She Swallows the Stars: the Day of the Dead

There are days for the living…

And there are days for the dead.

The Aztecs had a peculiar fascination with death, which is obvious from both their religious art, and also from their ritual traditions, which included human sacrifice.

Not much of Aztec culture has survived undiluted; however, it still lingers in the shadows of Mexican culture, often co-mingled with the Catholicism that was imposed by the invading Spaniards.

As such, the Aztec Day of the Dead became intermixed with All Saints Eve.

Or as it more commonly known, Halloween, as well as the following two days (also Catholic holidays).


Dia de Muertos is the original name for the Day of the Dead, though it is often translated as Dia de los Muertos. It was originally a religious festival for the Goddess of the Underworld, Mictēcacihuātl, whose name translates to ‘Lady of the Dead’.

Mictēcacihuātl was sacrificed as an infant; she now watches over the bones of the dead.

And as the dawn approaches, she opens her mouth to swallow the stars…

Mictēcacihuātl, mouth agape to swallow the stars, from the Codex Borgia; the Codex Borgia, also known as the Codex Yoalli Ehēcatl, is one of a handful of manuscripts that survived the Spanish invasion.


So, what do you do on the Day of the Dead?

You remember the ones you loved, the ones who have shed their mortal coils.

You build an altar, called an ofrenda. You honor the dead by displaying decorative skulls, called calaveras. You decorate it with flowers, specifically Aztec Marigolds. Then you make a visit to their grave, bringing these ritual offerings, as well as the deceased’s favorite foods, drinks and possessions.

Calaveras are often created with cane sugar and are given out to children.  Common decorations include icing, beads, and feathers.


In the 20th century, a Mexican political cartoonist by the name of José Guadalupe Posada drew what has become one of the most notorious Calaveras, who he dubbed Catrina.

He was acutely aware of the economic disparity that afflicted Mexicans; Catrina showed how the decadent rich were attempting to emulate European fashions. Today considered one of Mexico’s premier folk artists and political commentators, he died in obscurity and poverty; it would take a visit by the French artist Jean Charlot, meeting up with his friend Diego Rivera (himself a very political artist, and the husband of the equally celebrated painter Frida Kahlo) in 1920 to bring Posada’s work to an international audience.

Here’s La Calavera Catrina:

Catrina, José Guadalupe Posada, engraved between 1910-1913

His work proves that the Dead Can Dance, and shame the living…


Back to the Day of the Dead:

So now we’ve covered the essentials of Calaveras; the Aztec Marigold is next on our list.

The flower of the Marigold is called cempasúchil, or flor de muertos: Flower of the Dead.

It was used both ritualistically, and medicinally, attested to by the Spaniards.

Here’s a picture:

the Tagetes Erecta, or Flower of the Dead. It is believed that the fragrance of the flowers can attract the souls of the dead back home to their families.


So, we’ve covered skulls and flowers; what else do you need on Dia de Muertos?

Remember to take your dearly departed gifts of food and beverage and bring the good stuff: no frozen fish sticks or diet soda. Humor, of course, is always, welcome.

And if you want to dress for the occasion…

An image from a Dia De Muertos celebration in San Fransisco, women in Calavera makeup.

On that note, Happy Halloween, and remember the Queen of the Underworld, Mictēcacihuātl, Lady of the Dead, She Who Swallows the Stars.

Mictēcacihuātl’s husband, Mictlantecuhtli

Or, at the very least, Catrina:

Catrina today

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