Dogs and other animals, human companions here and in the afterlife

Pre-Hispanic burials evidence the close relationship of companionship. Western influence gave the night a sense of fear, of evil spirits, added on the occasion of the Day of the Dead. Nocturnal butterflies were considered evil beings.

Dogs and other animals, human companions here and in the afterlife
Puppies and other animals, companions of human beings here and hereafter. Image by Václav Závada from Pixabay

With more than 15,000 years of history, the dog is considered the best companion in life and after death, although there are other species that are also related to the afterlife, such as nocturnal butterflies, "pantheon flies" and tecolotes ("white-tailed owls"), says Raul Valadez Azua, from the Institute of Anthropological Research (IIA) of the UNAM.

On the occasion of the Day of the Dead, the head of the Paleozoology Laboratory of the IIA, emphasizes that the belief that diverse animals are messengers of death or that they bring bad omens has its origin during the Colony when traditional customs were mixed with the thinking of the conquerors.

"The most relevant association between a deceased human and some material or element of nature would be dogs because they arrived so early in human history (between 15,000 and 18,000 years) that man has no conscience of what human life is without the dog... in such an intense scheme, so intimate that for the man it was part of the groups as if it were one more human," he stresses.

One of the authors of "Journey to the Underworld: Science and Death" recalls that one of the most interesting human burials in America was found in Hidalgo and dates back five thousand years. It is a cave called Tecolote where two burials were discovered, in which there are half a dozen dogs.

It is thought that the people were sacrificed in honor of the mountain and the dogs remained on one side as their guardians and protectors of the sacred space; that is to say, the role of the animal was to accompany them and maintain the sacredness of the site, he says.

Colonial influence

In the pre-Hispanic universe, there is no concept of good or bad, so when referring to the living world or the underworld, it does not refer to a space of well-being or one of suffering, it refers to a level that moves in a dual condition, the dynamic between one and the other, which corresponds to the binary sense that formed the thinking of the original civilizations. In this context, Valadez Azúa points out, organisms such as the butterfly represent this duality, and their presence was related to the phases of life, but when they disappear, due to migrations or death, only the caterpillars remain, a sign that a new cycle has been entered.

Moreover, wolves were the counterpart of what could be a diurnal animal, such as the eagle, because they represented the nocturnal space, the one linked to the underworld. In the scheme where the day is in the hands of Quetzalcoatl, the night in the hands of Xolotl, the canid of excellence for the nocturnal space is the wolf. There is also talk of animals such as jaguars, related to the stars.

Valadez Azúa narrates: "We have been able to see in Teotihuacan burials where animals such as weasels appear, which are quite skilled and very good for hunting, especially poultry. In the site of Teopancazco, we found, in a burial... the skull of a weasel, but it was cut, probably it was a pendant". In another case the skull of a bat was also identified, associated with the remains of a deceased person, the reason why it was part of the symbolism that was considered fundamental for the moment of leaving to its other life, the expert abounds.

During the Colonial period, with the Western influence, the nocturnal space was given a sense of fear, of evil spirits that wander around trying to take over good people, of those who do not take care of themselves, and possibly from there come several of those stories where the animals that belong to the night are linked to aspects that have to do with magic and sorcery, the university professor points out.

For example, owls and other birds whose squawking in pre-Hispanic times indicated that someone would die, but the reality is that it did not matter if they were diurnal birds, but they change from chirping to squawking. In that case, the nocturnal issue would not be as relevant as the sound, until colonial times.

From this period on, nocturnal butterflies are seen as evil animals, symbols of death, carrying some magic or sorcery. Although their presence can be a bit annoying, especially when they start fluttering around and people scream and ask for help because they say they bring bad news, emphasizes Valadez Azúa.

Animals are not usually in the offerings, but there are communities that believe that they accompany the souls on the Day of the Dead, November 1 and 2, a celebration to welcome the dead, which is recognized, since 2003, as Intangible Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO refers that it covers the whole country and remembers adults and children, who are received in cemeteries or homes with cempasúchil flowers, candles, food, sweets, and water to bring abundance (if they liked it) or misfortune, in case their visit is not satisfactory.