Since the beginning of time, human beings have coexisted with animals, and together they developed a dynamic of relationships that became more and more profound and significant. After having observed, analyzed, classified, and even domesticated them, there came a point at which pre-Hispanic cultures began to give these animals new characteristics and abilities.

In the human imagination, animals surpassed the most basic levels and entered the categories of creatures with supernatural powers, manifestations of divine energies, or spirits that protected or destroyed, among many others. Animals in the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico were no exception, so they began to be endowed with new meanings and identified as icons and symbols that would become part of the magical-religious ideas of the cultures of our country.

Nowadays, we continue to witness these meanings and the impact they have had on the construction of Mexico’s culture and collective thinking. We see this importance portrayed in murals, paintings, popular images, movies, and even handicrafts, but we aren’t always aware of its significance. That is why we are going to talk about the role of animals in the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico.

1. Maya culture

The Maya culture is considered to be one of the most important civilizations of Mesoamerica. It inhabited the tropical forest region of the present territories of Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador, as well as Mexico in the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. This culture is mainly known for its writings, its numerical systems, its astronomical findings, its architecture, and the use of its calendars.

For the Maya, animals were seen as manifestations of divine energies and could become messengers of the gods. This is why they established symbolic bonds between themselves and the divine forces that ruled the universe. Among the most important animals for Maya culture are the jaguar, the owl, the hummingbird, and the deer.

Read: The major ancient maya gods you should know about

  • Jaguar

Known as balam, this is one of the most sacred animals in the Maya culture. Since ancient times, the jaguar was associated with night and night power, so it was believed that it could travel between the worlds of the living and the dead; that is, the underworld, known as Xibalbá in the Maya culture.

In Maya culture, this animal was considered a symbol of supernatural power, strength, life, and fertility. This led them to keep it present in all of their artistic and architectural manifestations. However, it also resulted in it being considered as the source from which kings and nobles descended.

animals in pre-Hispanic cultures

Because of this, the jaguar was associated with the most important men, such as rulers, priests, and sorcerers, who could clothe themselves with the skin of this animal to highlight their power. It was believed that the jaguar protected those who carried its image, and that these important people could even take its name to make it their own.

  • Owl

Within the Maya culture, the owl, also known as “tecolote”, according to the Popol Vuh, was considered a messenger of the gods from the underworld and was also said to know the way to it. 

The meaning of this animal can also be explained through the myth of Tunkuluchú. The myth narrates that the owl was a very wise animal and an advisor to the other birds. It was after a party in which a Maya villager mocked him and made him look ridiculous in front of everyone, that this animal promised revenge on men and learned to recognize the smell of death.

animals in pre-Hispanic cultures

This prompted the belief that every time the owl’s song is heard, it is a harbinger of death, which also turned them into a symbol of bad luck and an intermediary from the afterlife.

  • Hummingbird

According to Maya culture, hummingbirds are animals that help heal and help people who need a change in their luck. It’s said that they had the power to protect warriors and to be messengers between gods and humans. 

According to a Maya legend, when the Earth was created, the gods realized that a being was needed to transport thoughts and desires from one place to another. After this discovery, they took a jade stone and created a very small arrow. When it was ready, they blew it and it flew off to later become a hummingbird.

 animals mayan culture

To the Mayas, hummingbirds carried the good thoughts of men. So, if anyone wishes you well, a hummingbird will take that wish and bring it to you. If this animal starts to fly over your head, make sure to think positive and send good energy because this little one will take your wish to make it come true.

  • Deer

For the Maya culture, these animals represent the attributes of a good hunter, and they were also the embodiment of the values ​​that identified a brave warrior, whose work allowed good rain, which in pre-Hispanic times was an indication of large harvests of corn. 

 animals mayan culture

​​This animal had an important place with the figure of the deer-sun as it was used as an emblem of power, as well as a political and sacred symbol that justified the exercise of the rulers and allowed them to maintain a degree of divinity to rule the people.

animals in pre-Hispanic cultures

These are some of the animals that are extremely important in Maya culture, but there are many more. Do you want to know more about it? Visit our blog “Sacred Animals of the Maya Culture” and discover the other animals that have an important place in the worldview of this culture.

