Because death is something every human being (and essentially all living things) will experience at some point, it’s easy to understand why nearly all cultures throughout history have had certain views and beliefs regarding death. However, studying beliefs about death in different cultures can help us learn more about those cultures’ values in general.
For instance, if you have any interest in the Aztecs, you may be wondering: How do the Aztecs view death?
You could take an entire course on it and still not learn everything there is to know. That said, this basic guide will give you a better understanding of the way the Aztecs have treated this universal subject throughout their cultural history.
As a note, keep in mind that the Aztecs still exist, and cultural beliefs change over time, so some of these points may not hold true now to the same degree that they did in the past.
1. The Afterlife
Anyone asking “how do the Aztecs view death?” may also want to know if traditional Aztec beliefs about death include belief in an afterlife.
The short answer is yes. Aztecs did (and, in some instances, still do) believe in an afterlife. However, their ideas about the afterlife differ from those of numerous other cultures in certain key ways.
Aztecs traditionally believed that most people all went to the same underworld when they died. They refer to this realm as Mictlan. Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, and his wife the goddess of death Mictecacihuatl, rule over it. Only in a few select circumstances can a soul escape this fate.
Where a person’s soul goes, according to the beliefs of many other cultures, depends on their behavior in life. Along with common Western ideas like hell and heaven, some other religions and spiritual mythologies claim a person may, for example, reincarnate here among the living after they die in order to grow spiritually.
That’s not the case in the Aztec belief system. Regardless of deeds in this life, unless you pass in a very specific manner, your soul goes to the same afterlife as all others.
2. Day of the Dead Rituals
If you’re ever interested in learning about examples of rituals involving death in today’s cultures, consider researching DÍa de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
During this festival, which many throughout Mexico and parts of Central America participate in, people respect the dead by burning incense, giving gifts at shrines, and practicing a wide range of other rituals.
Day of the Dead research can also offer some helpful insights as well into the Aztec culture.
Spreading cultural beliefs
Day of the Dead as it exists now is not a strictly Aztec festival. For instance, many researchers believe that Day of the Dead takes place in late October and early November because the Spanish conquistadors wanted it to coincide with their Christian All Saints’ observances.
Spreading Christian beliefs throughout the Aztec culture was very important to the Spanish conquistadors. However, it wasn’t necessarily easy, as the Aztecs resisted their attempts at first.
In response, the conquistadors often blended their beliefs with those of the Aztecs to help “ease in” Christianity. Some scholars believe this influenced the origins of Day of the Dead in that part of the world in at least some ways. Specifically, they note how the early Aztecs used to observe a month-long celebration of the goddess of death Mictecacihuatl. Although this celebration generally occurred in late July and early August, some of the rituals involved such as burning incense to appease the goddess overlap with today’s Day of the Dead rituals.
This has given researchers cause to believe one way the Spanish conquistadors blended their cultural beliefs with Aztec cultural beliefs involved shifting the Mictecacihuatl celebration to late October and early August. Over time they slowly integrated more Christian-based practices and rituals into the celebration as well.
3. Ritual Sacrifice
This particular subject has been of interest to many people over the years. For years, many people who know at least a little bit about how the Aztecs view death have assumed that stories about the Aztecs performing ritual sacrifices to appease the gods were true.
Some of these stories can also be fairly lurid. According to some claims, the Aztecs would carve out victims’ hearts with knives. Others say the Aztecs would sometimes skin sacrifices alive. Or, they might engage in other disturbing practices, such as beheading or setting sacrifices against each other in a fight in which one side severely outmatched the other.
Reviewing past assumptions
Again, many have taken these stories at face value. The problem is, they may not be true.
It’s important to understand that researchers haven’t come to a consensus on this topic. Some historians and archaeologists believe they have genuine evidence suggesting the Aztecs did engage in at least some forms of ritual sacrifice. They cite reports from conquistadors and their soldiers, accounts included in records of trials from the nearby Mayan civilization, and various works of art as evidence backing up their claims.
