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Dogs as guides for souls of the dead to Mictlan

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Adriana Cruz: How did dogs act as guides for the souls of the dead to Mictlan? Do you have any lengthy information/resources I can use? I’m writing a paper on this topic. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The heavens and underworlds shown in the Codex Vaticanus 3738, with a drawing (top right) by Miguel Covarrubias showing a dog crossing a river in one of the underworlds
Pic 1: The heavens and underworlds shown in the Codex Vaticanus 3738, with a drawing (top right) by Miguel Covarrubias showing a dog crossing a river in one of the underworlds (Click on image to enlarge)

The truth is that, whilst we know for sure that this was part of Mexica (Aztec) beliefs, there’s next to nothing written down about it! In the words of one of the greatest authorities in the world on Mexica belief systems and concepts of the afterlife (Alfredo López Austin) ‘The sources have very little in them about the concept of the road to the ninth place of death. Moreover, the texts differ in their description of the path. The most complete list is from the Códice Vaticano Latino 3738, which gives names to the eight levels of the path and to the ninth place of death...’ (The Human Body and Ideology, vol. 1, 1988, p. 333). You can read/see a good description of the 13 heavens and 9 underworlds by following the link below...

Pic 2: A dog accompanies his master, both carrying gifts of paper scrolls, to greet the Lord of the Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli; Codex Laud fol. 26
Pic 2: A dog accompanies his master, both carrying gifts of paper scrolls, to greet the Lord of the Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli; Codex Laud fol. 26 (Click on image to enlarge)

In Book 3 of the Florentine Codex, Sahagún suggests that it was only at the end of a four-year period of mourning after someone had died, during which the deceased’s family burned the person’s clothes and gifts they had bound in with the body (all things to be handed over to the Lord of the Underworld on arrival in Mictlan), that the deceased finally ‘went to the nine places of the dead (Chiconahuapan), where lay a broad river.
’There dogs carried one across. It was said that whosoever went to pass looked over to a dog. And when it recognized its master, thereupon it threw itself into the water in order to carry its master across. Hence the natives took care to breed dogs.
’And it was said that a white dog and a black one... could not carry one across to the place of the dead. It was said that the white one said: “I have just washed myself.” And the one which was black said: “I have just stained myself [black].” Only the yellow one could carry one across.

Pic 3: A dog pectoral (marked) adorns the body of a death bundle; Codex Magliabecchiano p. 72r (detail)
Pic 3: A dog pectoral (marked) adorns the body of a death bundle; Codex Magliabecchiano p. 72r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

(Earlier Sahagún specifically refers to the family of the dead person ‘causing him to take with him a little dog, a yellow* one; they fixed about its neck a loose cotton cord. It was said that it would take [the dead one] across the place of the nine rivers in the place of the dead.’ This dog was sacrificed and burned alongside his master.)
When a warrior died on the battlefield, often a dog-shaped pectoral would be placed on the deceased’s death bundle (pic 3), in the shape of the particular breed of dog believed by the Mexica to guide the soul on the long journey to Mictlan, a hairless xoloitzcuintli. This type of ever-faithful dog, with its exceptional body warmth, was seen by both Aztecs and Maya to be the ideal ‘psychopomp’ (guide of souls), capable even of sensing the departure of the soul from the body after death, and of warming and protecting it on its journey to the Underworld...

Pic 4: Two reddish ‘xolos’ today, largely unchanged since Aztec times...
Pic 4: Two reddish ‘xolos’ today, largely unchanged since Aztec times... (Click on image to enlarge)

The xolo’s noble character - the largest and rarest of the pre-Hispanic hairless breeds, it was not only fiercely loyal but, unusually, had no bark - marked it out as special, sacred, uniquely capable of representing humans in ritual sacrifices. Truly, in good times and in bad, ‘a man’s best friend’...

*López Austin suggests ‘reddish’ (see pic 4).

Sources for further reading:-
• López Austin, Alfredo: The Human Body and Ideology, vol. 1, University of Utah Press, 1988
• Anderson, Arthur J.O. and Dibble, Charles E.: Florentine Codex Book 3, The Origin of Gods, University of Utah, 1978
• De la Garza, Mercedes: El carácter sagrado del xoloitzcuintli entre los nahuas y los mayas, Arqueología Mexicana, 125, Jan-Freb 2014, pp.58-63.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Main image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Vaticanus-Latinus 3738, Graz, Austria, 1979; drawing by Miguel Covarrubias scanned from The Aztecs: People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, 1958
• Pic 2: Image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Laud, Graz, Austria, 1966
• Pic 3: Image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Magliabecchiano, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pic 4: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

The 13 heavens and 9 underworlds

Learn more about the importance of the dog in ancient Mexico...

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Mexicolore replies: The simple fact that Dog was one of the 20 Mexica calendar/day signs shows how important it was in their belief system. There is plenty of archaeological evidence for the burial of dogs along with their owners, and for the burial of terra cotta models of dogs where the family did not own a dog (ie were too poor) at the time of their relative’s death.