Temple of Ancient Mexican 'Flayed God' Who Wore Suit of Human Skin Discovered

A stone skull and torso found at Ndachjian-Tehuacan are thought to represent the god Xipe Tótec. Priests would worship the god by flaying human victims and wearing their skin. Héctor Montaño, INAH

Among the most significant of the various gods worshipped by the indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico was Xipe Tótec ("Our Lord the Flayed One")—a symbol of fertility, agricultural regeneration and patron of goldsmiths, who was often depicted wearing a suit of flayed human skin.

Despite his importance in ancient Mesoamerican culture, researchers had never found a temple dedicated to the deity in Mexico. But recent excavations at a site in Puebla state have uncovered several representations of Xipe Tótec that, according to the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, indicate the existence of a temple dedicated to him—an archaeological first.

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Researchers say they found two stone skulls and a stone torso depicting the god—as well as three associated sacrificial altars and several architectural features—in a pyramid basement within the Ndachjian-Tehuacan complex, an ancient city built by the Popoloca people that was later conquered by the Aztecs. The temple is thought to have been built between 1000 and 1260 A.D. over several stages.

The lead archaeologist on the excavation project, Noemí Castillo Tejero, said the stone torso was associated with the god because it was covered in the skin of a sacrificial victim—including a dangling hand—as well as its skirt of feathers.

"Sculpturally it is a very beautiful piece," Tejero said in a statement. "It measures approximately 80 centimeters [31.5 inches] high and has a hole in the belly that was used, according to the sources, to place a green stone and 'endow [it] with life' for ceremonies."

The skulls meanwhile—which are carved from volcanic stone—measure about 70 centimeters [25.5 inches] tall and weigh roughly 200 kilograms [441 pounds] each.

Xipe Tótec was revered by several cultures in pre-Hispanic Mexico—including the Toltecs and, later, the Aztecs—with the first representations of him appearing in the ninth century, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

One of the most important Aztec festivals—known as Tlacaxipehualiztli ("Flaying of Men") in the Nahuatl language—involved rituals dedicated to the god. During these ceremonies, priests would kill victims either by ripping out their hearts, having them shot with arrows or forcing them to fight in gladiator-style combat. Their dripping blood was thought to represent the spring rains which fertilized crops.

After this, the priests would flay the bodies and wear the skin as a symbol of rebirth, fertility and agricultural renewal, in reference to how maize grains lose their outer layer before they germinate, among other symbolic reasons.

The temple found in Ndachjian-Tehuacan appears to contain several features documented in historical sources that describe these festival rituals, according to the Associated Press.