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A site of horrors: Archaeologists find the first ever temple of Xipe Totec, the pre-Hispanic god wearing sacrificed human skin
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.
A Gruesome Sacrificial Temple to a Fertility God in Mexico
In January, delighted archaeologists in Mexico found the first temple dedicated to the ‘Flayed Lord’ Xipe Tótec, one of the most important Pre-Columbian deities. The find, which included a stone representation of the god and two sacrificial altars, will help historians and other specialists to better understand pre-Hispanic religion and in particular this fertility god.
One of the fascinating finds was a massive sculpted head discovered in a niche. It took over 30 workers to release the skull from the recess in the wall. Nearby they found a staircase that led to what was once the basement of the pyramid structure. Here archaeologists unearthed a second stone skull and a large sculpted torso.
Xipe Tótec was one of the most important Mesoamerican gods. He was a deity of fertility, spring, metal workers, and renewal. Many victims were sacrificed to the god and he was typically represented wearing the skins of a sacrificial victim, which he would shed to symbolize the renewal of nature. It was believed that if worshipers wore the skins of slain victims they were glorifying the deity and he would bless them with his favors. There are hopes that the site will yield more material remains related to the worship of this rather macabre being. A massive mound near the unearthed temple may reveal even more about the god Xipe Tótec.
Xipe Totec , c. 900–1200
Xipe Totec, the Aztec god of spring and regeneration, appears in many Mesoamerican cults. A fertility deity, Xipe Totec vividly conveys the concept of death and rebirth by wearing the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. Meaning literally “our lord, the flayed one,” Xipe Totec is also associated with the arrival of spring, when the earth covers itself with a new coat of vegetation and exchanges its dead skin for a new one. During the corn-planting festival, Xipe Totec was worshipped by a priest who, dressed in the skin of a flayed victim, ritually enacted the death-and-renewal cycle of the earth. Xipe Totec was the divine embodiment of life emerging from the dead land and of the new plant sprouting from the seed.
In this sculpture, the face of a living being is seen behind the mouth and eye openings of the sacrificial victim, whose skin is laced together by cords at the back of the wearer’s skull. Similar lacing is also seen on the chest, amid the vigorously articulated body covering. This clay sculpture of Xipe closely resembles Aztec stone figures in the smooth modeling, sturdy body, and rounded lips and eyes.
The legend of Xipe Totec
In Aztec mythology the world was divided among 4 gods of a primal couple following the four cardinal points. Among these four important gods was Xipe Tótec dominating the East. It was the pattern of artisans, dance, agriculture, tender corn, fertility and love, wealth, sacrifice, healing and, in general, the masculine part of the universe. He also presided over the rites of initiation of the warriors.
His name literally meant "our lord the skinned" and he was depicted covered with a flayed human skin that signified renewal and rebirth. This way of presenting it obeyed the legend of Xipe Tótec . The myth of Xipe Tótec He tells us that this god was skinned alive to offer his first food to men. In the beginnings of humanity there was nothing to eat and Xipe Tótec He sacrificed himself to get food. He tore out his eyes and skinned himself alive so that the grain of corn could germinate. This fact seems to have its parallelism in the fact that corn seeds lose their outer layer before germinating and serving as food. It was also related to snakes, since they lose their skin to regenerate and somehow this cutaneous renewal was associated with the cure of some diseases that are attributed to Xipe Tópec .
The sacrifices for skinning
The annual festival or festival in honor of Xipe Tótec It was celebrated at the spring equinox before the arrival of the rains and was called "Tlacaxipehualizti". The main sacrifice was a tribute to his dedication to men as he had skinned himself to provide food for humans, victims were chosen among the slaves captured in the wars against neighboring towns and were flayed alive. Some historians claim that first the heart was torn and then the skin. The belief was that this action would provide happiness, good harvests and also the cure of certain ailments such as smallpox, eye problems or different dermatoses. Those affected by these diseases were covered with the flayed skin of one of the slaughtered.
Codex of Tovar with an illustration of Xipe Tótec
That flayed skin symbolized also the "new skin" that would cover and change the earth when spring arrives. Curiously, the Aztecs believed that it was a great honor to be skinned for the god and they chose the best captive warriors and prepared them for days to be sacrificed.
Other human sacrifices dedicated to the god Xipe Totec
In addition to the victims of the skinning, some prisoners / slaves were chosen to face a ritual battle with the village warriors. This unequal combat is known as "gladiator fight". The slave was tied to a ritual stone, given simulated weapons and had to face the warrior who fought with real weapons. It represented the combat between winter and spring, in which the latter always wins.
