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The Aztec inhabited a universe peopled by numerous gods and goddesses endowed with vast powers and capricious tempers. The divinities held in highest honor and most actively worshipped in Tenochtitlan were the War God, Huitzilopochtli, and the Rain God, Tlaloc, whose favor was considered essential to survival on the semi-arid Mexican plateau. An imposing hierarchy of priests, said to have numbered five thousand in Tenochtitlan alone, acted as intermediaries between gods and men. Human sacrifice on an immense scale played an important part in Aztec religion and ritual. The following selection is a native account of the ceremonies that attended the spring festival held in the second month of the Aztec year.

TLACAXIPEUALIZTLI. This feast came and was thus celebrated; [it was] when all the captives died, all those taken in war - the men, the women, the children. Those who had taken captives, when, on the morrow, their prisoners were to die, then began the captives' dance, when the sun had passed noon. And they held an all-night vigil for their prisoners there in the tribal temple. And they placed [the captives] before the fire and took hair from the top of the captives' heads, when half the night had passed and when they made offerings of blood from the ear.

And when the dawn came, then they made them leave, that they might go to die, they who were to die appropriately to this feast day. For during the entire festival they were all flayed. Hence they called [the feast] Tlacaxipeualiztli. And the captives were called xipeme and tototecti. Those who slew them were the priests. Those who had taken them captive did not kill them; they only brought them as tribute, only delivered them as offerings; [the priests] went laying hold of their heads, and seizing [the hair of] their heads. Thus they went leading them up to the top of the temple. And when some captive faltered, fainted, or went throwing himself upon the ground, they dragged him. And when one showed himself strong, not acting like a woman, he went with a man's fortitude; he bore himself like a man; he went speaking in manly fashion; he went exerting himself; he went strong of heart and shouting, not without courage nor stumbling, but honoring and praising his city. He went with a firm heart, speaking as he went: "Already here I come! You will speak of me there in my home land!" And so they were brought up [the pyramid temple steps] before [the sanctuary] of Uitzilopochtli. Thereupon they stretched them, one at a time, down on the sacrificial stone; then they delivered them into the hands of six priests, who threw them upon their backs, and cut open their breasts with a wide-bladed flint knife. And they named the hearts of the captives "precious eagle-cactus fruit." They lifted them up to the sun, the turquoise prince, the soaring eagle. They offered it to him; they nourished him with it. And when it had been offered, they placed it in the eagle-vessel. And those captives who had died they called "eagle men." Afterwards they rolled them over; they bounced them down; they came tumbling down head over heels, and end over end, rolling over and over; thus they reached the terrace at the base of the pyramid. And here they took them up. And the old men, the quaquacuilti, the old men of the tribal temples, carried them there to their tribal temples, where the captor had promised, undertaken, and vowed [to take a captive]. There they took [the slain captive] up, in order to carry him to the house [of the captor], so that they might eat him. There they portioned him out, cutting him to pieces and dividing him. First of all they reserved for Moctezuma a thigh and set forth to take it to him. And [as for] the captor, they there applied the down of birds to his head and gave him gifts. And he summoned his blood relations, he assembled them, that they might go to eat at the house of him who had taken the captive. And here they cooked each one a bowl of stew of dried maize, called tlacatlaolli, which they set before each, and in each was a piece of the flesh of the captive. They named [the captor] the sun, white earth, the feather, because [he was] as one whitened with chalk and decked with feathers. The pasting on of feathers was done to the captor because he had not died there in the war, but was yet to die, and would pay his debt [in war or by sacrifice]. Hence his blood relations greeted him with tears and encouraged him.

And on the morrow, the gladiatorial sacrifice was made. Until early morning, until dawn, they made them hold vigil, all night, until the dawn was ended. Thus did the captives, those to be sacrificed, pass the whole night until dawn.... Thereupon began the gladiatorial sacrifice. The captives were spread out in order; the captors stood arranging and accompanying them. Then also the striped ones came forth; swiftly the ocelot [-costumed] warrior led and guided them; he came quickly to meet [the captives], displaying his shield and war club and lifting them up toward the sun [in dedication]. Then he turned back, retreated, turned to the rear; once again he went back. In the same manner there then followed him, coming second, the eagle [-costumed warrior], who similarly lifted up [as an offering] to the sun his shield and his war club. Once again emerged another ocelot [-costumed warrior], who came out as third, doing the same as he quickly came out. Yet again an eagle [-costumed warrior] came out, doing just as had been done. All four [acted as if] fighting. They raised their shields and war clubs [as offerings] to the sun. Now no longer did they delay, by turning back. When they came out, they came out dancing, they went in order. As if lying down on the ground, as if crawling along, flat on the ground, they went looking from side to side; they went up leaping and fighting. And thereafter the Youallauan came forth, garbed like Totec; only he came last, after the others, behind the four great eagle and ocelot [warriors]; they lifted up their shields and war clubs, offering and dedicating them to the sun. Then all the impersonators, the proxies, of all the gods emerged in order, ahead of all. They were called the lieutenants, the delegates, the images. Similarly, they proceeded; they came in order; they came together. All came down. They came hence, from Iopico, from the very top of the [pyramid] Temple of Iopitli. And when they had come down below, on the ground, on the earth, they gathered around the circular, flat, sacrificial stone; they seated themselves according to rank on large chairs called quecholicpalli. And when they were seated, when they were arranged according to their importance, again the first in order was the chief priest, the Youallauan; because it was his right, his office, that he should slay, offer as sacrifice, [that] with his hands he should destroy - with his hands hack open each of the captives destined for sacrifice. When this was done, then trumpets were sounded; conch shells, large sea shells, were blown; men put their fingers in their mouths and whistled, and there was singing. With singing of songs and blowing of trumpets they arrived.

