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Dia de los muertos, 3000 years of tradition

By Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez and Magda Chellet

The “Dia de los Muertos” as it has evolved over the centuries is to be regarded as a cultural celebration that is not only indigenous but also exclusive to Mesoamerica, which is the area that spans from central Mexico to the south, including parts of Guatemala.

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Although it is now associated with the Christian days of remembrance: the Feast of All Saints, November 1 and the Feast of All Souls, November 2, the Día de los Muertos predates the colonial period in Mexico by several centuries, and must be seen as an integral part of the culture that has shaped present day Mexico.

In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica the “Día de los Muertos” was a month-long harvest ritual, which marked the end of the long arid period, and celebrated the seasonal abundance. This ritual was called Miccailhuitontli. It is believed that it was originally celebrated in August, but by the middle of the fifteenth century it was celebrated closer to the Autumn Equinox, a time when the sun and the moon had equal time in the heavens.

It was a festive time when death through famine was temporarily relieved and offerings to the god of death and to the departed family members were made.

Mythological Background

The great civilizations that had existed in Mesoamerica prior to the Aztec – the Olmec, the Teotihuacano, the Toltec and the Maya – had a similar cosmogony, a belief system about the creation of the universe. The Aztecs, who were an immigrant tribe searching for a land to call their own, learned these systems during their quest and added them to their own tribal gods and heroes, thus by the 1460’s the Aztecs had in place a rich pantheon with a complex mythology. The unifying element among the pre-Columbian deities cross-culturally, however, was the Cosmic Principle of Duality.

The Cosmic Principle of Duality is the reality that one thing can be its opposite at the same time: far is near, light is darkness, joy is sorrow, life is death. This was the only reality, all else being illusion.

The great creator deity, Ometeotl, was both male and female. His/her name means Dual Divinity. The female aspect of this deity was the Goddess of life, death and creation, Coatlicue. He/she dwelled in the highest realm of a thirteen- layer heaven and ruled over lesser gods such as the Sun God Tonatiuh, the Moon Goddess Tonantzin, and the Rain God Tlaloc. The antithesis to Ometeotl was the terrible Mictecacihuatl, Lord and Lady of the Dead, who ruled over the nine regions of the netherworld called Mictlan Opochcalocan.

Death as a rite of passage

The indigenous people of Mesoamerica in pre-Columbian times (and even in the present), living in perilous times due to warfare among tribes, famine and other life-threatening conditions, lived in the constant shadow of death. Their acceptance of death as a normal occurrence was seen as a rite of passage, like birth or marriage.

As such it marked a period of separation from its former existence, a time of transition into a new being, and the acquiring of a new status, in this case a spirit-guide through dreams and an enforcer of good behavior through signs and apparitions.

The pre-colonial Aztecs had no concept of heaven or hell as a reward or punishment for behavior during life. They believed, rather, that the way a person died determined their destination in the next life.

We know that for the Aztecs: CHILDREN went to the Arbol Nodriza, the nursing tree that dripped milk for the children while they played on and under its branches for eternity; WARRIORS killed in battle went to the East where they became hummingbirds and butterflies and flew around the Sun God Tonantiuh to help him rise every morning and guide him to the center of the sky; WOMEN who died in childbirth became night spirits in the West, their mission being to help the Moon Goddess Tonantzin meet Tonantiuh at noon and help guide him to his rest every night; DROWNED victims and other water-related casualties, including lightning, dropsy and gout, went to the North, to Tlalocan, the Paradise of Eternal Spring ruled by the Rain God Tlaloc and his consort the Rain Goddess Chalchiucuitle.

All others went South to Mictlan, where they had to cross the nine regions of the underworld, including a wide river, until they reached the last level where the benevolent aspect of Mictecacihuatl would finally grant them eternal rest by dissolving them into nothingness and back into the cosmic realm of rebirth. These are the souls for which the offerings or ofrendas were made.

The history

In 1519 Hernan Cortes set foot in the great metropolis of Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City, a city of 2 almost 300,000 inhabitants. Coincidentally it was the year Reed One in the Aztec Calendar – the very year Quetzalcoatl was predicted to return from the West.

