K. Dickson
Comparative Mythology: Mesoamerica

excerpt from D. Carrasco, City of Sacrifice. Boston 1999. pp. 140-47

Images of sacrifice

In the month of Tlacaxipeualiztli (the Flaying of Men), the people celebrated a festival in honor of Xipe Totec, Our Lord the Flayed One. One of the central acts was the sacrificing and flaying of captive warriors and slaves who were led through an elaborate series of rituals in the calpultin, or communities, and main ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan. Prior to the actual sacrifice and flaying, the warriors were transformed into sacrificial images. In one account, slaves and captive warriors were bathed, purified, and dressed as a teotl ixiptla, the living image of the god Xipe Totec, forty days before the feast day and displayed in public in each of the city's barrios. The captive warriors were taken to Xipe Totec's temple and “put to the test” when tortillas, representing their hearts, were torn from them. Then they were displayed four times before the people, adorned as sacrificial victims, and accompanied by their captors, who were also ritually adorned to designate their honor. At the height of this festival, the victims were given new names, forced to dance with their captors, and eventually sacrificed either at the top of Xipe's temple or on the gladiatorial stone. Their hearts were “torn from them,” and their blood poured into a yopicuauhxicalli, a ceremonial bowl or “the eagle vessel.” Their bodies were dismembered and divided up so that several parts could be ceremonially eaten. Before being dismembered, the sacrificed captives were flayed and their skins worn by individuals who moved through the neighborhoods of the city and fought intense mock battles in the streets or collected gifts from the homes of citizens.

At first glance, this short description indicates the central role the transformation of the human body played in the ritual theater of Aztec religion. A more sustained view shows the importance of social and symbolic movements and the redistribution of the charisma of the warrior throughout the ceremonial landscape of Aztec Mexico. We will also see how this feast of the flaying of men transforms the city into the perfect battlefield where “no one fears to die in war.”

This spectacular festival was a nextlaoaliztli, or debt payment, that covered the entire second month of the calendar cycle during which “all the captives died, all those taken, all who were made captive, the men, the women, all the children.” On the day before their ritual deaths, the captives were transformed into xipeme or tototecti, meaning skinned ones or the “dead in honor of Totec,” through dancing, an all-night vigil, and the cutting of hair from the crowns of their heads by their captors. The next day, offering priests seized them by the hair on the tops of their heads and forced them to climb the pyramid to the temple of Huitzilopochtli. Some captives resisted or fainted, but some ”did not act like a woman; he became strong like a man, he bore himself like a man, he went speaking like a man, he went exerting himself, he went strong of heart, he went shouting…he went exalting his city… 'Already here I go: You will speak of me there in my home land.’”

The captive who reflected this political sense of landscape was stretched out on the sacrificial stone by six offering priests who extracted his heart, called “precious eagle-cactus fruit,” and offered it to the sun (the text says it “nourished” the sun) before it was placed in the eagle vessel. The slain captive was now called eagle man and his body was rolled “breaking to pieces, they came head over heels. . . they reached the terrace at the base of the pyramid.”

This fragmented body was carried by calpulli elders to the local temple where the captor had previously vowed to bring a captive. Then the body was taken to the captor's house “in order to eat him,” and it was cut to pieces and distributed, with one thigh going to the palace for Moctezuma and one piece of flesh eaten by the blood relatives of the captor in a bowl of dried maize stew. Then the captor was decorated with bird down, covered with chalk, and given gifts and was given the names of “sun,” “chalk,” and “feather” because he “had not died there in war, or else because he would yet go to die, would go to pay the debt [in war or by sacrifice].” This means that he was declared a potential sacrificial victim.

