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 deity of goldsmiths and other craftsmen. Despite that rather calm set of responsibilities, the god's name means "Our Lord with the Flayed Skin" or "Our Lord the Flayed One" and ceremonies celebrating Xipe were closely allied with violence and death.

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

For the Aztecs, Xipe Totec's removing his old layer of skin symbolized the events that must happen to produce renewed growth that covers the earth each spring. More specifically, flaying is associated with the cycle of American corn (maize) as it sheds its external seed covering when it is ready to germinate.

Xipe and the Cult of Death

In Aztec mythology, Xipe was the son of the dual male-female divinity Ometeotl, a powerful fertility god and the most ancient god in the Aztec pantheon. Xipe was one of four gods intimately related to death and the Aztec underworld: Mictlantecuhtli and his feminine counterpart Mictecacihuatl, Coatlicue, and Xipe Totec. The cult of death surrounding these four gods had numerous celebrations throughout the Aztec calendar year that were directly related to death and ancestor worship.

In the Aztec cosmos, death was not a thing to be feared, because the afterlife was a continuation of life in another realm.

People who died natural deaths reached Mictlan (the underworld) only after the soul passed through nine difficult levels, a four-year long journey. There they remained forever in the same state that they had lived in. In contrast, people who were sacrificed or died on the battlefield would spend eternity in the realms of the Omeyocan and the Tlalocan, two forms of Paradise.

Xipe Cult Activities

Cult activities conducted in honor of Xipe Totec included two spectacular forms of sacrifice: the gladiator sacrifice and the arrow sacrifice. The gladiator sacrifice involved tying an especially brave captive warrior to a large, carved circular stone and forcing him to fight a mock battle with an experienced Mexica soldier. The victim was given a sword (macuahuitl) to fight with, but the obsidian blades of the sword were replaced by feathers. His adversary was fully armed and dressed for battle.

In the "arrow sacrifice", the victim was tied spread-eagled to a wooden frame and then shot full of arrows so that his blood dripped to the ground.

Sacrifice and the Flaying of Skin

However, Xipe Totec is most often connected with a type of sacrifice Mexican archaeologist Alfredo López Austin called "owners of skin". The victims of this sacrifice would be killed and then flayed--their skins removed in large pieces. Those skins were painted and then worn by others during a ceremony and in this manner, they would be transformed into the living image ("teotl ixiptla") of Xipe Totec.

Rituals performed during the early spring month of Tlacaxipeualiztli, included the "Feast of the Flaying of Men", for which the month was named.

The entire city and rulers or nobles of enemy tribes would witness this ceremony. In this ritual, slaves or captive warriors from surrounding tribes were dressed in as the "living image" of Xipe Totec. Transformed into the god, the victims were led through a series of rituals performing as Xipe Totec, then they were sacrificed and their body parts distributed among the community. 

Pan-Mesoamerican Xipe Totec Images

The image of Xipe Totec is easily recognizable in statues, figurines, and other portraits because his body is depicted as completely covered by the skin of a sacrificial victim. The masks used by Aztec priests and other "living images" portrayed in statuary show dead faces with crescent-shaped eyes and gaping mouths; often the hands of the flayed skin, sometimes decorated as fish scales, drape over the hands of the god.

The mouth and lips of flayed Xipe masks stretch widely around the mouth of the impersonator, and sometimes the teeth are bared or the tongue protrudes out somewhat. Often, a painted hand covers the gaping mouth. Xipe wears a red "swallowtail" headdress with a red ribbon or a conical hat and a skirt of zapote leaves. He wears a flat disc-shaped collar which has been interpreted by some scholars as the neck of the flayed victim and his face is striped with red and yellow bars.

Xipe Totec also often holds a cup in one hand and a shield in the other; but in some depictions, Xipe holds a chicahuaztli, a staff terminating in a point with a hollow rattling head filled with pebbles or seeds. In Toltec art, Xipe is associated with bats and sometimes bat icons decorate the statues.

Origins of Xipe

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 Stela3, 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 Linné, exhibiting stylistic characteristics of Zapotec art from Oaxaca state. The 1.2 meter (4 foot) tall statue was reconstructed and is currently on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (INAH) in Mexico City.

It is thought that Xipe Totec was introduced into the Aztec pantheon during the kingdom of the emperor Axayácatl (ruled 1468-1481).

This deity was the patron deity of the city of Cempoala, the capital of the Totonacs during the Postclassic period, and is thought to have been adopted from there. 

Sources

This article was written by Nicoletta Maestri and edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst