Animal Names in Nahuatl: Meanings, Uses, and Myths

Here we offer a list of some of the most recognizable Nahuatl words for animals, each of which held significant meaning in the pre-Columbian era.

Animal Names in Nahuatl: Meanings, Uses, and Myths
Tadpole (atepocatl in Nahuatl). Credit: Correo del Maestro

In this article, we will present a list of names of animals that are well known to us and that had a special value in pre-Hispanic times. The Nahuatl word is presented in bold letters, the usual name of the animal in brackets, and then the scientific name or taxonomic group to which it belongs in italics.

We add the meaning of the Nahuatl word—to understand the reason for the name—and also some uses and myths about these animals. By the end of your reading, you will be surprised at how many meanings and uses these words still have in everyday language.

List of Animal Names in Nahuatl

Atepocatl (tadpole, frog). Rana sp.
A: water; tepo: from the shore; catl: thing. "Thing from the water's edge".

In central Mexico, it was considered that the entrance of a frog into the house was a sign of persecution, uneasiness, and illness. The frog is linked to corn and in the feast of the month of Tozozontli, a roasted frog was offered to the god of corn (Cinteotli). In the month of Izcalli, frogs were roasted in the embers and given as food to children.

Atotolin (white pelican). Pelecanus sp.
A: water; totolin: bird. "Waterbird".

The atotolin was a bird surrounded by myths. It was called "lord" and "heart of the lagoon" because it descended in the middle of the lake lording it over all the other birds. The fisherman who saw it had to chase it until he caught it within four days or else the atotolin would kill him. If he hunted it, he had to open its chest and see what was inside; if he found a green stone or rich feathers it meant he would get riches, but if what he found was a piece of coal, then fate had bad fortune in store for him. After being captured it was cooked and a special feast was prepared in which a piece of meat was given to each guest to share the hunter's good fortune.

Axolotl (axolotl). Ambystoma mexicana.
A: water; xolo: monster; tl: animal. "Monstrous water animal".

When the gods created the Sun and the Moon, in Teotihuacan, they saw that the latter did not move. The gods asked for their death to resurrect the Sun. All accepted the sacrifice except Xolotl, who cried and fled. He hid in different places until he reached the water and was transformed into an axolotl, but he was discovered and sacrificed in that state.

Ayotl (turtle). Kinosternon hirtipes.
Ayo: round, tl: animal. "Round animal".

In pre-Hispanic times, this animal was related to the earth. The Mexica considered turtles as one of Tezcatlipoca's servants. The shell was used to make a musical instrument with a mournful and sad sound. Today, a town in the State of Mexico is called Ayotla, which means "place of turtles".

Ayotochtli (nine-banded armadillo). Dasypus novemcintus.
Ayotl: turtle, toch: rabbit; tli: animal. "Animal rabbit-turtle".

The armadillo was related to the underworld. It was also used as medicine because the ground carapace, boiled in water, was drunk to cause sweating and to help cure sexually transmitted diseases.

Tortoise (ayotl  in Nahuatl)
Tortoise (ayotl in Nahuatl). Credit: Correo del Maestro

Calquimichin (field rat). Netoma albiguala.
Cal: hollow; quimichin: mouse. "Mouse of the corners".

There are many traditions and myths related to this animal. Many of them come from Teotihuacan times. Among them, it is known that pregnant mothers feared lunar eclipses because they believed that their children would turn into mice. Every 52 years, when celebrating the new fire, a vigil had to be kept to light it; children were not allowed to sleep much during that night so that they would not turn into mice.

Canauhtli (duck). Anatidae in general.

Little is known about this animal and its relationship with the Nahuatl culture. Perhaps, some of the most important rites are those related to the feast of Tlaloc, on the twentieth of Etzalcualiztli, during which the priests bathed in the lake of Texcoco and imitated the voices of the ducks. In the Mexican religious songs, Huitzilopochtli appeared as a duck hunter.

Cincoatl (cincuate). Pihuophis deppei.
Cin: corncob; coa: snake; tl: animal. "Snake of the cornfield".

In the Florentine codex, it is mentioned that this snake has no venom, although it was said that it bites with its tongue and that it is big and strong enough to kill a coyote, which is undoubtedly exaggerated. Another legend about the cincuate states that it is capable of attaching itself to the nipples of a woman or female domestic animals and drinking their milk, which is impossible. Nevertheless, this legend and the one that indicates that the snake uses its tongue as a weapon persist.

Ajolote (axolotl in Nahuatl)
Ajolote (axolotl in Nahuatl). Credit: Correo del Maestro

Coatl (snake).
Coa: to sicken, to hurt: tl: animal. "Animal that makes one sick".

Snakes were, and are, organisms widely linked to pre-Hispanic traditions and legends, although to a lesser degree than rattlesnakes. Historical sources show the enormous interest and impression that these animals provoked. They were often taken as signs of bad luck and were considered treacherous beings. They were feared, as it was accepted that some of them were poisonous. In general, these ideas persist to this day.

Coyametl (collared peccary). Tayassu tayassu.
Co: to attack; me: rope, collar; tl: animal. "Rope animal that attacks".

The peccary was related to the Moon and the Earth.

Coyotl (coyote). Canis latrans.
Coyo: to howl; tl: animal. "Animal that howls".

The coyote was attributed with a strong sexual instinct and was considered the god of song and dance. For the people of the center of the country, it was the most cunning animal, it hid and spied on its victims, paralyzing them with fear with a special mist.

It was said that it was a very vengeful animal and that when someone snatched its prey, it would kill the guajolotes and other domestic animals of the offender or, if it did not have them, it would wait for him on the road, with other companions, to frighten him.

However, it was also considered an animal that was grateful for the help. Its tail and skin were used to rub its teeth in case of pain, as it was believed that this calmed the pain. In Mexico City, the Coyoacán delegation is located, whose name comes from this animal and means "place of coyotes" (coyohuacan).

Armadillo (ayotochtlil) and lizard (tecouixin) in Nahuatl.
Armadillo (ayotochtlil) and lizard (tecouixin) in Nahuatl. Credit: Correo del Maestro

Cuetlachtli (black bear). Ursus americanus.
Cuetla: to break; tl: animal. "Animal that breaks".

In central Mexico, the cuetlachtli was related to spring, vegetation and warriors. It was also considered the symbol of the Sun.

Cuitlachcóyotl (Mexican wolf). Canis lupus.
Cuih: to attack; tla: pain; coyotl: howling animal. "Coyote that attacks".

The wolf appears in the legend of the creation of the Sun and the Moon, in Teotihuacan, as one of the animals that are thrown into the fire. It was given a special value for its bravery and strength, equating it with a warrior.

Chichi (dog).

The dog is a very ancient companion of man. There is a lot of evidence of this in the Teotihuacan era and, without a doubt, society could not be conceived without dogs. They were kept to protect houses and fields from outsiders and animals. In the postclassic period, whoever stole a dog was not punished, arguing that this animal should know how to take care of itself and, therefore, it was the owner's fault for not training it to do so. The voice "chichi-meca", barbarian, comes from chichi, "dog" and "lineage". Even today it is common in some regions of the country to use the word "chichimeca" in a derogatory sense.

Epatl (striped skunk). Mephitis macroura.

It was believed that if a skunk entered a house it was a sign of bad luck; if it had its young inside the house it meant that the owner of the house would die. Concerning healing properties, it was said that its meat, in addition to being good as food, served to combat arthritis and cure pustules.

Duck (canauhtli) in Nahuatl
Duck (canauhtli) in Nahuatl. Credit: Correo del Maestro

Huilototol (huilota pigeon). Zenaida macroura.

Pigeons were related to the corn gods.

Itzcuintli (dog). Also called Chichi.
Itz: obsidian; cuin: to attack; tli: animal. "Animal that attacks with obsidian-like pieces".

It was believed that people who died of illness traveled to present themselves to Mictlantecuhtli (lord of the underworld) and were to be buried with a little reddish (reddish) dog wearing a cotton thread around its neck. It was said that when the deceased made the final journey he had to cross the Chiconahuapan, the river that surrounded the nine hells, on top of the little dog that had been buried with him.

The myth states that when the deceased reached the river, he would see many dogs on the opposite bank and, if any of them recognized him as his master, he could help him cross. If the dog was white he would say "I have already washed", if it was dark he would exclaim "I am stained and I cannot pass"; hence, the red-colored dogs were considered the only ones that could cross the river and help the deceased to reach his final destination, Chiconaumictlan.

Iztacmichin (white fish).
Iztac: white; michin: fish. "Whitefish".

It was believed that men who had lived in the time of the Water Sun had been transformed into fish during the flood. It was common for fishermen to pray before starting their work and they made sets for good fishing.

Dog (itzcuinth or chichi) in Nahuatl
Dog (itzcuinth or chichi) in Nahuatl. Credit: Correo del Maestro

Mapachtli (raccoon). Procyon lotor.
Ma: to fish; pa: water; ch: small; tl: animal. "Little animal that fishes".

Its hands are similar to those of humans and it is an excellent thief; that is why, even today, thieves are often called "raccoons". In the Nahuatl culture, it was related to Llamatecuhtli "old lady", the great goddess of the Altiplano.

Mazatl (deer).
Maza: deer; tl: animal.

According to some historical sources, the deer was considered the host of the stars and the symbol of fire; it was the animal of the gods of fire and light. It was also a symbol of farewell. By its antlers of annual renewal, it represented eternal youth. Those born under its sign were fortunate, although of low spirits.

Miz-tli (puma, mountain lion). Felis concolor.
Miz: cat; tli: animal. "Cat-shaped animal".

Due to its light and uniform color, and its similarity to the jaguar, it was identified as its diurnal equivalent, that is, as a species related to the sun and light. Nowadays, it is common to hear the popular voice "miz" or "mizi" to call the cats.

Quahutenzo (weasel). Mustela frenata.
Qua: to eat; u: to make, ten: edge; zo: to bleed. "Eating animal that bites and makes bleed".

Due to its ferocity and the fact that it is not a very conspicuous animal, the weasel was associated with occult powers. If any traveler, during his journey, stumbled upon one, it was considered a sign of bad luck.

Serpent (coatl) in Nahuatl
Serpent (coatl) in Nahuatl. Credit: Correo del Maestro

Quimichin (spiny mouse). Liomys irroratus.
Quimichu: mouse.

A pre-Hispanic legend tells that when children molted their teeth, their parents deposited them in a mouse hole to ensure that the child would not become toothless. The mouse was considered a prankster, an animal that deceives, and a peeping tom was called a "mouse". Children should not eat what was gnawed by a mouse lest they become liars or thieves.

Another legend says that whoever ate what a mouse had gnawed would be given false testimony of theft, adultery, or something else. It was also believed that when a mouse gnawed on a person's clothing, it demonstrated adulterous activities on the part of the owner of the affected garments.

Quimichpatlan (bat). Desmodus rotundus.
Quimichu: mouse; patlani: to fly. "Mouse that flies".

It was also called tzinacantli, but the latter name is specific to vampires. According to a Nahuatl legend, the bat is the product of Quetzalcoatl's semen in a rock. This animal was turned into a messenger of the gods.

Tamazolin (burrowing toad). Scaphiopus multiplicatus.
Tama: lump; zolin: old. "Animal with lumps and that, because of warts, looks old".

The toad is linked to Tlaloc, undoubtedly because of the intimate relationship between its annual activities and rain. Because of the way it moved, it was compared to a messenger who did not quickly carry the message to the Lord but hopped once and stayed watching.

Toad (tamazolin) in Nahuatl
Toad (tamazolin) in Nahuatl. Credit: Correo del Maestro

Tapayaxin (horned toad). Phrynosoma orbiculare.
Tapa: ball; ya: time; xin: to weave. "Woven lump", refers to an animal that looks like a ball of tissue because of its roughness.

