Despite a relative level of sophistication for an ancient empire, sometimes it sucked to be Aztec. As Octacio Paz observed in Labyrinth of Solitude, they were “A people of soldiers and priests, stargazers and sacrificers. And of poets: that world of brilliant colours and shadowy passions was interspersed with brief, prodigious flashes of poetry. And in all the manifestations of that extraordinary and terrible nation, from astronomical myths to poets’ metaphors, and from daily rituals to priests’ meditations, the obsession, the smell, the stench of blood. Like those torture wheels that feature in the novels of de Sade, the Aztec year was a cycle of 18 months drenched in blood; 18 ceremonies, 18 (different) ways to die: from shooting with arrows to drowning, from strangling to skinning.” One would expect an appropriately ghastly array of mythological monsters as an accompaniment to a culture of such highly developed horror, and the Aztecs do not disappoint. Before we get too judgmental, let’s face the fact that ancient Romans thought feeding countless Christians to lions in the Coliseum was tons of fun, and nothing amused the Spanish Inquisition as much as a good witch-burning, so in the grand scheme of things, a traditional human sacrifice involving the extraction of a prisoner’s heart with an obsidian knife really doesn’t rate itself as particularly extreme. And just like every other autocratic empire with hereditary nobility, you had your wise, humane rulers as well as those that were plainly bloodthirsty and bat-shit nuts.
One of the crazier Aztec rulers was King Ahuizotl, the eighth Aztec ruler and great military leader who took power in the 15th Century A.D. and doubled the size of the Aztec Empire, conquering the Mixtec, Zapotec, and most of the people all the way down Mexico’s Pacific coast down to modern day Guatemala. “At the inauguration of the Great Temple of the City of Mexico in 1487, under Ahuizotl, the eighth king of Mexico, 80,400 prisoners of war were sacrificed, according to Brasseur de Bourbourg, although the Codex Telleriano-Remensis states the number to have been only 20,000” (Loubat, 1902, p.3). In general, a pretty bloody dude, dedicated to mayhem, who didn’t have any philosophical problems with hacking the hearts out of ten thousand human beings here or there in the name of empire and the favor of his deity of choice. You know, a Republican, more or less. When we’re looking at antiquity, monster sometimes take their names from particularly nasty rulers, but in this instance, King Ahuizotl (which was not his actual name) decided to take his kingly name from an existing monster in the Aztec pantheon, called the Ahuizotl (Nahuatl for something like “Water Opossum” or “Water Dog”) which was just about the most spiteful, mean spirited man-eating critter in the vast cast of Aztec meanies. This generally does not bode well for one’s enemy.
This is a cannibal creature from the folklore and legends of Mexico. Although the name Ahuizotl means “Water Opossum”, its appearance does not resemble this creature. It is described as looking somewhat like a dog in size and shape, but with the paws of a monkey and a human hand at the extremity of its tail. This prehensile tail and hand were the means by which it seized its victims from the water’s edge (where they had been lured by its cries) and dragged them down into the murky waters of its abode. Fishermen were often the victims of the Ahuizotl. Its ruse was to make the small fish and frogs of the waters leap about so as to attract the attention of fisherman hoping to catch a large fish. Once they had taken their flimsy boat to the spot, it was a simple matter for the Ahuizotl to reach its handed tail over the side of the boat and secure its next meal. Relatives always knew what had befallen their loved ones as the corpses would float to the surface exactly three days later with the eyes, teeth, and nails removed. These were the delicacies sought by the Ahuizotl. Since this creature is believed to be the servant of the Tlalocs (the rain-gods), only the priest could remove the body for burial ceremonies, as it was then considered to be a special sacrifice to the gods. Nobody ever actually looked for the creature, however, as the sight of it was an omen of imminent death (Rose, 2001, p8).
Apparently the Ahuizotl regards us as the source of scrumptious delicacies, and discards the rest of the corpse. Very wasteful to lure a poor fisherman to his death just to dine on hors d’oervres of human eyeballs, nails and teeth. Maybe the flesh of your average Aztec was a little too stringy. They worked pretty hard, after all. While most scholars agree that the Aztecs didn’t practice subsistence cannibalism themselves, most also admit that ritual cannibalism was certainly typical. Spanish (so consider the source…) historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara (1511-1566 A.D.) recorded that during the Spanish siege of Tenochitlan, the Spanish demanded the surrender of the Aztecs, as the Aztecs had run out of food, to which the Aztecs responded by demanding the Spanish attack, so that they might be captured, sacrificed, and served with a lovely mōlli sauce. Therefore, the consumption of eyeballs, teeth, and nails by a representative of the rain gods wouldn’t seem all that unreasonable, albeit a shameful waste of protein. The Ahuizotl was prominent enough to be mentioned in Bernardino de Sahagún’s 16th century Florentine Codex (also called La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España; English: the Universal History of the Things of New Spain) as a peculiarity of the Americas.
It has small, pointed ears, just like a small dog. It is black, like rubber; smooth, slippery, very smooth, long-tailed. And its tail is provided with a hand at the end; just like a human hand is the point of its tail. And its hands are like a raccoon’s hands or like a monkey’s hands. It lives, it is a dweller in watery caverns, in watery depths. And if anyone arrives there at its entrance, or there in the water where it is, it then grabs him there. It is said that it sinks him, it plunges him into the water; it carries him to its home, it introduces him to the depths; so its tail goes holding him, so it goes seizing him … [When the body is retrieved] the one it has drowned no longer has his eyes, his teeth, and his nails; it has taken them all from him. But his body is completely unblemished, his skin uninjured. Only his body comes out all slippery-wet; as if one had pounded it with a stone; as if it had inflicted small bruises … When it was annoyed – had caught no one, had drowned none of us commoners – then was heard as if a small child wept. And he who heard it thought perhaps a child wept, perhaps a baby, perhaps an abandoned one. Moved by this, he went there to look for it. So there he fell into the hands of the auítzotl, there it drowned him (Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 11, 16th Century).
