In the skin of another – literally!

In the National Museum of San Salvador (El Salvador), there is a simple clay sculpture of a man. At first glance, it appears that he is adorned with feathers. However, upon closer inspection, his clothing appears peculiar. And indeed, it is. He is wearing the skin of a man that has been stripped off and is decaying on his body.

This sculpture represents Xipe Totec, the vegetation god of the Aztecs, who is also associated with spring, germinating seeds, and the changing seasons. Unlike his European counterparts, who typically don floral attire, Xipe Totec adorns himself with human skins. Just as the Earth adorns itself with a fresh green landscape, Xipe Totec used to clothe himself in a new human skin. He personified the necessary suffering and struggle within nature. Therefore, Xipe Totec is often 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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