Let’s do a little role-playing: it’s the 1400s or so, and you’re a prisoner of war of the mighty Aztecs. They’re celebrating one of their many Aztec festivals, which you’ve heard can get a little out of hand (something about sacrifices to a needy god named Xipe Totec).
Word gets around among the P.O.W.s that you’ll have to participate in some Aztec rituals to kick off the festival Tlacaxipehualiztli, which looks like two excellent Scrabble hands strung together, but is actually, you discover to your horror, an Aztec flaying ceremony. Uh oh!
How bad can it be, really? What, exactly, would the Aztecs have done to you? Let’s find out!
They Make You Defend Yourself with Feathers
The horror begins with a humiliating charade: you’re naked and tied by your foot to a giant ornate stone, wielding a pathetic wooden sword covered, hopelessly, with feathers. Record scratch, freeze frame: Yup, that’s you. You’re probably wondering how you ended up in this situation.
(You got into this situation because you’re a prisoner of war of the Aztecs, who are looking, as always, to appease Xipe Totec, the Flayed One, the God of Spring, Patron God of Seeds, Son of Ometeotl, Brother of Quetzalcoatal, Source of All Disease. This means, unfortunately, you’re going to die an absurd and humiliating death, surpassed in its horror only by what the Aztecs are going to do to your body after it’s as useless to you as that adorable feather sword.)
Your executioners are the Tlauauanque, which means “cutters or gashers of skins.” The Tlauauanque are fully-outfitted Aztec Eagle and Jaguar warriors wielding swords that look like yours, but are instead made with razor-sharp obsidian. They use them to kill you.
They Stick a Giant Straw Where Your Heart Used to Be
Now that you’re dead, the real horror begins: your heart is cut out and raised up as an offering to the sun by a terrifying dude called the Night Drinker (the Day Drinker, presumably, passed out hours ago).
Meanwhile, the rest of your body is treated, bizarrely, like a Capri Sun pouch: a hollow cane is stuck into the gash where your heart used to be, so the sun can “drink” your blood. This “fortifies” the sun, you see, so rest in peace knowing your death wasn’t in vain.
They Toss Your Lifeless Body Down the Stairs
Now that you’ve been relieved of your heart and the sun’s nice and hydrated, your body gets tossed “gently” down the temple stairs, “breaking to pieces” and bouncing “head over heels,” according to the Spaniards observing the scene, trying not to retch. Your limp and heartless meatsack lands in a lump at the base of the temple, leaving an “enormous outpouring of blood” in its wake. The worst, unfathomably, is yet to come. They’re just getting started.
They Make Robes Out of Your Skin
There’s no gentle way to say this: for the next 20 days, Aztec priests are going to wear your skin like a robe. After carefully skinning you, they dye your dermis yellow to make swanky teocuitlaquemitl, or “golden robes.” The priests then take turns wearing you and your fellow P.O.W.s around town, starting “mock battles” and accepting gifts. Young warriors try to rip chunks of your flesh off to prove their bravery. Over the next few weeks, your skin will shrivel and symbolically “fuse” with the priest’s, but it will also begin “stinking like dead dogs.”
They Dance with Your Severed Head
While your skin is taking a tour around town, what happened to the rest of you? Your head, unfortunately, is now a plaything for the priests and nobles, who clutch it in their right hand while they dance, surely, like no one’s watching. Like the Hustle or the Electric Slide, there’s even a name for the dance: motzontecomaitotia. Surely that’s the last bit of indignity your noggin has to go through, right? Right?
They Nail Your Skull to the Wall
Wrong. Your head is upcycled into a chic bit of interior design, “fastened” to the walls of a temple. Don’t worry, though – you’re definitely not alone up there. In the temple of Huitzilopochtli, for example, the conquering Spanish found “sixty-two thousand skulls of people defeated in wars and sacrificed.” Alas, poor Yoricks!
They Make a Stew Out of Your Thigh Meat
So what about the rest of your body? Don’t worry, it’s not going to waste. One of your thighs will be made into a stew, while the other will be offered to the king. The guy responsible for your capture, oddly enough, won’t eat you out of respect, but he will partake in your fellow P.O.W.s., possibly cooked with peppers and tomatoes and served on beds of maize. The guys that made you into an entrée, you’ll be happy to know, will henceforth be “considered gods.”
They Make a Doll Out of Your Femur and Some Heron Feathers
So you’ve been eaten. Finally you can rest in peace. But wait: what about the inedible parts of you? Is there any way the Aztecs can humiliate those parts?
Sure! Your femur, at least, will be used to construct an effigy of you, “dressed in a sleeveless knotted cord jacket and small spray of heron feathers,” which, we’ll have you know, is the height of Aztec femur effigy haute couture. To finish the ensemble, the Aztecs will wrap the rest of your femur in paper and give it a little mask. Your effigy will be nicknamed, awesomely, “The God Captive.”
They Pour Your Blood All Over the Place
Let’s not forget about your blood. There’s still plenty of that to desecrate. Back when the Aztecs were wrenching your heart out of you, they made sure to fill up a large green bowl with a “feathered rim” with your blood so they could go all over town, wiping it on the lips of statues in shrines and drizzling it on the schools (calmecas) and government buildings (calpulcos). So not only has your blood fortified the sun, it also helped “nourish the demons.” You’re a hero!
They Bury Your Rotten Skin at the Foot of a Temple
After the priests have worn your skin as a robe for 20 days, they go “dancing, jumping, [and] stinking” through the streets one last time before celebrating your demise with a banquet. They finally remove your rotten skinsuit, bathe, and feast merrily. The month-long Tlacaxipeualiztli celebration ends in revelry, with singing, boozing, and the giant, yellow scab that used to be your skin finally getting laid to rest, in a basket buried in a cave at the foot of the temple of Xipe Totec, the Flayed One, the God of Spring, Patron God of Seeds, Son of Ometeotl, Brother of Quetzalcoatal, Source of All Disease. Hope he’s happy!