The Mayan Legend of the Axolotl

Mayan legend says that the axolotl embodies the Mayan god of fire and lightning, Xolotl, twin brother of Quetzalcoatl. To avoid being sacrificed, he took the form of this extraordinary amphibian.
The Mayan Legend of the Axolotl
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 10 April, 2023

The Mayan legend of the axolotl has been passed down from generation to generation. Currently, this beautiful anthropological legacy is evoked more than ever, for one specific reason. This is the fact that the axolotl, native to Lake Xochimilco in Mexico, is in danger of extinction.

Factors such as the loss of their natural habitat due to the appearance of new invasive species, as well as overexploitation by man and pollution explain this threat. Without a doubt, if the Mexican axolotl or Ambystoma mexicanum ceased to exist in our permanently threatened natural ecosystem, it’d be a dreadful shame.

It’s interesting to evoke the stories in which the animal kingdom becomes intermingled with the cultural world. Indeed, the heritage of a country and even a planet is tied up in its own living beings. This animal, in particular, has a really special symbolism and appearance. It’s a delicate amphibian in the shape of a tadpole with a striking mane.

Axolotls need aquatic environments with extremely clean, calm waters where there’s no noise pollution either. The sound of big cities and traffic causes them stress.

The axolotl native to Mexico has a brown hue. Those raised as pets have a white or pinkish hue.

The Mayan legend of the axolotl

The Mayan legend of the axolotl claims that, at the dawn of time, the gods gathered in the mythical Teotihuacan to create the universe. However, this primal and magnificent act had a cost: their lives.

History and popular literature claim that many deities threw themselves into the fire without thinking about it, like Huitzilopochtli or Tezcatlipoca. Nevertheless, there was one in particular who opposed this savage act.

Xolotl, god of fire, of death, of the Sun, and also the twin brother of Quetzalcóatl, didn’t want to die, but his death was necessary for light to reach the universe. He was a powerful deity, and only his body, consumed by flames, could turn the lights on in the universe and choreograph the movement of the stars.

Xolotl fled. He took the form of many animals, one of which was a dog. At one point, he even managed to take on the shape of a corn plant. However, the most striking of his transformations was that of an axolotl. He chose the body of this animal because it lived in water, was beautiful, and also small. He hoped to go unnoticed.

Unfortunately, the wind god managed to find out.

The capture and end of Xolotl

It didn’t matter that the almighty god Xolotl was hiding in the body of a singular amphibian at the bottom of a river, among the silt, stones, and other aquatic creatures. The wind god was cunning and shrewd, so it didn’t take long for him to discover this fact. Indeed, it was to be the last transformation of the god of fire and lightning.

Shortly after his capture, Xolotl was taken back to Teotihuacan to finish the ritual. It’s said that with the first drops of his blood, our entire universe began to light up. Also, the fifth Mexica sun appeared and the dawning of a new era began. According to legend, it’s the one we live in now. From a Nahua perspective, it’ll disappear with the arrival of certain natural phenomena like earthquakes, eclipses, and floods.

On the other hand, some sources indicate that the god Xolotl wasn’t sacrificed. They claim that only some of his blood was used. Later, he was punished for his cowardly act by being transformed forever into an axolotl.

Although the Aztec god chose the body of an amphibian, the truth is that the axolotl is a really sensitive creature. In fact, they perish with the slightest contamination of the water they live in.

amphibian representing the Mayan legend of the axolotl
The axolotl doesn’t undergo a metamorphic process like other amphibians.

The axolotl, a really special creature

The axolotl means ‘water monster’ in Nahuatl. Despite being originally from Mexico, in 1864, they were brought to Europe. Since then, they’ve been bred in captivity, acquiring a warm white or pink tone although the axolotls originating in Mexico are brown. Sadly, specimens are becoming increasingly rare.

The Mayan legend of the axolotl also claims that this animal is so extraordinary because the god, Xolotl is still in it. Naturalists and scientists alike are fascinated by its power of regeneration. In fact, it’s capable of regenerating its limbs if it’s attacked by a predator. It can also do the same thing with its heart, spinal cord, and parts of its brain.

Monash University in Melbourne (Australia) conducted a study in which they explained the reason for this extraordinary peculiarity. The inflammatory response after injury results in the removal of pathogens and dead tissue. Later, molecular patterns are activated that initiate a progressive regeneration of the affected part or organ. This is an amazing feat.

One curious fact is that the genome of the axolotl is up to ten times longer than that of the human being. It’s also known that, at birth, they’re often so hungry that they eat the limbs of their siblings. However, nothing happens because, as we already know, they can regenerate any part of their body.

Given these unique characteristics, perhaps they do indeed have the legacy of a Mayan god in their DNA.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Akerberg, V. D. Á., Martínez, T. M. G., Hernández, A. G., & Trejo, M. V. (2021). El género Ambystoma en México¿ Qué son los ajolotes?. CIENCIA ergo-sum, Revista Científica Multidisciplinaria de Prospectiva, 28(2).
  • Debuque RJ, Nowoshilow S, Chan KE, Rosenthal NA, Godwin JW. Distinct toll-like receptor signaling in the salamander response to tissue damage. Dev Dyn. 2022 Jun;251(6):988-1003. doi: 10.1002/dvdy.340. Epub 2021 Apr 8. PMID: 33797128; PMCID: PMC8484370.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.