Day of the Dead or the Dia de Los Muertos might sound similar to Halloween but it is not. While Halloween has its origin from the pagan culture, Dia de Los Muertos harks back to the Aztec civilization.
What goes beyond life? Is there a life after death? These questions have always fascinated humans, at least the ancient people. If we go back to the Egyptian civilization to the Viking and Aztec, most of the world’s ancient civilizations have a deep connection to death and rebirth. This has brought many beliefs and rituals in regard to the dead ones. Death is actually considered sacred for many ancient cultures.
Many of us coming from different cultures do have our own version of ‘Day of the Dead’. A day dedicated to the beloved dead ones, who have crossed the bridge and enter the ‘other world.’
If we go back to the Aztec civilization, we can notice how much importance was given to the gods. Whether it was about a good harvest or having a great afterlife, gods were always venerated. Many temples were built to honor gods. One of the many deities in the Aztec pantheon is the goddess or lady of the dead-Mictecacihuatl. Together with her husband, Mictlantecutli, the goddess Mictecacihuatl rule over the land of Mictlan (underworld or the dreamland).
Decked out with a skirt made from serpents, the lady of the dead has a skull face, a defleshed body, and wide-open jaws. As per the Aztec mythology, she was sacrificed to the underworld as a child. She later became the skeleton deity through magical powers. Her primary duty in the world of the dead was to guard the bones of the extinct earlier races. But soon the twin gods notably Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl were sent to the underworld to steal bones of the early races. The God of the dead, Mictlantecutli tried to force Quetzalcoatl to drop the bones, which broke into pieces. Eventually, Quetzalcoatl took the shattered bones back to the land of the living and various races of the mortals were created by other gods.
After this incident, Mictecacihuatl was to also guard the bones of the dead humans in order to prevent the creation of any ruthless group of alien beings.
To honor the gods, descendants of the ancient civilization still practice the rituals and celebrate them as festivals in order to keep the ancient traditions. The day of the dead is mostly celebrated by Mexicans who dedicate this special day to remember their deceased loved ones.
The festival is celebrated annually on the 2nd of November as ‘Dia de Los Muertos’. Many create huge altars knitted out with fruits (apple, banana, grapes), nuts, special bread for the dead, beans, chilies, squash, corn, water, and of course the key offering-the yellow Cempasuchils (flor de Muertos) which is one of the many members of the marigold family. The scent of the flower has tremendous power over the dead, and the goddess of the dead herself. It beckons the dead to come. It is also believed that the flower has a natural insecticide, which protects the vegetables and fruits on the altar.
The displayed fruits and vegetables act like trophies purposely displayed in order to show the ancestors about the achievements and peaceful cohabitation from other communities since foodstuffs are purchased in several different areas.
On other hand, the arch from the alter has a symbolic meaning. It acts as a ‘doorway’ that connects the other world to this world. There is also the use of incense, which is believed to be used by the Aztecs in many rituals.
This ancient tradition of revering the dead has been practiced over many years but has also been incorporated in pop culture, whereby people during Halloween put face painting of the ubiquitous Calavera (skull). Back in the late 18th century, skulls were depicted in black humor. Mexican cartoonist, José Guadalupe Posada in his work portrait skeletons in fancy French grab. His message-’Todos Somos Calaveras’, meaning ‘we are all skeletons’, was a deep and philosophical one in regard to the ‘European high society’ in Mexico. In the end, we are all subject to death, we are all made up of skeletons.