Category Archives: Central and South American Native Cultures


#3 from General History of the Things of New Spain
(The Florentine Codex)
(Bernardino de Sahagun, c. 1565)

The Festival in the Month of Tóxcatl

This festival was the most important of all the festivals. It was like Easter, and it occurred near the feast of Resurrection, a few days later. This young man, raised as has been said [with all luxuries, for a year], had a very good appearance [with no flaw on his body] and was chosen from among many. He had long hair down to his waist. When in this festival they killed the young man who had been prepared for this, then they set another apart, who would die within a year. He would go through all the town adorned with flowers in his hand and with persons who accompanied him. He would greet all of those whom he met graciously. All knew that that one was the image of Tezcatlipoca and they prostrated themselves before him and worshipped him wherever they encountered him. Twenty days before this festival, they would give this young man four very attractive young women, who had been raised for this, with whom he would have carnal intercourse for all the twenty days. They would change his dress when they gave him these girls. They would cut his hair like a captain, and they would give him other more beautiful garments. Five days before he died, they would give him festivals and banquets in fresh and delightful places. Many important people would accompany him. When the day arrived on which he would die, they would take him to a cu, or a place of prayer, that they called Tlacochcalco, and before they arrived there, in a place that they called Tlapitzoayan, the women separated themselves from him and left him. When they arrived at the place where they would kill him, he himself went up the steps and on each one of them, tore into pieces one of the flutes he had been playing all year. When he arrived at the top, they threw him on the block. They took out his heart and they took the body down in palms. Below, they cut off his head and attached it to a pole that they called Tzompantli. Many other ceremonies took place during this festival….


The Sun, the Moon, and the Binding of the Years

 . . .It is told that when yet [all] was in darkness, when yet no sun had shone and no dawn had broken—it is said—the gods gathered themselves together and took counsel among themselves there at Teotihuacan. They spoke; they said among themselves:

“Come hither, O gods! Who will carry the burden? Who will take it upon himself to be the sun, to bring the dawn?”

And upon this, one of them who was there spoke: Tecuciztecatl presented himself. He said: “O gods, I shall be the one.”

And again the gods spoke: “[And] who else?”
Thereupon they looked around at one another. They pondered the matter. They said to one another: “How may this be? How may we decide?”

None dared; no one else came forward. Everyone was afraid; they [all] drew back.
And not present was one man, Nanauatzin; he stood there listening among the others to that which was discussed. Then the gods called to this one. They said to him: “Thou shalt be the one, O Nanauatzin.”

He then eagerly accepted the decision; he took it gladly. He said: “It is well. O gods; you have been good to me.”

Then they began now to do penance. They fasted four days—both Tecuciztecatl [and Nanauatzin]. And then, also, at this time, the fire was laid. Now it burned, there in the hearth. They named the hearth teotexcalli.

And this Tecuciztecatl: that with which he did penance was all costly. His fir branches [were] quetzal feathers, and his grass balls [were] of gold; his maguey spines [were] of green stone; the reddened, bloodied spines [were] of coral. And his incense was very good incense. And [as for] Nanauatzin, his fir branches were made only of green water rushes—green reeds bound in threes, all [making], together, nine bundles. And his grass balls [were] only aromatic weeds. And his maguey spines were these same maguey spines. And the blood with which they were covered [was] his own blood. And [for] his incense, he used only the scabs from his sores, [which] he lifted up. For these two, for each one singly, a hill was made. There they remained, performing penances for four nights. They are now called pyramids—the pyramid of the sun and the pyramid of the moon.

And when they ended their four nights of penitence, then they went to throw down and cast away, each one, their fir branches, and, indeed, all with which they had been performing penances. This was done at the time of the lifting [of the penance]; when, well into the night, they were to do their labor; they were to become gods.

And when midnight had come, thereupon [the gods] gave them their adornment; they arrayed them and readied them. To Tecuciztecatl they gave his round, forked heron feather headdress and his sleeveless jacket. But [as for] Nanauatzin, they bound on his headdress of mere paper and tied on his hair, called his paper hair. And [they gave him] his paper stole and his paper breech clout.

And when this was done, when midnight had come, all the gods proceeded to encircle the hearth, which was called teotexcalli, where for four days had burned the fire. On both sides [the gods] arranged themselves in line, and in the middle they set up, standing, these two, named Tecuciztecatl and Nanauatzin. They stood facing and looking toward the hearth.

And thereupon the gods spoke: They said to Tecuciztecatl: “Take courage, O Tecuciztecatl; fall—cast thyself—into the fire!”

Upon this, he went [forward] to cast himself into the flames. And when the heat came to reach him, it was insufferable, intolerable, and unbearable; for the hearth had blazed up exceedingly, a great heap of coals burned, and the flames flared up high. Thus he went terrified, stopped in fear, turned about, and went back. Then once more he set out, in order to try to do it. He exerted himself to the full, that he might cast and give himself to the flames. And he could in no way dare to do it. When again the heat reached him, he could only turn and leap back. He could not bear it. Four times indeed—four times in all—he was thus to act and try; then no more could he could cast himself into the fire. For then [he might try] only four times.

And when he had ended [trying] four times, thereupon they cried out to Nanauatzin. The gods said to him: “Onward, thou, O Nanauatzin! Take heart!”

And Nanauatzin, daring all at once, determined—resolved—hardened his heart, and shut firmly his eyes. He had no fear; he did not stop short; he did not falter in fright; he did not turn back. All at once he quickly threw and cast himself into the fire; once and for all he went. Thereupon he burned; his body crackled and sizzled.

And when Tecaciztecatl saw that already he burned, then, afterwards, he cast himself upon [the fire]. Thereupon he also burned.. . .

. . .And after this, when both had cast themselves into the flames, when they had already burned, then the gods sat waiting [to see] where Nanauatzin would come to rise—he who first fell into the fire—in order that he might shine [as the sun]; in order that dawn might break.

