Friday, October 31, 2014

Dia(s) de Los Muertos


Catrina II - Photo Credit: Nick Chao
(Click to enlarge.)


"In our tradition, people die three deaths. The first death is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning.

The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight.

The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us."


"The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with her, lifts his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and in the challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him. Once he knows death intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak of mystery or causes him to fear the darkness.

Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she has on the hearts and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death’s morbid side is buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing as Mexico celebrates life in its embrace of death.” 

- Two excerpts from Los Dias de los Muertos (the Days of the Dead), 2003, Judy King



Three Catrinas found here.
(Click to enlarge.)

Five years ago today, I started this blog... while I'm guessing I knew it was Halloween, I think the true irony somehow escaped me. That being said, Halloween remains, to this day, one of my favorite holidays, and one that I usually enjoy from a more or less Celtic perspective... spooky, stark and strange. But, here in New Mexico - where it currently still feels like summer - the day is translated into something entirely different.

Nothing dark or murky about the Mexican Day of the Dead (October 31- November 2). Dia de los Muertos - or, more appropriately, Dias de los Muertos - comes to us in vivid colors, elegant costumes, patterned sugar skulls, and bright golden flowers - specifically the Marigold, the designated flower of the dead.

Oh yeah, there are those skeletons (the Calavera)... but, these aren't the grotesque sort with wormy eyes, etc. In fact, they're often pretty women with frilly dresses, elegant head-dresses and elaborate face-makeup: the Catrinas, a personification of Death itself. The Catrinas harken back to the Aztec Lady of the Dead, Mictecacihuatl. According to legend, Mictecacihuatl was sacrificed as an infant before she became Queen of the Underworld, ruling over the afterlife with her consort, Mictlantecuhtli. They were both depicted as skeletons by the Aztecs, but, for the Aztecs, skeletons were seen as symbols of fertility, health and abundance. On the other hand, there is a darker side to these rulers of the Underworld. For instance, worshipers of the Lord and Lady of the Dead were known to practice ritual cannibalism.

Aztec statues of Mictecacihuatl and Mictlantecuhtli found here.

That Dia de los Muertos should happen to take place at the same time as other holidays devoted to death from around the world is, actually, not a coincidence. Wherever there was a strong Roman Catholic influence, the indigenous culture's Death Day celebrations, such as the Celtic Samhain, were merged into the Roman Catholic holiday of All Saints Day, and/or All Souls' Day - October 31 being All Hallows' Eve (Halloween).

Similarly, Los Dias de los Muertos - in the Roman Catholic tradition - is also celebrated for 3 days, but along different lines. On the first day, a children's altar is prepared to invoke the spirits of dead children. They are then invited to visit their living (corporeal) relations. The second day is when the adult spirits are welcomed. On the third day, families go the cemeteries to decorate the graves and tombs.

Morbid? Or, instead, a beautiful tradition? For sure, It is the antithesis of Halloween as we now know it, in which ghosts are something to fear and avoid. In the end, it comes down to the way in which we view death... is it the last day, or is it the next day?

Incidentally, I saw my first Catrina today... behind the counter at a plant and tree nursery nearby... In full costume and make-up. She was fabulous!


Sugar skulls: (left) traditional, (center) sugar skull art, (right) modern sugar skull

Feliz Dia de los Muertos!