The Cozcateca placed themselves in order, their shoulders decked with feather banners, and they encircled the offering-stone. One [of the captors] quickly seized a captive. The captor, he who owned the captive, seized him by the head to bring him to the offering-stone. When he had brought him there, he offered him wine; and the captive raised the wine four times [as an offering], and afterwards drank it with a long hollow gourd. Then still another man, [a priest] came out and cut the throat of a quail for the captive, him who was to be offered as a sacrifice; and when he had beheaded the quail, he raised [to the sun] the captive's shield, and cast the quail away, behind him. Having done this, then they made [the captive] climb upon the round sacrificial stone; and when they had lifted him on the offering-stone, the wolf [priest] came up to him, representing [a wolf], and known as "Old Wolf." [He came forth] as the uncle of the captive destined for the sacrifice. Then he took the rope holding the captive, which reached and was attached to the center [of the stone]; then he tied it about the waist of the captive. And he gave him a war club, decked with feathers and not set with obsidian blades. And he placed before him four pine cudgels, his missiles, with which to lay about him, with which to defend himself. And the captor when he had left his prisoner on the offering-stone, thereupon went away [to the place where] he had stood [before]. He stood dancing, looking upon, and studying, his captive. Then [the fight] was begun; the contest [was started]. Carefully they studied where they would smite him in a dangerous place, and cut him - perchance the calf of the leg, or the thigh, or him head, or his middle. And if some captive was valiant and courageous, with great difficulty he surpassed [his adversary]. He met and fought all four of the ocelot and eagle [warriors]. And if they could not weaken him, then came one who was left-handed. He then wounded his arm and threw him flat upon the surface. This one appeared as [the god] Opochtli. And although the captive might falter and faint, yet he acquitted himself as a man. And when one went faltering, sinking down on all fours, reeling and overcome in the fray, uselessly and vainly holding the war club, which they snatched from him, thus his adversaries contended with him. And this useless one could now no longer do more; no more could he use his hands; no longer make himself do anything. No longer did he move; he did not speak. then, faltering and fainting, he fell upon the surface, tumbling as if dead. He wished that he might stop breathing, that he might suffer [no longer], that he might perish, that he might cast off his burden of death. And thereupon they quickly took and seized him, pushed him, and dragged him, and raised and stretched him out upon the edge of the round sacrificial stone.

And then, when the Youallauan went [forth], in the guise of Totec, he gashed [the captive's] breast, seized his heart, and raised it as an offering to the sun; and the priests placed it in the eagle vessel. And another man, a priest, carried the [hollow] eagle cane and set it in the breast of the captive, there where the heart had been; he stained it with blood; he submerged it well into the blood. Thereupon he offered [the blood] to the sun. It was said: "Thus he giveth [the sun] to drink." And the captor thereupon took the blood of his captive into a green bowl with a feathered rim. The sacrificing priests came to pour it there. In it went the hollow cane, which also had feathers. And then the captor departed with it that he might nourish the demons. He went into and came out of all [shrines]; he omitted none; he forgot not the priests' dwellings in the tribal temples. On the lips of the stone images he placed the blood of his captive, giving them nourishment with the hollow cane. He went in festive attire. And when he had gone to and reached all the places, then he took the insignia to the palace, and he caused his captive to be taken to the tribal quarters, where they had passed the night in vigil; here he flayed him. Afterwards he had [the flayed body] taken to his house, where they cut it up, that it might be eaten and shared, and, as was said, to bestow as a favor to others.... And the captor might not eat the flesh of his captive. He said: "Shall I, then, eat my own flesh?" For when he took [the captive] he had said: "He is as my own beloved son." And the captive has said: "He is as my beloved father." And yet he might eat of someone else's captive. And the captor kept the [captive's] skin for himself; he lent it to others. For twenty days the skin was carried by one person and another, worn for the entire feast. He who wore it gave everything given him, all that he had collected, to the captor. Afterwards [the captor] divided up [the gifts] among [all of] them. Thus he made use of his skin.

And when this was done, when they had finished with the gladiatorial sacrifice victims, then there was a dance and a procession about the round sacrificial stone, by all the impersonators [of the gods] and those who had fought the victims, all going ceremonially arrayed. In this way did they who did the slaying end [the ceremony]. All severally took with them the head of a captive, a sacrificial victim, and therewith danced. This was called "the dance with severed heads." And the old wolf man grasped the rope [which had fastened the captives to the offering-stone] and raised it [as an offering] to the four directions. He went weeping and howling, like one bereaved; he wept for those who had suffered and died. And also from the warring cities, from beyond [the mountains], those with whom there was war, were summoned, in secret, and came within, in secret, as Moctezuma's guests, the Nonoalca, the Cozcateca, the Cempoalteca, the Mecateca. [These ceremonies] were shown to them, and they were confounded. For thus they were undone and disunited.