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How to Feel Comfortable in Someone Else’s Skin

This post is part of the series Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map Division and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

Is it true one really lives on the earth? Not forever on earth, only a little while here. Though it be of jade it falls apart, though it be of gold it wears away, though it be of quetzal plumage it is torn asunder. Not forever on earth, only a little while here.  — Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472), in the Cantares Mexicanos

One of the most dramatic sculptures found in the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology of the Early Americas, at the Library of Congress, comes in the form of an Aztec Xipe-Totec deity, carved in volcanic basalt, and dating from 1400-1500. A live-death god, who represented rebirth, the origins of Xipe-Totec are unknown, but the concept is found in many cultures, and from deep in the Mesoamerican past. The god, and it’s representations that survive in the archaeological record, seem to be intimately connected to agricultural renewal and with warfare.

Sculpture of a human figure sitting with knees drawn up to chest. Torso and head are yellow while neck, arms, and legs are red.

Xipe-Totec Sculpture, 1400-1500. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

Xipe-Totec, which means the “flayed one our lord”, skinned himself as a sacrifice to give food to humanity. This is a process that is thought by scholars today to have been symbolic of the way maize seeds lose their outer layer before germination, and representative of animals that molt in order to grow, like snakes shedding their skin.

The act of flaying, and the human sacrifice that accompanied it, was part of a complex multi-day ritual called in Nahuatl, Tlacaxipehualiztli. The ritual involved the flaying or skinning of a large number of captives and other forms of human sacrifice. It is a process and ritual that was recorded by Catholic clerics, like Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590), only a few decades after the arrival of Europeans in Mexico.

Sahagun was a Franciscan missionary who is best known for his work as an early anthropologist and ethnographer. He compiled a massive volume of interviews and recollections of the Indigenous Nahua and Aztecs. Entitled, Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España [General History of the Things of New Spain ], the most famous extant manuscript is the Florentine Codex, which consists of 2,400 pages organized into twelve books, with approximately 2,500 illustrations drawn by Native artists using both Indigenous and European techniques.

Four colored and hand drawn illustrations depicting a human in Aztec ceremonial clothing in each drawing.

Page from the Florentine Codex. World Digital Library image of the original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Italy.

According to Sahagun, during the festival, captives from war were selected to become sacrifices to Xipe-Totec. After having their hearts cut out, each of the bodies was carefully flayed to produce a nearly whole human skin. The skin was then worn by priests for twenty days, during which time other rituals and ceremonies were performed.  Some of those who wore the skins were given the name xipeme because they wore the skins of victims sacrificed to Xipe, others were called tototectin in honor of Totec

The iconography of the figure found in the Kislak collection is typical of many of the examples of Xipe-Totec sculptures that survive in the archaeological record. The colors of red and yellow that cover the surface of the sculpture are representative of the skin of the deity who flayed himself (red) and that of the skin of the sacrificial victim (yellow). The sunken eyes and open mouth are also typical of most examples as is the complex pattern of stitching, illustrating where the heart was removed, and showing how the skin was wrapped and tied onto the wearer.

Close-up Images of the Xipe-Totec showing stitching and attachments of the flayed skin. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

The sculpture is a masterpiece of carving and displays graphically the religious ritual of Tlacaxipehualiztli, which was part of the complex religious and philosophical worldview of the Aztec culture. Centered on a world they found constantly in motion and ever changing, it highlights the continual interplay of death and renewal that is human existence, and dramatizes the Aztec’s shared values and their relationship to the environment around them. For them Tlacaxipehualiztli was however, more than just a symbolic ritual. It was nothing less than humankind’s direct causal participation in and contribution to the cosmic circulation of energy in the universe.

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To read more about the Aztec ritual of Tlacaxipehualiztli and its place in Aztec religion and philosophy see James Maffie’s Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion (Boulder: Colorado University Press, 2014) and Miguel Leon Portilla’s Aztec Thought and Culture: a Study of the Nahuatl Mind, Translated by Jack Emory Davis (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).

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