The word escuincle comes from the term itzcuintli (from Nahualt, a language spoken by the Aztecs) and literally means dog. In modern Mexico, the word escuincle has the meaning of dog and child. However, dictionaries from the colonial era do not refer to the latter meaning, so the use in the sense of the child is considered to be much more recent.
Specifically, in the meaning of dog, the word escuincle refers pejoratively to a thin, hairless street dog. The word is also used to refer to a breed of dogs that existed in the pre-Hispanic era, much appreciated by the Aztecs and that even today exists as xoloiztcuintle or xolo (also called Mexican pelón or Aztec dog).
According to the chroniclers of the time who refer to the strange hairless dog from Mesoamerica, most animals were born with fur, but were removed by the natives using a resin called oxilt, a medicinal extract made from pine resin.
These same chroniclers described the animal as a domestic dog that did not bark, hairless and capable of hunting and tracking. He had small raised ears and fine, sharp teeth.
School mythology in Aztec mythology
For the Aztecs, escuincle was important in two ways. From a mythological point of view, they believed that the animal had the ability to guide its masters to Mictlan, the world of the dead.
They represented them with different characteristics: sometimes as squat and sometimes skeletal animals and with wrinkle patterns.
Some representations were less naturalistic and much more grotesque, like a brush that sprouted from a horn or in semi-transformations from dog to human. A ceramic figure of a scuincle transforming from a dog to a snake is displayed at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The escuincles were also associated with the mortuary rituals of the Aztecs. They were seen as emissaries of Xolotl, the monstrous god of death, who looked like a dog. According to this, some dogs were slaughtered when their owners died and were buried with them.
The colonists’ interpretation
Some Spanish chroniclers at the time of the conquest also described the animals’ sacrifices to the rain god. In times when rain was scarce, animals were taken in procession to the temple of their god.
The animals were slaughtered in several ways: some were crossed with arrows, others were suffocated and others were thrown against stones after taking the heart, which was then cooked.
The escuincle and the human being
Other mythical Mexican stories, compiled after the conquest, suggest the intimate relationship between escuincles and humans. One of these myths states that, since the gods had punished humans with a terrible flood. Surviving humans had to resort to fishing as the only available resource for obtaining food.
Thus, the smoke produced during the cooking of the fish irritated the gods, who decapitated the humans and magically transformed them into brushes.
These records and the archaeological finds of objects that represent the escuincle in different ways suggest that the Aztecs considered that animal sacred or supernatural.
In addition to this sacred meaning, escuincle also met one of the most fundamental needs of the ancient Mexicans: food. It is known that they raised these dogs to consume them as food.
They fed them corn, and when they were fat, they killed them and prepared them in green sauce. The writings of the time refer that the taste was similar to that of the piglet. They used to eat this animal when religious parties or special sacrifices were performed.