Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture

The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that spoke Nahuatl and dominated large parts of central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Many people in Mexico today can claim to be descendants of Aztecs and their capital city of Tenochtitlan is now modern-day Mexico City. The Aztecs had an advanced society and a rich culture, but it is their brutal tradition of human sacrifice that many remember today. Here are just a few startling facts showing how the Aztecs were so much more than just sacrifices.

Aztec ball court.

They Had Celebrity Athletes

The Aztecs played a ballgame that was popular with Mesoamerican cultures which they called ullamaliztli. The game was played on a large narrow ballcourt with slanted sides. At the top of each side wall was a vertical hoop that the players would bounce a rubber ball through in order to score a point. Players could only use their hips to hit the ball, though some versions may have allowed for elbows or knees.

The game had religious significance for the Aztecs, and the largest ballcourt in the capital of Tenochtitlan was even called Teotlachco (the holy ballcourt). The game represented the battle of the sun god Huitzilopochtli against the forces of night led by the moon goddess and the stars. The game was also played for fun and not just as ritual, and while it may have been enjoyed by children, it was mostly a pastime of the nobles.

Children were taught how to play the sport while in school and just like today, if a child showed skill in the sport they could become famous enough to play the sport professionally. Successful players would travel to different city wards where they would play for large crowds. The crowds would participate with heavy betting in order to try and make money through the skill of their favorite ballplayers. A ballplayer that frequently won would find themselves something of a celebrity in the towns that they visited.

The sport was so prized and so popular that citizens would do just about anything to be able to bet on it. When Spanish chronicler Diego Duran visited the Aztec cities he was shocked to see that people were willing to sell their own children in order to have money to bet. If they were without children, a person might stake their own life, becoming a slave if they lost a bet. In 1528, Cortes even sent a team of ballplayers to Spain to perform for Charles V, where the Europeans became fascinated with the bouncing rubber balls.

  • usc440

    interesting….the Aztecs had it going on….. they concord other Indian tribes; raped enslaved them…but they had their own written language….i think the only indian tribe that did…..

    • Tundramoss

      Never heard of the Maya?

      • Lazybum

        ^ history trash talking LOL. Bet you get up behind other nerds in the hallway and push their books out of their hands!

  • John Conolley

    A couple more interesting facts:
    The Aztecs didn’t call themselves that. That’s a modern name based on the Uto-aztecan language group. They called themselves a couple of names, but the one that lives is Mexica, pronounce, roughly, may-SHEEK-ah.
    The Aztecs were hounded from place to place for ages because they were thieving, woman-stealing, human sacrificing trash that no one wanted around. They eventually teamed up with a military culture against a third culture and came to power that way. You can find the details in _Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico_, by T.R. Fehrenbach. The most interesting history I’ve ever read.

    • Gary Hoffman

      Thanks for the book recommendation.

  • Addison

    The part about them sacrificing their own children – and then eating the remains – is my fave part! Would LOVE to see that happen today along with the subsequent reaction from today’s helicopter parents!

  • melvin boyce

    You did not want to be on the losing team.

  • ripov

    let some white person put on something aztec looking and some dingbat will start screaming ‘cultural appropriation!’. nevermind the child sacrificing, though.