Day of the Dead
A Pre-Columbian Meso-American Observance of Death and Life
El Día de los muertos or Día de los difuntos (Day of the deceased) or Día de los finados (Day of the departed) is a celebration of both Life and Death. Historically, it has been a fusion of both Judeo-Christian ideologies and a synthesis of the indigenous-American vision of Death and the hereafter. Such pre-Columbian cultures that honored and revered their departed loved ones, beckoning and summoning the return of those bygone spirits who have passed on, include the Aztecs, Maya-Quiché, Toltecs, Purépechas, Olmecas, Zapotecas, Tlaxcaltecas, and the Mixtecas, all of México, the Yucatán Peninsula and parts of Central América. For when the Catholic Fathers or padres católicos arrived in the New World in the 16th Century in their madness for a golden El Dorado and erected their missions in an attempt of convert and evangelize the “heathen” Meso-American natives, the church eventually had to succumb to the idea of having to absorb these “Indian” traditions into their newly founded society. Whether the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who arrived in Nueva España in 1519, proved to be the reincarnation of the Toltec god-king Quetzalcoatl (the “Plumed or Feathered Serpent”, literally “the twin of Quetzal“) or whether the fairer-skinned Spaniards’ arrival was independent of such a superstition, the Aztecs’ collective fear of the god’s fabled return became a three-dimensional reality in the form of the Conquest of México. And while seeing an unforeseen stray comet in the year 1517 A. D. and having taken it as a bad omen and harbinger of disaster, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma promptly had his astrologers executed for their not having predicted the spectacular event. This comet, thought to be the same one predicted by British astronomer Edmund Halley centuries later, predated the arrival of the Spaniards by only two years.
THE INDIGENOUS CULTURES AND MORTALITY
In the indigenous, aboriginal perspective on Death, both life and death are mere aspects of a common duality or eternal cycle, as denoted in the following “Indian” poem from North America:
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on the snow.
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain.
I am the gentle Autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush,
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there, I did not die.
So, both life and death are viewed much like heads and tails of a coin: they wouldn’t be complete without each other, nor would be the coin. Thus, to celebrate life is to celebrate death as well, for all living things must be born, mature, oftentimes reproduce, and die, be they plant or animal. Life and its ultimate fate Death are both part of the eternal, rhythmic cycles of Nature and consequently are intertwined in inseparable co-existence. For Death is simply an encuentro or a re-encounter, not a total disappearance. On the Day of the Dead or Día de los muertos, those relatives and family members who are left behind in the physical world of transient phenomena return to the graveyard to visit their defunct loved ones and friends, the muertos, who have traveled to the other side of Infinite Creation. So death is but our constant companion, an incessant shadow, a part that pursues us daily, a reflection we cannot shake off, a step forth into another, higher sphere of alternate reality. Though honoring of deceased ancestors who have roamed the Earth before us is to be a festive occasion for those of Meso-American descent and who honor the holiday, it is also a time of sadness, of mourning, of grieving, of quiet contemplation and remembrance, of making an ofrenda or offering, of creating an altar out of respect, or of praying for safe guidance for a departed or troubled soul into the realms beyond, into el mundo del más allá. The Day of the Dead shares a common autumnal “seasonal fusion” with North America’s Hallowe’en, yet the two observances are indeed very separate, unrelated holidays.
November 1st, in México and in keeping with the pre-Columbian perspective, is considered the Día de los angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) for those children who have left the Earth from 12 years of age or younger. Since pre-puberty is synonymous with pure innocence, for this reason, these departed souls are denominated “little angels”, who are those who had experienced a shortened earthly existence. This day was declared All Saint’s Day or Día de todos los santos by the Christian churches. November 2nd is the Day of the Dead for the departed spirits who passed on beyond the age of 12 while on earth and through adulthood and into elderly age. This was proclaimed All Souls Day. All Saints Day became a day reserved on the church calendar to pay homage to all of the saints who otherwise do not have a feast day or fiesta set aside in their honor.
Now when the Náhuatl-speaking Aztecs arrived in the valle de Mexica (pronounced “may-she-ka”) around the 12th Century where they built their Venice-styled, canaled metropolis of floating gardens Tenochtitlán (ultimately becoming present-day Mexico City), they found scattered throughout the valley zenpazúchitles or marigold flowers, and somehow these Uto-Aztecan people came to associate these lovely decorations of Creation with death itself. Possibly, the strong aromatic scent of these flowers attracted those bygone souls who dwelt in the hereafter. Historians of the Americas are still unclear as to why or to what symbolic connection these brightly yellow- and orange-colored flowers held for the Aztecs. Along with these marigold flores de la muerte, the Aztecs and many other pre-Columbian indigenous peoples burned copal, a tree resin and incense to honor and conjure up the dead who are buried in the camposanto or holy ground.
