Xipe Totec: This Gory God Shows the Unique Way Aztecs Viewed Fertility and Renewal
‘Our Lord the Flayed One’ – following this god’s choice of attire, human skin - Xipe Totec would have been a terrifying sight. But this was an extremely important deity in the Mesoamerican pantheon, in particular for the Aztecs (no surprise given their notoriety for human sacrifice) and the Toltecs.
Despite its appearance, it may surprise you to know that Xipe Totec was a god of spring, agricultural renewal, and fertility. This was also the patron god of metal workers, especially goldsmiths, gemstone workers, as well as a curer of illnesses, particularly those affecting the eyes.
A drawing of Xipe Totec, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgia. ( Public Domain )
Xipe Totec, God to Many Cultures
Xipe Totec was a deity found in various Mesoamerican cultures, albeit known by different names. It has been speculated that this god has its origins in either the Olmec or the Yope culture. Xipe Totec rose to prominence in the Aztec pantheon, and was also worshipped by such cultures as the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and Toltecs. Xipe Totec is believed to be the son of Ometeotl (meaning ‘Two Gods’), a primordial god who was both male and female. The Aztecs expanded on this by stating that Xipe Totec was the brother of Tezcatlipoca, Huizilopochtli, and Quetzalcoatl, all of whom were also worshipped by them as important gods.
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Flayed skin = Renewal/New Life?
Xipe Totec is the Aztec name of this deity, and it may be translated literally to mean ‘Our Lord the Flayed One’ - an indication of one of the god’s major attributes. The Aztecs believed that Xipe Totec wore the skin of a human victim. This was supposed to symbolize the old layer of skin that was to be shed, so that renewal of the earth may occur. Additionally, the shedding of the skin is also meant to symbolize the shedding of the external seed covering of maize. This occurs when the seeds are ready to germinate, and therefore is once again a sign of new life.
An alternate depiction of the god Xipe Totec. ( CC BY 3.0 )
Aztec Sacrifices to Appease Xipe Totec
Due to this peculiar characteristic of Xipe Totec, rituals revolving around this god have the flayed skin as an important element. As an example, during Tlacaxipehualiztli (meaning the ‘Flaying of Men’), which is the second ritual month in the Aztec calendar, the priests of Xipe Totec would offer human sacrifices to appease the god, as well as to ensure that they would have a good harvest that year.
These sacrificial victims, usually war captives, would typically be killed by having their hearts removed. Their skins would then be peeled off, dyed yellow, and worn by the priests, which transformed them into the ‘living image’ of the god. Incidentally, these dyed skins were known as ‘teocuitlaquemitl’, which meant ‘golden clothes’.
Another type of sacrifice offered to Xipe Totec involved tying a victim to a frame and firing arrows at him. The blood, which dripped down, was meant to symbolize the spring rains that fertilized the earth.
Yet another ritual activity associated with Xipe Totec is the so-called ‘gladiator sacrifice’. This was reserved for captives who displayed the most courage on the field of battle. The victims were bound up on a circular platform and forced to fight either an eagle or a jaguar warrior - the elite troops of the Aztec Empire. Whilst the Aztec warrior was fully armed, his opponent was not.
Although the latter was given a macuauhuitl, a wooden club with obsidian blades, to defend himself, the blades of the sword were replaced with feathers, rendering it pretty much useless as a weapon. Despite being a ‘battle’ between two warriors, the result was a foregone conclusion, and therefore may be called an elaborate form of sacrifice.
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‘The Fight Between the Sacrifice and He Who Sacrifices’ by Juan de Tovar, circa 1546-1626. ( Public Domain )
Images of the Deity
Many representations of Xipe Totec have survived till today, as he was a popular subject in various artistic media, including figurines, portraits, and masks. The god is easily recognized, as he is normally depicted as being completely covered in the skin of one of his sacrificial victims. A gaping mouth and crescent-shaped eyes are tell-tale signs of the skin being worn by Xipe Totec.
In statues or portraits of the god, more gory details may be shown as well. These include the hands of the flayed skin, which are draped over the hands of the god, the incision where the victim’s heart was removed, and the string at the back of the victim’s body, which served to sew the skin up. Such representations of Xipe Totec may today be seen in various museums across the world.
Xipe Totec mask. ( Public Domain )
By Wu Mingren
Art Institute Chicago, 2018. Ritual Impersonator of the Deity Xipe Totec, 1450/1500. [Online]
Available at: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/12742
Maestri, N., 2017. Xipe Totec - Grisly Aztec God of Fertility and Agriculture. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/xipe-totec-aztec-god-fertility-agriculture-173243
Princeton University Art Museum, 2018. Xipe Totec, A.D. 600–900. [Online]
Available at: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/37441
Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, 2018. Mexica Chinampanec Xipe Totec (our lord, the flayed one), war and harvest god. [Online]
Available at: http://nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/infinityofnations/meso-carib/163621.html#about
The British Museum, 2017. mask. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=650889&partId=1&searchText=aztec+masks&page=1
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2006. Xipe Totec. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Xipe-Totec
www.mexicolore.co.uk, 2018. God of the Month: Xipe Totec. [Online]
Available at: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/gods/god-of-the-month-xipe-totec