There are five little clay dogs on my coffee table, each of which has been tenderly transported in my carry-on luggage from Mexico over the past couple of years. Not only do I enjoy them as art, I’m, well, hedging my bets…
It all started 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. I’d never heard of it until I had a chance to visit the country last year, but as soon as someone mentioned there were no less than nine museums there, my husband and I (who are addicted to history) had to go check it out.
The first thing we learned is that Colima was founded in 1527 by Hernan Cortez. The second thing we learned is that the conquering Spanish were far from the first ones in the area. A group of Olmec people lived in the shadow of the area’s towering twin volcanoes (only one of which is extinct) over 3500 years ago. They were followed by several other cultures and subcultures, including the Toltecs, Mayans and Aztecs.
Most importantly, we learned that it’s essential to have a good psychopomp.
The word psychopomp (from the Greek word, psychopompos) literally means guide of souls. In Greek mythology, that might be Charon, who ferried the dead across the river Styx in the underworld. Or it might be the versatile god, Hermes, who sometimes acted as a guide to the underworld. The Norse had the Valkyries, those warrior-maidens who plucked fallen soldiers from the battlefield and whisked them off to drink mead in Valhalla.
The number one spiritual guide to the afterlife in ancient Colima, however, was not a god or goddess. Instead, it was a little red clay dog that looks like an inflated chihuahua. In fact they’re called perros cebados (round dogs) and have been unearthed by the thousands in this area of Mexico.
There were dozens of these red clay dogs in the museums in Colima. The plump canines are depicted in many positions — sleeping, sitting, standing, and even dancing on hind legs. Most 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, or perhaps there’s even a funnel in the top of the dog’s head! 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 these openings have a much higher purpose: to allow the entry of a soul so it can then be carried to the afterworld.
In ancient Colima, the dead were buried in tombs, and they were provided with everything they might need for their journey to the next life. So, not only were they given a psychopomp (or two or ten) to guide them , the dead were also given supplies for the trip. Here, the round little clay dogs were performing double and triple duty because in real life, small dogs were fattened and used as food. Some were valued as watchdogs. And some, believed to be holy and have healing powers, were kept to safeguard the family home from evil spirits. (That is one all-purpose dog!)
Just in case the clay dogs weren’t enough, real dogs of the same breed were sacrificed and placed in the tomb as well.
The single most amazing thing we learned, however, is that it simply did not matter what kind of a person you’d been in life. No matter how virtuous a life you’d led, if you weren’t buried with one of these little clay spirit guides, you were hooped. Doomed never to enter paradise, but to wander the unknown realms and be lost. The inverse was true too. Even if you were a truly horrible person, your safe passage to the heavenly realms was assured as long as you were buried with a plump little clay dog.
In other words, all you really need is a good psychopomp.
by Dani Harper
Dani Harper is a newspaper editor turned paranormal writer.
Check out her web site at http://www.daniharper.com/