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Xipe Totec in the Florentine Codex.

God of the Month: Xipe Totec

The great god Xipe Totec, otherwise known as Our Lord the Flayed One, was another of the oldest Aztec deities. Also known as Red Tezcatlipoca, guardian of the east, Xipe Totec was often depicted as a man wearing the flayed skin of another.
The main picture shows an image of Xipe Totec drawn in the Florentine Codex.
Look at Xipe Totec’s triangular nose and round eyes; they are tell-tale signs that he is wearing someone else’s skin on top of his own. His ‘extra’ hands and feet are actually the flapping extremities of this human hide. (Written/compiled by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Xipe Totec Fact File
Aztec: Xipe Totec, Our Lord the Flayed One.
Zapotec: Yopi
Mixtec: 7 Rain

The Gulf coast of Mexico, the old Olmec heartlands.
Curer of sicknesses, especially those of the eyes. Responsible for the breaking through of spring to a new season, and the transition of young men into manhood.

Sculpted images of Xipe Totec, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Sculpted images of Xipe Totec, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Day Sign
”Itzcuintli”, or Dog, guardian of the underworld.

20 day solar calendar period or “month”
As a god of agriculture and an emblem of renewal in the Aztec religious cycle, Xipe Totec was worshipped before the rainy season, in March. The ‘month’ or twenty day period dedicated to him was called Tlacaxipeuliztli in Náhuatl. This means ‘The Act of Flaying Men’.

Who was Xipe Totec?
Xipe Totec was an important symbol of fertility, war and the coming of age of young warriors. The human skin that the god’s impersonator, otherwise known as an ‘ixiptla’ (live image), wore for twenty days during the spring festival of Tlacaxipeualiztli (March), was finally discarded during the period of Tozoztontli Xochimanaloya (April). This was a gesture that signified the shedding of the earth’s dry old skin in exchange for a new, verdant one that the rains would soon let flourish.

Many investigators have commented on the union of agriculture and war within the domain of this flayed deity. In preparation for Tlacaxipeualiztli, foreign warriors were caught alive and prepared for the sacred ritual coined by the 16th century Spanish as ‘Gladiatorial Sacrifice’, of which Xipe was a patron. This display took place outside of Xipe Totec’s temple and involved a warrior being tied to a large round stone by a strong rope. He was given simple weapons and little in the way of protection. According to Sahagún, he was then approached by four richly dressed and armed Aztec fighters who fought with him until he was wounded. Finally, he was sacrificed by having his heart pulled from his body by a priest.

It was in Xipe Totec’s temple that young warriors presented their first victims for sacrifice. This is when they came of age and were allowed to don the regalia of the Aztec military.

Clay incense burner with the effigy of Xipe Totec, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Clay incense burner with the effigy of Xipe Totec, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Mythological character or archaeeological relic? Xipe Totec’s origins.
Xipe Totec’s mythological origins are rooted in the creation of the universe by the divine dual god, Ometeotl, who brought into being the “first genesis” of deities (Taube 1996:180), who were given the task of making the earth. At this stage, Xipe Totec was identifiable as Red Tezcatlipoca, an invocation of the all-powerful creator and destroyer god of the same name. Xipe Totec was one of the gods that sacrificed themselves in order to make the sun move by jumping into a raging fire in the ancient city of Teotihuacan.

A clay representation of Xipe Totec.
A clay representation of Xipe Totec. (Click on image to enlarge)

The 16th century friar, Bernadino de Sahagún, recorded the testimonies of Nahuas (descendants of the Aztecs) who assured him that Xipe Totec had come from a coastal area called Zapotlan, which in Náhuatl means "Between or Amongst the Zapote Trees".

In archaeological terms, the earliest evidence of Xipe Totec’s existence has been found in the Mexican Gulf Coast and dates back to the preclassic period (1800BC-150AD). It is thought that he was integrated into Aztec mythology during the 15th century, when this belicose tribe came to dominate areas of Tabasco and Veracruz.

Symbol of the renewal of vegetation with the onset of the rainy season, Xipe was among the few Aztec gods represented in Teotihuacan during the classic period (150AD-950AD). He is depicted in ‘remojada’ style ceramics from the epiclassic period (950AD-1050) in El Zapotal, Veracruz. In them, he was represented as an old priest wearing a flayed captive’s skin.

Representations of Xipe Totec...
Xipe was almost always depicted as a man that was encapsulated within another’s flayed hide. With stripes running down his face from the forehead to the jawbone in a smooth line, his features classically showed the ‘cut-out’ appearance of the eye, nose and mouth holes of the second skin. He sported a multi coloured headdress and from it dangled tassles that reached down behind his back. His hair was tied back into two plaits. His rights as a god gave him access to special accessories that brimmed in symbolism and uniqueness such as golden ear plugs and rich, green feathers. One very striking belonging of his was a long sceptre that carried flower-like shapes, that Sahagún likened to poppies, all along it. At the top of the staff was an arrow holder.

On his body, Xipe’s fetid, outer skin had visibly lumpy fat deposits forming on it. Seen from the front, it usually showed an incision where the heart of the flayed victim had been taken out, as well as an area where the penis had been. This ornamental skin was elaborately tied together at the back. The Aztecs dressed both stone sculptures and priests acting as representatives of the god, in human flesh. Of course, Xipe Totec appeared mostly naked and some records of him show that he was tinted both yellow and tawny.

