Día de Muertos
and its connection to the Mayan civilization

"Día de Muertos originated several thousand years ago and is connected to the ancient pre-hispanic civilizations like the Aztecs, Toltec, Mayans, and other Nahua people."

We are all probably familiar with the infamous “Día de Muertos “ or “Day of the dead” and aware of the incredible art connected to it. Día de Muertos is a Mexican holiday, the last one of three in a row, on which family and friends remember their deceased loved ones. According to the Mexican culture, death is merely a natural part of the human cycle and it’s not something to be mourned, but to be celebrated. 

Origins and versions

Día de Muertos originated several thousand years ago and is connected to the ancient pre-hispanic civilizations like the Aztecs, Toltec, Mayans, and other Nahua people. The indigenous people considered mourning the deceased highly disrespectful, and instead, they celebrated their memory each year. Originally, the Day of the dead was being held at the beginning of summer before the Spanish colonization, but over time it was moved to November 2 to fit the Western Christian versions of the holidays All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. Today’s Día de Muertos is a mixture of the pre-historic version and the Christian feasts. 

The Yucatan Mayans have their version of the holiday to this day that might be the original start of the holiday. Almost all of the rituals and rules are the same, but the name is different. Their holiday is called Hanal Pixan which in Mayan means “Food of soul”. The ancient Mayans back in the day did not have a specific date on when they are celebrating Hanal Pixan, mostly because they had a tradition of burying their dead in their homes, in caves, or extra buildings for special people. They would give daily offerings to their deceased.  

The beliefs that they held were that each human gets a gift from the gods a pixan (soul) which has its weaknesses and strengths that define that person’s character. Once the person is deceased, the pixan goes to the other side using snakelike pathways. The same pathways are used when it’s time for the pixan to reincarnate and get born again. 

In the early 16th century, when the Spanish colonization happened, Maya and all indigenous cultures in Mexico suffered great political and spiritual prohibitions. The people were enslaved and tortured, their sacred books were burned and worshipping of their gods was forbidden. The Maya started to integrate Spanish figures in their own practices in an attempt to practice their faith in secret. Since Christianity does not believe in reincarnation, which was a very big part of the Maya culture, the tradition slowly changed. Now, souls would come back to Earth for 8 days to be with their loved ones, and then return back to heaven. The Spanish evangelists realized that despite all their efforts, this holiday is not going away, so they moved it to October 31, November 1, and November 2 to coincide with the Christian versions. 


There are a few specific rituals that take place each year on Día de Muertos:

  • Altars: originally “ofrenda”, is built in the homes of the people and the cemeteries. These altars are meant to welcome the spirits back to the world of the living and they are full of offerings for them. Things like food, photos, and candles can be found on each ofrenda. 

  • Marigolds: a type of marigold called cempasúchil also known as flor de muerto (flower of death) is usually a part of the ofrenda, since the people believe that this flower helps their loved one to be guided to the altar. 

  • Sugar Skulls: the sugar skulls are probably the most globally recognized symbol of the festivities and Mexico in general. The skulls are made or bought and added to the ofrendas with the name of the deceased person written on the forehead. 

  • Grave visiting: although it may sound a bit morbid, the tradition is for people to clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones and go there to hold vigils. Nowadays, not a lot of people do this but it is still a very traditional ritual.

What'’s maybe the most impressionable part about the Dia de Muertos that is famous all around the world, are the skull face paintings. People from all over the world are familiar with them, they re-create them on holidays like Halloween, and they even tattoo the skull shapes. Like everything connected to the holiday, the face paintings are a mixture of Catholic beliefs and religions of the indigenous Mexican people. The elements that appear on the face paintings are often very colorful and enriched with floral details. The floral details are most often the “flowers of death” known as cempasúchil marigolds. 

Ultimately, people will go to the graves of their loved ones and tell funny or cheerful stories about those that they have loved and lost. They believe that it is much better to remember the positive experiences and remind yourself of the good times that you spent with a person, instead of mourning their absence.

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