What Is the Day of the Dead?
Named as Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, the Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. It is among the most characteristic cultural traditions of Mexico. Knowing a little about the Day of the Dead's rich and complex history helps appreciate it better. Read on and learn more about this unique tradition!
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The Day of the Dead dates back to pre-Hispanic times. During that period, many Mesoamerican peoples worshiped death. Among them were the Mexica, better known as Aztecs. They had two gods in charge of defining the destiny of souls: Mictecacihuatl and Mictlantecuhtli. Both were lords of the Mictlan or "place of the dead.” However, to get there, souls had to overcome a series of obstacles in order to achieve eternal rest.
To begin their journey, souls had to be accompanied by the living. People did this by means of a ritual. When someone close died, the event was announced with shouts and cries emitted by the elderly women of the community. Afterwards, the deceased was shrouded along with all of his or her personal belongings. Then, the body was symbolically fed with the most exquisite delicacies.
After four days, the body was taken for burial or cremation. From that moment on, the soul undertook the difficult journey to Mictlan. On the anniversary of the death, ostentatious ceremonies were held at the place where the ashes or the body had been laid. This complex ritual not only helped souls to find rest but also facilitated the relatives’ mourning process.
The ceremonies included offerings dedicated to different deities. The one for the lord of the dead Mictlantecuhtli was made in the month we now know as November. With the arrival of the Spanish to America, this ritual underwent a process of acculturation. The feast of the god of the underworld was merged with the Catholic feasts of All Saints and All Souls, giving way to the tradition that we have today.
Throughout Mexico it is common to celebrate the Day of the Dead by creating an ofrenda. The word means offering in Spanish. They are also called altares or altars, but they are not for worship. The idea is that the souls of the deceased leave Mictlan for a night to come back and enjoy some of the things they were fond of on Earth. Some key elements of the ofrenda are:
• Levels: they represent the different strata of existence.
• Cross: included by Spanish evangelizers for the veneration of the indigenous dead.
• Paper: full of color, representing the joy of the encounter.
• Candles: the light that guides souls from Mictlan to this dimension.
• Copal: pre-Hispanic incense that cleans and purifies the energies of the place.
• Photos of the deceased
• Feasting: favorite food and drinks of the deceased
• Cempasuchil flowers: also known as the flower of twenty petals, this orange flower is used to create paths for guiding the spirits home
• Calaveritas: these are skulls made of sugar, each one representing a deceased person
• Pan de muerto: sweet bread that represents the skeleton of the deceased
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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