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The axolotl or ajolote, Florentine Codex Book XI

Axolotl

it’s not a fish, not a mammal, not a salamander, it’s a unique amphibian called an axolotl - a Nahuatl word, which oddly is how the little creature is most commonly called outside its homeland of Mexico, where it’s more usually known by its Hispanicised names ajolote, achiote or achoque. Now sadly endangered, this innocent - albeit, most commentators say, ‘ugly’- inhabitant of the lakes of central Mexico carries plenty of cultural symbolism and importance, going back to the days of the Aztecs and beyond... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The Mexican axolotl, smiling at the camera...?
Pic 1: The Mexican axolotl, smiling at the camera...? (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s not easy to find information on the cultural importance of the axolotl. It’s far easier to learn about how to feed and care for it - it’s now a popular ‘exotic’ aquatic pet, and is bred in captivity today in several countries, including Mexico, where a number of important conservation projects exist and where its special medicinal qualities and evolutionary characteristics have long been recognised.
But let’s start by clarifying exactly what an axolotl IS. We give here the taxonomy (its place in the animal kingdom) of the Ambystoma mexicanum - the most common axolotl in Mexico - as provided by colleagues from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (link below) -

Pic 2: An axolotl in London!
Pic 2: An axolotl in London! (Click on image to enlarge)

Phylum: Chordata - animals with a hollow nerve chord running down their body.
Subphylum: Vertebrata - animals with a bony ‘spine’ enclosing their nerve chord.
Class: Amphibia: - four legged vertebrates (although some have become legless), adults usually air-breathing and mainly terrestrial, breeding in water, young are aquatic with gills.
Order: Caudata (Urodela) – newts and salamanders - amphibians with short legs, a long trunk and a well-developed tail.
Family: Ambystomatidae – a diverse group of 35 species of smooth-skinned, stoutly built salamanders found in North America.
Genus: Ambystoma – a genus containing 31 species of axolotl, 14 of which are found in Mexico (of which 5 exhibit some degree of neotony - explained below*)
Species: Ambystoma mexicanum – the endemic species found at Xochimilco (see below).

Pic 3: ‘An axolotl in the hand is worth....’
Pic 3: ‘An axolotl in the hand is worth....’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The axolotl has been variously described as ‘an immature form of salamander’ (Warwick Bray), ‘a kind of large larval salamander that never grows up’ (Sophie D. Coe), ‘an aquatic salamander’ (Bernard Ortiz de Montellano); further back in time as ‘ugly and ridiculous’ by the Jesuit teacher Francisco Javier Clavijero, and ‘problematic reptile’ by Alexander von Humboldt. Based on its Nahuatl name - a combination of atl (water) and xolotl (variously translated as dog, twin or double, toy/doll and also monster) - the inoffensive creature has been labelled ‘water-dog’, ‘water-monster’, ‘Mexican walking fish’, ‘water-toy’, ‘water-double’ and more...
Well known today for its regenerative powers (especially limb-regeneration), its (self-) healing ability (especially for wounds), its medicinal qualities, its nutritional value (a high source of protein), even for the use of its flesh as an aphrodisiac, it comes as no surprise to find that the Mexica (Aztecs) valued it equally too. For starters it was consumed, like many other inhabitants of Lake Texcoco, as a staple. Indeed, if you glance at the Spanish text at the very top of our main picture above, you can see it described in the Florentine Codex as comida de los señores - ‘food for the lords...’

Pic 4: The Aztecs harvested a huge range of aquatic creatures from Lake Texcoco; illustration by José Narro
Pic 4: The Aztecs harvested a huge range of aquatic creatures from Lake Texcoco; illustration by José Narro (Click on image to enlarge)

As de Montellano explains: ‘The Aztecs ate practically every living thing that walked, swam, flew or crawled, including... a large variety of fish, frogs... fish eggs, water beetles and their eggs, and dragonfly larvae, all obtained from the lakes in the Basin [of Mexico]’ AND axolotls. ‘Thanks’ to the Spanish - who considered the water of the lake dangerous and disease-ridden, and proceeded to drain it - just the rump of these lakes can be seen today at Xochimilco, on the southern outskirts of Mexico City. The human inhabitants of Xochimilco testify today to the traditional methods used to cook axolotls: ‘Any hairs are cut off, the organs are removed, they’re then washed, salt is added, with strips of dried chillies. They’re laid out two by two on corn leaves, and are steam cooked’ (Castelló Ytúrbide). We know these corn-wrapped foods as tamales.