Maybe their assumptions are correct. However, other researchers have pointed out that all this “evidence” may not be as trustworthy as it seems.
New interpretations of evidence
First of all, the conquistador Hernando Cortes, along with his army, destroyed Tenochtitlan, the most important Aztec city. Cortes and his soldiers also committed a range of other atrocities against the Aztecs. According to some scholars, they then spread and recorded stories about the Aztecs engaging in barbaric ritual sacrifice, but those stories (many of which are either strangely vague or seem greatly exaggerated) were likely propaganda to justify their actions.
Second, numerous historians believe other accounts of ritual sacrifice from Mayan court records aren’t necessarily proof that these stories are true. They point out that there’s also significant evidence to suggest that many confessions made during these “trials” were the result of coercion under torture. Other researchers also explain that the existence of certain works of art is hardly proof that ritual sacrifice was a major part of Aztec culture.
The main point is, don’t assume you’re hearing the truth when you hear the Aztecs made ritual sacrifices often. It’s unclear whether those stories have any real truth to them. On top of that, many researchers who do believe the Aztecs practiced ritual sacrifice nevertheless reject the tales about them doing so in violent ways. They cite evidence that suggests people volunteered to be sacrificed because doing so allowed their soul to embody one of the gods for a year.
4. Special Burials
Remember, according to Aztec beliefs, a few select souls won’t go to Mictlan when they die. Warriors are one example. They get special treatment because they died in order to save lives.
In early Aztec societies, women who died in childbirth often got similar treatment. They too had sacrificed their own life so that another could live.
The way the Aztecs buried women who died in childbirth reflects the high status they awarded such women. Traditionally, they would clean a woman’s body and dress her in the best clothing she had. Then her husband would carry her to the burial site. While he did so, elderly women in the community would cry out in a manner similar to that of Aztec warriors. This was supposedly to protect the body.
Some warriors even tried to remove the fingers or hair from the bodies of women who died in childbirth so they could place them on their shields during combat. They did so because the Aztecs believed the body of a woman who died in childbirth was divine, and carrying part of her with you into battle would give you courage.
5. Returning to the Living
According to traditional Aztec beliefs, the souls of women who died in childbirth didn’t cease to exist after their death. They instead traveled to the female half of heaven, which corresponds with the western side of the planet. They also believed that these souls would sometimes return to haunt those they left behind.
In some stories, the way they haunted the living could be particularly frightening. For example, some believed that these souls would wait by crossroads when they had returned to the world of the living. Upset at not having had the chance to be mothers in this life, they would try to kidnap children.
Merely catching a glimpse of these souls could have consequences. The Aztecs believed that seeing the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth would cause them to foam at the mouth, begin spasming, and have an experience that we could best compare to an epileptic seizure. Some Aztecs would therefore carefully arrange statues they had designed to scare these ghosts away.
The Aztec View on Death: Deep and Dense
This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Aztec views on death. If this topic interests you, you’ll find there’s quite a lot of information out there worth looking into. Remember, when you learn about how the Aztecs view death, you may be able to learn about all of Aztec culture.
- “Cihuateotl, The Deified Woman.” Aztec Art in NYC, Fordham University, aztecart2017.ace.fordham.edu/exhibits/show/cihuateotl--the-deified-woman/iconography
- Farah, Kirby. “Day of the Dead: From Aztec goddess worship to modern Mexican celebration.” USCDornsife, University of Southern California, 28 October 2019, dornsife.usc.edu/news/stories/3099/day-of-the-dead-has-aztec-history-now-modern-celebration/
- “HUMAN SACRIFICE AMONG THE AZTECS?” El Camino College, 1992, www.elcamino.edu/faculty/jsuarez/1cour/h19/wpsacrifice1.htm
- “Immortal Spirits: The Pre-Columbian Afterlife.” Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri, maa.missouri.edu/gallery/immortal-spirits-pre-columbian-afterlife
- Thoele, Kelly. “Children of the Aztecs.” Eastern Illinois University, www.eiu.edu/historia/Thoele.pdf