Hanal Pixan and Coco the Pixar Alebrije – When Dogs Guide Souls

No one asks the really important questions like why is dog, spelled backwards, God? I would very much like to know whether I’m just making a big deal about this or if there is something more to it. Well humans, it turns out that there is so much more and I’m going to tell you all about it.

If you haven’t ever seen the Pixar film Coco, where have you been living human? I’m going to spoil part of it for you right now. It stars a dog, who is also an alebrije, called Dante, not Coco. Bet you didn’t expect that. You’re probably now wondering what an alebrije is, too. Luckily, I am a wise and patient dog and I want to share all of these fascinating things with you. Alebrijes are mythical creatures that originated in 1936 during the feverish dreams of a Mexican artist called Pedro Linares. Using his talent as a ‘cartonero,’ or papier-mâché artist, he recreated these mystical and fantastical creatures, which just happened to be noticed by some other artists, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. A documentary was made about him in 1975 called Linares: Artesano de Cartón and he became known throughout the art world. 

An alejibre dog running wild and free!
Photo credit: “Perro alebrije” by davidpuma is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

In the 1980s, Pedro was invited to be part of an art workshop and that’s where Manuel Jimenez, a wood carver from Oaxaca discovered these incredible alebrijes. Manuel brought these fanciful creatures to life in his wood sculptures back in Oaxaca where they became hugely popular as folk art in the region. 

Let’s get back to Coco though. Dante, the canine Alebrije spirt star of the film, had another very important attribute that made him important as part of Mexico’s traditions and that is because he was a Xoloitzcuintli, often referred to as Xolos, mainly because humans have terrible pronunciation skills. Xolos are a world-famous breed of dog known for having no hair. Being bald is not the only thing these dogs are famous for. They are also named after someone particularly important in ancient Aztec mythology, Xolotl is the Aztec God of lightning and death. This particular God was depicted as a terrible, frightening, and scary dog. When you add ‘itzcuintli,’ the word for ‘dog,’ to the end of Xolotl, you get a mouthful, and that is why humans call them Xolos. 

Ancient Aztec people believed that Xolo dogs were created by God to guide the souls of humans – that would be you – to the Underworld, where I presume underworldy like things happen. I really have no idea except in Coco, the movie, it was spectacular, colourful, and fun and I would not mind at all guiding my humans to live there. Unfortunately, back in the ancient times, this didn’t work out too well for dogs. They have been found buried with their humans to ensure that they are available to do their guiding duties. Oh well. It was better than being eaten, I guess. Don’t tell anyone this, but ancient humans ate us too. I wonder if we tasted like chicken.

This perro does not seem to be running wild and free, but he does seem to have a good supply of tacos. This is a pre Columbian statue of a dog.
Photo credit: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

In ancient Maya lore, dogs had a somewhat different role. In the Maya calendar, for example, a dog is a symbol for the tenth day, which is called ‘Oc’. They have even been shown in Maya codices carrying torches, and that kind of makes sense as there is a Maya belief that dogs brought fire to humankind. Check us out. Lighting, death, bringers of fire, and we guide human souls. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Dogs also feature heavily in some of the stories in the Popul Vuh, the Maya people’s story of creation. There are stories and tales about dogs that connect dogs with many important parts of Mexico’s culture, but most of all, their role is as guides is considered the most important. I believe is quite fitting that we should be known as guides because I would definitely try to guide my human towards the nearest taco stand in life or death.

So, how does this all fit in to the local Yucatan tradition of Hanal Pixan, which is related to Day of the Dead festivals in other parts of Mexico, but very unique to the regional culture. Hanal Pixan means ‘food for the souls’ and that’s exactly what it is all about? The Pixan is what Maya people call your soul and those souls require the help of a dog to help them get through all the tricky pathways that are created through ceremonial prayers and rituals. Eventually, dogs get them to their destination at the Underworld, but they also need to return so that they can reincarnate. Dogs love going for walks, so this is a perfect job for us.

Here I am looking stylish with a bag featuring Dante, the alebrije dog from Coco, the film. My humans told me I had to do this so I didn’t get sued by Disney for using one of their characters in my blog. Oh, the shame. But we’re both cute and both Mexican made, so there is that!

The problem is that humans can be quite horrid to each other sometimes. A long time ago, bunch of humans from Spain came to Mexico and made all of the people who were already here follow their new rules about how religion should be done. Well, the Maya people are nothing, if not clever, and they found ways to mix it all up so that the Spaniards weren’t really sure what they were doing, but secretly, they were following their own beliefs. The Spanish priests realised that they weren’t going to win on this issue, but they did manage to stop any rituals that allowed reincarnation because as far as they were concerned this simply wasn’t a thing and if they didn’t think it was a thing, no other humans could think it either. Nevertheless, the Maya people needed to spend times with the souls of their dead, so the Spaniards picked some dates that coincided with an established holiday in Europe called Old Souls Day and told the Maya people, and all the other indigenous people that they were oppressing and enslaving across Mesoamerica, that they could have October 31st, November 1st & 2nd to follow their own traditions around the dead.

The Maya designated November 1st to welcome the souls of children, and the 2nd was for the souls of adults. Because dogs like me, and other animals, are believed to be able to see the souls, we are traditionally tied up inside the house to make sure we don’t prevent the souls from making their way to the altars, which are set out with things like the favourite foods and drinks of those who have died. Nowadays, people even make altars for their furry family members who have passed. I know my humans will be making one. Just like they say in Coco, if you keep us alive in your hearts, we’ll never fade away. 

Last year, my humans made their first effort at setting up an alter for all my ancestors. Of course, you know I’m adopted, so my ancestors are the dogs and cats that lived in my family before I came along. This year, they are planning to do a better one. Watch out for photos.

So, if you have lost a pet, don’t feel shy about celebrating their death and inviting their soul to visit you as part of this tradition in Yucatan. Whether you believe in dog Gods that bring fire, reincarnation, the ability of souls to visit, or The Flying Spaghetti Monster (set out some meatballs for him), you will be participating in an important cultural event. This will help you learn more about your Yucatecan friends and neighbours, but more than anything, there’s nothing wrong with remembering those we’ve loved, and that’s what this is all about. 

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