Cultures & Traditions

Mesoamerican Sacrifice and Bloodletting (Autosacrifice)

Sacrifice and bloodletting were essential ritual events that served various ideological and cultural functions within Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the Maya. Human sacrifice usually involved the taking of captives during warfare for the purpose of sacrifice or bloodletting. Bloodletting was the ritual autosacrifice or puncturing of a part of the body (either oneself or another person), generally the tongue or cheek for women and the penis for men, often collecting the blood on paper which was then burned as an offering to the gods. Piercing was done with sharp objects such as obsidian blades or stingray spines, and there are representations in Maya art of a rope with thorns being pulled through the tongue or earlobes. For elites, both bloodletting and sacrifice (and in turn the taking of captives) were necessary to maintain balance within the supernatural world and the sociopolitical structure, and was essential in order to legitimize rulership and elite positions of power.

Adapted from

Mary Ellen Miller and Megan E. O'Neil, Maya art and architecture, 2nd edition (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014): 30, 152-154, 245.

Related Multimedia

Late night lecture; in conjunction with Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, February 12- May 7, 2006; DMA Collection 2005.26 Cylindrical vessel with sacrificial scene