In the skin of another – literally!

In the National Museum of San Salvador (El Salvador) there stands a simple clay sculpture of a man. At first glance you think he is wrapped in feathers. At second glance, his clothes seem strange. And indeed they are. He wears a man’s skin that has been stripped off and is decaying on his body.

The sculpture represents the Xipe Totec, the vegetation god of the Aztecs and at the same time god of spring, germinating seeds and seasons. Unlike his usual European colleagues, he does not put on flowers, but skins. Just as the earth covers itself with a new green corridor, Xipe Totec used to cover himself with a new human skin. He personified the necessary suffering and the struggle in nature. So Xipe Totec is usually depicted with red or yellow body paint and human skin.

Xipe Totec in Mexico Museum. Mark the second nose on his face. (c) S. Burchell

This representation is based on a cruel ritual that did indeed take place. In the second sacred month of the Mexican year, Tlacaxipehualiztli (“skinning of people”), priests sacrificed human beings by ripping out their hearts and skinning their bodies. They then put on these yellow skins called teocuitlaquémitl (“golden clothes”) themselves. When the skins decayed on their wearer, they were thrown into an inner chamber, possibly where the Stone of the Sun was safeguarded. Some of them were also tied to a frame and fired at with arrows, as it was believed that the blood that gushed out of their bodies symbolized the fertile rains of spring.

People thanked the God for bringing the Feathered Serpent, symbol of abundance, and for preventing droughts. One might be tempted to prefer the less bloody spring rituals of other places…


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