When the gods had sat and been waiting for a long time, thereupon began the reddening [of the dawn]; in all directions, all around, the dawn and light extended. And so, they say, thereupon the gods fell upon their knees in order to await where he who had become the sun would come to rise. . . .

. . .And when the sun came to rise, when he burst forth, he appeared to be red; he kept swaying from side to side. It was impossible to look into his face; he blinded one with his light. Intensely did he shine. He issued rays of light from himself; his rays reached in all directions; his brilliant rays penetrated everywhere.

And afterwards Tecuciztecatl came to rise, following behind him from the same place—the east.—near where the sun had come bursting forth. In the same manner that they had fallen into the fire, just so they came forth. They came following each other.

And so they tell it; [so] they relate the story and repeat the legend: Exactly equal had they become in their appearance, as they shone. When the gods saw them, [thus] exactly the same in their aspect, then once more there was deliberation. They said: “How may this be, O gods? Will they perchance both together follow the same path? Will they both shine together?”

And the gods all issued a judgment. They said: “Thus will this be; thus will this be done.”

Then one of the gods came our running. With a rabbit he came to wound in the face this Tecucizetecatl; with is he darkened his face; he killed its brilliance. Thus doth it [the moon] appear today.

And when this was done, when both appeared [over the earth] together, they could, on the other hand, not move nor follow their paths. They could only remain still and motionless. So once again the gods spoke: “How shall we live? The sun cannot move. Shall we perchance live among common folk? [Let] this be, that through us the sun may be revived. Let all of us die.”

[#3] Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, “The Festival in the Month of Tóxcatl,” vol. 1 (Mexico, DF: Editorial Pedro Robredo, 1938, pp. 990-91), tr. Carolyn Morrow; “Book 7: The Sun, Moon, and Stars, and the Binding of the Years,” Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, tr. Arthur J. O .Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Part VIII. (Santa Fe, NM: The School of American Research and The University of Utah, 1953), pp. 3-9.

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#2 from Letters from Mexico
(Hernan Cortes, 1519-20)

The First Letter

 …and rooms for slaves and servants of which they have many. Each of these chieftains [at Tenochtitlan] has in front of the entrance to his house a very large courtyard and some two or three or four of them raised very high with steps up to them and all very well built. Likewise they have their shrines and temples with raised walks which run all around the outside and are very wide; there they keep the idols which they worship, some of stone, some of clay and some of wood, which they honor and serve with such customs and so many ceremonies that many sheets of paper would not suffice to give Your Royal Highnesses a true and detailed account of them all. And the temples where they are kept are the largest and the best and the finest built of all the buildings found in the towns; and they are much adorned with rich hanging cloths and featherwork and other fineries.

Each day before beginning any sort of work they burn incense in these temples and sometimes sacrifice their own persons, some cutting their tongues, others their ears, while there are some who stab their bodies with knives. All the blood which flows from them they offer to those idols, sprinkling it in all parts of the temple, or sometimes throwing it into the air or performing many other ceremonies, so that nothing is begun without sacrifice having first been made. They have a most horrid and abominable custom which truly ought to be punished and which until now we have seen in no other part, and this is that, whenever they wish to ask something of the idols, in order that their plea may find more acceptance, they take many girls and boys and even adults, and in the presence of the idols they open their chests while they are still alive and take out their hearts and entrails and burn them before the idols, offering the smoke as sacrifice. Some of us have seen this, and they say it is the most terrible and frightful thing they have ever witnessed.

This these Indians do so frequently that, as we have been informed, and, in part, have seen from our own experience during the short while we have been here, not one year passes in which they do not kill and sacrifice some fifty persons in each temple; and this is done and held as customary from the island of Cozumel to this land where we now have settled. Your Majesties may be most certain that, as this land seems to us to be very large, and to have many temples in it, not one year has passed, as far as we have been able to discover, in which three or four thousand souls have nor been sacrificed in this manner. Let Your Royal Highnesses consider, therefore, whether they should not put an end to such evil practices, for certainly Our Lord God would be well pleased if by the hand of Your Royal Highnesses these people were initiated and instructed in our Holy Catholic Faith, and the devotion, trust and hope which they have in these their idols were transferred to the divine power of God; for it is certain that if they were to worship the true God with such fervor, faith and diligence, they would perform many miracles. And we believe that it is not without cause that Our Lord God has been pleased that these parts be discovered in the name of Your Royal Highnesses so that Your Majesties may gain much merit and reward in the sight of God by commanding that these barbarous people be instructed and by Your hands be brought to the True Faith. For, as far as we have been able to learn, we believe that had we interpreters and other people to explain to them the error of their ways and the nature of the True Faith, many of them, and perhaps even all, would soon renounce their false beliefs and come to the true knowledge of God; for they live in a more civilized and reasonable manner than any other people we have seen in these parts up to the present…

The Second Letter

…All these towers are burial places of chiefs, and the chapels therein are each dedicated to the idol which he venerated…

…The most important of these idols, and the ones in whom they have most faith, I had taken from their places and thrown down the steps; and I had those chapels where they were cleaned, for they were full of the blood of sacrifices; and I had images of Our Lady and of other saints put there, which caused Mutezuma and the other natives some sorrow. …Mutezuma and many of the chieftains of the city were with me until the idols were removed, the chapel cleaned and the images set up, and I urged them not to sacrifice living creatures to the idols, as they were accustomed, for, as well as being most abhorrent to God, Your Sacred Majesty’s laws forbade it and ordered that he who kills shall be killed. And from then on they ceased to do it, and in all the time I stayed in that city I did not see a living creature killed or sacrificed.

The figures of the idols in which these people believe are very much larger than the body of a big man. They are made of dough from all the seeds and vegetables which they eat, ground and mixed together, and bound with the blood of human hearts which those priests tear out while still beating. And also after they are made they offer them more hearts and anoint their faces with the blood. Everything has an idol dedicated to it, in the same manner as the pagans who in antiquity honored their gods.…

[#2] Hernan Cortes, Letters from Mexico. Trans. and ed. Anthony Pagden. New York: Grossman Publishing, 1971; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 35-37, 106-107.