There are no known traditions or myths about this animal, but its characteristic of shedding blood must have been well known to pre-Hispanic peoples, so its absence in the mythology of these peoples is perhaps only apparent.

Tecolotl (owl or tecolotl). Buho virginianus.
Tecol: coal; tl: animal. "Coal animal", referring, surely, to darkness.

The tecolote was the symbol of the night and therefore of death. It was the tenth of the thirteen volatile beings of the Tonalpohualli and was Tezcatlipoca's companion. This bird was the messenger of the god of death and patron of men born on the miquiztli (death) day.

When a man heard an owl sing, it was considered a sign of death, hence the omen, which is still heard today: "When the tecolote sings, the indigenous man dies".

The tecolote also foretold grave dangers and illnesses and was related to certain sorcerers called tlacatecotl (owl names) who did their evil deeds at night, robbed houses, raped women, and, when they were chased and were about to be caught, they turned into owls.

Tecouixin, Texincooyotl (lizards).
Te: stone; co: on; uitz: thorn; xin: thing. "Thorny thing that walks on the stones".

Lizards (not crocodiles) were the fourth of the twenty signs of the day and were associated with unchastity, begetting, and sexual desire. They sometimes represented the moon and were companions of the god of rain and vegetation.

Deer (mazatl) in Nahuatl
Deer (mazatl) in Nahuatl. Credit: Correo del Maestro

Techalotl (gray squirrel). Sciurus aureogaster.
Techa: mount; tl: animal. "Mountain animal".
Tlaltechalotl (squirrel). Spermorphilus mexicanus.
Tlal: rock; tech: near; tl: animal. "Animal found near the rocky area".

Squirrels are related to the god of dance, to the Tlaloques, Taloc's helpers, and to the Tlamacazques, who were invoked to protect the milpas from intruders such as squirrels, gophers, rats, and mice. The fear that the peasants have had of the destruction that these animals can cause is so great that some songs on this subject survive to this day. As in other cases of animals, squirrels were also deified, giving them the name of Techalotl.

Tlacuatzin (tlacuache, kind of opossum). Didelphis virginiana.
Tla: fire; cua: to nibble, eat; tzin: boy. "The little one that eats fire".

A widespread myth in Mesoamerica says that when man did not yet know fire, because it was the property of the gods, the possum, by trickery, went to the bonfire, lit its tail on fire -which left it bald- and hid an ember in the marsupium, sharing its treasure with man.

This animal was believed to have healing powers. The most widespread tradition told that the tail boiled and drunk as tea helps in childbirth, menstruation, as an abortifacient, to clean the intestine, or to expel phlegm. It was said that its effect is so powerful that if a dog ate a tlacuache it would evacuate its entire digestive system.

Tletlectli, Ictecatl, Necuilictli, Cenotzqui (hawk, eagle). Falconiformes in general.
Tetlec: bird of prey; tli: animal. "Bird of prey".

Birds of prey attracted the attention of pre-Hispanic peoples because of their bright and intimidating eyes, their strong beak, their powerful claws, and their ability to fly to great heights and fall swiftly on their prey. The eagle is the fifteenth of the twenty signs of the day and those born under it would be unlucky, though brave and risky in war.

The Falconiformes in general, but especially the eagle, were the sign and emblem of the great warriors who were called quauhtli, ocelo-tl (eagle and jaguar). A Nahuatl myth says that in Teotihuacan the gods created the Sun and the Moon and then made two characters throw themselves into the fire; the eagle jumped over the embers and that is why its feathers are black with a bit of white.

White fish (iztachimin) in Nahuatl
White fish (iztachimin) in Nahuatl. Credit: Correo del Maestro

Tochtli (Spanish rabbit). Sylvilagus floridanus.
Toch: to run; tli: animal. "Animal that runs".

The rabbit was an animal of enormous importance in the Nahuatl religion. It appears as a very wise being, responsible for having given a name to each of the days at the time of the creation of the world. Certain Mexica traditions indicate that rabbits are humble animals.

