The Indigenous roots of Day of the Dead.

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Image by Ernesto Rodríguez from Pixabay

The Mexican tradition known as “Dia de Muertos” (Day of the Dead) has slowly spread from Indigenous communities in southern Mexico into the mainstream U.S. consciousness. In the days leading up to November 1st, popular media and businesses are flooded with images of calaveras, sugar skulls, marigolds, and beautifully decorated altars. And if the recent success of the animated film Coco is any indication, Day of the Dead is going to firmly remain a part of the cultural landscape in the United States.

But where did this Indigenous celebration of ancestor veneration come from? And why does it coincide with Christian celebrations of Allhallowtide?

Long before the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous Mesoamerican traditions of honoring the dead were celebrated with two specific feasts: Mikailwitl (feast of the dead), and Wey Mikailwitl (great feast of the dead). These feasts were celebrated in early August through mid-September. These celebrations were dedicated to honoring the dead through dance, song, and offerings of food and drink. Altars and burials were adorned with marigolds, a sacred flower thought to attract the spirits so that they might enjoy the offerings left in their memory.

Today, these celebrations have been blended with Catholic traditions, and take place on All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Many think that Mikailwitl and Wey Mikailwitl were absorbed into Allhallowtide (All Saints Day and All Souls Day) under the direction of the Catholic Church, as these Christian holidays also involve honoring the dead. Unfortunately, this popular claim is often repeated without any evidence to back it up. For example, a column about Dia de Muertos published on the website weareyourvoicemag states “in an attempt to convert the natives to Catholicism, the Spanish colonizers moved the celebration to November 1 and 2 (All Saints Day), which is when we celebrate it currently.”

But is this how it really happened?

The process of combining older rituals into another religion is known as Syncretism, and is intended to help ease religious conversion. While Catholic priests often employed syncretism as a strategy of conversion in the “New World,” this is not what happened in regards to the festivals of Mikailwitl and Wey Mikailwitl.

In fact, it was the exact opposite!

To better understand the origins of contemporary Day of the Dead celebrations, we need to understand its Mesoamerican origins. The Codex Telleriano-Remensis describes the feast of Mikailwitl on folio 2r:

The Codex Telleriano-Remensis also describes the feast of Wey Mikailwitl on folio 2v:

The writings of Diego Duran reveal that these Mesoamerican feasts were not moved under the direction of Catholic priests, but were hidden within the feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day by the Indigenous people themselves. This subversive act of resistance was intended to fool the Catholic priests into thinking the Mesoamericans had, indeed, submitted to Christianity. Here we see Duran’s complaint:

In time, this celebration took on the name “Dia de Muertos.” Personally, I find it inspiring to know that my ancestors used every means of resistance at their disposal in order to navigate and negotiate their way through the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica. Unfortunately, American representations of Day of the Dead have become a little…problematic.

Current celebrations of Day of the Dead in the United States have taken on a pop-culture aspect, and many of the ritual aspects are being lost. In fact, some people have even taken to calling it the “Mexican Halloween.” (Pro-tip, if you are doing this, stop.) And while their hearts may be in the right place, I implore non-Mexicans to take the time to learn the history of this celebration. We can all celebrate Day of the Dead in a way that both honors our ancestors, and is respectful of the culture that created it.

Our ancestors deserve this much.

Written by

(Chicano/Nawa/Mazewalli) Archaeologist, filmmaker, and founder of the Chimalli institute of Mesoamerican Arts. Professor of C/S at Colegio Chicano del Pueblo.

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