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#1 from Codex Chimalpopoca (1570)

The Death of Quetzalcoatl

According to what they tell and what they say, this was when Quetzalcoatl was born, called Topiltzin Priest Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, and his mother they say was named Chimalman. And from what they say about him, Quetzalcoatl was placed in his mother’s belly when they say about him, Quetzalcoatl was placed in his mother’s belly when she swallowed a piece of jade.

It was in 2 Reed that Topiltzin, or Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, built his house of fasting, his place of penance, his place of prayer. Four in number were the houses that he built: his turquoise house of beams, his house of redshell, his house of whiteshell, his house of quetzal plumes. There he prayed, did penance, and kept his fast.

And just at midnight he would go to the water, to the place called Water Shrine, or At-the-Water-Weed.

And he punctured himself with thorns on top of Xicocotl and Huitzco and Tzincoc and Mount Nonoalco. And he made his thorns of jade and his needles of quetzal plumes. And for incense he burned turquoise, jade, and redshell. And the blood offering that he sacrificed were snakes, birds, and butterflies.

Now, it is told and related that it was to heaven that he prayed, that he worshipped. And the ones he called out to were Citlalinicue, Citlalatonac, Tonacacihuatl, Tonacateuctli, Tecolliquenqui, Eztlaquenqui, Tlallamanac, Tlalichcatl.

Well, it is told and related that many times during the life of Quetzalcoatl, sorcerers tried to ridicule him into making the human payment, into taking human lives. But he always refused. He did not consent, because he greatly loved his subjects, who were Toltecs. Snakes, birds, and butterflies that he killed were what his sacrifices always were.

And it is told and related that with this he wore out the sorcerers’ patience. So it was then that they started to ridicule him and make fun of him, the sorcerers saying they wanted to torment Quetzalcoatl and make him run away.

And it became true. It happened.

I Reed [895] was the year Quetzalcoatl died. And it is said that he went to Tlillan Tlapallan in order to die there.

Afterward, a certain Matlacxchitl was inaugurated as ruler, became ruler of Tollan.

Then they tell how Quetzalcoatl departed. It was when he refused to obey the sorcerers about making the human payment, about sacrificing humans. Then the sorcerers deliberated among themselves, they whose name were Tezcatlipoca, Ihuimacatl, and Toltecatl. They said, “He must leave his city. We shall live there.”

“Let us brew pulque,” they said. “We’ll have him drink it and make him lose his judgment, so that he no longer performs his sacraments.”

Then Tezcatlipoca said, “Myself, I say we should give him a way to see his flesh.”

They agreed that they would do it.

Then Tezcatlipoca went first. He took a two-sided mirror, a span wide, wrapped it up. And when he had come to where Quetzalcoatl was, he said to the pages who were guarding him, “Announce to the priest: A young man has come to show you, come to present you, your flesh.”

The pages went inside and repeated it to Quetzalcoatl, who said, “What’s that, grandfather page? What’s my ‘flesh’?” Take a look at what he’s brought, and then he may come in.”

But he refused to let him see it. “I must show it to the priest myself,” he said. “Go tell him that.”

They went and told him: “He refuses, and he very much wants to show it to you.”

“Let him come grandfather,” said Quetzalcoatl.

They went and called Tezcatlipoca. He entered, greeting him. He said, “My child, Priest Ce Acatl, Quetzalcoatl, I greet you. And I’ve come to show you your flesh.”

“You’ve wearied yourself, grandfather,” said Quetzalcoatl. “Where do you come from? What is this ‘flesh’ of mine? Let me see it.”

“My child, O priest, I, your servant, have come from the foot of Mount Nonoalco. May it please you to see your flesh.”

Then he gave him the mirror and said, “Know yourself, see yourself, my child, for you will appear in the mirror.”

Then Quetzalcoatl looked and was terrified. “If my subjects saw me,” he said, “they might run away.” For his eyelids were bulging, his eye sockets deeply sunken, his face pouchy all over―he was monstrous.

When he had looked in the mirror, he said, “My subjects are never to see me. I must stay right here.”

Then Tezcatlipoca left him and came away. And in order to make fun of him he consulted with Ihuimecatl.

Ihuimecatl said, “Let the featherworker Coyotlinahual be the one to go.”

They repeated it to him, that he was to go. “Very well,” said the featherworker Coyotlinahual, “I’ll go see Quetzalcoatl.” And so he went.

He said to Quetzalcoatl, My child, I say you must go out. Let your subjects see you. And for them to see you, let me dress you up.”

He said, “Grandfather, do it! I’d like to see it.”

And so he did it, this featherworker, this Coyotlinahual. First he made Quetzalcoatl’s head fan. Then he fashioned his turquoise mask, taking yellow to make the front, red to color the bill. Then he gave him his serpent teeth and made him his beard, covering him below with cotinga and roseate spoonbill feathers.

When he had prepared it―the way the attire of Quetzalcoatl used to be―he gave him the mirror.

Seeing himself, Quetzalcoatl was well pleased. At that very moment he went out from the place where he was being guarded.

Then Coyotlinahual, the featherworker, went to Ihuimecatl and said, “I have brought Quetzalcoatl out. Now go!”

“Very well,” he said. Then he befriended a certain Toltecatl, and when they were ready to go, they set off together.

Then they came to Xonacapacoyan and lodged with the man who worked the fields there, Maxtlaton, the keeper of Toltecatepec. Then they also stewed greens, tomatoes, chilis, fresh corn, and beans. And it was all done in just a few days.

There were also magueys there, which they requested from maxtla. In just four days they made them into pulque, then they decanted it. They were the ones who discovered the little hives of tree honey, and it was with this that they decanted the pulque.

Then they went to Tollan, to the house of Quetzalcoatl, bringing all their greens, their chilis, and so forth. Also the pulque. When they got there, they tried to enter, but Quetzalcoatl’s guards would not let them. Twice, three times they turned them away. They were not admitted. Finally they were asked where their home was.

“Over at Tlamacazcatepec, at Toltecatepec,” they replied.

Hearing them, Quetzalcoatl said, “Let them come in.”

They went in.

Well, they greeted him, and at last they gave him the greens, etc. And when he had eaten of it, they urged him once again, giving him the pulque.

But he said, “No I mustn’t drink it. I’m fasting. Is it intoxicating? Or fatal?”

“Taste it with your finger,” they told him. “It’s piquant.”

Quetzalcoatl tasted it with his finger. Finding it good, he said, “Let me drink grandfather.” And when he had drunk one draught, the sorcerers said to him, “You’ll drink four.” And so they gave him a fifth draught, saying, “This is your portion.”

Well, when he had drunk it, then they served all his pages, and they drank five draughts apiece.

When the sorcerers had gotten them completely drunk, they said to Quetzalcoatl, “My child, may it please you to sing, and here’s a song for you to recite.” Then Ihuimecatl recited it for him:

I must leave my house of quetzal, of quetzal, my house of troupial, my house of redshell.

When he had gotten into a happy mood, he said, “Go get my sister Quetzalpetlatl. Let the two of us be drunk together.”

His pages went to Mount Nonoalco, where she was doing penance, and said, “My child, lady, Quetzalpetlatl, O fasting one, we’ve come to get you. Priest Quetzalcoatl is waiting for you. You’re to go be with him.”

She said, “All right, let’s go, grandfather page.” And when she got there, she sat down beside Quetzalcoatl. Then they served her the pulque. Four draughts and one more, a fifth, were poured for her.

And when Yhuimecatl and Toltecatl had made everyone drunk, they presented a song to Quetzalcoatl’s sister. They recited it for her:

My sister, where are you? Q Quetzalpetlatl, lets be drunk, aýya ýya ynye an.

Having made themselves drunk, they no longer said, “Let us do penance.” No longer did they go down to the water. From then on they did nothing at daybreak.

Well, when dawn came, they were filled with sadness, their hearts were troubled. And Quetzalcoatl said, “Alas for me!” And then he sang a lament, composing a song about how he would have to go away. Then he sang it aloud:

Never a portion counted in my house. Let it be here, ah, let it be here, here. Alas. May the realm endure. Alas. There’s only misery and servitude. Never will I recover.

He sang aloud the second stanza of his song:

Ah, she used to carry me, alas, my mother, ah, Coacueye, the goddess, the noble one. I am weeping, ah.

When Quetzalcoatl had sung, then all his pages were saddened. They wept. And they, too, sang, saying:

They made us rich, our lords, and he, Quetzalcoatl, who shinedlike a jade. Broken are the timbers, his house of penance. Wouldthat we might see him. Let us weep.

And when Quetzalcoatl’s pages had sung, he said to them, “Grandfather page, enough! I must leave this city. I must go away. Give the command. Have them make a stone chest.”

Then quickly a stone chest was carved. And when they had carved it and it was finished, they laid Quetzalcoatl in it.

But he lay only for four days in the stone chest. When he felt discomfort, he said to his pages, “Enough, grandfather page! Let’s go. Everywhere conceal and hide what we once discovered, the joy, the riches, all our property, our possessions. And his pages did so. They hid it where Quetzalcoatl’s bathing place was, at the place called water shrine, At-the-Water-Weed.

Then Quetzalcoatl departed. He got up, called together his pages, and wept over them. Then they set out, heading for Tlillan, Tlapallan, Tlatlayan.

And he went looking everywhere, exploring. Nowhere was he satisfied. And when he reached the place he had been heading for, again he wept and was sad.

Now, this year, 1 Reed, is when he got to the ocean, the seashore, so it is told and related. Then he halted and wept and gathered up his attire, putting on his head fan, his turquoise mask, and so forth. And as soon as he was dressed, he set himself on fire and cremated himself. And so the place where Quetzalcoatl was cremated is named Tlatlayan (land of burning).

And they say as he burned, his ashes arose. And what appeared and what they saw were all the precious birds, rising into the sky. They saw roseate spoonbills, cotingas, trogons, herons, green parrots, scarlet macaws, white-fronted parrots, and all the other precious birds.

And as soon as his ashes had been consumed, they saw the heart of a Quetzal rising upward. And so they knew he had gone to the sky, had entered the sky.

The old people said he was changed into the star that appears at dawn. Therefore they say it came forth when Quetzalcoatl died, and the called him Lord of the Dawn.

What they said is that when he died he disappeared for four days. They said he went to the dead land then. And he spent four more days making darts for himself. So it was after eight days that the morning star came our, which they said was Quetzalcoatl. It was then that he became lord, they said.

And so, when he goes forth, they know on what day sign he casts light on certain people, venting his anger against them, shooting them with darts. If he goes on 1 alligator, he shoots old men and old women, all alike.

If on 1 Jaguar or 1 Deer or 1 Flower, he shoots little children. And if on 1 Reed, he shoots nobles. The same with everybody, if on 1 Death

And if on 1 Rain, he shoots the rain. No rain will fall.
And if on 1 movement, he shoots youths and maidens.
And if on 1 Water, there is drought, etc.
So these [day signs] was venerated by the old men and the old women of former times.

As for the one called Quetzalcoatl, his entire lifetime was such that he was born in 1 Reed and also died in 1 Reed, so that his life was counted altogether as fifty-two years.

So, it is finished in the year 1 Reed [895]. 

