The main rituals of the Aztec empire took place in the Great Temple. This building, very well preserved to this day, was the religious and political centre of ancient Tenochtitlán, 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 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 to feed them.
But these deities were not content with any food. They were 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 so far as to go to war against other peoples with the main objective of capturing the greatest number of prisoners to offer them in sacrifice. In fact, only in Tenochtitlan tens of thousands who suffered this fate.
The Aztec Skulls as Offerings
Many victims were decapitated after the sacrifice. The heads were then cooked so that the skin could be easily removed, 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. To this wall were embedded thick woods in vertical position. The woods were bored and crossed, from top to bottom, by thin rods. The skulls, in turn, were drilled through the parietal area and placed on the horizontal rods, 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 regarded death as a mere transit to a better life in the spirit world.
Some altars could contain thousands of heads. Although there are no precise data, it is believed that the Great Tzompantli of the Great Temple, in Tenochtitlán, housed more than one hundred thousand skulls. Of course, in addition to its use as a sacred altar, this exhibition of skulls served to frighten enemies.
Before the skulls were embedded in the Great Tzompantli, a ritual was celebrated that sanctified them. Afterwards, they were placed facing 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 dead 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. Then, in the underworld, the warriors would have to fight with the forces of darkness so that the sun would rise again one more day.
Artificial skulls: dubious provenance
From the second half of the nineteenth 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 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 necessary to make these works of art. To overcome this obstacle, all sorts of arguments have been given, some of them very extravagant. There are those who assure that they are artifacts coming from Atlantis or articles of extraterrestrial manufacture. Of course, these ideas have no scientific basis. Less support is given to claims that skulls have supernatural powers.
If the Aztecs really elaborated at least some of these skulls, they could have been representations of their gods. In fact, some of their deities looked similar to these figures. Therefore, it is probable that they used them to invoke them, as if it were an idol.
In the nineties of the last century, two supposedly pre-Columbian skulls were analysed. One is in the British Museum and the other is in the possession of the Smithsonian Institute. Studies revealed that the pieces had been carved by relatively modern jeweler’s instruments, tools that the Aztecs and any other Mesoamerican civilization were completely unaware of. It is clear that these two works are counterfeits. This raises even more doubts about the authenticity of even one of the skulls.
The skulls served the Aztecs for more than an offering. Three decades ago, eight masks made from human skulls were discovered in the Great Temple. Archaeologists long assumed that the masks were made from the heads of some victims of randomly selected human sacrifices.
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 sacrifice, 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 subject of study.
It was concluded that the masks were made from the skulls of men between the ages of 30 and 45. When they died, they were in optimal health, well fed and had no dental problems.
The above-mentioned features were very unusual among the general population of pre-Hispanic civilizations. If the masks had been made from the skulls of ordinary people, the results of the examination would have been very different.
It seems logical to conclude that the skulls came from people of noble origin. This would explain why they were in better health than the other victims studied. Therefore, the most plausible explanation so far is that royalty or elite warriors captured in battle did not have the same fate as others. Instead of placing their full skulls on the tzompantli, they were subjected to special treatment.
It was also possible to determine, with a good degree of certainty, the origin of the men turned into skull masks. They were originally from the Toluca Valley, the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the west of 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. Afterwards, they proceeded to paint it, placed incrustations in its eyes and put a flint leaf in its nose. Once the mask was finished, it was time to fix it in the temple’s tzompantli, where it was revered as a sacred object.
Aztec skulls in present-day Mexico
It is evident that the Aztecs felt an irresistible fascination for skulls. Their macabre practices 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. Some 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 skulls. It is a skull made with sugar, chocolate, grenetine or amaranth. It is an indispensable part of the altar of the dead. For many experts, it is inevitable to think of the tzompantli when they see these sweets arranged in a row.
In the parades organized for the Day of the Dead, people disguise themselves in a way that alludes 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.