The relationship between ancient Mesoamerican man and the animals


Mythical accounts throughout the Mesoamerican tradition tell us that in a distant time-space ─in the time-space prior to the existence of the world─ the gods existed in a muddy and watery, mutable medium, barely illuminated by a dim light where they moved in human or animal forms similar to those that worldly beings would later have.

All this changed with the first rising of the Sun, which was the beginning of mundane time-space; the day the world was born with all its creatures, that humid medium solidified. The sunlight illuminated everything intensely. The gods were transformed and lost their mutable being to acquire definitively the forms of creatures.

The above should be interpreted in the sense that each class of creatures (vegetable, animal, human, etc.) derives from a god, a being that, as a consequence of the Sun's rays, was covered with a hard, protective layer of heavy matter, but of a perishable nature, since it wears out with time. Thus were born the creatures, in whose interior resides a piece of the god that created them, that is to say, a soul because all the creatures of the world have a divine soul in their interior.

The present animals and the present men, who, when they were gods in the time-space of the myth, lived together intensely, now continue to exist in constant relationship, although they can no longer communicate with each other as they did before acquiring their coverings of heavy matter. To this is also due that, in their relationships, men of Mesoamerican tradition have considered animals ─and continue to consider them in our days─ not only as creatures of which they can take advantage rationally to subsist, but as integrators of societies to which they must respect and, even, take as examples.

It is not strange, therefore, that they have used their forms to represent the gods or that among the mythical adventures there are "animals" that heroically fought to benefit the human race, such as the tlacuache that stole fire to bring it to this world. Likewise, animal figures occupied practically all spaces, utensils, attire, rites, calendar dates, and writing.

It is also believed, until today, that a part of the soul of an animal can settle in a newborn child to form a human-animal alliance, this receives the name of tonal; an entity that makes the person acquire characteristics, skills, behavior, and sometimes the appearance of its tutelary ally. It is even thought that, after death, when the soul of the deceased travels through the Mictlan, it is an animal, a reddish-colored dog, that helps it cross a dangerous river of the underworld.

These relationships, which as we can see extended from before the existence of this world, in life in it, and even after death, are manifested in the symbolism of the animals represented.


Although nowadays it is in danger of extinction and it is common to kill it because it is wrongly considered harmful, it is a very important animal in Mesoamerican mythology. This is due to the fact that it is a marsupial and its ability to feign death when attacked by a predator. Another characteristic is the shape of its hands, which allow it to open closed places and steal poultry, mead from magueys, etc.

In mythology it appears as the thief that goes to the world of the gods to steal fire, to bring it to men. It is also said in the myths that he was the thief of tobacco and pulque. The latter is related to the moon since the lunar goddess is the protector of the pulque magueys. As a mythical character, he is a very wise old man, cunning, inventor, stinker, drunkard, benefactor of men. It has been considered a sacred animal by the god Quetzalcoatl.


Although this animal is considered the source of different Coronaviruses, forgetting the human participation by the depredation of the species and its habitat, for the Mesoamerican symbology, as much for its strange nature of flying mammal as for its nocturnal habits and for dwelling inside the caves, it was one of the emissaries of the god of the death. In the pantheon of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, the bat god is related to the god of corn and fertility, for being the main pollinator of cacti and for spreading the seeds of the fruits it consumes.


It is a very important animal as a cosmic symbol since it is one of the forms with which the original goddess, Cipactli, from which the earth and the sky originate, is represented. It is also the symbol of one of the twenty days of the month. At this time their numbers are extremely depleted due to hunting for their precious skin, as well as the destruction of their habitat.


Because it is considered a danger to humans, as well as for the use of its skin, several species of snakes are in danger of extinction. In Mesoamerican iconography, it is the most represented animal because it has an immense significant value. Its body turns the reptile into an equivalent to all the flows, among them those of water, wind, rain, and clouds, the paths of the planets, etc.

Several gods bear his name, among them Quetzalcoatl ("Feathered Serpent") and Cihuacoatl ("Woman Serpent"). His name was also given to one of the twenty days of the month. Those who were born on the day One Serpent were happy and rich. It was the day that merchants took advantage of to go out on their expeditions since they considered it to be a day of good fortune.


Some specialists have interpreted the name of the Father God of the Mayas, Itzamná, as "House of Iguanas" and perhaps that is why the contemporary peninsular Mayas consider it as the guardian of the earth. It is a very important reptile in Mexico, not only because of its interesting figure but also because it is edible, although unfortunately, this has brought it to the brink of extinction.

By Rodolfo Candelas Castañeda, Source: INAH MorelosThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Mexico License.