Was the Ahuizotl an Aztec Mythical Creature or a Real Fisherman’s Foe?
The Ahuizotl (which may be translated from Nahuatl to mean ‘Thorny One of the Water’) is a creature found in the mythology of the Aztecs. This legendary creature is believed to inhabit the lakes and rivers around Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. The Ahuizotl is said to have been a malevolent creature whose victims were often fishermen, and people who wandered too close to the edge of the waters. There has been some debate as to whether the Ahuizotl is in fact a real creature or not, and if it is real, whether it has relatives that still survive today.
Ahuizotl in Codex
The Ahuizotl is mentioned in the Florentine Codex, which is a 16 th century ethnographic work produced by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish Franciscan friar. This manuscript is the result of de Sahagún’s research on the Aztec people, including their society, culture, religion, and natural history. It is in Book 11 of this codex that the Ahuizotl is mentioned.
Replica cast of a stone plaque representing Ahuizotl, in a temple in Tepoztlan, near Mexico City. (Public Domain)
In the Florentine Codex, the Ahuizotl is described as being black in color, and its skin is smooth and slippery. The fur is said to be waterproof, and whenever the Ahuizotl came out of the water and shook itself, it would clump up like spikes. The creature is said to be similar to a small dog, with small pointed ears, and a long tail. At the end of this tail is a hand, very much like a person’s. The Ahuizotl is said to have a peculiar taste for a person’s eyes, teeth, and nails, hence the corpses of its victims are found without these body parts.
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Shields bearing image of Ahuizotl, Museum of Ethnology, Vienna. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Not a Fisherman’s Friend
The Ahuizotl is believed to have been the guardian of lakes, and whose primary role was to protect the fish in them. Therefore, this made it the natural enemy of fishermen. Stories began to circulate about how the creature would try to sink the boats of fishermen. In their attempt to appease the Ahuizotl, the fishermen would offer a portion of their catch to the creature, though this was not very successful. The Ahuizotl also preyed on those who got too close to the water’s edge.
In some stories, the creature would use trickery to lure its victims to their deaths. Such trickery was resorted to when the Ahuizotl was not initially successful in catching victims. The Ahuizotl is allegedly capable of mimicking the cry of a human child. When a person investigates the cry, and comes too close to the water’s edge, the creature would grab his or her ankle with the hand attached to its tail. Dragging its victim into the water, the Ahuizotl would hold on to him/her with its powerful tail hand, thus drowning its prey. It may be added that as the victims of the Ahuizotl met their deaths through violent drowning, the Aztecs believed that their spirits were destined for the realm of Tlaloc, the god of rain and water.
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Tlaloc, god or rain and water, from Codex Rios. (Public Domain)
Was Ahuizotl Based in Reality?
Whilst some have dismissed the Ahuizotl as a purely mythological creature, others have attempted to provide an explanation for it. There are several possible animals that may fit the description of the Ahuizotl, to some extent. For instance, some have suggested that the creature may have been a beaver, or based on one, as it is a good swimmer. Beavers, however, are vegetarian, and some of their physical features, such as their rodent teeth, and their flat tail, do not match that of the Ahuizotl.
Another possible candidate is the otter, which is also an aquatic animal. It has been claimed that this animal would attack humans, especially when its nest is threatened. Additionally, it is a carnivorous animal that would scavenge meat from drowned bodies, especially the softer parts, such as the eyes, gums, and fingertips. Unfortunately, the otter has round, rather than pointed ears, and is referred to as Aizcuintli in the Florentine Codex. It is perhaps more likely that the Ahuizotl was a purely mythical animal, or one that has not yet been identified.
8th Aztec Ruler, Ahuitzotl, with Ahuizotl as mascot. From Codex Mendoza. (Public Domain)
Lastly, it may be mentioned that there was an Aztec ruler by the name of Ahuitzotl, who took the legendary creature as his mascot. Ahuitzotl was the 8 th Huey Tlatoani (equivalent to king) of Tenochitlan, and a great military leader. His reign saw the expansion and consolidation of the Aztec Empire.
Top image: Shields bearing image of Ahuizotl, Museum of Ethnology, Vienna. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
By Wu Mingren
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