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Part Two: It’s Time! Human Sacrifice at Chichen Itza!

As promised in Part One of my Chichen Itza posts, it’s time to discuss human sacrifices because, really, who doesn’t like a good sacrifice between friends?

As mentioned earlier, the Mayans performed human sacrifices at the cenote water pool and atop the Kukulcán pyramid. The humans on the receiving end were sometimes captured enemies, but were just as often the Mayan people themselves.

The enemy thing is pretty easy to figure out. Best way to get rid of your enemy is to kill them off. There’s usually no returning from that.

Kukulcán pyramid with the Temple of the Warriors a short distance in background.
As a point of reference, Kukulcán pyramid with the Temple of the Warriors in background. The Ball Court, not pictured, would be to our left and rear, the tzompantli would be almost directly to the left of the pyramid, out of the photo. **

The sacrifices celebrated the Mayan’s victory over their enemy as well as praising the gods and appealing to them for strength in future battles.

For the Mayan people on the other hand, being sacrificed was the highest honor, placing them next to god, providing them entry into the richest of lands and honoring their family.

Remember too, a commoner’s life a thousand years or more ago was far from easy. This was in very hot Mexico after all, before there was electricity for air conditioning units.

The idea of an everlasting life with the gods had to seem more than a little appealing.

The skulls of the sacrificed were displayed in public view on a tzompantli. One of the oldest known tzompantlis is at Chichen Itza, directly across from the Kukulcán pyramid.

Corner of the tzompantli, about four feet high with carvings of skulls lined up, side by side.
The Tzompantli of Chichen where the skulls of human sacrifices were displayed. **

Tzompantlis are a stone, or sometimes wooden, structure. The skulls of victims were displayed on top of the structure, tied to horizontal poles, or slid onto the poles themselves.

Yes, that is skulls, plural. Human sacrifices were fairly common so it would not be unusual to have a number of skulls displayed at the same time.

The Tzompantli of Chichen, also referred to as the Platform of the Skulls, is a rectangular stone platform, 197 feet long and 39 feet wide. The exterior is adorned with four rows of engraved skulls.

It is believed by some that the skulls portray those of real human sacrifices, further adding to the immortality of the sacrificed.

Additional carvings on the platform include a scene depicting a human sacrifice, eagles eating human hearts, and skeleton warriors with arrows and shields.

Now, I’m sure you’re asking, how were these sacrifices performed? Ok, maybe not everyone reading this is asking that but, come on, admit it, you know you’re curious.

Information sign that says: This function of this platform was to exhibit the skulls of enemies and sacrificed prisoners. Unlike the racks in Central High Plains, this platform displays the skulls inserted in a vertical fashion, one above the other.
Information sign at the Tzompantli of Chichen. **

Many sacrifices were pretty much straightforward decapitations, quick, easy and relatively painless.

Most were not.

For the others, a priest, dressed entirely in black, relied upon elderly assistants called Chacs, named after the god of rain.

Sidenote: This relates back to Part One where we talk about the meaning of Itza; the Water Sorcerers. Water references were such a huge part of the Mayan religion, in no small part, because of water’s importance in growing their crops and thus keeping them alive.

Anyway, I digress. The Chacs held the sacrificee, often painted blue, down, while the priest commenced to cutting out their heart with a knife. Far less quick, easy and painless than decapitation.

Gives a whole new meaning to the Bryan Adams song.

The heart was then held aloft for all to view or, sometimes, placed on the Chaac Mol at the Temple of the Warriors. (Also covered in Part One.)

We ain’t done talking about sacrifices quite yet…

The Ball Game

Love for ball games of one kind or another far precedes our football, basketball and baseball games of today.

The Mayans enjoyed a game similar to modern day soccer with some key differences:

  • Balls were made of relatively hard rubber and varied in size, there was no official rule book back in those days, from the size of a softball to that of a soccer ball. They weighed anywhere from six to 11 pounds. So large and hard that some contestants died from being struck in the chest or stomach.

  • Players were not allowed to use their hands or feet. They could only use their hips, thighs and, probably, their elbows.

  • The goal was a small stone ring attached to the side of a tall wall, roughly 25 feet above the ground.

  • The object of the game was to hit the ball through the hole in the ring, not much larger than the ball itself.

  • Most importantly, at the conclusion of the game, someone, or someones, were sacrificed.

You’ve heard of duels to the death? This was the real thing.

Tall, wide, stone walls with large space, filled with tourists, between.
The ball court at Chichen Itza. You can spot the goals (rings) near the top of both walls, about halfway down. **

There’s a lot of debate on just who was sacrificed. Some believe it was a whole team, while others say it was just the captain.

The really interesting part is the who.

According to our tour guide, and a fair share of others, the winning captain was sacrificed. That whole honoring the gods thing again.

The heck with those gold medals around my neck, just chop it off. Or, perhaps, that’s the true definition of putting your heart into it.

Many scholars, on the other hand, say it was the captain of the losing team who got the knife.

No one knows for sure. The only thing they don’t disagree on, someone was sacrificed.

Tall Mayan stone wall, with a ledge where viewers would have sate to watch game.
The wall at the end of the ball court was a shady spot for tour groups to hang out while listening to their guides. The Mayan rulers would have sat on the ledge to watch the game.**

As with just about everything at Chichen Itza, the ball court is one of the biggest known to exist. It’s 225 feet wide and 545 feet long. (For comparison, a football field is 160 feet wide and 360 feet long, counting the endzones.)

Interesting little sidenote, you can whisper from one end of the field and be heard clearly at the opposite end. Sound waves are unaffected by the wind direction or time of day.

Experts have tried to figure out how that’s possible, hoping to replicate the acoustics in theaters and auditoriums, but no one has ever been able to do so.

Other Chichen Itza Features

That concludes our discussion of human sacrifice. I know, you’re saddened.

There is a lot more ground, literally, to cover at the site. Here’s a few more photos with links to additional information, for just some of it:

The Temple of the Jaguar, above, is at the end of one of the ball court walls.

Platform of Eagles and Jaguar with scaffolding and a worker beside it.
Platform of Eagles and Jaguar. **

Preservation is ongoing at Chichen Itza.

At the Platform of Eagles and Jaguar. The platform was used for religious and ceremonial purposes, especially displays of military superiority.

Wide, low, stone platform with steps on each side.
Chichen Itza Venus Platform **

The Venus Platform was originally painted in ochre, blue, red, green, and black. Visitors can still see some of the paint within the carvings.

The platform was also used for ceremonial purposes, Though, in this case, more for dances and celebrations not of a military or human sacrifice nature.


**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address,, or a link back to this page.


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