Xolotl – The Underworld Dog God of the Aztecs
29 APRIL, 2018
According to Aztec mythology, Xolotl was a deity normally associated with Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important gods in the Aztec pantheon. As a matter of fact, Xolotl was regarded to be the twin of Quetzalcoatl. Unlike his twin, however, Xolotl is traditionally given negative attributes, which is evident in his physical form as well as how he is symbolized elsewhere. Be that as it may, Xolotl plays an important role in the Aztec belief system, and he appears in several myths.
Xolotl, as originally published in the Codex Fejervary-Mayer, 15th century, author unknown. ( Public Domain )
Fire and Lightning. Dogs and Deformity
The Aztecs worshipped Xolotl as the god of lightning and fire. Additionally, he was associated with dogs, twins, deformities, sickness, and misfortune. These associations may be seen in the way Xolotl is depicted, as well as in the myths he is in. For example, in Aztec art, this god is usually depicted as having the head of a dog. In addition, the word ‘xolotl’ may also mean ‘dog’ in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It should be mentioned that dogs were viewed negatively by the Aztecs, and considered to be a filthy animal. Therefore, Xolotl’s connection with dogs is not an entirely positive one.
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Xolotl, shown in skeletal form. Mexico before 1521, Landesmuseum Württemberg (Stuttgart) Kunstkammer. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
A Sickly God
Xolotl’s connection with sickness may be seen from the fact that he is portrayed as having an emaciated, skeletal frame, whilst his reverse feet and empty eye sockets are representations of his association with deformities. There is a legend that explains how Xolotl came to have empty eye sockets. In this legend, the other gods decided to sacrifice themselves in order to create humanity. Xolotl did not partake in this ceremony, and cried so much that his eyes came out of their sockets.
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Role in the Creation Story
In a similar creation myth to the one mentioned in the previous paragraph, when the gods created the Fifth Sun, they realized that it did not move. Therefore, they decided to sacrifice themselves in order to get the Sun to move. Xolotl acted as the executioner and killed the gods one by one. In some versions of the myth, Xolotl commits suicide at the end, as he was supposed to do. In other versions, however, Xolotl takes on the role of a trickster, and escapes from the sacrifice by first transforming into a young maize plant (xolotl), then an agave (mexolotl), and finally a salamander (axolotl). In the end, however, Xolotl failed to escape, and was killed by the god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl.
Aztec god and twin of Xolotl, Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan. ( CC0)
Xolotl and Quetzacoatl
Although the Aztecs regarded twins as a form of deformity, Xolotl’s twin, Quetzalcoatl , was considered to be one of the most important deities. In some myths, the Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl appear together. The two gods are believed to be born of Coatlicue (which means ‘skirt of snakes’), a primordial earth goddess. In one version of a particularly well-known myth, that of the creation of mankind, Quetzalcoatl and his twin travel to Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, to retrieve the bones of the dead so that humans can be created. It may be added that it was also Xolotl who brought fire from the underworld for human beings.
Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl were also believed to have constituted the twin phases of the planet Venus, as the Aztecs believed that the former was the evening star, and the latter the morning star. As the evening star, Xolotl had the important task of guiding and guarding the Sun on its perilous night journey through the realm of the dead. It is perhaps also due to this role that Xolotl was regarded by the Aztecs to have been a psychopomp, i.e. a being who guided the newly deceased on their journey to the underworld.
To sum up, Xolotl was certainly not one of the most fortunate of the Aztec gods, considering all the negative things he was associated with. Nevertheless, it may be remarked that he played quite an important role in Aztec mythology, as he was the deity who guided the Sun on its nightly journey across the underworld and was also the one who guided the dead in the afterlife.
Top image: Aztec sculpture representing the head of the aztec god Xolotl, exhibited in the Mexico room of the Museo Nacional de Antropología de México. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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