Xipe Totec or ‘Flayed One’ in Nahuatl, was a major god in ancient Mesoamerican culture and particularly important for the Toltecs and Aztecs. He was considered the god of spring, the patron of seeds and planting and metal workers (especially goldsmiths) and gemstone workers.
Xipe Totec was so closely connected to the sacrifices that were offered to him and in inconrgeaphy, he is depicted as a flayed god wearing the skin of his victims over his own body.
The Aztecs, among other cultures in Mesoamerica, believed that human sacrifices were necessary to appease the gods and keep their world from being destroyed. Even seemingly benign domains were associated with gruesome rituals. The god wore the diseased skin of human sacrifices over his own. His priests wore the skins of recently-sacrificed men for a full twenty days to honour their god.
Xipe Totec was not a god of death or horror. He was a life-giving and benevolent deity whose festivals resembled carnivals or parades despite the constant specter of death.
Xipe Totec (Our Lord the Flayed One) was also known as Tezcatlipoca (The Red Smoking Mirror) and Youalahuan (The Night Drinker) in different regions of Mesoamericana.
The Tlaxcaltec peoples, who were never incorporated into the Aztec Empire and called him Camaxtli. A thousand years before these cultures rose to power, the Zapotec civilization worshiped a similar god that they called by the name Yopi.
Images of Xipe Totec are typically easy to identify in Mesoamerican art. His iconography is even more standardized than many of the other gods of the region and many of his attributes stand out among the other gods.
His skin is always a shade of yellow or tan, sometimes painted with half of his body in each shade. Many details of his body are shown in red, including stripes that sometimes run the length of his face as well as his hands and feet.
In images, Xipe Totec’s eyes are generally closed but his mouth is open and often wears a pointed cap, holds a rattle staff, both are attributes of an emperor. His right hand is usually extended and held at an upward angle which holds the staff or another symbol of power such as a bag of grain. Xipe Totec is not dressed in typical clothing but in the flayed skin of his sacrificial victims. His hands wear the flesh of sacrificed hands limply placed over his own.
Captives who were sacrificed to Xipe Totec throughout the region were carefully skinned after their deaths. The god’s priests and musicians who imitated him would wear these skins during the festivals.
During his festivals, matches were staged between combatants but these often end in sacrifice provided as entertainment for spectators.
The musicians who dressed as Xipe Totec also added to the festive atmosphere. They went from house to house asking for food and gifts in honor of the god. Citizens paid these musicians in alcohol and put garlands around them. These ‘mock gods’ soon became inebriated and made colorful and amusing spectacles.
The priests took the festival more seriously. They would wear the skins of the dead for a full twenty days of rituals and prayer. Many people believed these skins were lucky. Mothers would bring their children to touch the flesh to cure of common ailments.
The skins of those dedicated to Xipe Totec were never thrown away but retained within airtight containers in the temples.
Like many Mesoamerican gods, Xipe Totec was associated with warfare but his primary role was one as an agricultural deity. He is often depicted in shades of yellow because his body represents corn which was the basis of the Aztec diet. The seeds that grew new crops were in a death-like state before the planting season and were dry, withered, and hard. Before germination, maize sheds its outer layer. Once the dead skin was removed, the seed could begin to grow and bring forth new vegetation.
This symbolic shedding also represented the annual cycle of rebirth and regrowth of the changing of seasons. Underneath a thin layer of death, the agricultural god symbolized bringing forth new life by shedding the old. The sacrifices associated with Xipe Totec symbolically ensured that the cycle of new life coming forth from shedding death.
Sharing a similar colouration with gold, Xipe Totec also came to be associated with metalworkers and goldsmiths in particular. He represented fertility and fortune. The smiths performed their own sacrifices to Xipe Totec and like the fertility rituals, the skin of flayed victims was worn.
Xipe Totec’s fertility cult selected the victims from war captives and slaves. But the goldsmiths used their religion to punish those who had wronged them. Men who stole gold were used as sacrificial victims by the goldsmiths and before their executions, they were paraded through the streets as a warning to others.
To mark the beginning of the festivities, captives of war were prepared and presented at the main Aztec temple for sacrifice. Before they died, their owners would tear off the hair at their crowns and then walk them to the temple and the sacrificial stone. Captives who resisted would be dragged up the stairs of the temple to the sacrificial stone was high and narrow and the captive bent backwards over it. Five men then grasped him by his ankles, wrists and head and a priest proceeded to cut open his chest with an obsidian knife to remove the heart.
The sacrifice then had his blood poured into a container which was given to his owner while his body was thrown over the temple steps. Later on, the corpse would be skinned for participation in the following rituals.
The captives always lost their battle and were then sacrificed by special priests. There is one record of an exception, however. During the reign of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (1502-1520) a man called Tlahuicole managed to survive the ceremony of Gladiatorial Sacrifice. As he had proven himself to be a deft and strong in combat, the emperor granted him his freedom. Tlahuicole, however, refused to walk away, insisting that he should have the right to a glorious death by sacrifice. He offer himself to the priest and sacrificial stone, and had his heart cut out.
Xipe Totec and his sacrifices were thought to symbolize the rebirth each spring and ensured the gods were pleased.