- Codex Chimalpopoca (1570)
The Death of Quetzalcoatl
- Letters from Mexico
(Hernán Cortés, 1519-20)
- 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)
- Monarchia Indiana
Chimalpopoca’s Victory in Death
(Juan de Torquemada, 1609-15)
- In Defense of the Indians
The Significance of Human Sacrifice
(Bartolomé de Las Casas, 1548-1550)
- 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)
- An Account of the Affairs of Yucatán
Ixtab: Goddess of the Gallows
(Diego de Landa, c. 1570)
- Natural History of the West Indies
Suicide on the Death of the Chief
(Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, 1526)
- La Historia General de las Indias
Suicide, Smallpox, and the Arrival of the Spaniards
(Francisco López de Gómara, 1552)
- History of the New World
Suffering at the Hands of the Spaniards
(Girolamo Benzoni, 1565)
- The Incas
The Burial of Wives
(Pedro de Cieza de León, 1553)
- Natural & Moral History of the Indies
Of Superstitions They Used to the Dead
(José de Acosta, 1589)
- 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 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. . . .”
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.