Death Beliefs & Rituals of the Aztec Culture

The Aztecs had many rituals and beliefs about death and the afterlife.
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The Aztecs were a highly advanced civilization that developed in the 14th century around the area that is now called Mexico City. They established a massive empire that ran a course of approximately 200 years and engaged in a variety of military and tribute conquests. By exploring their death beliefs and rituals, you can better understand and appreciate the Aztec culture.

1 Human Sacrifices

Arguably the most written about and barbaric aspect of Aztec death rituals is human sacrifice. We know about these practices because they were documented through pre-Hispanic art, archaeological excavations and accounts from colonial times. The Aztecs offered human sacrifices because they believed it was the way to bring "cosmic balance," or to ensure the sun would continue to come up and rain would continue to nourish the earth. According to Aztec mythology, the gods sacrificed one another in order to keep the sun moving. When rain nourished their crops, the Aztecs believed they had to repay the rain gods by sacrificing children. Thus death via human sacrifices was a way in which the Aztecs believed they extended life by balancing and feeding the universe.

2 Death by Natural Cause

According to the "Florentine Codex" by 16th-century priest and author Bernardino De Sahagun, the treatment of a dead body and the path of the soul depended on the person's social standing and the way in which he died. For example, if a person died from old age, he went to the Aztec concept of Hades known as Mictlan. This was a dark underworld ruled by Mictlanecuhtli -- the skeletal death god who is described as looking like Charon, the ferryman of Hades in Greek myth. To prepare the old corpse for the journey to Mictlan, people wrapped it in paper and secured it in a cloth wrap tied shut. They would cremate the body along with a dog so the person would have a guide and companion in the underworld.

3 Hero Death

Warriors who were slain in battle and those who willingly gave themselves up as human sacrifices were considered to be heroes and went to Tlaloc -- a paradisal "afterworld" glowing with eternal springs and gold. The Aztecs had more than one paradisal afterlife, and Tlaloc was the fourth heaven, named after the rain god bearing the same name whose celestial duty was to keep the crops glowing with life from the rain's nourishment. Instead of being cremated, the hero was buried in the ground with objects depicting images of the mountain gods associated with Tlaloc. The Aztecs believed heroes had "fire-like souls" and wrapped their bodies in cloth decorated with birds and butterflies to symbolize the essence of their soul. It was also believed that when a warrior died, his death honored the sun god and the departing warrior soul would find its way to Tlaloc via the sun's rays.

4 Death Memorials

Some Aztecs were memorialized by artwork. According to UCLA Professor of Latin American studies Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Aztec sculptures were not simply made from random artistic inspiration but were instead "the result of a monumental synthesis of religious and cultural concepts." He points that a vital aspect of Aztec sculpture is the "abstraction of whole images that retain realistic, concrete details." Dr. Aguilar-Moreno points out that Aztec dreams, myths and the illusions of life and death were depicted in and thus represented by sculptures.

Jen Saunders is an entrepreneur and veteran journalist who covers a wide range of topics. She made the transition to writing after having spent 12 years in England where she studied and taught English literature.