Our Lord, The Flayed One

Posted by Tamsin Wilde on

Aztec mythology in general is a fascinating subject, but today I’m going to focus on one badass god – Xipe Totec, otherwise known as “Our Lord the Flayed One” – Already we’re off to a good start. Xipe Totec was seen as a life-death-rebirth deity, who was also the god of agriculture & vegetation, the east, spring, liberation and the patron of gold and silversmiths, a pretty all-round guy. While his origins are uncertain, with most historians being reliant on post-conquest Spanish texts for information, in 2018 an excavation in Puebla revealed a temple dedicated to his worship. In Aztec mythology, Xipe Totec is generally depicted wearing a flayed human skin, usually white or yellow in colour representing the skin of a sacrificial victim, while his own exposed skin is red to represent the skin of a deity and is often holding either a bloody weapon, or a container filled with seeds and a yellow shield. His insignia also included a pointed cap and rattle staff, which was war attire for the Mexica emperor – fitting seeing as it is said it was Xipe Totec invented war in the first place.
So, what’s with the flaying? It is said Xipe Totec upon seeing the starving and suffering of his people flayed his own skin – often represented by lines on his face to show the flaying cuts - so his blood falling upon the earth would feed the soil, giving life to the crops, symbolic to how maize seeds lose their outer layer, or snakes shedding their skin. Now on to the human sacrifice.
The annual festival of Xipe Totec was, unsurprisingly, a bloody affair celebrated on the spring equinox known as Tlacaxipehualiztli (I totally underestimated spelling this stuff when I started writing this) which translates to “flaying of men” and lasted for 20 days. Forty days before this took place, a slave captured at war was dressed to represent the living god, who was honoured and living the high life – with this occurring in every ward of the city there was a few of these chosen slaves. The festival then opened with the brutal gladiatorial sacrifice of war prisoners. In this, an especially courageous war prisoner was given a mock Macuahuitl which ordinarily is a wooden sword with obsidian blades – but here, the blades are replaced with feathers, they would then tie the captive with a white cord around his waist or ankle to a large, sacred Temalacatl stone then forced to fight a fully armed Aztec warrior. On day 2, the game of canes was performed with two ‘bands’. The first band took the part of Xipe Totec and went dressed in the flayed skins of the prisoners killed the previous day, so the fresh blood was still flowing – and probably sticky. The second band comprised of fearless warriors who took part in combat with the others. After the game’s conclusion, those wearing the human skins would then go throughout the town, entering the houses and demanding the residents give them some alms or food for the love of Xipe Totec. While in the houses, they sat down on sheaves of tzapote leaves and put on necklaces made of flowers and corn and were given the wine, Pulque to drink. During the festival, slaves or captives were chosen to be sacrificed to the god and in true Aztec style, it was gory as fuck. The priests would firstly remove the victim’s still beating heart, before carefully flaying the skin. Once removed, the skin was often adorned with brightly coloured feathers and gold which was then put on by the priest in a ceremony called ‘Neteotquiliztli’ which translates to “impersonation of a god” and was worn for 20 days during the fertility rituals that followed. Another form of sacrifice used throughout the festival was that of “Arrow sacrifice”. During this, the victim was bound spread-eagled to a wooden frame before warriors fired arrows into them causing his blood to spill upon the ground. This was symbolic of not only Xipe Totec’s original sacrifice, but represented the desired abundant rainfall, which would hopefully result in plentiful crops. Once they had shot the shit out of the poor fella, his heart was removed with a stone knife and the flayer would then make a laceration from the lower head to the heels and removed the skin in one piece. The resulting skins were then worn by votaries of the god for the duration of the festival.
Throughout the 20-day festival, victorious warriors wearing flayed skins would carry out mock skirmishes, passing through the city begging alms and blessing whoever gave them food or offerings. Probably wine. The Aztecs were known for getting intoxicated in one way or another – sometimes with hallucinogenic drugs – during festivals and sacrifices, to reach a higher state of consciousness – or maybe because it was fun, who knows, but I’m sure we can assume, other than those being flayed and sacrificed, a smashing time was had by all. At the end of the festival, the flayed skins were removed and stored containers with tight fitting lids, designed to keep in the smell of putrefaction which I can only assume was quite pungent at this point, then stored in a chamber below the temple, but not before one last brutal gladiator sacrifice was carried out by five Aztec warriors – this included 2 jaguar warriors, 2 eagle warriors and a fifth left-handed warrior.
Xipe Totec represented the coming of spring and the renewal of the land after winter (like a bloody version of our Green Man here in England), and while it may seem horrific, putting on a fresh skin symbolised the vegetation that the earth creates after the rain, so the living god lay concealed beneath the superficial veneer of death, ready to burst forth like a germinating seed once the skin is shed. The image of Xipe Totec emerging from the decomposing flayed skin after 20 days symbolised rebirth and renewal, casting off the old, dead weight and moving into the growth of new vegetation. These flayed skins were believed to have curative properties when touched, and mothers would take their kids to have a poke of such skins in order to relieve their ailments. Nice.
The first image is Xipe Totec as depicted in the Codex Borgia, shown holding a bloody weapon and wearing flayed human skin as a suit. The second Xipe Totec’s finery presented in the Codex Tudela. The third, warriors holding a Macuahuitl, the forth a modern day Macuahuitl. Fifth and sixth images are an Aztec sacrificial knife used for human sacrifice currently residing in the British Museum - I've seen this in person and these photos do NOT do it justice. 


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