Motecuhzoma, Xocoyotzin (Moctezuma), a scholar of foreign religions and a philosopher who meditated daily in his palace, had taken a comet that had crossed the sky and the burning of the great temple as signs of the approaching Quetzalcoatl. When the Spanish captain and his men arrived he immediately assumed that Cortes was the returning Aztec demi-god and opened up the city for him, giving him all he wanted.

After two years, the death of Motecuhzoma and the pillaging and warfare on the Mexicas by the Spanish, the last reigning emperor Cuauhtemoc surrendered the city to the Spanish to prevent more carnage. The ensuing colonization and conversion of the Indians to Christianity became easy.

The Indians, as were now known, reconciled the new Catholicism with their precolumbian beliefs and traditions, which they never gave up but have only enriched. To their pantheon of gods they added the saints, and to the underworld of Mictlantecuhtli they added a heaven, a purgatory, and a hell.

The harvest rites of Miccailhuitontli merged with the Catholic observance of the Feast of All Saints on November 1st, and the Feast of All Souls on November 2.

The observance


Cleaning, painting, sprucing up graves. Gathering ingredients for the food feast. Fattening the turkey. Preparing ahead foods. Market vendors selling toys, confections, candles, spices, flowers, etc.

October 31

The children arrive from the land of the nursing tree to visit their families and friends, to play with their toys and eat sweets. They must leave by noon the following day, November 1.

In some villages the families invite neighbor children in for hot chocolate, pan de muerto, tamales, etc. They play with the dead child’s toys for he or she is believed to be present. They are given sugar skulls and pumpkin candy as favors.

November 1

The bells of all the churches begin to ring at one in the afternoon and horns made from shells are blown to guide and welcome the souls of the adults who are making their way back to dwell among the living for twenty-four hours.

The home altars have been decorated by now and all the candles are lighted, the most recently departed getting the biggest candle. The flowers of the dead, zempazuchitl, as well as other flowers are placed on and around the altar, and petals are strewn forming a path to the front door to guide the souls home, especially if the living are far away from the burial place of the deceased and cannot go to the grave. The soul’s favorite things and foods are placed on the home altar, including a photograph. A glass of water and a clay dog are added.

Friends and neighbors make the rounds of those who have lost a relative during the past year. They bring an offering of food or drink or money to the family. The family in turn invites them to sit and share the food they have prepared for the living, besides the food for the dead. Thus the concept of the ofrenda, the offering, encompasses everyone as equals.


The family goes to the graveyard, sometimes in procession, for an all-night vigil in community with the dead. They take flowers, candles and food and drink for the dead as well as for the living. All night the spirit is of reverence as everyone sits around the decorated graves -the men quietly conversing over cups of pulque or mezcal, the children dozing off on the graves, the women keeping watch.

November 2

At sunrise there is a palpable spirit of conviviality among the living and the dead, a sense of joy as they feel their departed loved ones close to them once more. Musicians stroll into the graveyard playing the dead relative’s favorite tunes for a little money.

Outside the cemetery wall can be found all sorts of vendors and street entertainers. One type of entertainers are the readers of the calaveras, clever and amusing “epitaphs” that make fun of living personalities like movie stars and politicians.

Others are the masked comparsas, a troupe of men in costumes who perform funny skits for the entertainment of the crowds. Typical characters are a dead husband being carried in a makeshift coffin by the performers, the grieving widow, a doctor, a priest, the “other” woman, the “new” man, assorted cajolers. The plot is usually the same: to try to revive the dead husband. The audience cheers or boos and ultimately decides on the fate of the dead man. The performers pass the hat and move on to another


The family begins to gather their leftovers, their belongings and their children, leaving only the flowers on the graves, for they know that their loved ones must return to their travel in the land of the dead.

The masked dancers now enter the graveyard followed by musicians. This time they are carrying rolling pins, fly swatters and brooms. Their mission is to scare away stubborn souls that want to stay around, much like bouncers of the afterlife. The living and the dead have fulfilled their duty with one another and they are satisfied and at peace for another whole year.

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