The main rituals of the Aztec empire were carried out in the Templo Mayor. This building, very well preserved until today, was the religious and political center of ancient Tenochtitlán, the most important city of the Aztec empire. It was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, deity of war and the sun.
Especially in this place, archaeologists have found abundant evidence of the practice of an enormous amount of human sacrifice. In order to preserve life, the Aztecs sought to please their gods. They believed that one way to do this was by feeding them.
But these deities were not satisfied with just any food. They required consuming 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 extreme of going to war against other peoples with the main objective of capturing the largest number of prisoners to offer them as sacrifices. In fact, only in Tenochtitlán tens of thousands suffered this fate.
Aztec skulls as offerings
Many victims were beheaded after sacrifice. The heads were then baked so that the skin could be easily peeled off, 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 timbers were embedded in this wall in a vertical position. The logs were drilled and pierced, from top to bottom, by thin rods. The skulls, in turn, were perforated through the parietal area and placed on the horizontal rods, one on one side of the other. A mixture of lime, sand, and tezontle gravel held them together.
The tzompantli was actually an altar to honor the gods. Contrary to what one might think, this collection was part of a cult of life. The Aztecs considered death as a mere transition to a better life in the world of spirits.
Some altars could contain thousands of heads. Although there are no precise data, it is believed that the Great Tzompantli of the Templo Mayor, in Tenochtitlán, once housed more than one hundred thousand skulls. Of course, in addition to its use as a sacred altar, this display of skulls served to intimidate enemies.
Before embedding the skulls in the Great Tzompantli, a ritual was held that sanctified them. Later, they were placed looking towards the temple of Huitzilopochtli. The offerings would ensure the continuity of the solar star, which would have a positive impact on nature, fertility and agriculture.
The Aztecs believed that the deceased warriors accompanied the deity from sunrise until noon, when they gave way to women who died in childbirth. They would travel with Huitzilopochtli until nightfall. Later, in the underworld, the warriors would have to fight with the forces of darkness so that the sun would rise one more day.
Artificial skulls: dubious provenance
Starting in the second half of the 19th century, there were some intriguing discoveries. They were skulls made of crystal and quartz. With some suspicion, its elaboration was attributed, mainly, to the Aztecs. Some are flawlessly designed 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 necessary to make these works of art. To get around this obstacle, all sorts of arguments have been put forward, some of them quite extravagant. There are those who say that they are artifacts from Atlantis or articles of extraterrestrial manufacture. Of course, these ideas have no scientific support. Less supported are claims that the skulls have supernatural powers.
If the Aztecs actually made at least some of these skulls, they may have been representations of their gods. In fact, some of their deities looked similar to these figures. Therefore, it is likely that they used them to invoke them, as if it were an idol.
In the nineties of the last century, two separate analyzes were carried out on two skulls, supposedly pre-Columbian. One is in the British Museum and another is in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution. Studies revealed that the pieces had been carved by relatively modern jeweler’s instruments, tools that the Aztecs and every other Mesoamerican civilization was completely unaware of. It becomes clear that these two works are forgeries. This casts further doubt on the authenticity of even one of the skulls.
The skulls served the Aztecs for more than just an offering. Three decades ago, eight masks made from human skulls were discovered in the Templo Mayor. Archaeologists have long assumed that the masks were made from the heads of some randomly selected human sacrifice victims.
However, recent research done by the experts at the University of Montana has shed more light on this matter. A comparative analysis was performed on the intact skulls of 30 human sacrifice victims, 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, state of health, age and place of origin of each study subject.
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, well fed and had no dental problems.
The aforementioned traits were very unusual among the general population of pre-Hispanic civilizations. If the masks had been made from the skulls of ordinary people, the test results would have been very different.
It seems logical to conclude that the skulls came from people of noble origin. This would explain why they enjoyed better health than the rest of the victims studied. Therefore, the most plausible 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 complete skulls in the tzompantli, they were subjected to special treatment.
The provenance of the men turned into skull masks could also be determined with a good degree of certainty. They were originally from the Toluca Valley, the Gulf of Mexico coast, western Mexico, and the Valley of Mexico. There is 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 the skull to remove the back. Then they proceeded to paint him, inlaid his eyes and put a flint blade in 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 modern Mexico
It is clear that the Aztecs had an irresistible fascination with skulls. Their macabre practices have left their mark on modern Day of the Dead celebrations. For example, the pan de muerto usually has the shape of a skull and the figures of some bones. Certain historians claim that the Spanish conquistadors promoted its use as an alternative to human sacrifice.
Another element that seems to be a legacy of the Aztecs and other pre-Hispanic cultures are the calaveritas. It is a skull made with sugar, chocolate, gelatin or amaranth. It is an indispensable part of the altar of the dead. For many experts, it is inevitable to think of tzompantli when they see these sweets arranged in a row.
In the parades that are organized on the occasion of the Day of the Dead, people dress up in an allusive way 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.