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(documented 1519-1621)



  1. Codex Chimalpopoca (1570)
    The Death of Quetzalcoatl
  2. Letters from Mexico
         (Hernán Cortés, 1519-20)
  3. General History of the Things of New Spain (The Florentine Codex)
    The Festival in the Month of Tóxcatl
    The Sun, Moon, and Stars, and the Binding of the Years
    (Bernardino de Sahagún, c. 1565)
  4. Monarchia Indiana
    Chimalpopoca’s Victory in Death
          (Juan de Torquemada, 1609-15)
  5. In Defense of the Indians
    The Significance of Human Sacrifice
    (Bartolomé de Las Casas, 1548-1550)


  1. Popol Vuh
    History of the Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque
    How the People Obtained Fire
    (dictated in K’iche’, c. 1554-1558; Francisco Ximénez, c. 1701)
  2. An Account of the Affairs of Yucatán
    Ixtab: Goddess of the Gallows
    (Diego de Landa, c. 1570)


  1. Natural History of the West Indies
    Suicide on the Death of the Chief
    (Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, 1526)
  2. La Historia General de las Indias
    Suicide, Smallpox, and the Arrival of the Spaniards
    (Francisco López de Gómara, 1552)
  3. History of the New World
    Suffering at the Hands of the Spaniards
    (Girolamo Benzoni, 1565)



  1. The Incas
    The Burial of Wives
    (Pedro de Cieza de León, 1553)
  2. Natural & Moral History of the Indies
    Of Superstitions They Used to the Dead
    (José de Acosta, 1589)
  3. The Extirpation of Idolatry in Peru
    What Those Who Hang Themselves Really Are
    (Pablo José de Arriaga, 1621)

The Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztec and Maya, the peoples of the Caribbean Islands, and the Inca of South America, were among the many cultural groups inhabiting the western hemisphere at the time contact was established between the Americas and Europe; there are still some 170 indigenous tribes speaking distinctive languages in Mexico alone, and 31 different Mayan languages and groups. Some groups among those who had migrated across Beringia into North America had continued to move south into Central and South America, eventually establishing large and sophisticated cities and empires. Among the major sites were Tenochtitlan (the Aztec, or Mexica, capital in the location now known as Mexico City), Palenque (one of many major Mayan city and temple complexes), and Machu Picchu, now believed to have been the summer capital of the Inca empire. About a fifth of the global population lived in the Americas at the time of contact with Europeans, and although estimates vary widely, the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca populations all clearly numbered in the millions at the height of these civilizations.

Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492. Despite popular assumptions that the native inhabitants of the New World were conquered by the sword and the cross, especially by Spanish conquistadores interested in gold and in military domination and Jesuits engaged in religious conversion, most of the indigenous populations were killed by European disease—smallpox, measles, typhus, plague, influenza, malaria, and yellow fever—diseases to which New World populations had never been exposed and had no immunity. Entire peoples in the Americas were virtually wiped out, like the Caribbean group known as the Taino living on Hispaniola, where Columbus had landed in December of 1492. Most other indigenous populations were reduced to remnants of their original numbers, in many places an 80–90% decline. The so-called Black Legend blames Spanish cruelty and injustice for the decimation of the Indians and, in doing so, identifies a major factor in the catastrophic population decline in the New World and the destruction of once-powerful pre-contact civilizations. Other factors, including famine, collapse of the ruling class, intergroup warfare, and other forms of social upheaval, are still under debate as contributors to these societies’ eventual collapse even before the arrival of the Spanish, but it was disease that took the greatest toll.

Whether practices of human sacrifice contributed to the collapse or were practices of these societies that marked their zeniths, the archeological remains of the Mesoamerican cultures provide extensive records of practices related to suicide, including bloodletting and autosacrifice, self-immolation, live burial of wives and retainers, decapitation, and—especially among the Aztecs—heart sacrifice. The art and architecture of the Formative, Classic, and Post-classic periods of these cultures, including those like the Maya with highly developed iconographic systems, show that death-producing practices were a central part of pre-contact life.

What accounts for these practices is still a subject of dispute. Michael Harner’s thesis, promulgated in the late 1970s, that human sacrifice and the associated institutionalized cannibalism among the Aztecs were a product of protein scarcity—caused by seasonal crop failures, the depletion of wild game, and the lack of domestic animal food sources in a region that, though itself fertile, was surrounded by poor farmland—has not been supported by the evidence. Human sacrifice in this and other cultures, according to a more recent examination of the evidence by Michael Windelman, is associated with high population density, population pressure, and war for land and resources; human sacrifice may also play a role in ideological integration. Nevertheless, whatever the background ecological and social explanation of human sacrifice, the degree to which these practices should be understood as suicide or suicide-like actions depends in part on the motivation with which they were undertaken and the way they were understood by those involved in and subject to these practices—that is, the degree to which they were perceived as self-initiated, and whether they were involuntary, socially required but not desired, or elective. It is also a function of the extent to which the religious violence of human sacrifice was, as David Carrasco modifies René Girard’s claim, the “public heart and soul of the sacred.” Determining this is a considerable challenge in these cultures, since easily interpretable primary narratives do not survive.

