Bleeding for the Sun Bleeding for the Sun
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Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
The Four Elements

Bleeding for the Sun

Bloodletting in Aztec Culture
Tomasz Wiśniewski
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Everyone’s heard of the gory human sacrifices of the Aztecs to the gods. But we tend to forget they offered their own blood to the deities, too.

According to Mesoamerican mythology, the Sun dies of old age, along with every era. However, the belief was that this process could be slowed through bloodshed. The Sun gives life but also demands it in exchange, so the Aztecs sacrificed themselves and others to survive. Not doing so would inevitably lead to a cosmic catastrophe.

In The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz del Castillo recalled the shock and disgust of conquistadors when King Montezuma proudly showed them around the temples of his gods. The walls were covered with dried blood and human remains, while freshly sacrificed hearts lay cooling on the altars. The stench was unbearable. Díaz and his companions could not wait to leave that “slaughterhouse.”

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In Aztec culture, self-sacrifice was practiced by the whole of society. This was done most often by pricking the ears as well as the thighs, chest, arms, and even genitals as an offering. The Four Earthquakes ceremony referred directly to the Sun’s movement across the sky. It began at dawn and culminated with four priests seizing a captive impersonating the Sun god, Tonatiuh. A fifth priest cut the prisoner’s chest open with a knife and tore their heart out. Aztecs celebrated the event for hours, puncturing their body parts with obsidian blades in kind, soaking the ground with blood.

Nevertheless, Aztec priests were true experts in bloodletting and self-mutilation. A Franciscan missionary, Motolinía, gave an account of an important ceremony held in Tlaxcala (taken from the Nahuatl word Tlaxcallān, meaning “the place of maize tortillas”). According to the friar, these spiritual leaders went to a remote place in the mountains and after initial sacrifices at sunset, they ceremoniously set out blades on a clean sheet and burned incense while chanting. After the second incantation, one of the priests pierced the tongues of his companions, like a surgeon. Wooden splinters—some of which were, according to Motolinía, the size of a thumb—were then pushed through the freshly-punctured flesh, the most dedicated priests doing this up to two hundred times. The ritual inaugurated an eighty-day fast; the priests pierced their tongues again every twenty. The bloody sticks were sacrificed to the deity and buried in the ground.

Reflecting on all the recorded information about the Aztec priests, a horrifying vision emerges. Díaz wrote that the priests wore “long robes of black cloth and long hoods like those of the Dominicans, and slightly resembling those of the Canons.” Their scar-covered faces and bodies were also usually painted black, and their ears and tongues were deformed from self-mutilation. As a rule unwashed, the priests’ long hair was caked with blood that dripped from their ears. Their clothes were of course often stained with that of their sacrifices. Theirs was the responsibility to keep the Sun moving across the sky.

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka

This translation was re-edited for context and accuracy on May 26, 2022

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