In certain parts of México today, and especially in the southern states of Oaxaca and Quintana Roo, the Día de los muertos observance is often honored by making an altar in one’s home, replete with photos of the departed one(s), accompanied by the burning of candles and incense, displaying marigolds, máscaras or masks signifying an alternate persona, and much more. Visiting the gravesite is yet another time-honored custom and is indeed very popular in Texas, New Mexico, and other parts of the American Southwest. Pan de muerto (dead bread) and calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls) are also a common, almost necessary part of the collective symbolism in the familial celebration of recall and visitation. The esqueletos (skeletons) always have smiling skull faces denoting that those who have crossed over to the other side of Life are, ironically, happy to be free from the exigencies and demands of this earthly realm, free from the pain and suffering it encompasses: for those left behind must endure a carnal physical existence, subject to the cumbersome laws of terrestrial gravity and spatial electromagnetism. It is widely accepted that the souls of the departed ones return to visit their living relatives. Hence, the living leave out food, candy, tequila, beer, cigarettes, and whatever other items the departed soul liked to consume when s/he was among the living. Since these visiting spirits are no longer of this world, they cannot remove these items left out on the alters or graves by physical means alone. Only the sensory impressions of these foods and drink and their lingering delights can be assimilated by them into their world of the Beyond, consuming the flavors through extrasensory, non-physical means only.
Día de los muertos is celebrated from el primero de noviembre (November 1st) thru el dos de noviembre (November 2nd). Oftentimes, Mexican families camp out in cemeteries for up to three full days, as family members pray, bring food or goodies, sing, or burn incense. It is known that:
* much preparation goes into growing and gathering zenpzúchitles, the flowers of death;
* bread of the dead made in human shapes and sugar skulls made of fruit are popular;
* copal incense is burned on the altar through the midnight hours in séance-like fashion;
* writing of sátiras or comical poems called Calaveras (“skulls”) serve to lighten the grief;
*gravesites are cleared and cleaned annually by the surviving family members;
*mano de león or “Lion’s paw” flowers are used to decorate the altares and tumbas;
*nubes or white carnations decorate the graves of departed children, signifying purity;
*tallow candles or velas are burned, one representing each departed loved one.
* families walk to the cemetery and visit the tombs of their loved ones in honor of them;
*they feast or dine and drink coffee at the gravesite;
*they leave the holy ground or camposanto to go home and throw a party or fiestecita;
*they attend mass given by a Catholic priest at daybreak;
*they return home to have sugar skulls for dessert and to tell fond stories of the deceased;
*fireworks displays often illuminate the path for the returning spirits of the angelitos.
CURRENT TEX-MEX TRADITIONS
In our current states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and in the popular Tex-Mex tradition of Texas, artists, painters, and sculptors have honored the Día de los muertos in such colorful array, especially with elaborately displayed altares muy decorados. Much Mexican-American or chicana literature pays tribute to the traditional Holy Days and, more importantly, to the Aztec and indigenous visión de la muerte or viewpoint on Death. The literary work The Road to Tamazunchale, by Ron Arias, provides the reader with such a distinction in outlook, yet it’s riddled with wit, charm, and humor. For in Anglo-American culture, death is somewhat taboo, a tragedy to someday contend with, a topic not to be discussed much, and Hallowe’en is a very light-hearted treatment of our ultimate kismet and final mortal resolution. Mexican children, in most parts, are raised with the idea of death constantly being around them, as a part of Life itself, and their skull shaped candies, toy coffins, and skeletons reflect their carpe diem (capture the day) consciousness as is represented in much of Mexican and Central American society to this day. For if Death is but a pursuant perennial shadow about us, then we must savor each moment and enjoy every hour during our lifetimes, before our earthly existence slips away and we’re henceforth consumed by the eternal shadow of death.
