Los Dias de los Muertos
Aztec and Mayan Beliefs 

Every autumn 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 steadfast love."

Los Dias de Los Muertos is a time for remembering friends, family and ancestors. 

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 earthy survivors.
  • 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 be remembered.