Royal blood-letting rituals
The empires of the Americas are notorious for practicing human sacrifice, but what is less well known is that the rulers also practices a form of sacrifice on themselves. They cut themselves using sharp objects such obsidian, stingray spines or shark’s teeth. Any soft part of the body could be cut, but it was usually the tongue or the genitals. The scattered blood was then collected on paper made from bark and burned. The smoke conveyed the message to the gods.
Blood, to the Mayans, was the very force of life and in the beginning of time the gods had sacrificed their own blood in order for the world to come into being. Ever since humans have owed blood to the gods and the sacrifices were a way to repay this debt. Interestingly, the best blood was that of noblemen and the noblemen of the enemies were for that reason a prized catch in wars. The Maya would even maintain “farms” of noblemen who could be sacrificed on ceremonial occasions.
Anyone who claimed political authority would have to go through these ceremonies, and this included the kings and members of the royal family. A particularly gruesome scene from a Maya relief shows a queen with her tongue pierced. Through the hole a thread with thorns was then pulled. The agony must have been perfectly mind-altering. And that, indeed, seems to have been the point. The pain that the royals suffered put them in contact with transcendental realms and made clear to everyone else that they possessed unique spiritual powers. The bloodletting rituals were commonly performed when the ruler asked ordinary people to make sacrifices, such as when going to war. To make the point as effectively as possible, self-harm was performed in front of large gatherings of people – in a plaza or on the top of a pyramid. That the leaders of a country had to sacrifice themselves in these tangible ways surely meant that they were far more careful in embarking on risky ventures. If today’s political leaders were required to mutilate their genitals in public before declaring war, far fewer wars would surely be declared.
History of the World in 100 Objects, “Maya relief of royal blood-letting”