Although extensive archeological and anthropological research has expanded contemporary knowledge of indigenous cultures, most of the textual sources about pre-Columbian life come from the accounts of the European conquerors, missionaries, and explorers who first came into contact with these societies. These early accounts, a number of which are presented here, are clearly influenced by the assumptions and biases the Europeans brought to their observations, yet they do provide some idea of indigenous cultural beliefs and practices concerning suicide before these societies succumbed to conquest and disease. It is the records of Spanish conquistadores and priests like Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (selection #8), Hernán Cortés (selection #2), Bartolomé de Las Casas (selection #5), and Bernardino de Sahagún (selection #3), often reporting oral testimony from native informants, that constitute the vast majority of extant eyewitness accounts. Of course, it can hardly be supposed that these texts give a fully accurate account of native beliefs and practices about suicide unaffected by cultural influences from Europe; they have clearly been filtered through European eyes, especially as influenced by the Spanish Inquisition. Some—like the distortion of the indigenous understanding of the various parts of the body as having different energies into the concept of a unified soul—were comparatively modest, and some—like Diego de Landa’s account of the “goddess of the gallows,” Ixtab, who especially favored suicides by hanging (selection #10)—were, it is claimed, an outright fabrication. Yet because these accounts were filtered through a set of European religious and cultural assumptions that were quite different from those of contemporary assumptions—at that time, Western thought saw suicide primarily as crime and sin, rather than, as in modern times, the consequence of mental illness and psychopathology—it may be easier to arrive at an informative view about these cultures than modern ethnopsychology permits. Furthermore, stark reductions in the populations of the New World meant severe cultural disruption brought about by both the destruction of records and the interruption of oral traditions. The early accounts presented here, although often strongly biased and grossly exaggerated, provide in some ways the closest available access to pre-contact views, since after contact and exposure to a newly dominant group, a population will adopt new forms of explanation. Thus, these early sources provide our closest look at these cultures’ views of suicide and related practices in sacrifice. Much of what we might now describe as suicide in these cultures was not apparently viewed as problematic then, and certainly not conceptualized in the same ways.

Most of these early accounts, colored by assumptions about the superiority of the Europeans and the inferiority or savagery of the native inhabitants of the Americas, as well as about the truth of the Catholic faith and the idolatrous nature of native religion, emphasize the bizarre character of the religious and cultural practices of the peoples described, especially when those involve bloodletting, suicide, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. In contrast, a few early observers, notably Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Dominican friar and then bishop known as the “Protector of the Indians,” emphasized the cruelty of the Spanish and other European invaders. In his sympathetic Defense of the Indians (selection #5), directed against “the persecutors and slanderers of the peoples of the new world discovered across the seas,” Las Casas viewed indigenous practices like bloodletting and human sacrifice as evidence, in theological terms, of probable error resulting from genuine but misguided religiosity on the part of indigenous peoples.

The Selections


The Aztecs, or Mexica, invaded the valley of Mexico around the 13th century a.d. after the 12th- century decline of the resident Toltecs, eventually settling on an island in the western part of Lake Texcoco and establishing the twin (and often rival) cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco around 1325. The name Aztec refers to their traditional place of origin at Aztlán. The Aztecs, one of the last waves of Nahua migration from the north, like many other groups in the region, spoke a dialect of Nahuatl; Nahuatl languages are still spoken in central Mexico by about 1.5 million people. Aztec society was both militaristic and agricultural, emphasizing cycles of birth and death; their cities were built around immense ceremonial complexes of temples.

Human sacrifice, for which the Aztecs are known, predated the rise of the Aztecs and had religious importance throughout Mesoamerica. The murals of Teotihuacán, the great metropolis of the pre-Aztec Classic period, show that sacrifice of the heart was a particularly important ritual. Heart sacrifice is depicted explicitly in one Teotihuacán mural in which two coyotes are shown extracting the still-beating heart of a deer; these animal figures represent human capacities. Aztec sacrifices corresponded to important dates in the cycle of the sun calendar or to astronomical events like eclipses. Architectural structures at the Templo Mayor (now excavated and visible in Mexico City) display banks of skulls of sacrificial captives, and in one offering cache can be seen the skeletal remains of 42 children sacrificed to the rain gods. Noble women and slaves were also sacrificed, and the “flower wars” with neighboring groups were conducted for the purpose of obtaining captive warriors for sacrifice.

The Spaniard Hernán Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico on April 22, 1519. Two years later, Cortés, having won over the Tlaxcala–who were engaged in a flower war with the—as allies, stormed Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco. Although the Aztecs did keep pictorial codices, the extant records were burned twice, once by the ruling elite of Tenochtitlán and once by the Spanish missionaries eager to eliminate references to a pre-Christian past. Each time these records were destroyed, new histories arose to take their place.

Selection #1 is taken from one of these new histories, the Codex Chimalpopoca. It recounts Aztec mythology about the earlier Toltecs, the historic inhabitants of Tula whom the Aztecs revered as the ancestors of their rulers. Tolpiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, whose lifetime is dated in the Codex with a year count employing four names, Flint, House, Rabbit, Reed, and 13 numbers, at 817–895 a.d., is said to have been conceived when his mother Chimalman swallowed a piece of jade. The narrative describes Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl’s life, how he abolished human sacrifice, and was driven into exile by his rivals, including the god-sorcerer Tezcatlipoca. Quetzalcoatl is deceived by the sorcerer into drunkenness and then incest with his sister; in remorse and political weakness, still pursued by the sorcerer, Quetzalcoatl immolates himself in a sacred bonfire, his soul rising to the heavens to become Venus, the morning star.

In addition to Quetzalcoatl, Aztec religion recognized two other major deities, Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc; human sacrifice was often performed to these and lesser gods. Among the Aztecs, human blood was believed necessary to sustain and renew the world and often involved heart sacrifice. Hernán Cortes, in his first and second letters, dated July 10, 1519, and October 13, 1520, respectively (selection #2), in which he described the culture of the indigenous people whom his forces had conquered, portrays the Aztec practices of human sacrifice vividly, arguing that the repugnance of these practices justifies the imposition of Christianity, if necessary by force. Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan friar who had arrived in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1529, describes ceremonies of human sacrifice prepared for in a particularly elaborate way. Sahagún’s General History of the Things of New Spain, also called The Florentine Codex (selection #3), is regarded as a reliable source of information about Aztec culture in part because he learned the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and could interview native speakers who knew no Spanish and nothing of Spanish culture. Sahagún’s informants also replied to his questions in hieroglyphic paintings, some of which are still extant. In addition, Sahagún painstakingly cross-checked his accounts among multiple sources. In the second part of selection #3, from Book 7 of The Florentine Codex, Sahagún relates the Aztec myth of the creation of the sun and moon. Two deities, Tecuciztecatl, the privileged god, and Nanauatzin, who is poor, attempt to sacrifice themselves on a pyre so that they can become the sun of our world. Tecuciztecatl, who goes first, shrinks back from the fire four times and thus becomes only the moon; Nanauatzin lets himself burn without hesitation and instead becomes the sun. When the new sun and moon have not moved in the sky, the other gods, except one who must be forced, decide to sacrifice themselves too in order to give the sun power. However, the gods’ sacrifices are not enough, and Ecatl, the wind god, having sacrificed the other gods, must still drive the sun and moon across the sky. In the other part of selection #2, also from The Florentine Codex, Sahagún describes how youths were chosen to be sacrificed to the god Tezcatlipoca in annual festivities occurring in the spring month Tóxcatl: a young man with an unblemished body was prepared for sacrifice for a year before the festival and worshipped as the image of the god before his ultimate death, climaxing in removal of the heart and subsequent decapitation at the summit of the temple steps.