2. Aztec culture

The Aztec or Mexica culture dominated central Mexico for two centuries, extending its domains to Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. This culture was located in the center of the Valley of Mexico, and its main activity was to consolidate and extend its empire. This prompted them to build temples, roads for trade, and the circulation of taxes, among other buildings, to secure the favor of the gods.

For the Aztec culture, animals were part of their daily life, their diet, their set of ideas and behaviors, their economy, their customs, and their myths. Among the most important animals for Aztec culture are the dog, golden eagle, quetzal, and butterflies.

  • Dog (xoloitzcuintle)

From pre-Hispanic times to the present day, the dog has retained its role as man’s best friend. For Mesoamerican cultures, this animal fulfilled many tasks that were domestic, religious, of companionship, and of protection of the living and the dead. They were also characters of myths and legends, symbols of calendars, companions of gods, and even gods as such.

In Mexica mythology, Xólotl was the god of heaven, knowledge, transformation, duplicity, night darkness, and the unknown. He was depicted as a man with a dog’s head.

For the Aztec culture, these animals were considered sacred. They saw them as guardians and allies in the afterlife because they were believed to accompany their masters even after death. When the Aztecs died, they buried the dogs with their owner so that they could be their guide to the underworld.

 animals aztec culture

There’s even a legend according to which Xólotl gave men the xoloitzcuintle dog as a gift after making it from a splinter of the bone of life. Because of its divine touch and its role as a companion in life and death, the xoloitzcuintle was considered a sacred animal for the Aztec culture.

Learn about the most popular myths and legends of Mexico

  • Golden eagle

This animal was considered by the Aztec or Mexica culture as the incarnation of force, power, freedom, and dominance. It’s been widely related to the sky and is seen as the incarnation of air, fire, and the Sun, so its descending flight is seen as the falling of light to Earth and the fecundating power of the Sun.

Today, we relate it to our national emblem, but in those times, for the Aztec culture, these animals represented the bravery and character of the warriors, whose mission was believed to be entrusted by the gods themselves; but it was also a symbol of the sacred death that generated the life of the universe.

 animals aztec culture

This is why their feathers were extremely important elements in the clothing of the Aztec elite and also of the gods. There was even a military group called the “Eagle Warriors,” who belonged to the Aztec nobility and were in charge of reconnaissance and espionage missions.

  • Quetzal

Among the important animals for Aztec culture is the quetzal. This bird is also known as the “feathered snake” since when taking flight its tail moves similar to a snake when it glides.

The quetzal was considered by the Aztecs and Mayas as a divine manifestation. During pre-Hispanic times, it was associated with the Mexica god Quetzalcóatl and the Maya god Kukulkán, who manifested themselves as a feathered serpent.

Its name originates from the Nahuatl word quetzalli, which means beautiful or sacred. For the Aztecs, this bird was a symbol of fertility, abundance, well-being, life, prosperity, and freedom.

You may also enjoy: Map of the most spoken indigenous languages in Mexico

animals in pre-Hispanic cultures

In the Maya and Aztec cultures, ornaments, banners, and vestments made with quetzal feathers were symbols of power and wealth. This is why the garments and insignias they used to make for gods and lords, like the robes of the Aztec emperors, were always retouched with the feathers of this bird.

To obtain the feathers, the quetzal was captured alive, the feathers were removed, and then this animal was released since in pre-Hispanic times, there was a death penalty for those who killed a quetzal because it was considered a crime.

