Letters of Cortes to Emperor Charles V - Vol 1/Appendix 4 of the First Letter

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APPENDIX IV.

Human sacrifices were very general among all the Mexican tribes, at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, and the description here given of the horrible temple rites is in no way exaggerated, but is indeed rather meagre. The practice is traced, by some historians, to the tribe of the Mexi, which descended from Tenoch, son of Iztacmixcoatl, the progenitor of the Nahoa family, but, with what justice, does not clearly appear, as this people may have received it from some tribe or race preceding, or allied, to them. Prisoners taken in war were the most highly prized victims, but failing these, or for the celebration of minor festivals, slaves were easily bought, or were offered by their owners for the purpose. Small infants were also commonly sold by their mothers, and instances of free-born men offering themselves as victims, for one motive or another, were not unknown. The victims were frequently drugged, in such wise that they went unconsciously, or even willingly to the altar. If a great festival, requiring many, and choice, victims, fell in a time of peace, war would be undertaken upon any frivolous pretext, in order to procure the desired offerings.

The rites were carefully prescribed, and were of the most solemn description. Different kinds of sacrificial stones were used for different classes of victims; the usual one called techcatl is described by Veladés {Rhetorica Christiana) as "Mensa quadrata magna non et splendida habent singula latera longitudinem trium ulnarum non absimilis lapideis illis quæ inter Romana monumenta ad hunc servantur."

This table-shaped stone was about waist high, and stood as an inverted pyramid. Six priests officiated, five of whom held the arms, legs, and head, of the victim, who was stretched upon the stone in such wise as to throw his chest well forward. These five had their faces and bodies painted black, with a white line around the mouth; their hair was bound up with a leather band, and ornamented with tufts of coloured papers; their vestment was a white dalmatic, striped with black.

The sixth priest was the celebrant whose vestment varied according to the feast, or the deity, to be propitiated. His head was adorned with coloured plumes, and in his ears were golden ornaments, set with green stones, while a blue stone was set in his under lip. Pronouncing the words of the ritual, he plunged a sharp knife, made of silex, into the victim's breast, and, quickly thrusting his hand into the opening, tore out the beating heart, which he first elevated, and then deposited at the feet of the image of the god. Sometimes the heart was placed in a vase, and left standing on the altar, or it might be buried, or preserved with divers ceremonies, as a relic, or it might be eaten by the priests; the fresh blood was smeared on the lips of the idols. If the victim were a prisoner taken in battle, his head was given to the priests, to be kept as a trophy, the entrails were fed to the dogs, and the other parts of the body were cooked with maize, and offered in small pieces to the guests invited to partake by the giver of the sacrificial feast.

The warrior who had captured the victim in battle could not eat of the latter's flesh, as a sort of spiritual relationship was held to exist between them, not dissimilar to that of a sponsor and his god-child in Christian baptism, or even closer, for the flesh of the victim was considered also as the very flesh of the captor. The eating of this human body was not an act of gluttonous cannibalism alone, but was believed to have mystic significance, the flesh having undergone some mysterious transmutation, by virtue of the sacrificial rite, and to be really consecrated; it was spoken of also, as the true body of the deity, to whom it was offered, and, also, as the "food of soul." None but chiefs, and distinguished persons, specially designated, were permitted to partake of the sacramental feast, which was celebrated with much ceremony and gravity. If the victim were a slave, the rites were similar, but simpler. Orozco y Berra, in the first, and the third volumes of his authoritative work, gives the fullest, and most interesting information on human sacrifices amongst the Mexicans.