The Aztecs emerged in central Mexico around 1300 AD, coming to dominate the surrounding area from their capital city Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. Stretching across highlands, coastal plains, valleys, and jungles, they were the largest and most successful Mesoamerican empire in terms of size and demographics. They were also fierce, violent, powerful, and gruesome. Known for their brutal battle tactics and ritual sacrifices of war captives, slaves, and innocent civilians, the Aztecs were obsessed with death. They kept skulls as trophies, flayed people alive, ripped out their hearts, rolled heads down pyramid steps, cannibalized their victims, and worshipped death gods. These artifacts give a terrifying insight into the world of the ancient Aztecs.
Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec God of the Dead, found in Teotihuacan ( Anagoria / CC by SA 3.0 ). The worship of Mictlantecuhtli sometimes involved ritual cannibalism, with human flesh being consumed in and around the temple.
Statue of Xipe Totec, the flayed-skin god ( Bkwillwm / CC BY SA 3.0 ). Xipe Totec is represented wearing flayed human skin, usually with the skin of the hands falling loose from the wrists. At the annual festival of Xipe Totec slaves or captives were sacrificed and priests wore the flayed skin of the victims with the fresh blood still dripping.
An Aztec knife used for gruesome ritual sacrifices, shaped like a crouching eagle warrior (Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
The Emperor Death Whistle depicting the Lord of the Dead, developed by Master flute maker Xavier Quijas . Aztec death whistles made piercing noises resembling a human scream, and are believed to have been used during ceremonies, sacrifices, or during battles to strike fear into their enemies.
A chac-mool at the Templo Mayor (Greater Temple) archaeological site in Mexico City. The hole in the belly of the chac-mool was where the hearts of sacrificed victims were placed. ( Miguel / Adobe Stock)
The most fearsome Aztec instrument of death was the “ macauahuitl,” a club weapon favored by elite warriors. It was a wooden bat surrounded by razor-sharp obsidian blades. It was so powerful it could reportedly kill a horse with one strike. A modern recreation of a ceremonial macuahuitl made by Shai Azoulai. Photo credit: Niveque Storm ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Turquoise mosaic Aztec mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, God of Fire. At the annual festival dedicated to Xiuhtecuhtli, slaves and captives were dressed as the deity and sacrificed in his honor ( Mistervlad / Adobe Stock)
Aztec Stone Eagle, Cuauhxicalli, which has a circular cavity in its back for receiving human hearts. Templo Mayor Museum at site of Aztec Great Temple, Mexico City. ( Public Domain )
Pendant in the form of an animal head. Made of wood and covered with turquoise and malachite mosaic. The open mouth is encrusted with gemstones and lined with real shark teeth (Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
During excavations at the House of Eagles at the northern end of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City, archaeologists uncovered two life-size clay statues of Mictlantecuhtli. These terrifying figures depicted the god of death and ruler of the underworld, shown with his liver hanging out, his skin ripped off, and claw-hands. Experts believed that worship of Mictlantecuhtli was linked to ritual cannibalism. ( Gary Todd / CC BY SA 1.0 )
The mosaic skull mask of Tezcatlipoca is believed to represent Tezcatlipoca, a.k.a. “Smoking Mirror,” one of the four powerful and influential creator gods of Aztec mythology. This Aztec artifact is actually a human skull covered with a mosaic of turquoise. Experts believe it was part of a ceremonial ritual costume and was worn with the help of deerskin straps. (Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
This 13th century golden serpent lip-piercing is a rare Aztec gold artifact. For the Aztecs, gold was associated with the gods and was worn by their rulers. Known as labrets, these items were symbolic of power and the insertion of a labret through a piercing was part of the Aztec accession ceremony. ( Public Domain )
An original rock-crystal skull on display at The British Museum. Its origins are largely uncertain but the stylization of the features of the skull is in general accord Aztec of Mixtec carvings. (Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
A figure of a cihuateotl, the spirit of an Aztec woman who died in childbirth. ( CC0) In Aztec mythology, the Cihuateteo were the malevolent spirits of women who died in childbirth. A cihuateotl was depicted as a fearsome figure with clenched, claw-like fists, macabre, bared teeth and gums and aggressive poses.
Serpent mask of Tlaloc, in the form of two intertwined and looped serpents in turquoise mosaic. (Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
The double-headed feathered serpent was made with over 2,000 tiny pieces of highly prized turquoise. Possibly representing Quetzalcoatl, this Aztec artifact speaks to an era when the Aztecs were on the brink of destruction. (The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
Top image: An Aztec skull of a sacrificed captive used as a mask, encrusted in the nose and mouth with obsidian blades. ( Dante / Adobe Stock )
By Cecilia Bogaard