Pic 5: An Aztec hearth, with three sacred hearthstones; illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 5: An Aztec hearth, with three sacred hearthstones; illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

Book XI of the Florentine Codex includes a short entry on the axolotl, together with a colour illustration (main pic, above). Sahagún, who compiled the Codex, tells us that the Aztecs consumed tamales stuffed with ‘good, fine, edible, savoury...’ axolotls, yellow chillies and other foods during the annual festival of Izcalli, dedicated to one of the oldest gods in Mesoamerica, Huehueteotl/Xiuhtecuhtli, the Old Lord of Fire. What is less well known is that the Codex also tells us, in Book I, Chapter 13, that when the Aztecs made offerings to this deity, children were allowed and encouraged specifically to throw axolotls and other small creatures that they had captured into the hearth at home, perhaps in a symbolic acknowledgement of the axolotl’s transformational powers. Izcalli was, after all, a celebration of growth and re-birth.

Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Xolotl, in Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology
Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Xolotl, in Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Florentine Codex the axolotl appears alongside two other sacred food items, maize and the maguey (century plant). Significantly, all three play a symbolic role in the myth of the creation of the fifth ‘sun’ or world era. Book VII of the Codex tells the story of how Xolotl, an avatar of Venus and evening star twin brother of creator god Quetzalcóatl, in order to avoid being sacrificed along with a group of other gods by the Sun - prior to Wind (Ehécatl) blowing life-giving movement into Sun and Moon to kickstart our present world - decides to hide by transforming himself into, first, a double stalk of maize, then a two-part maguey plant and then... into an axolotl! (He’s caught and killed in the end).
Just as it plays a key role in Mexica mythology, ‘transformation similarly plays a significant role in the stages of food. Food substances are always changing: they constantly move through different stages, from raw material to prepared meals. The cycle of a grain growing from a seed in the ground to a plant that in turn is harvested and prepared in various ways is a powerful example of a food’s ability to transform and be transformed from one state to another’ (Morán).

Pic 7: Note the ‘headdress’ shaped gills on the axolotl
Pic 7: Note the ‘headdress’ shaped gills on the axolotl (Click on image to enlarge)

The odd appearance of the axolotl marks it out as ‘possibly the strangest and most interesting of the creatures that Mexico’s fauna has given to world zoology’ (Moreno). Interestingly, in Nahuatl the term xolotl relates more to ‘unusual’, ‘deformed’, and ‘abnormal’ than to the Western idea of ‘monstrous’; it also can refer to any small, egg-shaped object - hence the connection with a toy or even a doll (Cabrera). In mythology Xolotl has canine associations - both the deity and the hairless domesticated xoloitzcuintli were believed to accompany the souls of the dead on the long journey down to Mictlan. It’s immediately clear that Xolotl and xoloitzcuintli share the same root in Nahuatl: xolo, a term generally taken in Nahuatl dictionaries to mean ‘page’ or ‘male servant’. This fits in well with Xolotl’s role as page to his twin brother Quetzalcóatl. But are we looking at a creature that embodies ‘monstrosities’, or simply at a creature that is unique, special, different, albeit ‘weird’ in our terms? Whilst twins - the ‘consequence of intervention by Xolotl’ (Mateo Higuera) - were, in Taube’s words, ‘feared as strange and abnormal portents of religious significance’, they were also ‘monster-slayers and culture heroes who create the environment and materials necessary for human life.’ On a gentle, more prosaic plain they could be emblematic of all ‘double rarities found in nature’ (Cordry) such as the double leaves of the maguey plant, the double stalk of maize, one’s reflection in water, a body’s shadow, etc.

Pic 8: Quetzalcóatl (‘Q’) presides over the ball court, facing Xolotl (‘X’), who leads a dance in honour of Quetzalcóatl. Codex Borbonicus, pl. 26-7
Pic 8: Quetzalcóatl (‘Q’) presides over the ball court, facing Xolotl (‘X’), who leads a dance in honour of Quetzalcóatl. Codex Borbonicus, pl. 26-7 (Click on image to enlarge)

Just as Venus is ‘sometimes the first and sometimes the last star to disappear among the rays of the rising sun’ (Caso), Xolotl, symbolically, is ‘the last to die at the hands of the Sun’ in the myth of the creation of the fifth era. His death was not easy to accomplish, due to his skill as a sorcerer, able to transform himself three times into different disguises, each with dual/twin features. No wonder he has always been a difficult deity to classify.
Xolotl’s association with duality and doubles/twins, combined with the notion of Movement (one of the twenty daysigns) - which most scholars feel underpins all Mesoamerican mythology and cosmology - surfaces again in relation to the ritual ballgame (Xolotl and Quetzalcóatl were the patrons of the game - pic 8). As Mateos Higueras explains, the very shape of the ball court was an imitation of the rigid straight lines of the Movement sign, and ‘Movement was a constant [in the game] amongst spectators, players and the ball itself.’

