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Head and torso of god Xipe Totec found at Ndachjian–Tehuacán archaeological site

Gruesome Sacrificial Temple of the Macabre Fertility God Xipe Totec Discovered in Mexico

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Delighted archaeologists in Mexico have found the first temple dedicated to the ‘Flayed Lord’ or Xipe Tótec, one of the most important Pre-Columbian deities. The find, which included a stone representation of the god and two sacrificial altars, was made by a team from the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History who are working on an excavation in the Ndachjian-Tehuacán archaeological site, in Puebla State. This is expected to help historians and other specialists to better understand pre-Hispanic religion and in particular this fertility god. It can ultimately lead to a better appreciation of the cultures of the Mesoamericans, especially the Aztecs.

Pre-Aztec Sacred Site

The ruins were once part of a pyramid that was used by the Popoloca Indians, who inhabited the area and developed their own unique culture. It is believed that “they built the temple between AD1000 and 1260” according to the news.com.au website. They were conquered by the fearsome Aztecs sometime in the fifteenth century but managed to preserve their own culture, and their religious beliefs possibly even influenced their imperial overlords.

Location where altars and sculptures were uncovered at Ndachjian–Tehuacán archaeological site. (Image: Melitón Tapia, INAH)

Location where altars and sculptures were uncovered at Ndachjian–Tehuacán archaeological site. (Image: Melitón Tapia, INAH)

The Temple of the Flayed God

The temple unearthed is 36 feet (12 m) long by 11 feet (3.5 m) high. In the ruins are two large stone altars, that are at the top of a flight of steps.  There are also some walls remaining of the original temple and in a niche in one, experts were shocked to find a massive sculpted head. It took over 30 workers to release the skull from the recess in the wall. Nearby they found a staircase that led to what was once the basement of the pyramid structure.  Here archaeologists unearthed a second stone skull and a large sculpted torso.

Each of the stone heads is approximately 70 cm high and weighs around 200 kilograms. (Image: Héctor Montaño, AnchorINAH)

Each of the stone heads is approximately 70 cm high and weighs around 200 kilograms. (Image: Héctor Montaño, INAH)

Experts began a preliminary study of the finds and soon established that it had been dedicated to the ancient fertility god. Based on certain features of the sculpted trunk such as a ‘skirt of feathers’, the experts concluded that it represented the god known to the Aztecs as Xipe Totec.  It also had a third hand and this extra limb according to the Daily Mail , “represented the hand of a person who was sacrificed and whose skin was worn by the god.” The torso representing the deity is about two and a half feet long (80 cm) and it is a beautiful if rather sinister looking sculpture.

Torso sculpture of the god known as Xipe Tótec. (Image: Melitón Tapia, INAH)

Torso sculpture of the god known as Xipe Tótec. (Image: Melitón Tapia, INAH)

The two skulls are also impressive pieces of sculpture. They are about 2’ 4” high (70cm) and they  weigh almost 440 pounds (200kg). They were carved out of a large volcanic rock as was the torso which was imported into the region, but they were carved by local tradesmen. The noses of the skulls are depicted as cut and this would indicate that the sculptures represented sacrificial victims.

The noses of the sculpted heads are cut, representing sacrificial victims. (Image: Melitón Tapia, INAH)

The noses of the sculpted heads are cut, representing sacrificial victims. (Image: Melitón Tapia, INAH)

Human Sacrifices and Flayed Victims

Xipe Tótec was one of the most important gods before the coming of the Spanish Conquistadors . He was the deity of fertility, spring, metal workers, and renewal and was very significant for the agricultural people of Mesoamerica.  Many victims were sacrificed to the god as it was believed that he was appeased by human blood . He was typically represented wearing the skins of a sacrificial victim which he would shed to symbolize the renewal of nature.  It was believed that if worshipers wore the skins of slain victims they were glorifying the divinity and he would bless them with his favors.

A drawing of Xipe Totec, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgia. ( Public Domain )

A drawing of Xipe Totec, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgia. ( Public Domain )

The gory god Xipe Tótec was particularly important to the Aztecs and was known by them as ‘Our Lord the Flayed one’ and they adopted his worship from peoples such as the Popoloca Indians. One of the most important Aztec festivals was the Tlacaxipehualiztli, which was marked by large scale sacrifices of war captives. At this time, according to the Guardian. “priests worshipped Xipe Totec by skinning victims and then donning their skins.” It is reported in Time that it is also believed that “victims were killed in gladiator-style combat or by arrows on one platform.” The temple that was found in Puebla had two altars and it is speculated that one was used for sacrificing victims and the other was for the ritual skinning of the sacrificed.

‘The Fight Between the Sacrifice and He Who Sacrifices’ by Juan de Tovar, circa 1546-1626. (Public Domain)

‘The Fight Between the Sacrifice and He Who Sacrifices’ by Juan de Tovar, circa 1546-1626. ( Public Domain )

Insights into Xipe Totec

The find is very important because experts only know about this Mesoamerican deity through the accounts of the Spanish and in representations in other temples. This discovery will allow experts to better understand the worship of Xipe Totec and temples dedicated to his worship. In particular it can add to our knowledge of pre-Hispanic religious practices and how it influenced the Aztecs. There are hopes that the site will yield more material remains related to the worship of this rather macabre deity. A massive mound near the unearthed temple is one that may potentially reveal more about the god Xipe Totec.

Top image: Head and torso of god Xipe Totec found at Ndachjian–Tehuacán archaeological site  Source: Melitón Tapia, INAH

By Ed Whelan

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