As part of a major archaeological discovery, researchers in Mexico have unearthed the remains of the first temple dedicated to Xipe Totec, a Mesoamerican life-death-rebirth deity who was held in high regard by both the Toltecs and the Aztecs. Worshipped as the god of fertility, agriculture, vegetation and spring as well as disease and war, Xipe Totec wore the skin of a sacrificed human victim, which – it was believed – was the “new skin” that covered the Earth during spring.
Uncovered among the ruins of the Ndachjian-Tehuacan archaeological site in Puebla, a city in east-central Mexico, the structure is thought to be the first temple of Xipe Totec ever found. According to the team from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, the site contains concrete evidence that point to a ritualistic practice of human sacrifice, wherein victims were slaughtered on one of the ancient temple’s two circular altars and then flayed on the other.
The newly-obtained skin, as per the archaeologists, was then donned by the priests. During their survey, the researchers came across a number of artifacts, including three stone sculptures of Xipe Totec. Of these, one is a torso measuring 2.5 feet (80 centimeters) in height and with engravings on the back representing the sacrificed human skins worn by the formidable deity. Speaking about the find, which shows the god wearing a feather skirt, Noemi Castillo Tejero, the lead archaeologist of the project, said –
Sculpturally speaking it’s a very beautiful piece. It … has a hole in the belly, which according to historical sources is where a green stone was placed to ‘bring it to life’ for ceremonies.
The torso, University of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie believes, is the “most compelling evidence of the association of this practice and related deity to a particular temple. Gillespie was not otherwise involved in the project. The two other sculptures depict skinned skulls, about 2.3 feet (70 centimeters) tall and weighing over 200 kilograms (440 pounds).
As per Tejero, the temple was likely constructed by the indigenous Popoloca people somewhere between circa 1000 AD and 1260 AD. The ancient complex later came under the control of the Aztecs and remained so until Spain colonized Mexico under conquistador Hernan Cortes.
A deity of agricultural renewal, vegetation, seasons, goldsmiths, and liberation, Xipe Totec was counted among one of the major Aztec gods and goddesses. And while his related concepts and powers seem fairly innocuous, the worship (and its mode) of Xipe Totec was anything but. This is somewhat discerned from his ominous name roughly meaning – ‘our lord with the flayed skin’. The Nahuatl moniker comes from the mythical narrative where the Aztec god flayed his own skin to feed humanity, thus symbolizing how maize sheds its outer skin cover before germination (‘rebirth’).
Read more: 12 Major Aztec Gods And Goddesses You Should Know About
Suffice it to say, with the imagery of flayed skin and also the cult of death (and rebirth) associated with Xipe Totec, the Mexica people tended to venerate this Aztec god with human sacrifices – mostly carried out during the March festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli (meaning ‘flaying of men’). One of the popular modes of sacrifice involved the mock gladiatorial combat where the prisoner (chosen on account of his bravery) was tied to a stone and handed a ‘fake’ macuahuitl with feathers instead of sharp obsidian blades. He had to (hopelessly) fend off an experienced Aztec warrior/s fully armed and armored.
After his ‘glorious’ death, his skin was ritually flayed, painted yellow, and worn by reenactors of Xipe Totec (usually slaves), who were then worshipped and treated as gods by the local people. Annually, a quota of slaves and captured warriors was also selected for sacrifice. And after their hearts were cut out, their skins were worn by Aztec priests for 20 days, often bedecked with bright feathers and gold jewelry. On the completion of the festival period, the priest shed the rotting flayed skins, thus once again symbolizing the rebirth aspect of Xipe Totec.
Image Source: The Straits Times