On the second day of the main festival, the “striping” (painting of red longitudinal lines on the body) of more captives took place following an all-night vigil during which hair was taken from the crowns of their heads. This hair was guarded by the captor as potent pieces of “eagle men” whose destiny after the sacrifice was to dwell “in the presence of the sun.” It was said that “the eagle man is taken upward” in honor, as opposed to the fate of dwelling in the “place of the dead,” that is, the underworld, for he had taken the power of an eagle man, “he who died in war went... sat resting in the presence of the sun.” The vertical symbolism is emphasized repeatedly. This hair would guarantee honor, flowers, tobacco, and capes, and “his valor would not in vain perish: it was as if he took renown from the captive” (contleiocujliaia = glory, fame, grandeur). The captor was taken to the temple of Tecanman and adorned with white turkey down.

The captives and the tototecti, or “dead in honor of Totec,” were displayed in different places in the city, arranged in rows upon white earth or grass. Young Aztec warriors could also assume the role of xipeme by putting on the skins of sacrificed warriors. They traveled from door to door collecting food for themselves and for the owners of the skins, that is, the captors. These movements through the neighborhoods were considered provocative displays, and they often resulted in boisterous, unruly mock battles between the xipeme and young Aztec warriors. The young warriors snatched at the navels of the xipeme, trying to get a piece of skin, in order to “bring out their rage, their anger.” The xipeme chased them through the ceremonial area, beating warriors with rattle-sticks and arousing anger. This group was followed by an image of Xipe and the priestly figure Youhallan, or Night Drinker, who menaced the warriors, occasionally capturing them and ransoming them at a temple for turkey hens or mandes.

Then the gladiatorial sacrifice began with “the entire city” present at the spectacle to see the captives and their captors walk in procession to the gladiatorial stone following eagle and ocelot warriors who danced, pranced, and displayed shields and obsidian-bladed clubs raised in dedication to the sun.” Sahagún presents a detailed choreography of this dance/procession to the top of the temple of Yopitli. This boisterous display of great warriors gave way to a high moment when they descended the temple, dancing with a group of teotl ixiptlas, or images of gods:

Thereupon came forth, arrived, were ranged in order all the impersonators, the proxies of all the gods. They were called the lieutenants, the delegates, the impersonators. In just the same way they went. They went in order: they went together. Thus they came down: they started from there at Yopico, from the very top of the Temple of Yopitli. And when they had come to arrive down below, on the ground, on the earth, they encircled the round stone of gladiatorial sacrifice. When they had encircled it, they seated themselves.

All were led by the Youallauan, the principal priest, at whose hands “would be hacked open all the eagle men.”

Other people, strangers to the city, were also present. Foreign rulers and nobles “from cities which were his enemies from beyond (the mountains) ... those with which there was war, Moctezuma secretly summoned” to the ceremony and placed behind an arbor of flowers and branches so they would not be seen by the citizens of Tenochtitlan.

Amid the sounds from conch shells, singing, and whistling the sacrifice began when the captor seized the captive by the hair, led him to the sacrificial stone where he raised pulque four times and drank it with a long hollow cane. A quail was beheaded for the captive and cast away. The captive was made to drink pulque and forced up on the round stone where a priest dressed in bear skin, the “Old Bear” tied him with the “sustenance rope” to the center of the stone. Given a war club decked with feathers, the captive was attacked by a dancing jaguar warrior armed with a war club filled with obsidian blades. The text reads:

Then they fought each other, they kept menacing each other; they threatened each other. They looked at each other well (to see) where they would smite each other, would cut each other in a dangerous place, perchance in the calf of the leg, or in the thigh, or on the head, or in the middle.

If the captive was valiant and courageous and managed to defeat four seasoned warriors, then the “left-handed one” finished off the captive, “he faltered, he fainted, he fell on the surface, he threw himself down as if dead, he wished that breath might end, that he might endure it, that he might perish, that he might cast off the burden of death.”

Then the Night Drinker, in the image of Totec, sacrificed the captive, extracting his heart, saying, “Thus he giveth the sun to drink.” These words followed the action of an offering priest who set a hollow eagle cane in the captive's breast cavity. This gesture, the submerging of the hollow cane in the blood and the raising of the blood toward the sun, meant that the sun was nourished. According to Diego Durin's account, the lords of foreign provinces and cities dispersed full of “temor y espanto,” dread and fear.

