Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dogs and Death - the Psychopomps of Colima

Posted by: Dani Harper, Author
by Dani Harper

Dancing dogs from Colima, Mexico
Photo: Dani Harper
I added another psychopomp to my collection last week. As a lifelong fan of legend and lore, it was inevitable that I would end up not only collecting folktales and myths, but tangible items related to them. In this case, it’s a group of little clay dogs…

The job of a psychopomp is to guide souls to the afterlife, or sometimes simply to warn mortals of their impending death. Various deities and angels act in this role. Ghosts or spirits can be psychopomps too. The word comes from the Greek psukhopompos, from psukhÄ“, meaning ‘soul’ + pompos, meaning ‘conductor’ or ‘guide’. 

In many cultures, animals act as psychopomps, and pre-eminent among them is the humble dog. This includes the great black dogs or grims, from the Welsh faery lore that inspires my novels, since their primary mission is to foretell the death of humans.

But I learned about another canine associated with the afterlife when I was in one of the oldest cities in Mexico – a charming place named Colima (koh-LEE-mah), which means domain of the ancestors or domain of the old gods. In addition to a couple of volcanoes and the BEST coffee I have ever tasted in my life, there are no less than nine museums.

One was filled with little clay dogs.

Each clay dog has an opening to
receive the spirit of the deceased. 
Some dogs have funnels on top of
their heads or on their backs.
Photo: Dani Harper
At the Museo Regional de Historia de Colima, I learned that the number one spiritual guide to the hereafter was a red clay dog that looks like an inflated chihuahua. They’re called perros cebados (round dogs) and have been unearthed by the thousands in this small area of western Mexico. They are found nowhere else.

These plump canines are depicted sleeping, sitting, standing, eating, and even appearing to dance on their hind legs. Many of the dogs are smiling but all have one important thing in common. There’s always an opening in the clay creature. Sometimes the mouth is open, sometimes the tail has been made into a tube or a funnel, and occasionally there’s even a funnel on top of the dog’s head or back! Anyone who’s worked with clay knows that a piece has to have a vent in it somewhere to release heated gases during firing to avoid breakage but, according to the museum guide, these openings are thought to have a much higher purpose: to allow the entry of a soul so it can then be carried to the afterworld.

The ancient residents of Colima – Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, Zapoteca, and Colima Indians – buried their dead in deep shaft-like tombs, and provided the deceased with everything they might need for their journey to the next life. This always included a pot-bellied clay dog to carry their spirit. The museum featured a room with a plexiglass floor where you could look down into an exact replica of one of these tombs. Little clay dogs are arranged amid mummified bodies and bundles of belongings, exactly as they were found.

The Xoloitzcuintle has been around for over 3000 years
and is the National Dog of Mexico. 

Read about it here:
Photo credit: Bigstock.com
Usually a grave contained more than one perro cebado. The red clay dogs performed double and triple duty for the dead because the real-life animals they resembled – the Xoloitzcuintle*, or Xolo for short – had many roles. Many were fattened and used as food. Some were highly valued as watchdogs, some were much-loved companions. And some were believed to be holy; these ones were said to heal the sick, and to safeguard the family home from evil spirits. 

The Xolo dog occurred in different sizes. The clay figures that represent it have been found in many different sizes too. Some of the dogs are very tiny, less than 3 inches tall, yet they were held to be powerful psychopomps just the same. In the ancient cultures of the region, it simply did not matter what kind of a person you’d been in life! Despite how virtuous you were, if you weren’t buried with one of these canine spirit guides, you were doomed to wander the unknown realms, never to enter paradise. The inverse was believed to be true as well. Even the most horrible person imaginable was assured safe passage to the heavenly realms as long as he or she was buried with a perro cebado!

Maybe I should have my collection buried with me. You know, just in case…

Part of Dani Harper's collection of clay dogs from Colima, Mexico
Photo by Dani Harper

Love Faeries? These ones aren't cute...
Love dogs? These ones aren't cuddly...
 Check out The Grim Series by Dani Harper

Upcoming release, STORM CROSSED now available for pre-order !

Note: Every book in this series is designed to stand alone. It's more fun to read them in order, but not necessary.
Legend, love, lore, and magic...
See ALL my novels on my Amazon Author Page
or go to my website at http://www.daniharper.com


  1. Id not heard of these before, very interesting.. great link to the Grimm series too brilliant looking forward to Jan 2018 for next book to come out


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