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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112 Responses

  1. El Dia de los Muertos is very important to our culture and it is definitely a tradition worthy enough to pass down to the next generations. Even though I am from Mexico, I hadn’t heard of how the tradition started or how it adapted to Catholicism. The only thing I knew is that it is a day to remember the dead.

  2. The most impacting fact of this article was how El Dia de Los Muertos is involved with Catholicism. My whole life I believed this Mexican celebration was an act of some kind of evil. This article opened my eyes so much, now I understand people that celebrate this day are trying to commemorate their beloved ones that passed away. Spanish people nowadays have changed this holiday a lot and it has become an enormous celebration especially in Mexico.

  3. This article was very interesting and has really opened my eyes to the history of Dia de Los Muertos. Before reading this, I thought Dia de Los Muertos was only celebrated by the Spanish culture. This article showed me that this holiday was started by the Aztecs and how differently it was celebrated compared to the little changes that the Spanish have made.

  4. This article was very interesting. I did not fully know the origins of the Dia De Los Muertos, but reading about it made me realize that it is more than what I had learned about and celebrated. I found it interesting that the king of the underworld had a wife that would watch over the bones of the dead. I also found it interesting that in order to make life again the bones had to be stolen…. I also didn’t know that the Spaniard’s mixed the day with Catholicism. Over all, this article was very interesting and I enjoyed reading about it.

  5. Dia de los muertos is a holiday that i’ve celebrated every year since i was little. Dia de los muertos is something beautiful because it not sad and boring is more of joy and happy memories.

  6. My family and I have never really celebrated Dia de Los Muertos but I do know about it and believe in it. I like how people don’t see death as this horrible depressing thing but this day we celebrate it and believe all of our ancestors are here with us. I’ve seen many movies and shows that talk about it and it’s nice to see how this day is portrayed in so many ways.

  7. My family and I celebrate Day of the Dead and it is a beautiful tradition and it’s very uplifting as well. I didn’t know that this tradition dated back to Atac times and at first it was an offering for the God and Goddess of the underworld. The way that this tradition changed and adapted with Catholicism shows the culture shock it has received and trying to fit in better to a modern society. I love this article and the Mexican culture is very beautiful!

  8. I recently got into Dia de Los Muertos due to my significant other and his Mexican heritage. What strikes me the most about this holiday is the different outlook on death. It celebrates the life of a human individual, it is not about mourning the person. Dia de Los Muertos is an amazing way to celebrate the others that are before us and have passed. I honestly had no idea that the original origin was Aztec nor did I know it was to celebrate the Lady of the Dead. To be honest, with the time line, it would have been nice to celebrate the Lady who passes the souls beyond and brings souls to the world on top of all souls day. Great article.

  9. I could imagine this being not so festive before the sugar skulls. I saw a movie called ‘Apocalypto’ and they had a scene from a Mayan themed sacrifice and they had capture enemies sacrificed to their gods. From this caption, it seemed that the Mayans and the Aztecs had the same beliefs in human sacrifices to honor their gods, for their general wellbeing in battle, etc. I do not know the geographical semblance between Mayans and Aztecs to present-day Mexico.

  10. Dia de Los Muertos has been a big part of my life since I was little. I remember going to the local university in Cd. Juarez and it was one of the best days to look forward to all year. I believe Dia de Los Muertos is a very beautiful way to remember our ancestors and our loved ones that have past away. This part of the Mexican culture is truly amazing and beautiful.

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