Xipe Tótec, an important god to many pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cults, was worshipped with a gruesome annual ritual: sacrificial victims, typically prisoners of war or slaves, were killed and then flayed, their skins donned by priests until they tightened and wore down.
Known as the “Flayed Lord,” Xipe appears in art from the period. Needless to say, it’s not hard to pick him out; according to the 16th-century ethnographer Diego Durán:
“He was dressed in the skin of a sacrificed man, and on his wrists hung the hands of the skin. In his right hand he carried a staff, at the end of which were attached rattles. In his left hand he carried a shield decorated with yellow and red feathers, and from the hand emerged a small red banner with feathers at the end. Upon his head was a red head-dress with a ribbon, also red. This was tied in an elaborate bow on his forehead, and in the middle of this bow was a golden jewel. On his back hung another headdress with three small banners protruding, from which were suspended three red bands in honor of the three names of this deity. He also wore an elaborate, splendid breechcloth, which seemed to be part of the human skin in which he was attire.”
Now, Richard Gonzales of NPR reports, archaeologists have uncovered what is believed to be the first known temple to Xipe in central Mexico’s Puebla state.
The discovery was made amidst the ruins of the Popoloca people, a pre-Hispanic group that was conquered by the Aztecs. Built by the Popolocas between 1000 and 1260 A.D., the temple sits within a larger complex known as Ndachjian-Tehuacan. Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History revealed that experts found two skull-like stone carvings depicting Xipe, each weighing more than 400 pounds, reports Jack Guy of CNN. They also discovered a stone trunk that had an extra hand dangling down from one arm—believed to be a representation of the god wearing a sacrificial victim’s skin.
Xipe wore multiple hats. “Recent treatments of this deity by Americanists have tended to discuss him either primarily as a god of the renewal of vegetation in the spring (i.e., as a fertility figure), as a god of liberation (i.e., particularly, as a penitential figure), as the central figure in a cult of 'trophy skins,' … even as a phallic god," Franke J. Neumann of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University details in a paper about Xipe published in the History of Religions journal.
The deity was intimately connected to the Earth’s cycle of regeneration. As such, human sacrifices took place in the spring, during the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli, to ensure a fruitful harvest. The flayed skins, which rotted away to reveal a living human beneath them, represented fresh plants emerging from decayed husks.
In addition to the statue fragments, the excavation team discovered the remains of two altars, which “would have been used as part of ceremonies in which priests skinned their victims,” writes CNN’s Guy. But Susan Gillespie, a University of Florida archaeologist who was not involved in the excavation, tells the Associated Press it is hard to be sure that ritual sacrifice took place at the recently discovered site.
“[A] singular temple to this deity (whatever his name in Popoloca) does not necessarily indicate that this was the place of sacrifice,” she says. “The Aztec practice was to perform the sacrificial death in one or more places, but to ritually store the skins in another, after they had been worn by living humans for some days. So it could be that this is the temple where they were kept, making it all the more sacred.”
Though the rituals associated with this site may not be entirely clear, the temple ruins constitute a major archaeological discovery. Gillespie honed in on the stone torso adorned with flayed skin, calling it “the most compelling evidence of the association of this practice and related deity to a particular temple.” And more revelations may be forthcoming. According to Guy, the team plans to continue its excavation and expects to find further fragmentary depictions of the Flayed Lord.