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Did the Aztecs Really Sacrifice Humans? A Gory Guide with Dominic Sandbrook

Updated: May 7

Dominic Sandbrook, man of mystery!

The other week, we were lucky enough to interview Dominic Sandbrook – best-selling author, top historian, iconic podcaster, and man of mystery. We love chatting to Dominic, he regularly blows our brains into little gooey grey chunks by dropping some epic history knowledge bombs upon our delicate bonces.

That’s really quite the visual image I’ve summoned in your brains there, sorry about that!

Dominic has a new book in his ‘Adventures in Time’ history series coming out this month; ‘The Fall of the Aztecs’. It’s a phenomenal read for children and grown-ups and we give it two thumbs up (the highest score we can possibly give on account of only having two thumbs).

We got to ask Dominic loads of questions about the Aztecs (and he gave us loads of awesome answers too!) We’ll be publishing more of his words of wisdom in future blogs, but for this entry, we thought we’d just concentrate on one Aztec-related question, that is: ‘Did the Aztecs really sacrifice people?’ Dominic did not disappoint with his answer!

Prisoners are taken to be sacrificed in this artwork by William Hickling Prescott.

“All Spanish accounts of their trip to Mexico involve human sacrifice.” Dominic said, as we attempted our very best intelligent listening faces (spoiler: we failed), “They find skulls, they find bodies, and they find blood on the altars. There was no doubt in their minds that there was a degree of human sacrifice. Now, of course, the Spanish used that to justify their own conquest of the Aztecs. They said these people are terrible monsters. We must bring them to Christianity and get rid of this horrendous tradition.”

So, how many victims are we talking about here Domstar 3000 (we thought we’d try out this cool nickname. I think Dominic - really, really secretly – liked it)?

“The Spanish said that when the Aztecs built their pyramids,” Dominic replied, no doubt beaming at the prospect of having such an ace new pseudonym, “there would be tens of thousands of people executed in one go. In the last 50 years, some historians have said, ‘Oh, that can't be true. This was all invented by the Spanish to make themselves look good and the Aztecs look terrible’. But the Aztecs did sacrifice people. There's no doubt about that. However, the number of people sacrificed is almost certainly smaller than the Spanish claimed. If you go to the great temple in Mexico City; the archaeologists there found the remains of 126 people. 42 of them were children. These people were victims of the sacrificial knives.”

A picture of an Aztec Skull Rack. Source - John Carter Brown Library.

‘Was there any other evidence of sacrifice?’ we asked impertinently. It wasn’t really asked in an impertinent manner. It’s just that impertinent is a great word and we wanted to write it four times. Impertinent. “There are these things called skull racks.” Dominic replied once we had stopped wittering “So once you were sacrificed, your skull would end up on this rack outside the temple. And the Spanish said they'd seen tens of thousands of skulls on these racks. Actually, from the archaeological evidence, it's probably hundreds of skulls. Which is still quite a lot.”

A Ceromonial Sacrificial Knife. Image courtesy Simon Burchell.

‘Buy why did they sacrifice people, Domstar 3000’? we asked, very silently, in our heads.

“Now, why did they do it? Right. Exactly.” Dominic replied, which was freaky as it demonstrated that, as well as being a terrific historian, he also has mind-reading powers. “They do it because they think this is how the world works. Now, one thing I will say is at the same time that the Aztecs were doing their sacrifices, European kingdoms were perfectly happy to have public executions watched by giant mobs of people. But Aztec sacrifice has a religious dimension. The Aztecs believe that the gods require a steady flow of human blood as an offering, and that will keep the sun rising and falling every day. It's almost as though the blood is part of the fuel that keeps the engine going. And if you don't give it to the gods, then the world will come to an end.”

Now reader, hold on to your stomach lining, as this is where things get a little gory. Ah, who are we kidding? We know you love the blood and guts! With that in mind, we asked Domstar 3000 how people were sacrificed. “They would get a tribute of slaves and line them up,” Dominic replied, who, judging by his facial expression, was definitely still loving his new nickname, “then send them up the pyramids, where they would be held down and their heart would be taken out.

Then, depending on which festival it was, your skin might be flayed. The removed skin might be worn as a costume. It's something that we find horrific. But also, I think if we're honest, we find it fascinating.”

As we start to turn green and desperately attempt to hold on to our poorly thought-through lunch of ox tongue soup, we only have one final question to ask; did people want to be sacrificed? Or was it considered a punishment? “Yeah, it's a good question. It's a great question.” Dominic replied. We’re not going to lie, this comment made us very proud. We felt like a clever dog who just retrieved the right stick.

Tlaloc, the lord of the rain, from the Codex Magliabechiano

“Historians argue about this. We think that some of them were given an alcoholic drink made from cactus beforehand. That means that they were effectively drugged. We know that before they were sacrificed they would often be given banquets. They would be given costumes and there would be dances in the streets. It would be hard to make people who didn’t want to be sacrificed do that."

"There were children who would be sacrificed at the festival of Tlaloc, who was the Lord of the rain. They were taken away from their parents when they were toddlers and given richly decorated clothes."

"Again, did they resist? Were they terrified? We just don't know. We can't put ourselves into their heads. I think they see the world in such an utterly different way from us. So to us, the very concept of being sacrificed is appalling. But we have to accept that Aztec people may well have seen the world utterly different to us.”

BOOM! MIKE DROP!!! Thank you Dominic that was absolutely fascinating. To quote Tom Holland (not Spider-Man. Tom Holland the historian. Though, who knows, Spidey might have said it too), that was a tour de force.

To find out more about the fascinating history of the Aztecs – including Gods, Emperors, Sacrifice, and Conquistadors – be sure to get your pre-order in for ‘Adventures in Time: Fall of the Aztecs’.

You can do so by clicking here and visiting the Penguin website.

Here’s the booktastic blurb:

'An invisible tremor ran through the Aztecs on the rooftops, a breathless gasp of excitement. On the edge of the city the drummers struck up their rhythm. They were coming...'

With its vast cities, soaring pyramids and glittering treasure, the Aztec Empire was one of the greatest civilizations in the world, at once beautiful and terrible. At its head was the Emperor Montezuma, master of millions, who spoke with the voice of the gods and fed the sun with the blood of his prisoners. Yet Montezuma was troubled by terrifying omens. And when Spanish explorers landed on his shore to seek their fortunes, nothing would ever be the same again...

The Adventures in Time series brings the past alive for twenty-first century children. These stories are every bit as exciting as those of Harry Potter or Matilda Wormwood. The only difference is they actually happened...

Adventures in Time: Fall of the Aztecs’ will be published on the 26th of October, 2023.


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