Illustration of the Magliabechian Codex of a "gladiator fight"
The last of the human sacrifices dedicated to this divinity was the asaetamiento. The skinned skin, after about 20 days, was thrown into a kind of chamber in which historians believe that the Sun stone.
Next to her, tied with arms crossed, an indeterminate number of slaves were placed to shoot arrows so that the blood that flowed from the wounds fell where the human skins were. The blood symbolized the spring rain on the fields, so necessary to obtain a good harvest.
In addition to the flayed human skin, which used to be painted yellow in the representations of the god, among the most common attributes was the rattle to call the rain and the snake because it sheds the skin. He wore a cape and a striped hat with tassels and in his hands he carried a sort of scepter containing the seed. To make more realistic the fact that it is covered by a human skin, at the height of the wrists there were faint and lifeless hands that represented the epidermis of the extremities of the skinning.
Xipe Totec described in the Borgia Codex
The Aztecs were not the only ones who worshiped God Xipe Tótec , but also the Mexicas they adopted him as one of their own during the rule of the Axayáctl emperor. Do you concede to Xipe Tótec ? Did you know that you were offered this type of human sacrifices ? If you have more information about this god, share them with us!
Praising Their Lord, The Flayed One
Sacrifices were not always the same. While the ritual removal of the heart on the top of the temple was the most usual practice, other forms also existed, often reserved for sacrifices to certain gods. There was sacrifice through gladiatorial combat, either against animals or other warriors there was sacrifice by drowning, by burning, or by being flayed alive.
However, the most interesting form of Aztec sacrifice was through the popular Mesoamerican ball game called ōllamaliztli or tlachtli. This unique sport was present in many Mesoamerican cultures and the Aztecs placed a big emphasis on it. Needless to say, the players involved in ritual tlachtli matches were greatly motivated to win. Because if they didn't they were sacrificed to the gods!
The god Tezcatlipoca in Aztec belief was responsible for creating war and as the source of food and drink for all the other gods. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Tezcatlipoca was one of the central figures of the Aztec pantheon. Considered as their most powerful god, Tezcatlipoca was the god of destiny, of north, sorcery and night. His name is translated as the "smoking mirror" or "obsidian." In Aztec belief, this god was responsible for creating war, and as a source of food and drink for all the other gods.
Considered as the all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-knowing god, Tezcatlipoca played an extremely important role in Aztec mythology. And those sacrificed to Tezcatlipoca suffered a particularly gruesome and unfair death. In accordance with the nature of this god, the victim was sacrificed in gladiatorial combat. However, the odds were greatly against him. The victim was tied to a huge stone in the ring, and armed with a mock weapon, a club with feather "spikes." Fighting against him were four experienced, fully armed Aztec warriors.
Another way of sacrificing to Tezcatlipoca was during the Aztec month of Toxcatl, which in their calendar corresponded to roughly to May 5th to 22nd. A chosen victim was presented as the presence of Tezcatlipoca on earth. He was disguised as a god, revered, and given lavish gifts, including women, food, and indulgences of all sorts. However, when the month ended, he was sacrificed to the god.
The god Xipe Totec was known as "Our Lord the Flayed One," and figured prominently in Aztec violence rituals and sacrifices. This ceramic figure dates to 100-400 AD. (Simon Burchell / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Xipe Totec was another crucial deity for the Aztecs. As the god of rebirth, the seasons, craftsmen and agriculture, Xipe Totec held a very important place in the Aztec mythology. His name translates to "Our Lord the Flayed One," and he was represented as a flayed man.
And when it came to sacrificing to Xipe Totec, the fate of the victims was the most gruesome process of all. During the month of Tlacaxipehualiztli (from February 22nd to March 13th), Xipe Totec was especially worshiped. The person who was chosen as a sacrifice would represent the god himself for 40 days: they would dress and live as the god himself. However, on the day of the sacrifice they met their vicious fate: the person was flayed alive. Their skin was then worn by another person who would travel around the city and gather presents and bless citizens. The flayed victim was then sacrificed by having their heart removed, their body dismembered, and the body parts divided for consumption. Not the best of ways to go, right?
It is important to remember that the Spanish conquerors often blew things out of proportion, and greatly increased the numbers of sacrificed victims during these sacrificial rituals. For example, one larger-than-life claim states that the Aztecs sacrificed up to 84,000 prisoners of war during one period of sacrifices. These increased numbers were largely used to “demonize” the Aztecs and give the Spanish conquest more credibility and excuse. But even so, the degree and frequency of Aztec violence and blood thirst was mostly true. And what you have read here is certainly what happened for many centuries.
