A Dying-and-Rising God
Xipe Totec was among the oldest and most important Aztec deities, sometimes being worshipped as an aspect of the omnipotent Tezcatlipoca. His name literally translates as ‘Our Lord the Flayed One’ and Xipe Totec was always depicted wearing a flayed human skin – a symbol of renewal and rebirth. Xipe Totec was a dying-and-rising god presiding over the cycle of seasons, vegetation and agriculture, disease, healing and regeneration, and rites of passage (especially coming of age rituals for male warriors). His name summarizes his central myth, which tells how Xipe Totec flayed himself in order to feed humanity, in the way corn seeds shed their outer layer before becoming edible; at the same time Xipe Totec was associated with the snake shedding its skin as a symbol of healing and regeneration.
The ‘Flaying Of Men’
Like other predominant Aztec deities, Xipe Totec had a festival dedicated to him, known simply as ‘the flaying of men’. The festival was celebrated on the spring equinox just before the beginning of the rainy season which made the lands fertile, ensuring the growing of crops. Like the name of the festival implies slaves (usually prisoners of war) were sacrificially flayed alive in Xipe Totec’s honor, and had their skins worn by the deity’s priests until they started to rot away. This usually took around twenty days, up until the next religious festival, when the putrid skins were finally discarded in a ritual meant to symbolize the shedding of the earth’s dry, old surface in exchange for a new, verdant one.
Ritual Bloodsports and Warfare
A sort of gladiatorial combat that culminated with human sacrifice and other ritual fighting between groups of warriors wearing flayed skins were also held during the flaying of men festival, as Xipe Totec was also thought to have invented warfare. This is understandable given the connection between agriculture and war in the Aztec world, for the Aztecs did not aim to kill the enemy on the field of battle, but to capture him alive for human sacrifice.
In this way, the enemy was ‘reaped’ like crops, and by the 15th century the Aztecs themselves called their military conflicts Flower Wars, comparing their enemies to flowers to be picked from a field. Despite the poetic nomenclature, however, these conflicts were savage, and through them the Aztecs and their allies sought to obtain enough sacrificial victims to placate their gods and forestall natural calamities, among which famine was the most disastrous one.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Steadman, S. R. (2016).Archaeology of Religion: Cultures and Their Beliefs in Worldwide Context. Routledge.
- Pohl, J. M., & Lyons, C. L. (2010).The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire. Getty Publications.
- Mackenzie, D. A. (1923).Myths of Pre-Columbian America. Courier Corporation.
- Ernandes, M., Cedrini, R., Giammanco, M., La Guardia, M., & Milazzo, A. (2002). Aztec cannibalism and maize consumption: The serotonin deficiency link. Mankind quarterly, 43(1), 3.
- Booth, W. C. (1966). Dramatic Aspects of Aztec Rituals. Educational Theatre Journal, 421-428.