Considered one of the primary gods of the ancient Aztec pantheon as well as those of the Mixtec, the Zapotec, the Huaxtec, the Totonac and—not surprisingly—the unknown creators of Teotihuacán, Mesoamerica's oldest monumental site, Xipe Totec, Our Lord the Flayed One, was also known as Red Tezcatlipoca, the first son of Our Lord and Lady of Our Sustenance, Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl, the procreative cosmic couple who were locked in eternal coitus, thus perpetuating the earth and sky.
He was worshipped for over 2000 years.
Xipe Totec (she pe TO tek) was the god of springtime and regrowth, of agriculture and the seasons, of death and rebirth in nature, but he was also particularly identified with suffering and sacrifice. The Aztecs went to extreme measures to placate this essential deity, whom they considered to represent the masculine side of the universe.
Our Lord the Flayed One presided over the House of the East, from which the Sun was born. He was identified with the Aztec glyph Acatl, or reed, and with the color red. As the symbol of regeneration of the earth (which of course was considered female, receptive, dark, and magical) Xipe Totec was related to fertility, to renovation and most especially to the concept of change and resurrection. The cost of placating such a god was most dear:
Like that of many primitive peoples, the rituals of the Aztecs involved complex processes of imitative magic. Nature's processes were mimicked during elaborate festivals involving tens of thousands of participants throughout the year as the seasons changed. It was at the Festival of Tlacaxipeualiztli, however, in honor of Xipe Totec, that the Aztecs, never known for moderation, approached their most barbaric.
Tlacaxipeualiztli, which translates as flaying of men was all about corn or maize, that magnificent shaft of gold within green, an Aztec staple and quite a symbol in its own right. The festival was held late in March at the time of planting of the crop.
A prisoner was taken in battle. Traditionally he was paraded around town by his captors and greeted and congratulated by the citizens, who gave him gifts of food and drink and fine clothing. After a period of celebration, the prisoner—this essential cog, after all, in the ordering of the universe that thus the crop might thrive—was taken to the temple, dosed with drugs, and skinned alive.
Semi-conscious from the drugs, bathed in incense, the victim was first scorched, presumably to separate the skin from the bone. Cuts were made around the neck, the arms, and the legs, and down the back so the skin could be ripped away from the body. The carcass, bloody Xipe Totec-red, was thrown over a ceremonial stone and the heart was cut out by the Youallauan, the high priest, who offered it to the gods. The skin, dyed yellow and called teocuitlaquemitl or "golden clothes", was thereupon donned by the warrior who had originally taken the victim prisoner who then proceeded to dance feverishly, crying to heaven for new life and new strength. He wore a mask made from the victim's face.
But that is not all.
After a few days, the dead skin would dry up, crack and fall to pieces. It had of course begun to decompose, and the smell was considered disgusting but absolutely necessary, as the breaking of old skins must come to every seed of maize that had planted by the reverent tribe.
The high priest, the Youallauan ("the nocturnal tippler," because life-giving rains often fell at night) was required to be slightly intoxicated as he sang his traditional hymn to the flayed god in Nahuatl, the Aztec language:
Toalli tlauana, iztleican nimonenequia xiyaqui mitlatia teocuitlaquemitl, xicmoquenti quetlauia
The nightly drinking, why should I oppose it? Go forth and array yourselves in the golden garments, clothe yourselves in the glittering vestments.
Noteua cc in tlaco xayailiuiz qonoa y yotzin motepeyocpa mitzualitta moteua, noyolceuizquin tlacatl achtoquetl tlaquauaya, otlacatqui yautlatoaquetl, ouiya.
My god appears as a mortal; O Yoatzin, thou art seen upon the mountains; I shall appear unto mortals; I shall strengthen them for the words of war.
So the young maize plant must force its beautiful life-green spear from the apparently dead seed, bursting through the golden skin, just as the warrior, hope of the future of the race, burst from the dried husk of the dead prisoner.
After the festival of Tlacaxipeualiztli, the ceremonial skins were carefully gathered from the floor and kept in a special vault beneath the temple of Xipe Totec, the god, too, (remember) of suffering.
Feathered Serpent and Smoking Mirror—the Gods and Cultures of Ancient Mexico, C.A. Burland and Werner Forman, G.E. Putnam's Sons, New York, Orbis Publishing Limited, London 1975
Aztec Thought and Culture, A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind,
Miguel León-Portilla, translated from the Spanish by Jack Emory Davis, University of Oklahoma Press : Norman, 1963.
The Flayed God—The Mythology of Mesoamerica
Rebecca H. Markman & Peter T. Markman, Harper, SanFrancisco, 1992
Everyday Life of the Aztecs, Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, 1968
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Below the Line