Site of sacrifice rediscovered in Mexico City: On The Trail Of Xipe Tótec
I first met one of Xipe Tótec’s priests on March 30, 2018. I know the exact date because, happily, my Nikon records the date of every photo I shoot. Me, I’m not that good at keeping accurate records.
Fortunately, I didn’t actually meet the priest because Xipe Tótec was the Mexica god of, among other things, sacrifice. No telling how that encounter might have turned out. I met him when I stood in front of the huge boulder on which he was carved 600 or 700 years ago.That boulder stands on a hill overlooking San Gregorio Atlapulco, a pueblo in the southern part of Mexico City. I was glad not to have made his acquaintance in person since he’s depicted as wearing a human skin. Shaking hands would have been messy.
Fertility goddess, San Gregorio Atlapulco. © Joseph Sorrentino, 2021
Lying on the ground next to him is another boulder carved with Cihuateteo, the Mexica goddess of fertility (in San Gregorio, she’s known as La Malinche). She’s kneeling, her hands folded over her stomach she appears to be pregnant. Sometime in late 1770, Spanish friars had her toppled when they learned that people were still performing ceremonies in front of her. That didn’t stop the ceremonies—to this day, flowers and candles are still often found around her and curanderas sometimes perform their rituals there. The friars tried to topple the priest as well—there’s a small hole in his torso where they probably inserted a pole—but he wouldn’t budge. He stands erect, as he has for centuries.
I was taken to these two boulders by Javier Márquez Juárez, an amateur historian in San Gregorio, who has since become a good friend. Together, we’ve walked for hours around the unexcavated ruins of a prehispanic city, which we’re told is named Teolín. In Nahuatl it means Movement of the Gods. It has been a fascinating journey.
After that trip to the boulders, Javier told me that there were other ruins in the hills surrounding San Gregorio and, a week later, we went looking for them. On our first trip we only found one small structure and after we’d found a couple more on our second, we bumped into Froylin, an elderly gentleman who owns some land there. He said he knew of other prehispanic structures. He took us to some and sent us on our own to view others by saying things like, “Go to that large nopal over there and then go to the left.” We viewed several structures and ended up standing in front of what appears to be a large, buried building with a plaza in front of it. A number of structures dot the periphery. It was then that we realized what the ruins were.
I turned to Javier and said, “Javier, this is a city.”
He nodded his head in agreement. “I did not know,” he said.
Javier and I explored the ruins once or twice a month for almost a year, and each time we went we found something new. At times it seemed like every stone had a story to tell. There are large stones carved with maps, some with faces. Others are carved to depict the nearby terraces on which crops had been grown. On top of those stones are small holes called pozitos (small wells) into which liquid would have been poured—Javier believes it was probably blood—that then trickled down over the stone, most likely a ritual to ensure a good harvest. We may have found sacrificial altars large, flat stones with channels carved into them leading to the ground.
We discovered two fascinating stones, one that Javier literally stumbled upon.
Cruz punteada (pecked cross), an astronomical device, possibly used to track Venus. © Joseph Sorrentino, 2021
One day, Javier was exploring the ruins on his own when he stepped wrong and twisted his knee. He sat down on a stone to rest and when he looked at the stone on which he sat, he found it was a cruz punteada, also known as a “pecked cross circle.” There are several found throughout Mexico, including in Teotihuacán, and were likely astronomical devices. When Javier brought me there to photograph it, he said, “We may be the only ones to have seen this for centuries.” That gave me a chill.
The other stone that’s particularly interesting is one with two carved spirals. These spirals are found in around the world, the oldest being 6,000 years old. They may be a representation of the universe, another astronomical device, a design signifying creation or something completely different.
In addition to these stones, we have found structures that were probably temazcales (akin to sweat lodges), observatories and a small pyramid. Some small structures—only big enough to hold one or two people—may have been where priests prepared themselves for ceremonies. Several of these contain small upright stones that have flattened tops which priests may have used to place hallucinogenic plants or mushrooms used in their rituals.
Multi-tiered structure. A road ran alongside this, leading to a large plaza in front of the structure. © Joseph Sorrentino, 2021
Juan Rafael Zimbrón Romero and Eric Saloma García, two archeologists, have explored the site and have written books containing images and information about it. Zimbrón said that the ruins range in age from 600 to 2,000 years old. “It depends on the area,” he said.
These ruins are what is left of what was probably a sacred city dedicated to Xipe Tótec. Sadly, the site is deteriorating and, in some cases, being destroyed by people who don’t know its value. Sometimes people will dismantle a structure to build one of their own, other times they’ll destroy something because of their superstitions they believe the site may be evil.
