The Aztec Origins of Día de Los Muertos

Painted skulls that bring out the beauty of Dia de Los Muertos | Courtesy of Milwaukee Mag

Many people know of the Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos, which is filled with vibrant colors and intricately painted faces. What many people don’t know is that this holiday originated over 3000 years ago with the Aztec empire. The Spanish Conquistadors first recorded a Día de Los Muertos celebration during the 16th century. When the Aztecs had begun this tradition, they weren’t remembering loved ones who passed, but they were worshiping the queen of the underworld and protector of the dead.1

Queen Mictēcacihuātl of the Underworld | Courtesy of Wikipedia

This Aztec queen was Mictecacihuatl, “Lady of the Dead,” Queen of Mictlan.2 According to Aztec legend, Mictecacihuatl was sacrificed as an infant and placed in the underworld to become the wife of Miclantecuhtl, the king of the underworld. In the underworld, her role was to watch over the bones of past lives, which would be used to create new life in the living world. However, in order for the bones to be able to create new life, they needed to be stolen from Mictecacihuatl to be brought to the living world. As their protector, part of her own life would be carried with the stolen bones. Even after the bones were stolen, she would continue her duty to protect them by returning to the living world every year to make sure the bones were being properly taken care of. When the time came for her to return to the living world, the Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl’s return with death festivals and traditional dances, to honor her for her protection of the bones that created life and to seek protection for those who died.3

Statues of Queen Mictēcacihuātl (Right) and her Husband Mictlantecuhtli (Left) King of the Underworld | Courtesy of  Spanish Girl Blog

The Aztecs celebrated Día de Los Muertos much differently than it is celebrated today due to the Spanish conquistadors and Catholicism. The Spanish changed the lives of the indigenous peoples wherever they went, from taking land for the Spanish throne to converting people to Catholicism. Many traditions changed, including those of Día de Los Muertos.4 The Aztecs laid out offerings for the King and Queen of the Underworld for the whole month of August, and the Spanish were the first outsiders to witness this honoring of Mictecacihuatl by the Aztecs. Not long after the Spanish exposure to this festival, the Spanish combined the Aztec tradition with Catholicism. Syncretism, the blending of Spanish and indigenous beliefs and practices, combined the Aztec traditions of Día de Los Muertos with the Spanish traditions of All Saint’s Day and All Souls Day.5 Some examples of syncretism between Catholicism and Día de Los Muertos are the symbols that are most recognizable with Día de Muertos, such as decorated skulls and skeletons, and the Spanish character “La Catrina,” who represents Mictecacihuatl.6 The merging of Catholicism with the Aztec religious beliefs began the evolution of how Día de Los Muertos, transforming how it is celebrated today.

Decorated ofrenda with pictures of deceased loved ones and their favorite foods | Courtesy of Latin Bay Area

Despite that the name Día de Los Muertos translates to Day of the Dead in English, the holiday is actually the celebration of life. Día de Los Muertos doesn’t focus on death and mourning of a loved one. It’s seen as a happy celebration where family members of all generations, deceased and alive, can be together as one. The traditions of this holiday have changed from honoring the queen of the underworld Mictecacihuatl to honoring those who have passed.7 It’s a time of colorful festivals and parades, beautifully painted colorful skulls, marigold flowers, decorated ofrendas, grave site visits and the smells of traditional Mexican foods and incense in the air. Although it is primarily celebrated in Mexico, some parts of the United States, especially cities and towns on the Mexican border, have adopted the tradition and celebrate the remembrance of their deceased loved ones.

  1. MasterFILE Complete, 2008, s.v. “Día de los Muertos, by Benjamin Perea.
  2. Sin Jones, Mictecacihuatl, Santa Muerte, 2010, 1-16.
  3. Sin Jones, Mictecacihuatl, Santa Muerte, 2010, 1-16.
  4. Mark Lacy, Origins of El Día de Los Muertos: The Prehispanic Festival of the Dead Defies Cultural Invasions of Mexico, (History Institute for Culture), 1.
  5. Mark Lacy, Origins of El Día de Los Muertos: The Prehispanic Festival of the Dead Defies Cultural Invasions of Mexico, (History Institute for Culture), 1.
  6. Mark Lacy, Origins of El Día de Los Muertos: The Prehispanic Festival of the Dead Defies Cultural Invasions of Mexico, (History Institute for Culture), 1.
  7. Christina Zarate, Día de Los Muertos, (Smithsonian National Museum of American History), 2-7.

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111 Responses

  1. If the Spanish had not mixed Catholic beliefs with this practice would the Aztec human sacrifice continue? The Aztecs were well known and documented as sacrificing humans to their gods. The Spanish probably were horrified when they observed the Aztecs practicing human sacrificing – I’m sure a few Spaniards were led to the top of the sacrificial altar. This observance is darkness and the real god is Satan who is being worshiped. “And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.” 2 Corinthians 11:14

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