Christopher Columbus was a bit of a chronic whiner. His letters back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are filled with complaints, so in addition to being credited with the genocide of the indigenous population of the Americas (which is really a bit overstated, though he probably wouldn’t have had much of a problem with it, since he spends a lot of time in his letters talking about how well suited for slavery the natives are), he was also dedicated kvetcher. As observed by Parra Cala, archive director of the Archive of the Indies, “He was always complaining about something – about not being adequately compensated by the Crown for his services, about being in poor health in Jamaica; always something”. Curiously, in one of his letters he describes an attack by a fierce animal that has been identified by some scholars as a description of an encounter with an Ahuizotl.
There are many animals, small and large, and very different from ours. I had at the time two hogs, and an Irish dog did not dare to face them. A crossbowman had wounded an animal, which appeared to be an ape, except that it was much larger and had the face of a man. The arrow had pierced it from the neck to the tail, and as a result it was so fierce that it was necessary to cut off an arm and a leg. When the hog saw it, it bristled up and fled. When I saw this, I ordered the begare, as it is called there, to be thrown where the hog was; coming within reach, although it was on the point of death and although the arrow was still in its body, it twisted its tail round the hog’s snout and holding it very firmly, seized it by the nape of the neck and with its remaining hand struck it on the head, as if it were an enemy. This action was so novel and such a delightful sight that I have described it. (Christopher Columbus, Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, July 7, 1503 regarding his Fourth Voyage to the New World)
The folklore surrounding the Ahuizotl is fairly robust, and a large number of carvings and artistic representations have survived, all remarkably consistent with the mythological representations, suggesting perhaps that either this was such a well-known and enduring symbol that everybody knew about it for generations, or that maybe, just maybe, there was something to the origins of the creature.
It was said that this monstrous animal resorted to an artifice, in order to capture men when a long time had elapsed without his having taken any. He united a great number of fish and frogs, and caused them to jump and move about the surface of the water close to his hiding-place. Attracted by these, the covetous fishermen approached and cast their nets. Then the Ahuizotl captured one of them, drowned him and carried him to his subterranean watery cave. This small monster also employed another stratagem for the same purpose when he had not taken any human victim for a long time. He placed himself at the edge of his pond, and began to weep and cry like a child. The passer-by hearing this was deceived, and when he approached the edge of the water he was seized by the hand at the end of the tail, dragged down, and carried to the cave of the Ahuizotl, who killed him there. It was also said that whoever perceived this monster and was not filled with consternation at the sight, and was not attacked by the animal, was sure to die soon.
It is related that an old woman who went to fetch water once caught such an animal, put it into her jug, covered this with her petticoat, and carried it to show it to the chieftains of the village. They told her that she had committed a sin in doing this, for the animal was a subject and a friend of the rain-gods. She was then ordered to carry it back to the place where she had found it.
The identification of this monster with some living animal whose fear-inspiring and mysterious habits gave rise to these fabulous accounts is a task to be referred to zoologists. Owing to the fact that one of Montezuma’s predecessors bore the name of this animal, there exist numerous pictures of it, employed to express the name of the Mexican chieftain. In these the Ahuizotl is usually represented as a smooth, rat-like animal, with a long prehensile tail. It is invariably accompanied by the conventional sign for water, but there is no trace of the fabulous human hand at the end of the monster’s tail in any picture known. The most remarkable and interesting representation of the Ahuizotl probably in existence is its effigy carved in stone belonging to the Uhde Collection of Mexican Antiquities now in the Royal Ethnographical Museum at Berlin. It answers precisely to the above description of the size and appearance of the monster, and is represented as crouching on a large smooth coil formed by its long thick tail. The symbol for water is carved on its back and around the edge of the square base on which the animal and its coil rests (Zelia, 1895, p124).
By all accounts, the Ahuizotl was an unpleasant animal, above and beyond the obviousness creepiness of a prehensile tail with a human hand on the end, the luring of fisherman to their deaths with infant-like cries or cleverly devised snares, and all this with the sole goal of munching on a few choice bits of human and discarding the rest. When you are a boogie man for a culture that doesn’t think tearing a human heart out is all that big of a deal, a little homicide in the name of snack food is a reasonable ecological choice, but again, we try not judge ancient civilizations by our ostensibly modern sensibilities, or as Michael Wood observed in In Search of the First Civilizations, “Why are violence and the sacred so intertwined? Why is death seen as necessary to renew life? … To us the Aztec universe may appear irrational, terrifying, murderous in its brutality; and yet it is a mirror held up to our humanity which we ignore at our cost. For in the name of other ideals and other gods Western culture has been no less addicted to killing, even in our own century.” Have you watched prime time TV lately?
Columbus, Christopher. The Voyages of Christopher Columbus: Being the Journals of His First and Third, And the Letters Concerning His First And Last Voyages, to Which Is Added the Account of His Second Voyage.London: The Argonaut press, 1930.
Loubat, J. F. 1831-1927. Address of the Duke of Loubat. New York: The Knickerbocker press, 1902.
Sahagún, Bernardino de, d. 1590. General History of the Things of New Spain(Florentine Codex, Book 11). 2d ed., rev. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of AmericanResearch, 1975
Nuttall, Zelia. “A Note on Ancient Mexican Folklore”. The Journal of American Folklore Volume 7: XXXVIII (January-March). Boston: Published for the American Folklore Society by Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1895.
Rose, Carol. Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.