For the final part of our 3-part series on Los Días de los Muertos (part 1 and part 2 incase you missed it), we’re going to talk about man’s best friend and how he not only accompanies us in our journey through life, but according to the ancient Mesoamerican cultures, guides us on our journey in the afterlife. For the Aztecs and Mayans, this hairless and unique creature was a type of dog called the Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo for short.
“You think those dogs will not be in heaven! I tell you they will be there long before any of us.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson
The Hero We Don’t Deserve, but Need
We talked about the incredible Pixar interpretation of Dia de los Muertos, Coco, in the first part of this series, but we saved the comic relief and hero of this show for last, Dante.
So who or what is Dante?
Dante is a xolo, a Mexican hairless dog. More than that though, he was considered a guard dog for the living and a guide to the dead to navigate the underworld of Mictlan. The Aztecs and Mayans believed this to the point that when a person passed away, their xolo was sacrificed and buried with them. Now, if you weren’t a very good human to your xolo, then it is said he would leave you stranded and wandering a sort of purgatory.
The breed’s name, xoloitzcuintli, actually comes from the Nahuatl language so don’t feel too bad if you can’t pronounce it on the first go. ‘Show-low-itz-QUEENT-ly.’ It may take a few tries, so stick with it.
Xolotl is the Aztec god responsible for guarding the sun from sunset to sunrise as it traveled through the underworld. And the second half ‘itzcuintli’ literally means dog. So, in a sense you are the star that your animal companion guides through the underworld to arrive safely in the place you belong.
As Old as Time
And these puppies go back. They are considered one of the oldest dog breeds of the Americas, even tagging along and guiding the earliest migrants from Asia. They eventually became the breed they are known as today over 3500 years ago.
Making it easy for archaeologist to claim this is their unique dental characteristics that is also a result of their genetic mutation which causes their hairlessness. As well, there are ceramics in 2000 year old Mexican tombs shaped like the xolo with pointy ears and ‘wrinkly’ skin as if it was hairless.
The xolo was no doubt man’s best friend in those times, even Columbus took a liking to them and became his travel companion bringing them all the way back to Europe. And today, they have found their place back to us, for the home or the hunt.
Companion Through All
More so, they seem almost magical in their ability to sense out the sick and injured. And being fur-free makes them excellent heat conductors for that time of the month when you need a hot-water bottle on the belly. Many dogs seem to have this innate sense to care for their masters, even sniffing out cancer, but the xolos have an almost mystical knack for it.
‘They zero right in to where it hurts.’ Kay Lawson, a 20-year xolo breeder and past president of the Xoloitzcuintli Club of America.
Besides sniffing out cancer, the ancient Aztecs and Mayans also believed that the xolos were capable of sensing when the soul left the body. Fallen soldiers would have idols of these hairless puppies placed on their bodies.
The xolos were so important for the journey through the afterlife, that they would even carry their recently deceased companion across the river dividing the living and dead, much like Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. Thank goodness dogs are born knowing how to swim already, right?
Unfortunately, the xolos were also quite tasty and high in protein. Hernán Cortés reported when he arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519 that he saw the dogs for sale as food in the markets. It is accepted today that the native Mexicans occasionally used the xolo for food (usually they ate deer), but it wasn’t until the Spanish settlers arrived that they were nearly eaten to extinction.
Becoming officially recognized by the Mexican government in 1956 was cutting it close to their extinction. Since the mid-20th century though, the xolos have started to gain popularity (especially among people allergic to our furry friends) and their numbers are rising.
But they may not be for everyone…
‘You really have to be thinking [with xolos] all the time,’ Lawson says. ‘They open doors, they open crates. This is a primitive dog. They're extremely intelligent.’
Xolos (or any breed of our best friend) truly are unique blessings to us. Even if you don’t believe in an afterlife or think you can navigate the afterlife without them, they are said to be very loyal and mellow dogs while very wary of strangers. With us when the sun is up or down.
‘If you don't own a dog, at least one, there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.’
― Roger Caras
Honoring Our Puppies
To finish off this series on Los Días de los Muertos, I’d like to share a few photos of my first Day of the Dead and the two altars we made.
[The really good photos (6-8) shot at night were done by a Mr. Sergio Cubos. Big thanks to him for capturing the moment beyond my photographic capacity.]