  • Butterflies

There was a legend that the Aztecs believed in which butterflies were the souls of children who visited Earth from the Tlalocán (paradise ruled by Tláloc). For them, these animals were a symbol of the rebirth and regeneration of men.

 animals aztec culture

When warriors passed away, they had to spend four years in the Tonatiuh Ilhuicac, or in the celestial abode of the Sun, which was where those who obtained a glorious death in war or sacrificed themselves went. They returned to Earth in the form of beautiful butterflies to obtain the nectar from the flowers. They visited their relatives to protect them from any harm that might come to affect them.

animals in pre-Hispanic cultures

3. Olmec culture

The Olmec culture is also known as the mother of Mesoamerican cultures and represents one of the oldest cultures that inhabited the American continent. It was mainly located in what is now part of the southeastern state of Veracruz and western Tabasco. It was the first culture in Mesoamerica that founded societies and urban centers. The Olmecs were polytheists and worshipped the jaguar.

  • Jaguar

Like the Mayas and Mixtecs, the Olmecs also revered the jaguar. The Olmec culture is extremely linked to this animal, as they felt like descendants of him and even represented men with feline traits. They considered it their main totemic animal and saw it as a god, synonymous with Mother Earth and a symbol of supernatural forces.

This pre-Hispanic culture regarded the jaguar as a sacred creature and related it to the dark, cold, nocturnal, and humid world of the Earth. They also associated it with caves and the exercise of power. For them, it represented the mysteries and dangers of the jungle and the strength to overcome the obstacles of living in it.

 animals olmec culture

Just like this animal, others such as alligators, toads, and reptiles, were considered manifestations of divine energies, but the jaguar was the most important deity for the Olmec culture.

animals in pre-Hispanic cultures

Read more: 10 mythological creatures of Mexico

4. Teotihuacan culture

The Teotihuacán culture was one of the many Mesoamerican civilizations that had its greatest splendor from the third to the seventh century A.D. Located in the northeastern zone of the present State of Mexico, specifically between the municipalities of Teotihuacán and San Martín de las Pirámides.

This culture worshipped the feathered serpent, Quetzalcóatl, and often involved animals in their rites. Among the most important animals for the Teotihuacán culture were the owl, puma, eagle, and obsidian butterfly.

  • Obsidian butterfly
 animals teotihuacan culture

For the Teotihuacán culture, the butterfly was an allegory of fire, soul, and movement. These insects could be observed in various creations related to the soul or warrior spirit.

5. Zapotec culture

The Zapotec culture was a Mesoamerican civilization that settled in the area of the current states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. This culture was well known for having great warriors, since every man, regardless of which sector he belonged to, was forced to go to war.

Animals were present in the Zapotec culture in their ritual calendar and religion, within which they associated several deities with animals. Among the most important animals for the Zapotec culture are the bat, deer, and owl.

  • Bat

For the Zapotec culture, these animals were known as “meat butterflies.” Bats were associated with fertility and the corn and maintenance goddess, Pitao Cozobi. Therefore, this culture recognized their important role in ecosystems, as they helped with seed dispersion or pollination. 

 animals zapotec culture

Although in other cultures, such as the Maya and the Aztec, the bat was related to death, night, and darkness, it has always been respected. Zapotec culture even highlighted their relevance by considering them as a vital part of the balance of nature and its relationship with men.

  • Deer

The deer, like the jaguar and the quetzal, was venerated in several pre-Hispanic cultures. Of the animals that were considered important for the Zapotec culture, the deer was associated with climatic changes, being considered the herald of rain. 

 animals zapotec culture

This is because when a deer was heard bellowing during the night, the Zapotecs believed that rain would soon fall. Likewise, this animal was also part of the offerings to ask for a good harvest.

  • Owl

For the Zapotec culture, these animals were considered great healers, since it is said that with their words they had the ability to encourage and motivate others. In spite of this, it was also believed that owls were messengers of the dark, meaning they were messengers of the lord of the world of the dead. 

 animals zapotec culture

Apart from these animals, the Zapotec culture also considered eagles, macaws, and turtles as sacred animals. 

As you can see, animals played a very important role in the intellectual development of pre-Hispanic cultures in Mexico. They were mythical and divine representations of many of the activities, deities, and values that governed the daily lives of our ancestors and are ideas that remain relevant to Mexican culture to this day. What other animal would you like us to talk about? Leave us your suggestions in the comments.