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Understanding Aztec Cannibalism

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This essay seeks to examine the problem of explaining religious phenomena which appear very strange by focusing on a specific example, the Aztec complex of human sacrifice and cannibalism which reached its greatest intensity in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Three scholarly approaches to this complex are described and evaluated in regard to explanatory power and evidential support: (1) an approach which explicates the Aztecs' own mythic self-understanding (historically likely but lacking much explanatory value); (2) an approach which tries to identify conscious and rational policy choices on the part of Aztec leaders (less likely but with greater explanatory power); (3) a materialist approach emphasizing ecological factors that sustained human sacrifice and cannibalism (poorly supported by evidence but with substantial explanatory power).

Though each of these explanatory strategies achieves some success, our puzzlement about Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism persists. These efforts to make Aztec beliefs and practices appear coherent or rational do not keep them from being an affront to our notions of what it is to be human or overcome our surprise at horrendous violence inflicted without apparent hatred of the victims. There remains little danger that we shall explain away either Aztec violence or any other religious phenomenon.


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