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🇬🇧 Xipe-Totec and the practice of cannibalism among the “Aztecs” by historian, César Bautista

Actualizado: 31 may 2020

If you have ever come to México or have ever consider the idea, and you are the kind of person who likes to get into ancient cultures, then maybe you have heard about the practice of cannibalism in the prehispanic groups in the continent of América.

Indeed, it was a real thing, but let’s make few boundary marks to this matter, since it normally is understood as a common practice for everyone at any time, and naturally it was not that simple.

The first fact we must consider is that we cannot generalize cultural practices to all of the different cultural and ethnical groups living back then, even though there were certain similarities among all these groups. We must never say, for example, Mexicas (commonly known as Aztecs) and Mayans, were practicing human sacrifices and cannibalism the same way; we cannot even say the mayans were all the same, but that is a matter of another discussion. We are going to talk about one god, in the Mexica context.

So, who is Xipe-Totec? According to the information we have, this was one of the main gods for the Mexicas. The name is translated as our lord without skin, and its main ritual, was called in nahuatl (ancient language still spoken): tlacaxipehualiztli, which means something like skinning human beings.



It is also known that this ritual was taking place during the ceremonies to welcome the spring season. But, how was this ritual? What was happening during it? Let’s make the long story short:




The whole ritual started months before the sacrifices, with the flower wars, pre-arranged warlike events with the only purpose of capturing prisoners for the human sacrifices to take place in the big plaza during the main event. These prisoners were supposed to be the best of the best in the enemy forces. After being treated pretty well for a few months, the time for the ceremony arrived. One by one, they were taken to the gladiator sacrificial stone wearing a funny cotton costume, tied one of their feet and given a wooden stick and few pine cones to use as projectiles. They had to fight four elite Mexica warriors fully armed with shields and obsidian blades: the prisoners were meant to die, but not by the hand of the warriors they fought.

After being grievously wounded in this series of fights, when the prisoner was exhausted and bled enough, few priests came to him, brandishing dark and sharp obsidian blades, to open his chest below the ribs and pull out his hearth to be offered to the god of rain, then proceed to the skinning of the body and to wear the peeled skin as a suit for the 20 days this ritual lasted. Finally cut off the head and quarter the body to be shared and eaten with corn mainly by the royal, religious and military families.


Now, what is the relationship between our lord without skin, and these very specific human sacrifices?

After decades of research, archaeologists have come to many interesting conclusions. Firstable, let’s say Xipe-Totec, has been identified as a god related to some diseases, but most important for the matter, to the spring and to the corn. Nature, metaphorically changes skin form winter to spring, bringing new life for everybody, including fertility; in the other hand, there is a necessary process that must be done with corn to be eaten, it is called nixtamalization, and consist in boiling the grains in calcium oxide to loosen up the skin of each grain and the peel it to be eaten. By the way this method also enrichers the nutritional value of corn, but naturally this is something they probably didn’t know back then.

In the study of religions, the use of metaphors is very common to explain the relationship between myths and rituals. In this case, there are three metaphors involved: the prisoner, corn and nature; these elements must change their skin to open room to the new cycle, death brings life, and talking about agricultural societies, the observation and measuring of these cycles is determinant to ensure the continuity of existence.

So now you know. On your next trip to México, make sure you visit the Major Temple Museum at the archaeological site in México City. There you can find a whole section dedicated to this matter. For now, stay home, stay safe and travel tomorrow.




Documental sources:

Contreras Martínez José Eduardo, En torno al concepto de guerra florida entre Tlaxcaltecas y Mexicas, https://www.dimensionantropologica.inah.gob.mx/?p=1537

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