day of the dead

The Ancient Rites of Day of The Dead Celebration (Dia De Los Muertos)

A Celebration For Our Dead

Why celebrate the dead? This ancient ritual is often mistaken for Halloween in America but it is far from that. The Day of The Dead is a mixture of Meso-American (primarily Aztec-Mexica) and Catholic rituals. The holiday celebrated on Nov 1, is dedicated to children or “limbos” who died without baptism or were forgotten. The continuation of this holiday is celebrated on Nov 2, All souls’ Day, which is dedicated to adults (festivities start from oct 28 respectively). During the festivities the dead are not mourned but remembered. This tradition is not new, it is ancient. In fact, it’s roots go back about more than 3000 years into antiquity. During this time the dead cross paths with the living while the veil is thinned between the two worlds. It is a time in which the temporary return of deceased relatives and loved ones is commemorated. The living build altars to their dead that are composed of skulls made of sugar or chocolate, pictures of people who have passed away, candles, picadillo paper, marigolds, and water/food(decorations may vary).


The oral tradition of Quetzalcoatl bringing man back to life from dead bones can show us how life is born out of death. This is the duality that the ancient Mexica(n)s believe in. The ancient peoples did not leave behind food or ailments; they left jewelry, flowers, and celebrated with dances. The festival that was converted to Day of The Dead (the Spaniards used All saints day and faithful dead day) was once commemorated on the ninth month of the Aztec(Mexica) solar calendar in the beginning of August. They buried their dead with a Xoloitzcuincle that represented a divinity called Xolotl which is the nahua word for dog. This divinity helped the dead travel through Mictlan(the underworld) to their final resting place.



The Marigold or Flor De Cempasúchil or Cempoal-Xochitl (twenty Flower in Nahua) has become an icon for the Day of The Dead celebrations. The marigold has an intense almost orange and yellow color. Before the prehispanic era the marigold was used in temples, offerings and burials. Tradition says that the Mexicas began to use them with the intention of decorating the tombs because they thought that the flower could keep in its crevices the heat of the solar rays and thus illuminate the path of return of the dead. They also used this type of flower to powder the faces of their prisoners before they were executed because they thought it was a way to prevent them from “feeling death.”The marigold was not only used for decorative purposes but was also used as medicine. It was used in teas to ease diarrhea, upset stomach, indigestion, and vomiting.

The Skull

It was common practice to conserve the tlalquimilolli or skulls of the ancestors like sacred relics and they were placed in the momoxtlis or altars during the ceremonies that symbolized death and the rebirth. During the Pre-hispanic era it was the usual practice to preserve the skulls of the deceased as trophies. These were exhibited during the rituals that symbolized death and rebirth.

Pan De Muerto ( Bread of The Dead)

The symbology of the Pan De Muerto or Bread of the dead, aludes many. Most just eat the bread without giving second thought to its composition. The bulbed lump in on top of the bread symbolizes the cranium while the circular form symbolizes the cycle of life and death. The four raised lines on each side of the bread symbolize the bones of the deceased and tears that have been shed for the dead. They are placed in form of a cross that symbolizes the four cardinal points and four paths of life and death.

“Death, is democratic, because in the end, light skinned, dark skinned, rich or poor, all people end up being skulls,”
Posada said about his creation, La Catrina.
La Catrina (Sugar Skull)

Sugar Skull? La Catrina has had and continues to be such a cultural impact on the traditional Dia De Los Muertos or Day of The Dead. Most people know the makeup or “costume” as Sugar Skull. However, the name was from the inception, “La Calavera Garbanzera”. The figure was created by José Guadalupe Posada and brought into the mainstream by Diego Rivera in his mural  ‘Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central’, where he added feathers to La Catrina’s hat. The historical/political background goes back to the Indigenous people of Mexico who stopped selling corn to sell garnbanzos in an attempt to europeanize themselves and leave behind their Indigenous  roots. The painting was a political outcry to those impoverished Mexican peoples that dressed in European garb to show the false illusion of wealth. This is why the skeleton in the original depiction has no clothes but only wears the  famous adorned hat.


Ancient (Mexica(n)) tradition states that there are four observable altars with two, three, four, and seven levels.

Prehispanic type offering table (altar), based on the Mexica cosmogony:

To the center: The Mictlan
On the right (black): Place where the women went after dying in childbirth.
Left (Red): Place where the warriors went after dying in battle.
Back (blue): The paradise of Tlaloc, there rest the dead people because of the water.
Front (white): Place where the children went after they died.

The Meaning of Death

For the Mexicas, death did not have negative moral connotations like the ones of the religion of the Spaniards. They did not have the concept of heaven or hell as punishment or reward. On the contrary they knew the paths that our tonal or light bodies where determined to take by the type of death that was experienced. Death in these cultures is not death but renewal and transformation. Think of the transformation of a caterpillar. The caterpillar makes a cocoon to transform so essentially it dies an it is reborn…Energy does not die it only transforms, we must die to awaken.


Editors note: Mexicas, the name the people of ancient Mexico called themselves.

Main Blog Photo by Julia Kuzmenko

Credit to Amalia Vargas=Info

Paragraph 3=Marigold as path way to light

“Death is democratic,….”=Posada quote

Paragraph 4 =and skulls as keepsakes













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