Jeanette Favrot Peterson discusses the role and status of dogs among the Maya and Aztecs before the arrival of the Spanish.

Jeanette Favrot Peterson

Jeanette Favrot Peterson, Precolumbian Flora and Fauna: Continuity of Plant and Animal Times in Mesoamerican Art (La Jolla, CA: Mingei Intl Museum of World Folk Art, 1990), 66

Mingei Intl Museum of World Folk Art
Jeanette Favrot Peterson
Reading Public


In life and death, the dog was Precolumbian man’s companion. Dogs were kept as pets, guardians of the home, and hunting aids. Of the four domesticated animals in ancient Mesoamerica, the dog was the most important. The others were turkey (Fig. 24). Muscovy duck, and the bee.

The favorable tenth day sign was Dog in both the Mayan and Aztec calendars. Under the Aztec sign Dog, an individual was certain to be successful, well downed with friends and material goods. Dogs were bred and sold commercial to be fattened and eaten. In the sixteenth century, Duran (1971:278-279) marveled at the hundreds of dogs of all sizes that were up for sale in the central Aztec marketplace.

Duran also lamented as idolatrous the use of dogs not only as meat for special banquets, but also as sacrificial animals. In many Precolumbian cultures dogs were sacrificed to honor various deities. Often the heart was extracted and blood smeared on the god-effigies; later the canine meat was cooked and eaten. Colonial reports indicate that dogs continued to be sacrificed long after human sacrifice was outlawed.

Curiously, it is unclear exactly which breeds existed in the New World. The Chihuahua is generally cited as the most common type of dog (Canis familiaris). More mysterious is the identity of the tepescuintil or hairless Mexican dog (pelon mexicano. It has a higher body temperature than most dogs and provided a source of warmth. Was the hairless dog also the counterpart of the supernatural Xolo-itzcuintili, “Monster dog” or “Twin dog”? Was this the dog who acted as a guide for the soul?

According to Nahua beliefs, the faithful dog accompanied his master into the underworld. Consequently, dogs were buried with the deceased, a cotton cord tied around its neck to lead the soul across the nine underworld rivers. Widespread among present-day Mayan cultures is a similar belief that a dog aids one in crossing a body of water before reaching the final underworld destination. The Lacandon Indians place palm figures as symbols of dogs at each corner of their burial mounds. Archaeologists have uncovered dog bones within Classic Mayan tombs. When dogs were represented as emaciated, with prominent ribs and vertebral column, their skeletal appearance suggests their supernatural role as guardian for the dead (Fig. 41).

The dogs’ roles as guardian of the hearth and the dead were carried over to deities that had canine attributes. Dogs were closely associated with fire and particularly the fire of the domestic hearth. The goddess of the hearth fire, Chantico (In the house), was given the calendric name Nine Dog. In the Aztec creation myths, only dogs survived the destruction wrought by a rain of fire. A dog was also the animal form of Xolotl (Monster), twin of Quetzalcoatl. This canine deity was sometimes depicted with skull face and in the codices, with a death’s head. Aztec sculptures of Xolotl included human ears with Quetzalcoatl’s curved earrings and his own dog ears cut short into knobs (Fig. 42).

The largest single group of ceramic dogs come from the shaft tomb cultures of ancient West Mexico. Extraordinarily varied in body form and position, these dogs are represented alone, in couples, or grouped wit human figures and other animals. Sizes range from the over-lifesized (Fig. 43) to miniature representations. Colima dogs in particularly, are famous for their realism, vivacity, and smooth, rounded contours. Some appear to dance; others squirm on their backs or gnaw on a corncob (Figs. 40, 44, 45). These playful poses reveal the intimacy between dog and human.

Dogs were frequently included in sculptural “family portraits.” In Preclassic examples from central Mexico, human figures (generally but not exclusively female) hold dogs, often in the same manner as a human baby (Fig. 48). Since dogs also provided nourishment, it is possible that in these works dogs connoted fertility. In other contexts, dogs take their place next to masters of some status (Fig. 47) or have been adopted as insignia of the Colima hunter-warrior(Fig. 46).

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