Human sacrifice did not always involve individual attention: in some ceremonies, war prisoners were ritually sacrificed, singly or by the thousands; it is claimed that somewhere between 10,000 and 80,400 persons were sacrificed at the inauguration of the great temple, the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, in the year 1487 a.d., only a few decades before the arrival of the Spanish.

To varying degrees, victims of the various forms of sacrifice were unwilling, willing, or eager to play this role. Central to Aztec belief was the notion of indebtedness, the belief that because the gods had sacrificed themselves in creating the earth and the human beings who inhabited it, human beings were obligated to repay the debt by sacrificing themselves in return. Offerings of incense, food, flowers, animals, tobacco, and so on were made to the gods, but it was human blood that nourished them—especially the sun—and would enable the sun, rain, processes of growth, and other natural forces to continue to support human beings. Self-sacrifice, thus, was a sort of exchange, the repayment of the created being’s great debt, and was rewarded by going to live with the Sun, the Moon, or other deities in their diurnal courses or other natural processes. Thus, to sacrifice oneself or be sacrificed was a privilege, not a penalty. Many of those sacrificed are said to have gone to their deaths without fear, knowing they would live again with these gods—but others had to be dragged to the places of sacrifice.

Suicide could also be seen as preferable to being killed. In his Monarchia Indiana (selection #4), Juan de Torquemada (c. 1557–1624), a friar and respected recorder of Aztec history, reports that the third king of Tenochtitlan, Chimalpopoca, having been defeated by his relative, the Emperor Maxtla, first attempted to sacrifice himself and finally hanged himself to escape the indignity of death by starvation in a cage, thus achieving victory in death.

Of particular interest is Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Defense of the Indians (selection #5), in that he attempts to employ Catholic theology with its emphasis on the centrality of sacrifice to God to examine human sacrifice as evidence of the religious devotion, rather than depravity, of the indigenous peoples. “The greatest way to worship God is to offer him sacrifice,” he writes, “every man owes God more than his life.” Las Casas says he understands indigenous practices in this way, even if they are misguided in the gods to whom they are addressed. They are not grounds for waging war against these peoples.


The religious overtones present in most Mesoamerican accounts of suicide are even more explicit in the European depictions of Maya civilization. The Preclassic or Formative Period of Maya civilization began in the third millennium b.c. and lasted to approximately 300 a.d., eventually giving way to the Maya Classic Period, c. 320–909 a.d., a time characterized by the formation of distinctive scientific and cultural achievements, including an extraordinarily sophisticated calendar and system of astronomical prediction. At its height, the domain of the Mayan groups extended throughout southern Mexico, the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and western portions of El Salvador and Honduras. As among the Aztec, death-producing practices were numerous. Mayan stelae at ritual centers like Toniná, for instance, show the sacrifice of defeated kings and war captives; glyphs at Yaxchilán depict decapitation and autosacrifice; and murals at Bonampak show the capture and torture of captives for sacrifice. Reliefs of the ball court at Chichen Itza show players being sacrificed; it is thought that these were the defeated players, although some sources claim they were the winning players. Vase paintings at Palenque also illustrate human sacrifice. Ritual objects for sacrifice recovered in excavations include highly decorated knives and special bowls for holding just-extracted human hearts. As Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller have argued, while in recent history, the Maya were assumed to be nonviolent in comparison to the Aztecs, in fact, war and human sacrifice were central to Mayan religion and culture throughout the Classic period.

Mayan religion identified its gods with the natural world, especially forces that affected agriculture. According to the Popol Vuh creation myth (selection #6), dictated in K’iche’ Mayan to Dominican friars in Guatemala between 1554 and 1558, and later rediscovered and translated into Spanish by Francisco Ximénez, the gods fashioned human beings from maize dough so that humans could worship and sustain them. The Mayan universe was divided into several parts: the heavens, containing 14 layers, of which the earth was the lowest, and the underworld, which consisted of nine layers. The Maya were also said to believe in the immortality of the human soul, though this may not have been a unified concept but rather one shaped by European interpreters. As among the Aztecs, the sacrifice of human blood was seen by the Maya as necessary for the sustenance of cosmic order; indeed, as Schele and Miller put it, “the very existence of the universe depended upon the willingness of human beings to sustain the gods with their blood offerings.” Human blood, the nourishment of the gods, was essential to keep the sun in its course and to prevent it from sinking below the world forever. Bloodletting rituals also formed an important part of Mayan culture, involving piercing of the tongue, earlobes, and genitals, as a public institution and means of gaining public merit and respect. The bloodletting ritual “was basic to the institution of rulership.”

The sun and moon are sacrifices themselves in Mayan mythology. The second part of the Popol Vuh (selection #6) tells the story of how, before the successful creation of humans, the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque became the sun and moon of our world. Having willingly sacrificed themselves in Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, the twins come back to life with the ability to kill and resurrect themselves and others. Returning to Xibalba, the twins demonstrate their powers and convince the Xibalban lords to kill themselves, but they do not bring them back to life. With Xibalba defeated, the twins rise into the sky where they appear as the sun and moon. In another passage from the third part of the Popol Vuh, the god of fire demands that human sacrifice, including heart sacrifice, must be paid to him in exchange for the gift of fire to the community.