AZTECAN ETYMOLOGICAL INFLUENCES
Many Aztec words have been imported into both the English and Spanish languages due to the Aztecs’ former geographical presence in Meso-America: xocolatl (“bitter water”) or chocolate (the royal drink of Aztec emperors like Cuitláhauc and Moctezuma), coyote (literally “singing dog”), adobe (dried mud brick), abarrote (retail grocery store), ayote, (pumpkin), chicle (chewing gum), ceviche (fish marinated in lemon juice), cilantro (coriander), cacahuete (peanut), atole (a cornflour gruel mixed with rice, cinnamon, and milk), champurrado (a hot chocolate drink thickened with cornflour), pulque (a fermented agave juice), chicha (a strong drink made from fermented maize), jitomate (tomato), frijol (kidney-bean), chilchote (a very hot chili pepper), chilatole (an ear of corn cooked with chili and pork meat), capirotada (bread pudding), cacalote (raven), enchilada (a rolled pancake of corn maize with chili, stuffed with cheese), rompope (an eggnog-like drink extract mixed with cream and alcohol), chayote (a pear-shaped, single-seeded fruit of the gourd family), camote (sweet potato), guajolote (turkey), piñata (a papier-mâché figurine hung at parties, filled with candies), sarape (a quilt), metate (grinding stone), huarache (sandal), molcajete (mortar), poncho (a blanket-like pullover worn over the shoulders), chirimoya (the tree), chaparral (shrub), chimichanga (fried tortilla stuffed with meat), aguacate, (avacado, the vegetable), chapultepec (grasshopper), tecolote (owl), zopilote (vulture), mitote (gossip), cuate, (pal), mellizo (fraternal twin), tortilla (a cornmeal pancake), tamal (masa or corn maize rolled and stuffed with meat or fruit), papalote (kite), comal (a terra cotta bowl), popote (straw), pozole (a hot stew), chorizo (Mexican sausage), horchata (a rice water drink made from earth nuts), chipotle (a cactus sauce), achiote (the arnotto-tree), jalapeño (a hot, dark green pepper), maguëy (the American agave plant used in making Tequila), tomate (the fruit), elote (corn), mole (a spicy sauce made from cacao and chili peppers served with chicken), guacamole (a seasoned sauce of various condiments made from whipped avocado), chicalote (a prickly poppy flower), chili (a hot pepper), chilaquil (a maize omelet stuffed with cheese, herbs, and chili sauce), Chicano (Mexican-American), and even the Mexican seaside resort of Mazatlán (the place of the deer). Even the quetzal is become the national bird and monetary unit of Guatemala.
THE CONQUEST OF MEXICO
The arrival of Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) and his troops to the land of the Aztecs in the early 16th Century brought military atrocities, harsh tributes, torture to innocent men, women and children, and epidemiological disaster to the native inhabitants of México. Tragically, when the Spaniard conquistadores invaded and destroyed the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán beginning on Good Friday of 1519 through the summer of 1520 A.D., they had begun a systematic, desolate destruction and demolition of a highly advanced civilization that had already acquired accurate astronomical observations and mathematical equations on planetary motion, long before the time of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Petroglyphs on archeoastronomy, data on both solar and lunar eclipses, scientific treatises on botany and biology, as well as their beautiful floating gardens that rivaled those of ancient Babylonia were all burned or destroyed in their impulsive, manic irreligious ignorance, arrogance, religious bigotry, and greed. Among the many factors that contributed to the demise of these Uto-Aztecan peoples were:
(1) gunpowder and superior firearms never before encountered by the indigenous peoples
(2) the promising legendary myth of El Dorado and its relentless pursuit
(3) Hernán Cortés’s supposèd physical (bearded) resemblance to the fabled Toltecan god-king Quetzal
(4) the Spaniards’ importation of horses from Europe to the Américas as a means of transportation
(5) the Tlaxcaltecas, Zapotecas, and Olmecas having joined forces against Moctezuma
(6) pandemic plagues of smallpox and influenza brought to the Américas by European settlers, killing thousands
Tragically, the beginning of the end for the indigenous populations of México, Central and South América in the 17th and 18th Centuries had set in: rampant, uncontrolled plagues of smallpox, influenza, and pneumonia began to spread, devastating whole communities in their wake. The indígenas had no prior experience with such diseases. No cacique was familiar with the spread of germs. No brujos or bewitching healers, shamans, or curanderos could possibly offer any cure or cosmic solution from such contamination. Their gods, their cosmovisión or religious world view, had provided little comfort either. Somehow, as if by some magic of unflappable Divine intervention, the newly arrived colonista settlers somehow evaded the curse, for the most part, with their built-in strong immunities.
