Dias de los Muertos
Aztec and Mayan Beliefs
Monarch Butterflies, which have summered up north in the United
States and Canada, return to Mexico for the winter protection of
the oyamel fir trees. The local inhabitants welcome
back the returning butterflies, which they believe bear the
spirits of their departed. The spirits to be honored during Los
Dias de los Muertos.
The Aztec, Mayan and other indigenous traditions have enriched the Mexican's
attitude about death. From these ancestors has come the knowledge that souls
continue to exist after death, resting placidly in Mictlan, the land of the
dead, not for judgment or resurrection; but for the day each year when they
could return home to visit their loved ones.
Daily life in ancient Mexico was so uncertain and difficult that death was
expected at every turn. Death, in fact was revered, believed to be the ultimate
experience of life, life's own reward, even welcomed as a better option when
people are struggling for survival.
The Mexican still views death as a transition of life, a normal stage in the
circle of life on earth, a natural progression, not an ending.
Writer Octavio Paz commented about his people's relationship with death
saying, "The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps
with it, and celebrates it. It is one of his favorite playthings and his most
Los Dias de Los Muertos is a time for remembering friends, family and
According to Mexican tradition, people die three deaths. The
first death is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat
of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space
we occupy slowly loses its meaning.
The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to
mother earth, out of sight.
The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left
alive to remember us."
Thus the Day of the
Dead is a Mexican holiday that mingles the Aztec and Mayan culture and
Catholicism. The Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl governed a month
long celebration for the dead. When the Spanish invaded Mexico,
they brought with them the religion and practice of the Catholic
Church, including new ideas about death. The festival was still
held but it was greatly reduced. The Aztecs believed the souls
of the departed remained on earth in the form of butterflies and
hummingbirds. Even images carved in the ancient Aztec monuments
show this belief - the linking the spirits of the dead and the
Monarch butterfly. So with the return of the Monarch
butterflies, who migrate to Mexico for the winter, the souls of
the departed are welcomed home.
The celebration actually takes place over several days. It is
celebrated every year at the same time as Halloween and the
Christian holy days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day
(November 1st and 2nd). Los Dias de los Muertos is not a sad
time, but instead a time of remembering and rejoicing.
- October 27th
bread and water are offered to those spirits who have no
- October 28th
bread and water are left in a corner of the church for those
spirits whom have committed crimes of a violent nature, as
they are not welcome in homes.
- The next few
days bakeries and candy stores burst forth with edible
skulls, skeletons and crosses.
- October 31st
is the time when the souls of children return home.
- They remain
and visit until midday on November 1st when they must return
to the spirit world. Now it is time for the adult sprits to