Pic 9: Tlaloque (rain priest), Codex Vaticanus A pl. 50 (detail)
Pic 9: Tlaloque (rain priest), Codex Vaticanus A pl. 50 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, there is another important Aztec legend which features not Xolotl himself nor the axolotl itself, but a priest named Axolohua, whose role in the founding of Tenochtitlan is little known. In his Crónica Mexicayotl Tezozomoc names Axolohua - ‘He Who Has Axolotls’ - as one of two key ‘god bearer’ protagonists charged by Huitzilopochtli with locating the fabled Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus on a Rock.
The other (high) priest named in the legend is Cuauhtlequetzqui (Eagle Who Goes Into The Fire), and in his classic study The Aztec Arrangement Rudolph van Zantwijk draws an important distinction between him and Axolohua:-
’Cuauhtlequetzqui represented the sun, and Axolohua [an Otomí rain priest] represented water from heaven. Thus the two formed a dual spiritual leadership for agriculturalists, who depended on the nourishing effect of sun and rain for prosperity.’ The two priests ‘occupy opposite positions’, and at the same time are complementary. Duality par excellence.

Pic 10: Mexican molcajete (mortar) and tejolote (pestle)
Pic 10: Mexican molcajete (mortar) and tejolote (pestle) (Click on image to enlarge)

But we end with a quandary. One of the several aztequismos (Mexican Spanish words derived from Nahuatl) usually associated with xolotl is tejolote - the ubiquitous pestle used every day in Mexican homes with its partner the molacjete as a mortar or stone grinder for making spicy sauces. Several scholars (Seler, Mateos Higuera, Santamaría, Cabrera...), suggest the term is derived from tetl (stone) and xolotl (monster, double...), but others (Moreno, Siméon, Kartunnen...) suggest an alternative derivation: teci (to grind) and ólotl (something round). Both are plausible, though returning to the complexity of the word xolotl, one would hardly describe the domestic molcajete as a ‘monster stone’. What DOES strike one about the shape of the pestle is its simple, symmetrical, rounded, double-ended form (pic 10).

Pic 11: A multi-agency international workshop in Mexico (2014) on the axolotl,
Pic 11: A multi-agency international workshop in Mexico (2014) on the axolotl,  (Click on image to enlarge)

What of the axolotl’s status today? In recent years the creature has received serious and growing attention, particularly from the international scientific community (pic 11), because of its amazing, even ‘god-like’ powers that distinguish it from its fellow amphibians and other vertebrates. To clarify: like all species belonging to the amphibian group called salamanders, the axolotl lays its eggs in fresh water and these hatch as larvae that obtain oxygen from the water using gills, develop four legs, and feed on small plants and animals. Unlike its cousins however, the axolotl does not undergo the change from an aquatic to an air breathing life (metamorphosis). It remains forever young, growing up to 25 cm long, usually black in colour (although white - so called ‘albino’ - specimens exist), and feeding on a variety of crustaceans, insect larvae, fish and mollusks. Whereas other amphibian species cannot reproduce in this non-metamorphosized state, the axolotl has no problem in doing so, becoming sexually mature in the larval form (a condition called ‘neotony’*).

Pic 12: Research and innovation today: conservation work, handicraft production, medicine - all based on the axolotl
Pic 12: Research and innovation today: conservation work, handicraft production, medicine - all based on the axolotl (Click on image to enlarge)

Another incredible ability of the axolotl is its powers of regeneration. Not only can it reproduce a new limb or tail when these have been lost by accident or through attack by a predator, the axolotl can also regenerate brain and heart cells - a capacity that has attracted a great deal of interest in the medical world - and which all of us would dearly like to possess! One wonders what other valuable and amazing secrets this creature has yet to share...
What we mustn’t forget is that Mexicans have for generations been well aware of the special qualities of the axolotl. Axolotl linctus (pic 12, right) is still taken today as a cough remedy and to treat lung conditions.

Pic 13: Xolotl - illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, from the Codex Borgia pl. 10
Pic 13: Xolotl - illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, from the Codex Borgia pl. 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Perhaps the last word should go to the Mexican scholar Roberto Moreno: observing half a century ago that it was eminently likely that the Mexica people would have witnessed the axolotl’s power to turn into a salamander, he translated axolotl as transformista del agua or ‘water-transformer/aquatic shapeshifter’. Cool!