Then, in a gesture of inclusiveness, the captor, dressed with his warrior's insignia, takes the eagle bowl filled with the captive's blood to “every place...nowhere did he forget in the calmecas, in the calpulcos. On the lips of the stone images... he placed the blood.” After visiting the neighborhoods and schools, the captor left his insignia at the palace.

The body was taken to the calpulco where it was flayed and then taken to the captor's home, where it was cut up for a ritual meal, and those who ate “would be considered gods.” One thigh bone was sent to Moctezuma as a gift, while the other thigh was kept by the captor as a trophy and put up on a pole in the captor's house twenty days later.

At this point in the drama, a revealing ritual relationship is acknowledged when the captor, who cannot eat any part of his captive, says, “Shall I perchance eat my very self?” For when he had captured the enemy, he had said, “He is as my beloved son,” with the captive answering, “He is my beloved father.”

Then the captor lent the skin to his assistants, who, wearing the skins, begged for gifts for twenty days, after which the gifts were divided among them. In this ritual, called Neteotoquiliztli, which according to Duran meant “the impersonation of a god,” some warriors added an extra layer of their insignias to the image of Xipe as it paraded in the streets. This begging ritual involved skirmishes, mock battles, and visits to family homes where the common people gave ears of maize and nobles offered clothes, feathers, and jewels. According to Duran, women would bring children out to the xipeme, who took them into their arms, spoke special words, circled the courtyard of the house four times, and returned the children to their mothers, who then gave gifts to these living images of Xipe. The heads of the captives were also carried during the dances and it was said that “they dance with the severed heads.” The visitors from cities with whom the Aztecs were at war dispersed as dancing, feasting, and adorning continued on late into the night near the great palace.

On the third day, the scene began at the “great palace” with more lavish displays as Moctezurna danced into the ceremonial center, leading the rulers from Texcoco and Tepaneca. According to Motolinía, these rulers wore the skins of the most important flayed victims. After a long, eloquent speech, Moctezuma distributed presents of cloaks and food to the warriors for their accomplishments. A description of the ceremonial dance goes,

Then the offering priests...adorned themselves, they danced in quite mixed things, quite various arrays; butterfly nets, fish banners, clusters of ears of maize, coyote heads made of a paste of amaranth seeds, S-shaped tortillas, thick rolls covered with a dough of amaranth seeds which they covered on top with toasted maize, and red amaranth (only it was red feathers) and maize stalks with ears of green or tender maize.

Toward the end of the month, flowers were offered:

...all the various flowers which for the first time blossomed, the flowers which came (out) first, the flowers which came (out) ahead, were then given as offerings. No one first smelled them unless he would first make an offering, would give them as gifts, would lay them out as offerings... which spread out blossoming, spread out bursting, spread out popping into bloom — the flowers of spring.

Then they ate tamales of wild amaranth seeds. And the people of the calpulli of Coatlan made offerings to Coatlicue, “they placed trust in her; she was their hope, they depended upon her.”

On the twentieth day, the captor gave a banquet for kin and friends. The captors and the men wearing skins went dancing, jumping, stinking, and wearing the skins through the streets to Xipe's temple where the dried, crackling, disintegrating human skins were placed in a basket and buried in a cave at its base. The xipeme bathed themselves and returned to the captor's courtyard where the captor took a thigh bone and planted “a pole of the flaying of men signifying that he had flayed a captive.” At the top of the pole was a “sleeveless knotted cord jacket and small spray of heron feathers. He wrapped the thigh bone in paper and gave it a mask and this was called 'the god captive.'” The captor held a feast for his friends and kin, and there was intoxication of the old men and women while a man dressed in the captor's insignia offered white pulque in four places, singing often until the month came to an end. The text reads, “Here they finished when he had done similarly in all places. It was done in no more than one day. But song did not end in the song house until they went ending when it was the feast of Uey tocoztli.”