Xipe Totec - Grisly Aztec God of Fertility and Agriculture

The Pan-Mesoamerican Roots of the Aztec God Wearing Flayed Human Skin

Priest with mask depicting Xipe Totec, at the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre Hispanic Art in Oaxaca, Mexico
Priest with mask depicting Xipe Totec, at the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre Hispanic Art in Oaxaca, Mexico. Thelmadatter

Xipe Totec (pronounced Shee-PAY-toh-teck) was the Aztec god of fertility, abundance, and agricultural renewal, as well as the patron of goldsmiths and other craftsmen. Despite that rather calm set of responsibilities, the god's name means "Our Lord with the Flayed Skin" and ceremonies celebrating Xipe took a violent and grisly nature.

Xipe Totec's name was derived from the myth by which the god flayed his own skin to feed humans.

That act symbolized the renewed vegetation that returns to cover the earth each spring, and, more specifically, refers to the process of American corn (maize) when it sheds its external skin when is ready for germination.

Xipe Totec Ceremonies

Xipe Totec worship involved sacrificial ceremonies where the skin of victims was flayed--removed in large pieces--and then the priests would wear that flayed skin as a robe. In some ceremonies, the selected victim was first provided with a fake sword and had to fight against a warrior who as armed with a real weapon.

The most important series of ceremonies dedicated to Xipe Totec were called Tlacaxipeualiztli, which means "flayer of man". These ceremonies took place in February and on these occasions war captives were sacrificed and their body parts taken to the various calpulli. There, their skin was removed, painted and then worn by the priests carrying out other fertility rituals.

Pan-Mesoamerican Xipe Totec Images

The image of Xipe Totec is easily recognizable in statues, figurines and other portraits for wearing a "swallowtail" headdress and collar, and for having the entire body visibly covered by the skin of a sacrificial victim. The masks used by Aztec priests and portrayed in statuary show dead faces with crescent-shaped eyes and gaping mouths.

When illustrated, the lips of flayed Xipe masks stretch widely around the mouth of the impersonator; and sometimes the teeth are bared or the tongue protrudes out a little. Often, a painted hand covers the gaping mouth. Xipe Totec also often holds a cup in one hand and a shield in the other; in Toltec art, Xipe is associated with bats and sometimes bat icons decorate the statues.

Origins of Xipe

It is thought that Xipe Totec was introduced into the Aztec pantheon during the kingdom of the emperor Axayácatl. Apparently this deity came from the north of Mexico and it was the patron deity of the city of Cempoala, the capital of the Totonacs during the Postclassic period.

The Aztec god Xipe Totec was clearly a late version of a pan-Mesoamerican god, with earlier versions of Xipe's compelling imagery found in places such as the classic Maya representation on Copan Stela 3, and perhaps associated with the Maya God Q, he of violent death and execution. A smashed version of Xipe Totec was also found at Teotihuacan by the Swedish archaeologist Sigvald Linne, with stylistic characteristics of Zapotec art. The 1.2 meter (4 foot) tall statue was reconstructed and is currently on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Aztec Gods, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Adams, Richard E.W., 1991, Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Third Edition. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Ingham, John M. 1984. Human Sacrifice at Tenochtitlan. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(03):379-400.

Scott, Sue 1993. Teotihuacan Mazapan Figures and the Xipe Totec Statue: A Link Between the Basin of Mexico and the Valley of Oaxaca. Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.

Taube, Karl Andreas, 1992, The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology(32):i-160. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Cambridge.

Van Tuerenhout Dirk R., 2005, The Aztecs. New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO Inc. Santa Barbara, CA; Denver, CO and Oxford, England.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst