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Xipe Totec. Notre Seigneur l’Écorché

Anne-Marie Vié-Wohrer


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1Xipe Totec, “our Lord, the flayed” is a deity frequently represented in the pictographic manuscripts as well as in the statuary. Its ritual, the Tlacaxipehualiztli, a spectacular pageant which was given every year in its honour has been subject to much discussion and interpretations.

  • 1 The book is based on a dissertation presented for the degree of Doctor in Social Anthropology and (...)

2The present publication1 does not pretend to offer a “new” interpretation, but focuses on a basic aspect, closer to the prehispanic reality, which has been rather neglected, the aspect of its representation. We think that the drawn or the sculptured representation made by the indian hand is the most genuine expression of indian thought, not only religious, but also profane. The descriptions of the deity or the narratives of its ritual (made by the Spaniards, or by the Indians under Spanish command), which appear in the sources of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are necessary but not entirely trustworthy; they are already interpretations and have to be used with caution, only as a clue and as complementary information. In order to fully apprehend the prehispanic past, the foremost step is to look at its representations.

3The main purpose of this research is to make a repertory, a sort of “dictionary” of bi-dimensional representations (images), related to the Xipe Totec-Tlacaxipehualiztli Complex. This is the name which we have given to the sum of representations of persons (divine or human), of animals, objects and ritual scenes related to Xipe Totec and the akin deities: Tlatlauhqui Tezcatlipoca, Itztapaltotec and Camaxtli.

4The second purpose, which is twofold, consists in establishing a glossary of indian terms (nahuatl, mixtec, cuicatec, tarascan...) and a repertory of selected works found in the literature of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, both related to that “divine complex”.

5The book records the steps taken to realize these aims, from the sorting out of the criteria of identification of the images belonging to the Complex to their research and discovery in the indian “books”, mural paintings and engravings, up to their analysis. The process will consist of studying the parameters of drawing and, through the technique of “cutting out”, to discover the most minimal expression determinative of the deity, the glyph (an aztec equivalent of the Christian relic?).

6The book appears in two mutually dependent volumes, the first of text, the second of plates. We shall briefly present the contents of each, keeping in mind that there is a continuous back and forth between both.

7The first volume contains the General Introduction, the Methodological Basis, the Research Techniques, the Analysis of the Pictographs and the General Conclusion. At the end of the introduction and as a necessary prelude to a better understanding of the pictographs we have included an extensive and vivid description of the annual festival of the god.

8After the General Conclusion, we have added two annexes: one is a summary of the texts in latin characters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries related to the divine Xipe Totec-Tlacaxipehualiztli Complex; the other is a glossary of indian terms extracted from these texts.

9Finally, in the Conclusion, besides the results which we obtained through the analysis of the pictographs and through establishing its relations to the indian language, we present some personal thoughts about the origin and significance of the ritual of flaying by examining similar rituals on the american continent.

10The second volume, which illustrates the steps of the research, contains the repertory of the pictographs.

11The first volume presents three chapters:

Chapter I - Methodology

12Our purpose was to gather, putting them together in a repertory, and analyze the graphic representations of the divine Xipe Totec-Tlacaxipehualiztli Complex.

I - Methodological precedents

13We briefly relate the precedents in the study of the pictographic manuscripts, from the time of their discovery by the friars in the sixteenth century, till the present time. The important investigations initiated by E. Seler at the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century, have been significantly advanced by A. Caso, M.E. Smith, B. Spranz and J. Galarza.

II - Our approach

14The theoretical basis of our work is that the image which appears in a “book” (codex, rollos, lienzos) and in some mural paintings or engravings, belonging to a pre or post-Columbian indian pictographic tradition is a component of a writing system (presently in the process of being deciphered).

15In the first stage, the gathering of the pictographs, we had to assemble a corpus of criteria of identification which would give us a general outline of the images which we were to find in the documents. Paradoxically, we found these criteria in the sources of the sixteenth and beginning of seventeenth centuries, mainly in the “Códices mixtos”, where indian pictographic tradition was getting mixed with writing in latin characters. Indeed, the pictographs representing the divinity were often accompanied by annotations which gave their name.

16In the second stage, the analysis of the pictographs, we adopted a method based on the work of Joaquin Galarza for whom the pictographs are “text-images” and, as such, loaded with a phonetical content: a word or part of a word.

17So we proceeded to study systematically the drawing and its parameters (form, colour, association and distribution in space-the indian perspective) in order to try and discover in the language of the tlacuilo in which the pictograph is drawn, the sounds which it contained.

Chapter II- Research Techniques

18The repertory of pictographs is the result of a research organized in three steps, which are answers to the following questions: what are we looking for? where do we have to look? how can we make use of what we have got?

I - Criteria leading to the identification of the pictographs

19To answer the first question entailed a previous knowledge of the criteria which identify the Complex. We found these criteria in the Códices mixtos and in the narratives of the most trustworthy authors of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries: Motolinía, Durán, Muñoz Camargo, Torquemada... who provided descriptions of the attributes of the god and of its ritual.

20Moreover, by researching these criteria in the pictographs and by a close study of the drawing we were able to identify more elements belonging to the divine complex than we were initially looking for.

II - Researching the pictographs in the documents

21The answer to the second question is that we had to look for some kind of document able to support a text, the only requirement being its authenticity.

22The fourty five documents which we have selected (pre or post-Columbian indian manuscripts, mural paintings and engravings) are presented in groups relating to their geographical origin with the exception of the Codex Borgia Group, which we classified by style. In each group we comment on the document, the language of the tlacuilo, its date, its thematic content, the presence or the lack of glosses and a description of the pictographs belonging to the Xipe Totec-Tlacaxipehualiztli Complex.

III - Census of the pictographs and establishment of analytical cards

23We identified two hundred and fourty seven pictographs. Two hundred and fourty two in the pictographic manuscripts, four in the mural paintings and one on a fragment of carved bone.

24Each pictograph was reproduced to scale (whenever possible) and in colour. We then made two types of “analytical cards”, both constituting the basic tools of our research: one relating to the general pictograph, the other to the constitutive part.

25On the first type of card, alongside the reproduction of the pictograph in its totality, without modification, we filled in a list of information referring to the manuscript to which it belonged (origin, date, thematic content, style), and to the pictograph itself (scale of reproduction, presence of annotations, location on the page of the manuscript, orientation, position when reproducing a person, composition when relating to an object, identification and corresponding name in indian language, function in the “narrative” of the manuscript, similar representations in other manuscripts, bibliographical references).

26On the second type of card we sorted out one by one the constitutive parts obtained after a “cutting out” which followed an “anatomical” order for persons, a “thematic” order for the rest. Alongside the reproduction we also filled in a list of informations: reference to the general pictograph, scale, measurements, position, composition, colours, material involved, identification and name in indian language, similar representations in that document or in others, different graphical associations with other documents, references to the sources of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

Chapter III - Analysis and results: the comparative plates

27The plates, which constitute the repertory, are the result of the “cutting out” process which we mentionned in the chapter about Methodology. They are arranged in three groups, in accordance with the successive steps in the analysis: General Pictographs - Constitutive Parts - Determinative Glyphs. The commentary which appears in volume I follows that tripartite arrangement. It continuously refers to the plates.

1 - Plates of the General Pictographs

28The first group of sixty six colour plates is a kind of catalogue which testifies to the abundant variety of pictographs related the Xipe Totec-Tlacaxipehualiztli Complex. They have been reproduced in their entirety, surrounded by their immediate environment, to scale or reduced if too large for the page.

29For didactic reasons, the commentary has been split into two parts: one is dedicated to the anthropomorphic pictographs (entire persons or fragments of them), the other covers the non-anthropomorphic pictographs (natural or artificial objects). In both cases, the pictographs have been described according to their function: religious (the most frequent), anthroponymic, martial, chronological or toponymic.

2 - Plates of the Constitutive Parts

30The second group of eighty five plates shows the “exploded” pictographs, after they have been "cut out”. This technique has enabled us not only to understand the “making” of the representation, but also to isolate the constitutive part which carries a determinative element of the Complex.

31For the “cutting out”, we have followed a systematic pattern: anatomical for the anthropomorphic representations, thematic for the non-anthropomorphic ones (separation between the god’s attributes and the “support”). The objects linked to the central pictograph, such as ritual tools or animals have been “cut out” too.

32In the Commentary, we identify and describe the content of each constitutive part with continuous references to the plates.

3 - Plates of the Determinative Glyphs

33The third and last group of thirty five plates contains the smallest graphic expressions of the Complex resulting from the “cutting out” of the pictographs; they represent the glyphs which are sorted out according to the god which they determine: Xipe Totee, Tlatlauhqui Tezcatlipoca or ltztapaltotec.

34With regards to Xipe Totec, firstly we have isolated the “basic” glyphs: the yopitzontli, the feather and the colours of the bird tlauhquecholli, the skirt called tzapocueitl, the stick called chicahuaztli, the temalacatl, the flayed human skin, the mask of human skin and the quauhtzatzaztli. Then we have isolated glyphs which are a composition of the “basic” ones; for instance the yopitzontli, appearing with the haz "(sheaf), the manta (blanket) and the bulto (bundle) of Xipe; the tlauhquecholli: the nose-ornament, associated with the maxtlatl (vest), flags, shield, etc.

35For Tlatlauhqui Tezcatlipoca, we have isolated the glyphs of the “smoking mirror”, the red painting for the body and the face; and for ltztapaltotec, the helmet of stone.

General conclusion

36It appears in two parts; the first and the most important, is dedicated to the images and to the words which they carry. The second examines the Tlacaxipehualiztli ritual, and its distribution on the american continent.

1 - Images and words

37We think we have reached our main goal: to discover the elements which identify the ritual Xipe Totec Tlacaxipehualiztli Complex. This was made possible mainly through our analysis of the drawing, which we completed by using informations picked out from the sources of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

38In establishing the plates, we discovered what a large variety of pictographs belongs to the Complex, and how multiple their functions are. By isolating the glyphs, we have been able to determine two styles of representation: the mixtec and the mexica.

39Besides, we had to notice the empoverishing of the indian plastic expression as the colonial epoch was moving forward. The european expression was gradually growing roots, and a hybridous system of representation was beginning to emerge. The european expression brought new techniques (different uses of colour, perspective...) and new types; like the portrait which begins to appear in some Códices mixtos where Xipe is frequently painted alone on an empty landscape.

40The narrative of the festival and the making of the glossary have played an important part in the study of the image: they have helped us to identify and sometimes to “read”, in the indian language, names of deities, persons, rituals, places, dates...

41This “reading” has been possible at three levels:

  • The names might result from the direct reading of the pictograph, sometimes corroborated by the presence of glosses or short annotations.
  • The names result from the reading of the glosses and annotations which are associated with the pictograph.
  • The names do not result from the components of the pictograph nor from the gloses. They were taken either from other pictographs already “read”, like the ones which appear in both a glyphic and a thematic complex, or directly from the context. In that last case, two criteria have been chosen and followed besides the graphic ones: the function of the pictograph suggested by the thematic context, and the narrow concordance between the pictograph and a descriptive indian term.

2 - Considerations about the Tlacaxipehualiztli, its distribution on the american continent, its origin and functions

42The flaying and (though less frequently) the death by shooting with arrows are rather distributed in space and time from the Middle East to the Americas passing through Oriental Siberia. It appears in greek, tchukche, and american indian mythologies... as well as in the Christian world.

43In Pre-Columbian America, these practices, occasionally combined and associated with ritual cannibalism, are present all over the continent, however shooting with arrows is less usual in Southern America.

44This ritual seems to have appeared in a cultural hunting-tradition, as numerous traits suggest. We can trace it back to the behaviour of the actors as well as to the use of some identical techniques before and after the sacrifice is performed. These traits also appear in some communities on the american continent whose cultural traditions include scalp and head-trophy hunting.

45We then develop what seems to us the most important functions of the Complex: the concept of change, the transmission of vital strength, fertilization and regeneration of the earth.


1 The book is based on a dissertation presented for the degree of Doctor in Social Anthropology and Ethnology in Paris. The title was: Xipe TotecTlacaxipehualiztli: a glyphic study of a divine aztec complex; the festival, the god.

© Centro de estudios mexicanos y centroamericanos, 1999

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