Clay depiction of flayed human skin, associated with Xipe Totec, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City
Clay depiction of flayed human skin, associated with Xipe Totec, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Xipe Totec’s Temple
Xipe Totec’s dark, cave-like temple was called Yopico (‘the place of Yopi’, Xipe Totec’s Zapotec name). As we have described in another article on Tlaloc, the rain god, caves were symbolic of fertility and renewal. The Aztecs believed in a mythical realm called Tlalocan, a great cave situated inside a mountain. Tlalocan housed all important grains such as corn, chía and amaranth. It was also the home of the rain gods, or Tlaloque. They decided when to bring much needed water to farmers’ crops.

Yopico was seen as a shrine of fertility and growth. It was used during the months of Tlacaxipeualiztli and Tozotontli for agricultural rites. Seen as an entrance into the earth, Yopico had a sunken receptacle on its floor, where offerings were laid in a gesture of ritual communication with the soil. It was here that the Aztec emperor, called ‘Tlatoani’ in Náhuatl, would make an offering of his own blood when he was crowned.

Xipe Totec’s finery presented in the Codex Tudela
Xipe Totec’s finery presented in the Codex Tudela (Click on image to enlarge)

Nevertheless, Yopico was also symbolic of war. It was in Yopico that young warriors presented their war captives in time for the spring sacrifices. This was a rite of passage for them and it served to emphasise the importance the Aztecs gave to the connection between war and agriculture.

The Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan, from Michael Coe’s “Mexico from the Olmecs to the Aztecs”
The Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan, from Michael Coe’s “Mexico from the Olmecs to the Aztecs” (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec Month of Tlacaxipeualiztli
6th March - 26th March
Xipe Totec was the patron of the Tlacaxipeualiztli festivities that dominated the second ‘month’ or twenty day period of the solar calendar in March. The word itself means ‘the act of wearing skins’.
The ceremonies were aimed at invoking the change of seasons from dry to rainy. It was thought that the dead, rotton shell of the earth at the end of the last agricultural year must be peeled back in order to reveal a new skin that was young and fecund. For this reason, the ‘double skinned’ Xipe Totec was significant as an enforcer of agricultural transition during the onset of spring.

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 their fate at the sacrificial stone. According to Sahagún, those captives who resisted would be dragged up the stairs of the temple - quite a long way! The stone was high and narrow and the captive was bent over with his back against 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 and pulled out his beating heart.

This over, the sacrificed man would have his blood poured into a container that was given to his owner and his body thrown over the temple steps and collected by a team of old men called ‘quaquacuiltin’. Later on, the corpse would be skinned for participation in the following ritual.

The face of Xipe Totec in clay, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
The face of Xipe Totec in clay, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Another ceremony played out a series of mock attacks between two groups of young men. One group of lads called ‘Tototecti’ dressed in the skins of flayed captives and seated themselves on mats. Within their ranks was Xipe Totec’s impersonator who was also dressed in a skin.
An opposing team of youths approached the seated men and provoked them into battle with their taunting. The Tototecti, roused into fighting back, chased their opponents and both parties engaged in a staged scene of conflict. A youth who was able to catch his opponent could then put him in ‘jail’, where the price of freedom was that of handing over a personal possession.

These exercises were followed by a tour of the Tototecti around Tenochtitlan (the Aztec city). They would enter peoples’ houses and ask for alms in return for Xipe Totec’s blessing. Invited inside, the deity’s impersonator would be asked to sit down on a mat of leaves and wear a garland of corn cobs and flowers. He would be given pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the Maguey cactus plant. The priests and deity impersonators who wore human skins during the Tlacaxipeualiztli festivities did this for twenty or forty days after the sacrificial ceremonies. During this time the skins had the opportunity to rot and fester and when they were eventually thrown into holes or caves, they were being thrust aside for the emergence of youth, spring, and fertilty. As Karl Taube aptly puts it: “As a seed germinates, it feeds off the rotting hull around it”. The seed becomes a renewed Xipe Totec, a new year, and a new agricultural cycle.

The springtime month of Tlacaxipeualiztli in the Nahua text, Primeros Memoriales.
The springtime month of Tlacaxipeualiztli in the Nahua text, Primeros Memoriales. (Click on image to enlarge)

Gladiatorial sacrifice
The Tlacaxipeualiztli festivities are famous for one of their sacrifice ceremonies, coined by the Spanish as Gladiatorial
A captive warrior who had proved himself worthy on the field of battle was made to stand on a flat, circular shaped stone, much like the Sun Stone. He was tied to its center by a rope around his waist and was only able to walk as far as the circumference of the stone. Given nothing to defend himslef but a club, this man would have to defend himself against the finest Aztec soldiers, warriors of the Eagle and Jaguar ranks. If he managed to kill one, then another would come. An incredible fighter might have to face as many as four opponents.

Gladiatorial Sacrifice in the Codex Tudela
Gladiatorial Sacrifice in the Codex Tudela (Click on image to enlarge)

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.

The Aztecs believed that the souls of warriors who died in combat and women killed during child labour would travel to the land of the sun and follow him on his orbit in the
During Tlacaxipeualiztli, a captive warrior, usually one who had proved his valour on the field of battle, was forced to fight Aztec warriors. Poorly armed and protected, a normal man would usually fail against his heavily clad opponent. Nevertheless, a fighter who won the first round, showing great courage and strength, had to endure combat against another three soldiers of the highest Eagle and Jaguar military ranks! Once he was wounded he would meet his demise on the sacrificial stone.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 28th 2007

emoticon Q. Which modern fashion item was inspired by Xipe Totec and the idea of wearing a one-piece all-over human skin?
A. The onesie!

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Mexicolore replies: Now there’s a fun-packed, sweeping statement for you...!