If a rabbit entered a house, it was an indication that someone would be absent or that the house would be robbed. In Mexico, there are several cities or towns whose name derives from the Nahuatl word for rabbit. Among them are Tuxlta and Tuxpan, which respectively come from Toch-tla, and Toch-pa-n; both mean "place of rabbits".

Tozan (a species of rodent). Pappogeomys Tylorhinus.

Pappogeomys Tylorhinus is a species of rodent in the family Geomyidae. It is native to Mexico and is also known by the common name "Tylorhinus pappogeomys". This animal appears in the legend of CeacatlTopiltzin helping this character to gnaw through walls. A popular tradition said that whoever gnawed its bones would get numb teeth.

It is a small, burrowing rodent that has a distinct appearance, with a narrow head, large ears, and a long, pointed snout. It is found in a variety of habitats, including grasslands, savannas, and wooded areas, and feeds primarily on plant material. Pappogeomys Tylorhinus is not a well-known species, and relatively little is known about its biology and behavior.

Rabbit (tochtli) in Nahuatl
Rabbit (tochtli) in Nahuatl. Credit: Correo del Maestro

Toznene (parakeets). Psittaciformes in general.
Toz: voice; nene: as oneself. "The one that speaks like oneself".

Pre-Hispanic peoples separated psittaciform birds into two groups: long-tailed and short-tailed. The short-tailed parakeets occupied the thirteenth place of the thirteen volatile beings of the Tonalpohualli and the thirteen stations of the sky. These birds were related to the corn god.

Tzinizcan (trogon, coa). Trogon mexicanus.
Tzin: funny.

As a beautifully colored bird, it probably participated in the tradition that warriors killed in battle, four years later, become birds of beautiful plumage. There are indications that these birds were locked in cages and that people made figures with their feathers, which were used in feasts, wars, and dances.

Tzopilotl (Zopilote). Carharthes aura.
Tzo: dirt; il: to flutter; tl: animal. "Animal that flutters over the garbage".

The vulture is one of the animals related to the sun. Various parts of the animal have attributed healing properties. It was believed that the half-burned feathers applied to wounds caused their speedy recovery. If they were completely burned and rubbed on the skin, they prevented the hair from growing back. The consumption of their meat relieved sexually transmitted diseases and their dung ingested relieved bilious people.

Uexolotl (turkey, turkey, big monster). Meleagris gallopavo.
Ue: big; xolo: monster; tl: animal. "Monstrous big animal".

In central Mexico, it was customary to slit the throat of a turkey in front of the home when it was inaugurated. The blood was sprayed on the four corners, the roof, and the sides of the door; the bird was plucked, cooked, and consumed, offering a part of it to the gods.

Yohualtecolotl, chichtli (owl). Strix varia.
Yo: night; tecol: coal; tl: animal. "Animal of the night".

In central Mexico, the owl was considered a bird of ill-omen and messenger of the gods of the underworld. It was the sixth companion of the lords of the day and, specifically, of the god of the dead warriors. When they were heard screeching it meant that someone would fall ill or die and if, in addition, it scratched the earth, the omen was even more frightening. To escape the curse, men had to insult the bird harshly.

Zolli (volcano partridge, quail) Dendrortyx macroura.
Zollin: quail.

The quail was the fourth of the 13 volatile beings of the Tonalpohualli and was the companion of the Sun. The god of spring and the god of vegetation had a quail as a symbol.

A myth in which the quail participates refers to the moment in which Quetzalcoatl travels to the underworld to obtain bones and repopulate the Earth after the end of a cosmogonic era. The god steals the bones but Mictlantecuhtli chases him and makes him stumble; when he falls he faints and some quails gnaw the scattered bones.

These birds were a symbol of the starry sky and therefore had a special value as sacrificial animals. Every day a bird was offered; its head was cut off and this, together with the blood, was dedicated to the gods. During the sacrifice, divinations were made according to the position in which the animal's body fell; for example, if it fell towards the north, it was considered a bad sign.

By Ma. del Rocío Téllez Estrada, Source: Correo del Maestro. No. 41, pp 48-56.