To be the victim was an honour. To have your heart cut out and lifted to the skies was your gift to the sun. To have your blood poured out onto the gladiatorial stone meant access to the paradise of the House of the Sun. Courage and integrity belong to the one who is ready when death calls. Honour is bestowed on he who does not falter in fear but desires the knife of demise and savours the scent of death.
What Have They Done With God?
An interesting and revealing question in cultural studies is to ask: What has the culture done with God? Have they replaced him with their own desire of who God should be? Have they equated him with his creation? Have they sent him to the far side of the mountain and forgotten him? I was asking these sorts of questions as I read about the ancient Aztec culture which thrived in México for approximately two-hundred years prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The most dramatic of all their rituals took place on the second day of the Feast of the Flaying of Men. On this day the greatest of the war captives were flayed in brutal fashion. But this ritual was not simply the bloody outworking of a savage culture.
War as a Performance Test
It is important to note the role of war in Aztec culture. War was the ultimate test of performance — a performance which was measured in the quantity and quality of live captives taken from battle and which moved you up and down the ladder of hierarchy. The point of a battle was not to kill your opponent but to capture him alive and to later offer him as a live ritual sacrifice.
On the Gladitorial Stone
So it was that on the second day of the Feast of the Flaying of Men the captives of the highest rank were given the chance to die the death of an honoured warrior. Being stripped down to a loincloth, they were tethered onto stones and armed with a feather-studded club and throwing-sticks. Vastly outmatched, they were made to fight the Aztec warrior elites. The captives were expected to put up a fight and simply surrendering was shameful. Death was inevitable, but the means of death was not.
Once the captive had been completely conquered, a priest would cut open his chest, remove the heart and lift it to the sun as a gift. A hollow cane was inserted in the chest and, filled with blood, was lifted to the sky for the sun to drink. Later the broken body of the captive was flayed, dismembered and feasted on by the captors family. And so continued the cycle of life and death.
Exchanging the Glory of God…
So returning to the earlier question: What have the Aztecs done with God?
- The Aztecs corrupted God’s truth about blood sacrifice. God instructs us in the book of Leviticus that the life of a creature is in its blood and that it is the lifeblood that makes atonement. The shed blood of Jesus washes the stain of sin and pays the ransom so that we might be forgiven and free. The Aztecs took this truth and twisted it into something horrific. In their creation myth, blood has creative efficacy and is absolutely essential to life. They believed that the sun only came to move across the sky when the gods spilled their blood and that the sun continues to move only so far as humans offer their blood to it. This is why the heart of the captive was offered up to the sky and why his blood was given as a drink to the sun. The gods demanded human sacrifices to satisfy their own thirst. In contrast, God demanded blood for the sake of justice and when precious, costly blood could not be found to pay for sin, God offered his own.
- The Aztecs corrupted God’s truth about Man. God clearly teaches us that man and woman are uniquely created to bear the image of God and to have dominion over creation. In God’s eyes, humans do not have equal value as the rest of creation, they are far more precious. The Aztecs saw all of earthly creation as one category. Man was just one part of the natural order of the world. Eating a kernel of corn was similar to eating a morsel of human flesh. Blood was equated with flowing water and the warmth of the human heart with the sun. At the end of his after-life journey, man dissolved into nothingness. The Aztecs blurred the lines between man and his environment and in doing so failed to recognize God’s unique purpose for his image-bearers.
- The Aztecs corrupted God’s truth about his “nearness”. When God creates Adam and Eve he enters into a personal relationship with them. He walks and talks with them and gives them instruction for how to live in the world he created. For the Aztecs, there was nothing personal about the relationship between man and the gods. In a sense, “the gods” refer to the great natural forces that remained largely unexplained for them. These powers had, for the most part, no direct, personal engagement with humans. The Aztecs strived to maintain harmony with the natural forces of their world and the wise person accepted their place within the complex cycles of life. This meant that when death came calling by way of the gladiatorial stone, the most sensible thing to do was to play one’s role and do it with courage. The gods were not greatly interested in intervening in such affairs. Again, in contrast, the God revealed in Scripture is deeply involved with his creation. The most significant evidence being Jesus Christ who is our Immanuel, that is, “God with us.” Our God does not leave us to find our way through the labyrinth of life or abandon us helpless in a bloody mess of our own making, but he steps in and reverses the course of history at a deeply personal, and costly, expense.