Up until Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors, there was virtually no stopping the Aztec empire. The Aztecs were an advanced society that dominated central Mexico for well over two centuries. Their domain extended from Nicaragua to El Salvador and even Honduras.
With their home in the center of the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs specialized in many things, but their main activity was focused on consolidating and expanding their empire. They needed to battle with neighboring or resistant societies to do this.
As such, they had castes of elite warriors and a deep belief in the supernatural. They believed that their gods were the only Aztec deities who could keep them prosperous, and for that, they needed to recognize them and revere them in several ways.
The Aztecs also believed in reincarnation and that certain animals represented reincarnated gods or carried omens/messages from the great beyond.
As you might expect, many animals in this culture were closely associated with more than just what they are; from Aztec mythology to traditions and even religion, here are some of the most important Aztec animals and what they meant to the Aztec people.
1. The Jaguar
The jaguar is the biggest and most lethal cat in the Mesoamerican jungle. It’s no wonder the Aztecs revered it so. The jaguar was associated with strength, military prowess, and skill.
The most elite military caste of the Aztec people was called the “Jaguar Warriors.” Only the most skilled, battle-hardened, and cunning warriors made it to this caste.
2. The Golden Eagle
The golden eagle is one of the most revered animals in Aztec culture. It was believed that the eagle was a reincarnation of the Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli and a symbol of power, bravery, and fearlessness.
In their quest to find a suitable home as they wandered through central Mexico, the Mexica people kept a lookout for an eagle patched on a cactus, which would be the sign that they had found their new home.
An eagle was spotted patched on a cactus in a swamp in the middle of Lake Texcoco, and that’s why the capital city, Tenochtitlan, was founded.
Other than that, the Mexica culture considered the eagle to be the incarnation of power, freedom, dominance, and force. It was so revered that there was an elite military caste called the Eagle Warriors, who not only belonged to the societal elite but were also in charge of espionage and reconnaissance; all integral reasons why the Aztecs were considered so powerful.
3. The Butterfly
Considered a symbol of transformation and change, the butterfly’s journey from being an egg to becoming a larva, a pupa, and eventually, a beautiful creature floating through the world was viewed as a person’s potential to grow and change into something beautiful.
It was also closely associated with the Aztec goddess Itzpapalotl, who was believed to symbolize the souls of women who lost their lives while giving birth, and the Aztec god of vegetation, Xochipilli.
4. The Dog
Known as Xoloitzcuintle, the dog served pretty much the same role back then as it does now: being man’s best friend. In Mesoamerican culture, the dog had many roles and fulfilled a number of tasks, including:
- Being a domestic guard
- Protecting the dead
- Being a companion
In many instances, the dog was an important character in Aztec mythology, a symbol in their calendars, a companion for their gods, and in some cases, the gods themselves.
The Aztecs considered their dogs sacred and the animals that would be their guardians and allies in death. When an Aztec dog owner died, their dog was buried alongside them so that they might have a guide to the underworld.
5. The Quetzal
The quetzal is a rare bird mostly found in the forests of South America and Central America. The quetzal is unique in that most species are brilliantly colorful, and the males often have a long tail feather. This tail feather often takes more than three years to grow to its full flamboyant length in the male bird species.
Technically known as the Resplendent Quetzal, this was a sacred bird in Aztec and Mayan cultures. So precious was this bird that it was forbidden to kill a quetzal. They could be trapped, and their quetzal or tail feathers plucked. Aztec priests and royalty often wore these tail feathers to symbolize wealth and position.
Associated with Quetzalcoatl, the snake god, this sacred bird was often used in religious and ceremonial events. It symbolized freedom, wealth, and light.
6. The Frog
Used as a symbol for renewal, fertility, and joy, the Aztec people found frogs amusing and, in some cases, revered them. Frogs were often considered a symbol of Tlaltecuhti, the Aztec Earth Mother Goddess, who was often portrayed as a scary, fanged frog with human skulls at her feet.
Furthermore, frogs were also considered a symbol of joy. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, but it’s assumed. Maybe it’s because, unlike most other wild animals, the Aztecs found frogs amusing.
7. The Armadillo
In Aztec and Mayan cultures, the armadillo held an important role in traditional rituals that involved praying for rain and bountiful harvests. The armadillo is used as a symbol of fertility and food abundance.
The Nahuatl or Aztec word for armadillo is ayotochtli, which directly translates to turtle rabbit or ground rabbit, and like the rabbit, the armadillo carries a strong association with fertility.
Both wild and domestic animals were often carried with great reverence by the Aztecs. They believed that any animal of any kind could be the double of a human being, and they treated them with respect. This meant that animals were an important part of Aztec religion and ritual offerings.