Aztec oral mythology
Son of Coatlicue
Xipe Totec (pronounced SHE-pay TOH-tek), which means “Our Lord the Flayed One,” was an Aztec god of agriculture and the changing of the seasons. Xipe Totec was also associated with disease, death, and rebirth. He was often the recipient of human sacrifices, with priests removing the skin of the victims as part of a special ritual in his honor.
Like many other important Aztec gods, Xipe Totec was said to be the child of the goddess Coatlicue (pronounced koh-aht-LEE-kway). He was worshipped as the provider of food for the Aztec people. According to myth, he wore a human skin over his golden body, and peeled off the skin to feed the people. He also looked after goldsmiths, and presided over the changing of the seasons. Unlike his brothers Huitzilopochtli (pronounced wee-tsee-loh-POCH-tlee) and Quetzalcoatl (pronounced keht-sahl-koh-AHT-1), Xipe Totec is not the subject of documented myths. However, as the god of the seasons and crop growth, sacrifices to Xipe Totec were plentiful and unusual. Victims, generally slaves, were completely skinned, and a priest would then wear the skin as a ceremonial suit during fertility rituals in honor of the god.
Human Sacrifice Across Cultures
Human sacrifice has deep roots in world cultures and religions. Just about every world region—from the Americas to Europe to China to India—had societies that practiced human sacrifice. Many religions, including Christianity, have references to human sacrifice in their legends and texts. The purpose of human sacrifice was to offer a gift or atonement to the gods or God in order to placate them, seek protection from harm, or ask for something, such as good crops or more rain. Humans, especially certain categories of humans, such as a firstborn son or daughter, were considered the highest form of sacrifice, hence the most acceptable to the deities. Over time, the sacrifice of humans gave way to substituting animals, or to purely symbolic sacrificial rituals.
Xipe Totec in Context
The peeling of Xipe Totec's skin in order to feed the people is a reflection of two important facets of Aztec life. First, it reflects the notion that human sacrifice is essential to keep the natural world functioning; the Aztecs believed that blood was the basic fuel needed to power the sun. Second, the peeling of Xipe Totec's skin parallels the growth of maize (corn) seeds, which break free of their outer covering as they sprout. Maize was an important part of the Aztec diet and was often referenced in myth.
Key Themes and Symbols
The central theme in the myth of Xipe Totec is rebirth. Just as spring symbolizes a new cycle of life, Xipe Totec sheds his old, dead skin— much like a snake—and offers it to sustain life. This also represents the Aztec idea that death is necessary to sustain life or to create new life. The color gold is closely associated with Xipe Totec, since he is the protector of goldsmiths and the provider of golden maize. Both are considered treasures, each in its own way.
Xipe Totec in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
In Aztec art, Xipe Totec was usually depicted as a golden figure wearing a suit of human skin over most of his body, often with parts of the skin suit—such as the hands—hanging loose to expose his true body underneath. Many statues of the god have been discovered, but he is less often seen in modern art and literature than other Aztec gods.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
For the Aztecs, human sacrifice was not viewed as an act of violence so much as an act of giving life to the gods, and in cultures around the world, human and animal sacrifice is associated with religious beliefs and rituals. In modern times, however, acts such as the skinning of another person are more likely to be associated with murderers and Nazi death camps. How do you think this affects the modern view of Aztec gods such as Xipe Totec? Do you think this also creates a negative bias toward the Aztec culture in modern culture? Is such a bias justified? Why or why not?
SEE ALSO Aztec Mythology