The main rituals of the Aztec empire were held in the Greater Temple.
This well-preserved building was the religious and political center of ancient Tenochtitlan, the most important city of the Aztec empire. It was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, deity of war and sun.
Especially in this place, archaeologists have found abundant evidence about the practice of a huge number of human sacrifices. In order to preserve life, the Aztecs sought to please their gods. They thought one way to do it was to feed them.
But these deities did not settle for any food. They required to consume the blood of humans. This explains why sacrifices were so common. Those chosen for such carnage were prisoners of war, those defeated in the ball game, children who were revered as divinities and, probably, some women. The appetite of the gods was insatiable.
The Aztecs went to the point of going to war against other peoples with the main objective of capturing as many prisoners as possible for sacrifice. In fact, only in Tenochtitlan tens of thousands who ran this fate.
The Aztec skulls as offerings Many victims were beheaded after the sacrifice.
The heads were then cooked so that they could easily peel off their skin, exposing the skulls. These were placed in the tzompantli (row of skulls, in Spanish). It was a wall made of tezontle ashlars that was covered with stucco. Thick wood was embedded in this wall in an upright position. The timber was drilled and pierced, from top to bottom, by thin rods. The skulls, in turn, were pierced through the parietal zone and placed on the horizontal rods, one side of the other.
A mixture of lime, sand and tezontle gravel kept them together. The tzompantli was, in fact, an altar to honor the gods. Contrary to what might be thought, this collection was part of a cult of life. The Aztecs considered death as a mere transit towards a better life in the spirit world. Some altars could contain thousands of heads. Although there is no precise data, it is believed that the Great Tzompantli of the Great Temple, in Tenochtitlan, came to house more than 100,000 skulls. Of course, in addition to its use as a sacred altar, this display of skulls served to frighten enemies. Before embedding the skulls in the Great Tzompantli, a ritual was held that sanctified them. Afterwards, they stood facing the temple of Huitzilopochtli.
The offerings would ensure the continuity of the solar star, which would positively impact nature, fertility and agriculture.
The Aztecs believed that the deceased warriors accompanied the deity from sunrise until noon, when they gave their place to the women killed during childbirth. They would travel with Huitzilopochtli until dusk.
Then, in the underworld, warriors would have to fight with the forces of darkness for the sun to rise again one more day. Artificial skulls: dubious provenance From the second half of the 19th century, some intriguing discoveries were made. These were skulls made of crystal and quartz. With some suspicion, it was attributed mainly to the Aztecs. Some have an impeccable design and the size of a real human skull. It is these objects in particular that have caused disbelief among archaeologists and historians. What calls into question the authenticity of the pieces is that there is no evidence that the Aztecs had the knowledge and tools needed to make these works of art.
To overcome this obstacle, all sorts of arguments have been put forward, some very extravagant. There are those who claim that they are artifacts from Atlantis or items of extraterrestrial manufacture.
Of course, these ideas have no scientific basis. Less support has claims that skulls have supernatural powers. If the Aztecs actually crafted at least some of these skulls, they could have been representations of their gods. In fact, some of their deities looked similar to those of these figures. Therefore, they probably used them to invoke them, as if they were an idol. In the nineties of the last century, analyses were carried out on two skulls, supposedly pre-Columbian.
One is in the British Museum and one is in the possession of the Smithsonian Institute. Studies revealed that the pieces had been carved by relatively modern jeweler instruments, tools that the Aztecs and any other Mesoamerican civilization were completely unaware of. It is clear that these two works are forgeries. This raises even more doubts about the authenticity of even one of the skulls.
Skull masks The skulls served Aztecs for more than an offering. Three decades ago, eight masks made from human skulls were discovered in the Main Temple. Archaeologists long assumed that masks were made from the heads of some randomly selected human sacrifice victims.
However, recent research by experts at the University of Montana has shed more light on this issue. A comparative analysis was made of the intact skulls of 30 victims of human sacrifices, 127 skulls of warriors killed in battle and the eight masks. The structure and appearance of the pieces examined allowed the experts to specify the sex, health status, age and place of origin of each subject of study. It was concluded that the masks were made with the skulls of men between 30 and 45 years of age. When they died, they were in optimal health, were well fed and had no dental problems.
The above traits were very unusual among the general population of pre-Hispanic civilizations. If the masks had been made with the skulls of ordinary people, the test results would have been very different. It seems logical to conclude that the skulls came from persons of noble origin. This would explain why they were in better health than the other victims studied. Therefore, the most feasible explanation, up to this point, is that royals or elite warriors captured in battle did not have the same fate as others. Instead of placing their entire skulls in the tzompantli, they were subjected to special treatment. It was also possible to determine, with a good degree of certainty, the origin of men turned into skull masks.
They were native to the Toluca Valley, the Gulf Coast of Mexico, western Mexico and the Valley of Mexico. There’s even speculation about the identity of one of the masks. It is believed that it could be the king of Tollocan, mentioned in some historical records. The priests cut off the skull to remove the back. Then they painted it, placed inlays in his eyes, and put a flint sheet on his nose. Once the mask was finished, it was time to fix it in the tzompantli of the temple, where it was revered as a sacred object.
Aztec skulls in present-day Mexico It is clear that the Aztecs felt an irresistible fascination with skulls. Their practical macabre have left their mark on modern Day of the Dead celebrations. For example, the bread of the dead is usually shaped like a skull and the figures of some bones.
Certain historians claim that the Spanish conquistadors promoted its use as an alternative to human sacrifices. Another element that seems to be a legacy of the Aztecs and other pre-Hispanic cultures, is the skulls. It is a skull made with sugar, chocolate, grenetine or amaranth. It’s an indispensable part of the altar of the dead. For many experts, it is inevitable to think about the tzompantli when they see these sweets arranged in a row. In the parades organized on the occasion of the Day of the Dead, people disguise themselves allusive to the celebration. It is striking that some participants wear masks and clothing that make them look like “Aztec skulls”.
It is clear that even the most chilling customs can be assimilated by the folklore of a people.