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An Ahuizotl spotting its next victim in the Florentine Codex.

The Ahuizotl

The Ahuízotl - ‘Thorny One of the Water...’

The Florentine Codex, a manuscript both written and compiled by Nahuas during the sixteenth century, still provides us with a vast amount of first hand information concerning the ancient customs of the Aztecs before the conquest of Mexico. In it one can find important passages on Aztec history, religion and deities but there are also chapters that discover more mundane topics such as flora and fauna, types of trade and occupation. One of the many, interesting themes is that of the Ahuízotl, an aquatic animal that lived in the lakes and rivers around Tenochtitlan. (Written/compiled by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Stone Ahuizotl, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, photo by Denis Flinnin
Stone Ahuizotl, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, photo by Denis Flinnin

The doom of many a fisherman, this creature was thought to murder those who ventured too far into the water’s depths. The namesake of the Tlatoani (emperor) Ahuítzotl (1486-1502), this animal has been the centre of much speculation. Was the Ahuízotl real or mythical or does it have relatives that still survive today?

A man drowning in the Florentine Codex (Book XI) - spot the Ahuizotl!
A man drowning in the Florentine Codex (Book XI) - spot the Ahuizotl! (Click on image to enlarge)

It has short fur, small, pointy ears, a smooth body and black tail, at the end of which sprouts a hand much like a person’s. This animal inhabits the depths of watery springs and if anyone reaches the edge of its domain, he is dragged by the tail’s hand and taken down to its depths... Book XI, Florentine Codex.

The Origin of the Ahuízotl, or Thorny One of the Water’s, Name

In Náhuatl, the word Ahuízotl can be broken down into three roots. According to the historian, Father Ángel María Garibay, they were the following:-

A = Atl = Water: the ahuízotl was a water dweller.
Huiz = Huiztli = Thorn. This animal’s wet hair became spiky when it climbed out of the water and shook itself.
-Otl = Yotl = To be like.

Tlalocan, water paradise
Tlalocan, water paradise (Click on image to enlarge)

The Trip to Tlalocan

The Ahuízotl is thought by some investigators to be a mythical animal, bane of the water goers. It would lie in wait of a victim who, once in its sights, would be pulled into the water by the head on the end of the Ahuízotl’s tail. After a struggle that threw up fish, frogs and frothy water, the human was dragged below the surface and drowned. The Ahuízotl used its sharp fangs to pull out the person’s eyes, teeth and nails. After a few days the body would float to the surface but not just any Aztec was authorized to pull it out of the water as it was considered to be too precious to touch. This task could only be completed by the priests of the Tlaloque, water deities.

The Ahuizotl glyph, Codex Telleriano-Remensis folio 39r
The Ahuizotl glyph, Codex Telleriano-Remensis folio 39r (Click on image to enlarge)

According to Aztec religious belief, those who met their death by drowning travelled to the beautiful earthly paradise of Tlalocan, home to the water god Tlaloc, his wife, Chalchiuhtlicue, and their helpers, the Tlaloque. It was thought that they were chosen for this fate by these deities either because of their goodness in life should be rewarded by an eternity in Tlalocan, or because they had dared to hoard precious stones, symbols of water, instead of offering them to the gods.

King Ahuitzotl, Codex Mendoza (folio 13r)
King Ahuitzotl, Codex Mendoza (folio 13r) (Click on image to enlarge)

A name fit for a Tlatoani.

The Huey Tlatoani or Great Speaker, Ahuítzotl, ruled the Aztec empire for sixteen years, from 1486 to 1502. Like his namesake, this emperor was swift in war and his aggressive nature led him to conquer 45 Mesoamerican territories.

What was the Ahuízotl?

Researchers have tried to find the Ahuízotl amongst the fauna of the Mexican Central Highlands, comparing it to other aquatic quadrupeds and hoping to find its match. Some physical depictions of the ahuízotl have been mistaken for the native Mesoamerican dog, or itzcuintli. The National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City has one such example. A statue that initially looks like Xólotl, the canine companion of Quetzalcóatl with whom he travelled through the underworld, is actually an ahuízotl (Betancourt 1999: 58). It appears sitting on its hind legs over its trade mark coiled tail.
Known for its dexterity as a swimmer, the beaver has also been likened to the ahuízotl. Nevertheless, its vegetarian tendencies, flat rodent teeth, and lack of a coiled tail whose tip shows a hand, indicates that the beaver could not be the being we are looking for.
The tlacuache, a shy, nocturnal animal, had a great legacy among the Aztecs. Some investigators believe that it was this creature that contributed to the creation of the mythical ahuízotl. Astute and intelligent, the tlacuache’s hairless tail was thought to be flexible and skilful. Normally a land dweller, Alfredo López Austin has identified an aquatic tlacuache that can be found in the Southern state of Chiapas. This hesitant animal, however, does not share the traits of an aggressive attacker.

The otter, on the other hand, has often shown itself keen to assail humans, especially when its nest is in danger. With short, sharp teeth, and an oily sheen to its fur, this animal has much in common with the ahuízotl. It is carnivorous and, if hungry, would scavenge meat from a drowned body, whose softest parts are the eyes, gums and fingertips. Alas, the otter’s round ears are not to be confused with those of the ahuízotl and the Florentine Codex identifies it as an Aizcuintli, or water dog.

Stone representations of the Ahuizotl, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City
Stone representations of the Ahuizotl, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Having unsuccessfully tried to classify the ahuízotl as a living animal, present in Mexico’s ecosystem, it has become evident that this treacherous animal could have been a mythical guardian of the waters, a warrior sent by Tlaloc to claim the lives of Aztecs.

Based on the article by:
Escalante Betancourt, Yuri, Animal asesino del agua: el ahuízotl, Arqueología Mexicana No.35, 1999, Los Animales en el México Prehispánico. Mexico City, Mexico.

Other sources:
• Molina, Fray Alonso de Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana y mexicana y castellana, preliminary study by Miguel León Portilla, 4th edition, Editorial Porrúa, 2001, Mexico City, Mexico.
• Sahagún, Fray Bernadino de Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, Prologue by Angel María Garibay, 6th edition, Editorial Porrúa, 1985, Mexico City, Mexico.
• Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs, 2nd edition, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK, 1996.

Picture sources:-
• Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Stone Ahuizotl, American Museum of Natural History, from their website (link below)
• Tlalocan, painting by Miguel Covarrubias, scanned from our copy of Indian Art of Mexico and Central America by Miguel Covarrubias, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957
• Ahuizotl glyph from Codex Telleriano-Remensis scanned from our copy of Codex Telleriano-Remensis: Ritual, Divination and History in a Pictorial Aztec Manuscript by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995
• Image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our copy of the Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
• Stone representations of the Ahuizotl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City: photos by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore

Learn about the recent discovery of what could be King Ahuitzotl’s tomb

UPDATE! ‘Water-Dog Detective’

‘Water Creatures of the Deep’, American Museum of Natural History
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