The legendary animal that reportedly haunted many fishermen’s sleep back in the 15th century Central Mexico, ahuizotl was widely known around the great Lake Texcoco and among towns and altepetls surrounding it; widely known and greatly feared. Described as a lethal creature with spiky fur, pointy ears, slick body, and black long tail upon which a ‘…hand like this of a person sprouts…’ (Florentine Codex), according to stories it would use this same disproportionally long tail and the hand crowning it to grab its unsuspecting victims in order to pull them under the water and hold there until they drowned. Only then, it would feast on its prey’s eyes, teeth, and nails, and then let the body float again.
In cases of such discoveries, only tlatoque, priests belonging to the worship of Tlaloc, the deity responsible for watery deaths among his other vast responsibilities, were authorized to deal with the burials, special rites, and ceremonies of purification. Or so the stories abounded around Lake Texcoco claimed, dotting Nahua lore, recorded by the later-day Spanish invaders as well.
Into Spanish, and later on English, ahuizotl entered as ‘water dog,’ but this translation is far from being linguistically accurate. The first letter ‘a’ here is indeed standing for atl-water, but there end the similarities. No word meaning dog – chichi or itzcuintli – seems to be present in the word ahuizotl, not even remotely. The closest interpretation one founds plausible is the Water Spiny/Thorny One – again a for atl-water, huiz for huiztli-thorny/spiny (also ‘south,’ relating to the spiny cactuses of the region probably), and the ending otl/yotl which might be translated as ‘ to be like’ (in Nahuatl, as a rule, suffixes such as “tl/tli” are taken off the root word itself when connected to other following words, hence atl turns into a mere a and huiztli turns into huiz, but otl gets to keep its “tl” because it’s the last word and connects to no following, comprising a-huiz-otl).
So, with the canine ‘accusations’ safely out of the way, it still leaves us with many guesses as to who was this legendary creature with its spiky fur, pointy ears, slick body and most lethal of tails. According to primary sources, ahuizotls were feared but rarely encountered to describe them in more detail (besides one incident documented in Florentine Codex, in which a woman reportedly captured the creature and managed to seal it in a pot, bringing it to the elders of the community but made to release it on an account of its alleged sacredness).
The modern-day speculations as to the possible source of the legend are varied and contradicting. From opossums to dogs to otters to something completely legendary – the guesswork is lively and not convincing.
However, if one wishes to find water dogs after all, one doesn’t need to look any further than this same small river predator known to us as an otter, which in Nahuatl indeed is called aitzcuintli – water dog (a/atl=water, itzcuintli=dog). Quick research on this relatively small water predator shows a violent streak, readiness to attack humans under certain circumstances, usually to protect its litter, disproportionally long and wide tails, even if those are not crowned with a human-like hand at its edge, and nicely fitting eating habits of the occasional scavenging of drowned bodies, with eyes, gums and fingertips being some of the temptingly softer parts. In addition to slick, oily fur, sharp teeth and only the pointy ears not fitting the description, an average river otter certainly answers the criteria, even if roughly.
Fishing as a trade was widely practiced, especially by Tenochtitlan’s common folk, the dwellers of an island-city. The fruits of the lake surrounding the great altepetl on all sides, greatly varying from regular fish caught with nets, harpoons, fishhooks and such, to lake’s crawlers, to aqua insects to various water plants, sustained many a families, constituting a considerable part of each meal. According to Codex Mendoza, boys upon reaching age fourteen were already expected to manage a canoe, sent out fishing on their own, after helping their fathers through their earlier more tender years. Merchants sailed on their various trading expeditions, and even Tenochtitlan’s farmers had to brave the lake’s waters in order to reach their floating fields known to us even today as chinampas/chinamitl.
Lake Texcoco and its waters along with its dangers was a part of everyone’s life, and so was the need to chance possible encounters with lethal, if mysterious, ahuizotls.
An excerpt from “Obsidian Puma” The Aztec Chronicles, book #6.
Are you out of your stupid mind?” Grabbing his friend’s arm more forcefully, which now was wrapped around the working boy’s neck with firm determination, disregarding the similar state of affairs on the other side, Necalli used his entire weight in order to pry his friend loose, if only a little. “Stop that, both of you, you stupid half wits. Get away from each other.”
Using his shoulder as a wedge, he pushed them so hard, they both went down and into the water, and he had a hard time maintaining his own balance from the suddenness of it.
“You stupid –”
And then it happened. He had never seen it, not from close proximity and not from afar, but the stories were there, told and retold by all sorts of people, usually at nights, the boys in calmecac huddling together, scaring each other. The fishermen from the city and the villages had first-hand accounts to report, and there were books depicting the creature, serious books, priests’ calendars and such, drawn by eyewitnesses, those who saw it and managed to get away, not many, usually just witnesses, not the direct objects of the monster’s attack.
In the gathering darkness, it was difficult to see, so his senses informed him before his terrified eyes did. Both boys were still spluttering, struggling to get to their feet before the other did, still eager to attack, oblivious to anything else, but the slick body of maybe half of his size was sliding alongside, the pointed ears and head, the spiky fur, and the tail, huge and as black as the gathering night.
Numbed with terror, he watched it circling, nimble and deadly, meaning harm. The tail, it would be using its tail now, he knew, blinking to make his mind work. It would grab them one by one with its tail, wrapping its human-like fingers of this same lethal limb around them in order to pull them under.
Patli’s scream tore him from his stupefied staring, brought the sounds back in force, crumbling down his stomach, making it turn violently, as though he was about to get sick. The others stopped thrashing and were jumping away too, waving their arms in a ridiculous manner. The slick silhouette was darting every which way, like the shadow of the Underworld, which it might very well have been. No one knew from where ahuizotls originated.
The next thing he knew, the workshop boy uttered a funny yelp, falling backwards in a strange fashion, head first, or rather his neck, as a person would dive when trying to do it backwards, a bizarre picture. His limbs were thrashing wildly, but his head, half under the water and half out, was stretched out weirdly, wrapped in a blur of slick limbs, while Axolin, living up to his name of a Water Lizard, joined the melee quite fearlessly, beating at the strangling paws, trying to pry them off.
The realization that brought Necalli’s frozen body back to life with a start, made him hurl himself into the raging fight with little consideration, his hands claws, grabbing the flailing hands, pulling hard. For a heartbeat, it felt like a lost struggle, then the workshop boy was back, gasping for air, gurgling desperately. Of the creature there was no sign.
Blinking in confusion, his instincts still screaming danger, not letting the sense of victory prevail, he tried to unlock his grip on the elbow he was clutching for dear life before, then again felt rather than saw the movement, this time much closer, the slick fur brushing against his side, making him shudder in revulsion, frozen yet again against any better judgment. The tail with the human hand, where was it? His mind kept wondering, desperate to locate the source of danger. The creature would attack with its best-fitting feature, like he did with the workshop boy, like it did in every story and tale.