Aztec God Xipe Totec: Mythology & Sculpture

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson explores the Aztec religion involving Xipe Totec, a god of rebirth, fertility, and sacrifice. We'll look at his place in the Aztec pantheon and rituals and view depictions and sculptures of the god.

Who is Xipe Totec?

What do you know about the Aztec people? Maybe you know they lived in Central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Or maybe you've heard about some of the more shocking details of the ancient culture, possibly revolving around their religion and human sacrifice. What you might not know is why, or even how, this practice came to be. This is where we delve deeper into their religion and the mythology of their gods to get a better picture of their practices.

The sacrifices related to the Aztec god Xipe Totec, a deity who could strike fear into the hearts of their enemies at just the whisper of his name. Warning, this lesson contains some graphic details and the stuff of horror films, but in the context of the Aztec culture and beliefs, it might not seem so horrifying. We shall see.

Image of Xipe Totec from Codex Borgia
Codex Image

Our Lord the Flayed One

Yes, that is the translation of his name. If you're not familiar with the term, flayed mean having the skin carved off while a person is still alive. According to the myths, Xipe Totec chose to do this to himself. Why? He did it because his people were starving. He had nothing else to give them so he cut off his own skin to give them food. This is why drawings and idols of Xipe Totec show lines on his skin from where he cut himself. As gruesome as this sounds, think about the power of such a sacrifice by a god in order to save his people. The Aztec people believed they owed everything to this god and the rituals they conducted proved their devotion.

Sculpted head of Xipe Totec - The face is the skin of someone else over his own.
Sculpted Head

Wearing Another

As previously mentioned, Xipe Totec often appears in art with lines to represent his flaying cuts. He is also depicted in a great deal of art wearing the skin of someone else, taken to cover his open flesh. In some images, he wears pieces of the skin like overlapping plates of armor. In others, he wears their face as his own. Many times, it looks like he has many hands and feet, but on closer inspection, those are hands and feet from the people skinned to make his hide outfit.

Sculpture of Xipe Totec 1200 - 1400 CE Notice the extra hands.
Sculpture

Mighty Powers

So, you might imagine that Xipe Totec is some kind of evil god, or the god of nightmares, or even something as simple as the god of the underworld, but he is not. In fact, Xipe Totec is a god of agriculture, fertility, the birth of springtime, and the transition of young men from childhood into manhood and being a warrior. He even helps cure the sick and specializes in curing blindness.

15th century sculpture showing beaded fat from skin suit
Sculpture with fat

It seems, however, that flaying himself was not the first time Xipe Totec sacrificed himself for the people and for the world, according to Aztec myth. One of the first generation of gods created by Ometeotl, the god who created the universe, Xipe Totec joined other gods of his generation in saving the earth from being burned into nothingness by the sun. Its stationary position in the sky made everything too hot, so the gods jumped into a raging fire at Teotihuacan in order to make the sun start moving the way we see it today. This is part of why Xipe Totec is a god of death and rebirth. He sacrifices himself for the people, over and over, but always returns to life.

Rituals

Let's take a look at those human sacrifices, now that we know a little bit more about the god involved. These rituals occurred in honor of Xipe Totec, as a way of recognizing his own sacrifices as well as to appease him in order to bring about springtime and the fertile crop season. Young warriors, in order to complete their rites of passage into adulthood, brought a captive from their first battle to be sacrificed to Xipe Totec, symbolizing the shedding of their old skin of childhood and being reborn as men. These captives would fight against Aztec warriors in a gladiator-style arena.

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