In many parts of the state of Chihuahua and throughout Baja California and Northern México, Halloween or La noche de brujas is rapidly becoming assimilated into Hispanic society, as youngsters are beginning to disguise themselves and go trick-or-treating. Conversely, throughout much of the Spanish American Southwestern states, in the so-called “bilingüal belt”, Halloween is starting to be merged with the pre-Columbian Old World traditions of the Día de los muertos. And Anglo-Americans are beginning to honor the Día de los muertos in steadily increasing numbers, also. In mutual “border crossings”, pumpkins are beginning to adorn gravesites and ofrendas at the local panteón, as is amply displayed in San Fernando Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas. Papier-mâché witches and ghosts accompany skeletons and grinning calaveras on many a tomb. And Hallowe’en treats and candies such as Snickers and Mars Bars form part of a festive fanfare alongside of panes de muertos, calaveras de azúcar, el ataúd de chocolate (chocolate coffins), and calacas, small handmade moveable clay-and-wire skeleton figurines that depict a vivacious afterlife.
Yet an overemphasis on the continuities of the Pre-Columbian past can easily elide the fact that there are also striking similarities between the rituals and customs of the Day of the Dead and the early modern observance of All Souls Day in Europe. Throughout Southern Spain, seasonal sweets called panellets dels morts (bread for the dead) sell on All Saints Day. A further variety of other confections and cakes pay homage to the deceased in such places as the Azores, Portugal, Catalonia, Sardinia, and in Haute-Saône, France. In both traditions and on both continents on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, death itself is, at least for a few days, confronted and colorfully revivified.
So during this joyous, carnivalesque celebration, Mexicans embrace the concept of death (including that of their departed friends and family) with true gusto, satirical humor, and with affectionate mockery. As film-maker Sergei Eisenstein observed most acutely and perceptively:
”In México, the paths of life and death intersect in a visual way, as they do nowhere else; this meeting is inherent both in the tragic image of death trampling on life, and with the sumptuous image of life triumphing over death.”
And as Nobel laureate Octavio Paz remarks in his prolific work The Labyrinth of Solitude or El laberinto de la soledad, the Day of the Dead affirms “the nothingness and insignificance of human existence”, adding that many modern Mexicans joke about death as they “caress it, sleep with it, and celebrate it” while they “look at it, face to face, with impatience, distain or irony.”
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death.“
from William Shakespeare’s MacBeth
“Tis the undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns“.
on the subject of death, from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
“Solo el ser que no nace
No puede ser calavera.”
“Out! Out! Brief candle
Life is but a walking shadow
A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot
Full of sound and fury
from William Shakespeare’s MacBeth
“La muerte es uno de sus juegos predilectos
y es su amor más permanente.”
Octavio Paz (1914-1998)
“There is no death, only change.”
Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952)
EL CALENDARIO AZTECA
Los aztecas florecieron durante el siglo XV y dominaban la región central del México prehispánico. Su capital era Tenochtitlán. El calendario de ellos es en realidad olmeca, desarrollado por esta cultura hace milenios. Pero como todos los calendarios que expresan la rotación de la tierra alrededor del sol en base al día terrestre (y no al día solar), es inexacto. A través de los siglos fue modificado para hacerlo cada vez aún más preciso. La última corrección fue realizada en Huehuetlapallan (se presume Xochicalco) y con ella llegó a la cifra de 365.25 días por año. Los aztecas también eran muy religiosos y construyeron templos para honrar a sus varios dioces. Realizaron sacrificios humanos en honor de sus dioces.
Los olmecas son considerados como el primer grupo indígena de mayor importancia en la región del Valle de Mexica. Su cultura data de los años 1500 a.C. Construyeron centros cermoniales. Son aún más conocidos por sus cabezas colosales.
La civilización maya floreció entre los años 200 y 900 d.C. Tenían una cultura bastante avanzada. Construyeron templos grandes e inventaron un sistema complejo de escritura con jeroglíficos quichés que representaron su vida y su historia. Sabían matemáticas y astronomía e hicieron cálculos bastante complicados para desarrollar su calendario y para pronosticar con precisión eclipses solares y lunares.
We are but insects
Living out our short and pointless life;
Scurrying about to find the next pleasure
Failing to realize the nature of
Our fragile, short existence
And imminent Death
for more on this holiday observance, visit: http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/feature/daydeadindex.html
for more on All Saints’ Day, visit: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm