Tlacaelel resorted to these battles to collect more humans to be sacrificed.

War was a dominant aspect of the Aztec civilization, and they aspired to exponentially expand their empire through military conquest, while also collecting tribute from the captured city states. The Aztecs were brutal and skilled fighters, being trained for battle from a young age9. So, naturally they defeated several city states, capturing many prisoners of war. The vast majority of sacrificial victims were prisoners of war.

Since the Aztecs relied so heavily on sacrifices, believing that they are vital to the order of their society, gathering prisoners through battle became a prominent method of finding sacrificial victims. This encouraged them not only to continue their military conquests for sacrifices, but also pushed them into expanding their empire. As a result, the Aztec Empire was the largest of the Pre-Mexican ancient civilizations, and the most feared. Ancient Aztec astronomy played a tremendous role in Aztec culture.

The stars, planets, and movements of heavenly bodies in the universe was a great part of the traditions of the Aztec people and it had a lot to do with their everyday lives and decisions. Celestial bodies and astronomy was greatly weighted in the Aztec religion. The creation belief revolved around the idea of different periods of time, called “suns”. There were four previous suns before their time, each wiped out at the end of a fifty-two year cycle, called a “calendar round”.

They also believed that sacrificial victims and soldiers who died in battle would go to an afterlife in the eastern solar realm where the sun rises to the zenith, and women who died in childbirth would go to the western solar realm where the sun sets. The Aztecs also believed that a sacrificial blood was necessary in order to keep the sun in it’s course and the Earth thriving and bountiful. Their annual calender consisted of 360 days, (in reality 365 days), however they didn’t count the last five days as these were dedicated to sacrifices, and were considered bad luck.Their incorporation of astronomy into their religion prompted their curiosity of the universe, and led them to further explore and discover the science of it.

Most of the observations and calculations regarding the celestial bodies and their orbital patterns were made by priests. The Aztecs based religious structures off the alignment of the sun and the shadows it casts during certain times of day. They used the alignments and orientations of the celestial bodies to lay out plans for cities and important buildings.One major temple, called the Templo Major, was designed so that on March 21 (the spring equinox) the sun rises directly between the Tlaloc temples and the Huitzilopochtli.

During this time, a ceremony was held in dedication to the solar god, Xipe Totec. The Aztecs were extremely advanced in their knowledge of astronomy and celestial cycles. They utilized their discoveries to construct religious and important buildings, create calenders, and choose dates for special religious ceremonies. Their achievements in the region of astronomy was well ahead of their time, and was prompted by religion.

Religion was an enormously pivotal aspect of the Aztec Civilization; acting as the infrastructure and framework for the complex culture of this society. Religion alone, fabricated the ethnology of their anomalous culture. Through sacrificial rituals, the habitual morality and attitude towards death is established, and the empire is expanded through efforts to gather victims, and through incorporating astrology into religion, the Aztecs make outstanding discoveries and achievements in science, and architecture. It is religion alone that molded the notorious culture and legacy of the Aztec civilization.

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Aztec Religion: the Foundation of a Civilization. (2017, May 17). Retrieved from