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The Aztec God Xolotl: Mythology & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Aztec mythology never veered too far from the topic of death, and the god Xolotl had a role to play in many of those stories. In this lesson, we'll learn about Xolotl and see what role he had to play in the Aztec religion.

Who Was Xolotl?

Did you know that the ancient Mesoamericans, denizens of fierce empires and mighty civilizations, were obsessed with hairless dogs? It might seem strange, but you probably would be too if you thought the dog could help guide your soul through the nine levels of hell. Burials across Mesoamerica have been found with ornaments or statues of dogs, and some cultures even sacrificed dogs to be buried with their owners.

To the Aztecs, the association between dogs and death was embodied in the form of Xolotl, the god of fire, lightning, deformities and death. Xolotl was often depicted as a human skeleton with the head of a dog, but any symbol of a dog could represent the fearsome deity. In ancient Mexico, man's best friend was a loyal companion even after death.

Xolotl, as depicted in an Aztec codex
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Xolotl in Mythology

Xolotl plays an interesting role in Aztec mythology as a shape-shifting trickster. There are two stories in particular that explain Xolotl's role in Aztec creation stories and both take place at the dawning of the Fifth Sun, the era in which humans were created and in which we live. According to the myth, this Sun was created by the gods, but would not move across the sky. It needed nourishment, and that meant sacrifice. The gods themselves were the first to be sacrificed to the Sun (setting the example the Aztecs would later follow by sacrificing other humans).

Xolotl, however, did not want to be sacrificed and cried so hard that his eye sockets became empty, as he's often depicted in Aztec art. Then he turned himself into maize, a maguey plant and an amphibian called an axolotl. Eventually, however, he was tracked down by the wind god and sacrificed so that the Sun could begin its movement and start the new era. In some versions of the myth, Xolotl later becomes one of the figures in charge of performing sacrifices on other gods.

A red Xolotl (far right) overseeing the sacrifice of another god
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The second story has to do with the creation of humans. To understand this, we have to understand that Xolotl was generally seen as the twin brother of another god, Quetzalcoatl. Xolotl can sometimes be seen wearing ornaments of Quetzalcoatl, which shows a conflating of their attributes and powers. In the legend, Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl travel to the lowest level of Mictlán, the Underworld, to retrieve the bones of the ancient dead. They do so, and from them create humans.

Xolotl in Aztec Life

Being partly responsible for the creation of humans, the dog-headed Xolotl was seen as a protector of humans as well, but in a very particular way. Quetzalcoatl was seen as bringing the Sun into the world every day and helping guide its journey through the sky. His twin, therefore, was responsible for guiding it at night.

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