Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement

Aztec Religion
Lesson 2
Academic Standards
Philanthropy Framework


In this lesson, the students read about some of the religious practices of the Aztec Empire and discuss the practice of human sacrifice to appease the gods. Students discuss the concept of sacrifice for the common good and debate how far we go in sacrificing for the common good.


One Fifty-Minute Class Period


The learner will:

  • read about Aztec gods and religious practices.

  • explain how human sacrifice came to be required and acceptable.

  • relate Aztec sacrifice to sacrifice in other contexts.

  • explore opportunity costs of doing things for the common good.

Service Experience:

Although this lesson contains a service project example, decisions about service plans and implementation should be made by students, as age appropriate.
Learn more about the stages of service-learning.

None for this lesson.


  • Reference books about Aztec civilization and religion (see Bibliographical References)

Instructional Procedure(s):

Anticipatory Set:

Many ancient civilizations and religions practiced some form of human or animal sacrifice to appease the gods and ensure prosperity. Even today, some cultures practice ritual sacrifice of bits of food or crops to ensure continued abundance. However, no one practiced human sacrifice to the degree of the Aztecs in their devotion to appeasing the gods. The Aztecs didn’t always practice human sacrifice. Sometime around 1450, the growing Aztec empire was experiencing severe drought that lasted for four years and destroyed their valuable corn crops. The Aztec priests encouraged the people to sacrifice blood to the gods to regain their favor. In desperation, the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people in a few weeks. By awful coincidence the rain came and restored the corn crops. With this powerful evidence, what do you think the Aztec leaders learned? Soon the practice of human sacrifice became a necessary ritual to maintain the lifestyle they built. This leads us to wonder how far we should go to sacrifice for the common good.

  • Read from texts about the different gods and religious practices of the Aztecs. The teacher may read aloud parts of texts or small groups may read together to gain understanding of the Aztec religious structure. Write these guiding questions on an overhead projector: How are religion and government linked in Aztec society? Who are some of the major gods and what do they represent? Why are some gods feared and some loved? Why is war such a major part of their culture? How do they view life after death? What Aztec stories sound like stories from other religions?

  • Start a group discussion about the nature of sacrifice. In what other cultures was sacrifice of humans prevalent? Students may bring up religious wars, Spanish Inquisition, Biblical sacrifice, Kamikazes and individual sacrifice for a cause. What is the purpose behind these sacrifices of humans and did they always have the common good as the ultimate goal? How are these examples the same and different from the Aztec sacrifices?

  • Discuss how far a community might go in sacrificing for the common good. What is the relationship between individual rights and community responsibility in this case? Were these people denied individual rights? From our own perspectives: would their actions be justified in context?

  • Brainstorm a list of characteristics and motivations of someone who helps the community. Discuss whether these characteristics describe the sacrifices to the Aztec gods. Was their practice of human sacrifice an example of giving for the common good? Points to include in discussion: The Aztecs used mostly captives for their sacrifices. Victims were promised a place of highest honor in the after-life. They treated victims kindly with food, drink and a medication to help them relax before the sacrifice.


Assess students’ understanding of the religious practices of the Aztecs by observing their contributions to discussions. After the discussions, have each student write a brief essay about the Aztec religion and sacrifice for the common good. Essays should include the following topics:

    1. Aztec gods and what they did

    2. Importance of sacrifice to Aztecs

    3. Examples of sacrifice done for the common good

    4. Opinion

School/Home Connection:

  • Interactive Parent / Student Homework:
    None for this lesson

Cross-Curriculum Extensions:

There is a lesson here about the lack of understanding and tolerance. Cortes’ people came in and called the Aztecs barbarians. Without trying to understand their ways, Cortez’ people destroyed them. Ironically, the Spanish Inquisition was a large part of many of the Spanish soldiers’ experiences. They saw the sacrifice of many “sinners” in their religious practice. Although the Aztecs are sometimes viewed as a violent group, they had a rich culture and successful civilization. If the Spanish had been more open-minded and tolerant of diverse cultures, would the Aztec culture have evolved and survived?

Bibliographical References:

  • Macdonald, Fiona. You Wouldn’t Want to be an Aztec Sacrifice! Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 2003. ISBN: 0531146022

  • Stein, R. Conrad. The Aztec Empire. New York: Benchmark Books, 1996. ISBN: 0761400729

Lesson Developed By:

Cheryl Carr
Bridgman Public Schools
Reed Middle School
Bridgman, MI 49106


Philanthropy Framework:


Lisa, Teacher – Indianapolis, IN10/27/2007 8:07:50 PM

(The positive aspects about using this lesson was) students were able to expand their knowledge on Aztec religion that they studied in Social Studies.

Angee, Teacher – Brownsburg, IN10/27/2007 8:09:13 PM

The books - Aztec News section on religion was super. The classes loved You Wouldn't Want to Be an Aztec Sacrifice.

Kim, Teacher – Indianapolis, IN10/27/2007 8:10:52 PM

(The positive aspects about using this lesson was) to have students think about the word "sacrifice" and relate it to our practice of it today vs. the Aztecs. It's good to have them try to be open-minded about other cultures and not judge them on their beliefs and practices.

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Unit Contents:

Overview:Common Good in Aztec Culture Summary


Aztec Culture
Aztec Religion
What Is Sacrifice?

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