Diego de Landa (1524–79), a zealous Catholic Spaniard who spent most of his life in the Yucatan, claimed that Mayan belief held that wrongdoers would suffer intensely in the lowest hell, called Mitnal, while those who committed suicide by hanging, along with other good people—warriors killed in battle and women dying in childbirth—would enjoy a heavenly bliss. Suicides would be watched over by the goddess Ixtab, who, among her other roles, served as the goddess of suicide and the gallows. De Landa’s Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, from which this text is taken (selection #7), provides the fullest account of the ancient Maya to have survived the early colonial period and may provide particularly direct evidence of pre-contact Yucatec beliefs, though whether it is reliable is not clear: De Landa was known for his use of torture in interrogating native subjects (“nothing can be extracted from an Indian without torture,” he said), and some scholars suggest that the Relación was written to form part of his defense in an investigation of his inquisitorial activities—hence its purpose of describing idolatrous practices among the Indians. Indeed, some contemporary scholars argue that his account of Ixtab is a fabrication designed to serve his own zealous agenda.

A figure said to be the goddess Ixtab is shown in the eclipse tables of the Dresden Codex hanging from the sky with a noose around her neck; her eyes are closed, and black circles, a sign of decomposition, appear on her cheeks. If Mayan belief recognized a goddess of suicide favorable to those who killed themselves by hanging, it might in part explain the frequency of suicidal behavior observed by the Spanish invaders. Diego López de Cogolludo (1613–65), for example, said of a man who had committed suicide that “. . . the arrogance of this Indian was such, that being so badly wounded, to avoid its being said he died at the hands of that Spaniard, he went away and in the presence of his own people he hanged himself with a liana. . . .”

Caribbean Peoples

According to early chronicles presented in the next three selections, suicide was also practiced in individual and group forms in the islands of the Caribbean, especially those now known as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti/Dominican Republic. Gonzalo Fernándo de Oviedo (1478–1557), whom some commentators have called a “man of balanced judgment,” includes examples of suicide in his Natural Historia de las Indias (1526), the first official history of the western hemisphere (selection #8). Oviedo writes that “in some of the islands” where poisonous yucca grows (“San Juan [Puerto Rico], Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola”), it was said that group suicide often occurred at the death of a chief or principal lord by means of yucca juice. According to Oviedo, those who had served the chief believed that dying with him would provide a passage to serving the master in a heavenly afterlife; if, however, the servants chose to die naturally or by some other cause, their spirits would not be granted any sort of afterlife at all.

The native inhabitants of Hispaniola were said not only to commit suicide to gain rewards in the afterlife, but also to kill themselves in order to avoid suffering in this life. López de Gómara (1511–66), a chaplain to Hernán Cortés and early historian (who never himself visited the New World), reports in La Historia General de las Indias (1552), that the native American population resorted to suicide to escape Spanish domination (selection #9). In selection #10, Girolamo Benzoni (1519–70), an Italian who combined the reports of Martire de D’Anghiera, Oviedo, and others with his own observations in the Caribbean, Central America, and Peru, insists that the native inhabitants aborted their children and killed themselves in various ways—including hanging themselves by their own hair—to avoid Spanish religion and government. Benzoni’s account has been widely repeated by those emphasizing the cruelty of the Spanish.


The Incas were originally a tribe of primarily Quechua-speaking native Americans who lived in the central Andean highlands, an area near and around modern-day Peru. In the 15th century a.d., the Incas moved into social and cultural prominence by assimilating or conquering the inhabitants of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, western Argentina, southern Columbia, and northern Chile, thus assuming control over an estimated 10 million indigenous people. Just a few decades later, they themselves succumbed to a tiny Spanish force led by the ruthless Spaniard Francisco Pizarro and to the ravages of European-introduced disease. At the height of the Inca empire, officials used a decimal system of reckoning to make census counts, keeping their records on quipus, knotted strings (a system still used by indigenous peoples in the highlands in keeping counts of their sheep and llamas), and exercised rigid control over both male and female commoners in agricultural, laboring, and military service. Although most women were allowed to marry and lead ordinary domestic lives, some—those of particular beauty and health—were chosen as young girls to undergo special training and were either assigned to the temple of the sun, given to nobles as secondary wives, or sacrificed on ritual occasions.

Several early accounts of Inca practices involve ritual funeral suicide. In the first of these selections (selection #11), Pedro de Cieza de León (1520–54) describes the manner in which, when a man was entombed, his favorite wives, his servants, his property, and a “great quantity” of food and drink were also buried with him. While it is not clear whether the deaths of the wives and servants are to be described as voluntary—they were clearly heavily socially controlled—Cieza de León also reports that some women, fearing they would not find a place in the tomb with the wives who were buried alive, hanged themselves by their own hair. In selection #12, Joseph de Acosta describes the funeral of the great Inca emperor Huyana Capac, the father of Atahualpa, at the time the Spaniards conquered the Incas: at this funeral, more than a thousand people were put to death in order to be buried with the dead ruler. “. . . [T]‌hese that were appointed to death,” says de Acosta, “held themselves happy.” As with the Aztec and Maya, this description suggests a death-producing practice short of self-initiated suicide, but involving willing subjection to death. In the final selection, #13, yet another Jesuit, Joseph de Arriaga, describes a case of suicide in a way that reveals the tensions between Inca and Spanish culture: the Incas, he says, hold those who hang themselves as “more than human,” for which reason, he speculates, they commit suicide so easily; but the Spanish regard suicide as a shameful act and attempt to discourage it by burning the corpse of a victim as an example.

It can hardly be supposed that accounts of pre-contact native beliefs and practices in Central and South America made by European soldiers and missionaries are not shaped by these invaders’ antecedent views about suicide, but these accounts do suggest that Europeans encountered strikingly different attitudes about suicide in the New World.

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