It’s amazing to walk around this site, to discover carved stones and boulders and to wonder what people were trying to convey, to enter structures and think about what they may have been used for, to uncover things that may not have been seen for centuries. But it’s bittersweet as well because it is clear that unless something is done to preserve it, it will disappear some day.
What’s needed to save the ruins is funding, something Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) apparently lacks. We’ve done what we can to document the site. I’ve taken hundreds of photographs and Javier and I published a book, available online, called San Gregorio Atlapulco: Cosmovisiones, which contains a detailed section about the ruins. The book will at least serve as a record of what once was here.
In Aztec mythology and religion, Xipe Totec ( / ˈ ʃ iː p ə ˈ t oʊ t ɛ k / Classical Nahuatl: Xīpe Totēc [ˈʃiːpe ˈtoteːkʷ] ) or Xipetotec  ("Our Lord the Flayed One")  was a life-death-rebirth deity, god of agriculture, vegetation, the east , spring, goldsmiths, silversmiths, liberation, and the seasons.  Xipe Totec was also known by various other names, including Tlatlauhca (Nahuatl pronunciation: [t͡ɬaˈt͡ɬawʔka] ), Tlatlauhqui Tezcatlipoca (Nahuatl pronunciation: [t͡ɬaˈt͡ɬawʔki teskat͡ɬiˈpoːka] ) ("Red Smoking Mirror") and Youalahuan (Nahuatl pronunciation: [jowaˈlawan] ) ("the Night Drinker"),  and Yaotzin or Yoatzin ("noble night-god").  The Tlaxcaltecs and the Huexotzincas worshipped a version of the deity under the name of Camaxtli,  and the god has been identified with Yopi, a Zapotec god represented on Classic Period urns.  The female equivalent of Xipe Totec was the goddess Xilonen-Chicomecoatl. 
Xipe Totec connected agricultural renewal with warfare.  He flayed himself to give food to humanity, symbolic of the way maize seeds lose their outer layer before germination and of snakes shedding their skin. Without his skin, he was depicted as a golden god. Xipe Totec was believed by the Aztecs to be the god that invented war.  His insignia included the pointed cap and rattle staff, which was the war attire for the Mexica emperor.  He had a temple called Yopico within the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan.  Xipe Totec is associated with pimples, inflammation and eye diseases,   and possibly plague.  Xipe Totec has a strong relation to diseases such as smallpox, blisters and eye sickness  and if someone suffered from these diseases offerings were made to him. 
This deity is of uncertain origin. Xipe Totec was widely worshipped in central Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest,  and was known throughout most of Mesoamerica.  Representations of the god have been found as far away as Tazumal in El Salvador. The worship of Xipe Totec was common along the Gulf Coast during the Early Postclassic. The deity probably became an important Aztec god as a result of the Aztec conquest of the Gulf Coast in the middle of the fifteenth century. 
In January 2019, Mexican archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History confirmed that they had discovered the first known surviving temple dedicated to Xipe Totec in the Puebla state of Mexico.  The temple was found while examining ruins of the Popoluca peoples indigenous to Mexico. The Popolucas built the temple in an area called Ndachjian-Tehuacan between AD 1000 and 1260 prior to Aztec invasion of the area. 
Minor Aztec Gods: Xochipilli
Xochipilli was the Aztec god of happiness, flowers, pleasure, and fertility. Additionally, he was also god of writing and painting. His name in the Nahuatl language literally means “flower prince”.
This god also had relation with the psychoactive organisms such as mushrooms, tobacco, and other substances. The status of Xochipilli unearthed on the side of the volcano Popocatépetl near Tlalmanalco represents a figure seated upon a temple-like base.
Xipe Totec or ‘Flayed One’ in Nahuatl, was a major god in ancient Mesoamerican culture and particularly important for the Toltecs and Aztecs. He was considered the god of spring, the patron god of seeds and planting and the patron of metal workers (especially goldsmiths) and gemstone workers. He is equivalent to Tezcatlipoca, patron of Cuauhtli (eagle).
He is most often represented rather grotesquely with a bloated face (sometimes striped), sunken eyes and double lips. He can cast a ghoulish figure wearing the skin of one of his sacrificial victims which is elaborately tied with a string at the back, shows the incision where the victim’s heart was removed and with even the flayed hands hanging from the god’s wrists.
Xipe Totec was the son of the primordial androgynous god Ometeotl and, specifically in Aztec mythology, he was the brother of those other three major gods Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl. Sometimes credited with being a creator god along with his brothers, Xipe Totec was also closely associated with death, which resulted in him being considered the source of diseases amongst mankind. However, the god also received many offerings from worshipers calling for him to cure illnesses, especially eye ailments.