Special thanks are due to Dr. Ian Bride and Professor Richard Griffiths, leading members of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), School of Anthropology and Conservation (SAC), University of Kent. Supporting the work of Mexican agencies CIBAC and UAM - and of the Sisters of Immaculate Health, Pátzcuaro (learn more via the BBC link below) - alongside Toronto Zoo and Chester Zoo, DICE was a co-partner in the multi-agency conservation project ‘Aztecs and Axolotls...’ - details below.

Pic 14: The late Virginia Graue, a key figure in axolotl conservation programmes, involving staff from Chester Zoo and DICE in the UK
Pic 14: The late Virginia Graue, a key figure in axolotl conservation programmes, involving staff from Chester Zoo and DICE in the UK (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources/references/further information:-
• Bride, Ian et al (2003): ‘Aztecs and Axolotls: integrating tourism and conservation, Xochimilco, Mexico City’, website co-hosted with the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) - no longer available online
• Cabrera, Luis (1980): Diccionario de Aztequismos, Ediciones Oasis, Mexico City
• Caso, Alfonso (1958): The Aztecs: People of the Sun, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
• Castelló Ytúrbide, Teresa (1986): Presencia de la Comida Prehispánica, Banamex, Mexico City
• Coe, Sophie D. (1994): America’s First Cuisines, University of Texas Press, Austin
• Cordry, Donald (1980): Mexican Masks, University of Texas Press, Austin
• García Rivas, Heriberto (1991): Cocina Prehispánica Mexicana, Panorama Editorial, Mexico City
• Karttunen, Frances (1992): An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
• Mateos Higuera, Salvador (1993): Los Dioses Creadores (Enciclopedia Gráfica del México Antiguo, vol. 2), Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público, Mexico City
• Morán, Elizabeth (2016): Sacred Consumption: Food and Ritual in Aztec Art and Culture, University of Texas Press, Austin
• Moreno, Roberto (1969): ‘El Axolotl’, Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl, no. 8, 157-173, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, UNAM, Mexico City
• Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. (1990): Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition, Rutgers University Press, London
• Santamaría, Francisco J. (1978)” Diccionario de Mejicanismos, 3rd. ed., Editorial Porrua, Mexico City
• Siméon, Rémi (1991): Diccionario de la Lengua Nahuatl o Mexicana, Siglo Veintiuno, Mexico City
• Taube, Karl (1993): Aztec and Maya Myths, British Museum Press, London
• Zantwijk, Rudolph van (1985): The Aztec Arrangement: The Social History of Pre-Spanish Mexico, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Pic 15: Little creature, big international project: Mexican and UK staff at axolotl conservation programme workshops, Mexico, 2014
Pic 15: Little creature, big international project: Mexican and UK staff at axolotl conservation programme workshops, Mexico, 2014 (Click on image to enlarge)

Image sources:-
• Main pic: image 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
• Pic 1: photo by and courtesy of Ian Bride/DICE
• Pic 2: photo courtesy of Artangel, London
• Pic 3: photo downloaded from Mexican government site https://www.gob.mx/conafor/es/articulos/mejorando-la-casa-del-monstruo-de-agua?idiom=es
• Pic 4: illustration scanned from Cocina Prehispánica Mexicana (see Sources, above)
• Pic 5: illustration for Mexicolore by and © Felipe Dávalos
• Pic 6: photo from Wikipedia (Xolotl)
• Pic 7: photo from Wikipedia (axolotl)
• Pic 8: image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 9: image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Vaticanus A, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1979
• Pic 10: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 11 & 12: photos courtesy of Ian Bride/DICE
• Pic 13: illustration by Miguel Covarrubias scanned from The Aztecs: People of the Sun (see Sources, above)
• Pix 14 & 15: photos courtesy of Richard Griffiths/DICE.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 01st 2019

emoticon Q. Define Xolotl’s relationship to Quetzalcóatl, in one word...
A. Underdog!
BTW, the axolotl recently won a contest for an emoji to represent Mexico City...

Entry on the axolotl, Toronto Zoo, Canada (partner in the multi-agency conservation project)
‘Meet the nuns helping save a sacred species from extinction’: BBC video and Radio 4 documentary
University of California Santa Barbara online feature
Axolotl.org - introductory site on the creature today
‘Axolotls in crisis’ - The Guardian
Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) - axolotl conservation partner
Project ‘Refugio Chinampa’ to save the axolotl - Tec Monterrey University article in Spanish
‘Mexican Axolotl: A God In Danger’ - Divers’ Daily Digest feature with excellent diagrams
‘Axolotl’ - essay by renowned Argentine author Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) in Spanish
The work of CIBAC in Xochimilco to conserve the axolotl - video in Spanish
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