Is Day of the Dead More Indigenous or Catholic? Friars Durán and Sahagún vs. Wikipedia

by Ruben C. Cordova October 31, 2019
Candlelight vigil, Mixquic, 2010.

Candlelight vigil, Mixquic, 2010. Photograph © Ruben C. Cordova

Many popular assumptions relating to Mexico’s Day of the Dead are erroneous, beginning with the common belief that the holiday is primarily indigenous. This belief depends upon ignorance of Spanish religious practices in the 16th  and 17th centuries, and upon evasion of the simple truth that indigenous religions were so violently and ruthlessly suppressed that it is difficult to reconstruct their major features. This article utilizes two twenty-day Aztec months dedicated to the dead as a case study. 

As an example of popular sentiment, I cite Juanita Garciagodoy’s 1998 book Digging the Days of the Dead, where she says “the traces of Spanish Catholic conventions… are less easy to identify than the pre-Hispanic ones.” Garciagodoy emphasizes that Day of the Dead’s “roots lie in pre-Hispanic practices” and have been “enriched by Spanish, Catholic influences.” As we shall see, this formulation should be reversed.

Candlelight vigil, Mixquic, 2010. Photograph © Ruben C. Cordova

Candlelight vigil, Mixquic, 2010. Photograph © Ruben C. Cordova

The external trappings associated with of Day of the Dead are indubitably Spanish. Candles, breads, sugar (the primary ingredient in sweet treats), and even cemeteries themselves are all Spanish imports. For a discussion of relevant Spanish practices, see Stanley Brandes’ Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead (2006). The indigenous peoples regarded bones as reservoirs of enormous power and life forces. They believed Quetzalcoatl reanimated the current race of humanity by creating a primordial dough: he sprinkled blood (ritually drawn from his own penis) on ground-up bones he had stolen from the underworld. Aztec commoners were typically buried under their houses or in their fields, where — like sacred fertilizer — their bones ensured fecundity while they radiated and transmitted sacred power. Aztec elites were buried in the Templo Mayor, the heart of the city and the chief ceremonial center. The Maya often had ancestral bones on home altars. The pact between the living and the dead was predicated on proximity to ancestral bones. Thus the widespread belief that annual candlelight vigils (with food and drink) in Catholic church cemeteries constitute the purest form of indigenous religious practice is mistaken. Catholics did this in Spain. The Aztecs adopted these practices after they were conquered and forcibly converted. 

Stone Tzompantli (skull rack), Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City

Stone Tzompantli (skull rack), Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City, illuminated with colored light during Day of the Dead, 2004, photograph © Ruben C. Cordova

When Aztec stone skulls were spared destruction by their appropriation by the Spanish, they were thoroughly colonized, their meanings cannibalized. What had been emblems of power — stacked in imitation of the very real skull racks of sacrificed enemy warriors — became transformed into Christianized memento mori: reminders of mortality and of the vanity of earthly existence. 

Altar constructed with Aztec period stone skulls, Mixquic cemetery, 2010

Altar constructed with Aztec period stone skulls, Mixquic cemetery, 2010, photograph © Ruben C. Cordova

In colonial times, stone skulls displaced from indigenous monuments were commonly reutilized in front of holy water stoups. In this photograph of the Mixquic cemetery (now a suburb of Mexico City), the Aztec period stone skulls are subservient to the Christian cross that surmounts them. 

Serge Gruzinski argues in The Mestizo Mind (2006) that, at least in theory, “conversion to the Christian faith was synonymous with an absolute rejection of paganism in favor of a sole, exclusive, jealous God. Any return to the past, or any mélange of old and new, was unacceptable, indeed satanic.” This wholesale conversion entailed the obliteration of visible signs of the pagan past. In order to survive, sometimes the stones themselves had to be “converted” (as in the above photograph). In a letter to the Chapter of the Franciscan Order in 1531, Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of New Spain, boasted of destroying 500 temples and smashing and burning more than 20,000 “idols of the devils they worshipped… .” In the wake of mass conversions, the Franciscan friar known as Motolinía prematurely declared victory in the 1540s: “the natives have burned all their idols … Almost no recollection of the past remains.” It was, of course, the missionaries who compelled this destruction, and, try as they might, they could not eradicate all memories of the past. Nothing, however, frustrated the transmission of knowledge more effectively than book burning, a skill at which the Spanish excelled. Only around 20 potentially pre-Columbian codices from Mesoamerica escaped the flames. Probably neither of the surviving Aztec culture codices predate Spanish contact: they are likely faithful copies.

In light of this wholesale destruction, what can we say about Aztecs beliefs? Ironically, our two best sources of information are by agents of their destruction, and nothing comparable exists for other indigenous cultures. The Dominican Friar Diego Durán (c. 1537-1588) completed two books in the 1570s called Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar. They were translated and published in one volume by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1971. The Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagún (c. 1499-1590) spent almost 30 years researching, compiling, and editing a twelve-volume General History of the Things of New Spain, which was completed by 1579. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, it was translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson and published by the University of Utah Press (1950-1982). After discussing Durán and Sahagún, we will compare them to contemporary popular accounts, including Wikipedia. 

Durán, in his introduction to the Book of the Gods and Rites, makes his purpose clear: the “True God” cannot be revealed “until the heathen ceremonies and false cults of their counterfeit deities are extinguished, erased.” His book is an account of “the ancient idolatries and false religion with which the devil was worshiped until the Holy Gospel was brought to this land.” 

Durán decried the destruction of pre-Hispanic books because he believed ignorance of indigenous beliefs facilitated their survival. These book-burners, says Durán, deprived the Spanish of guiding light that would reveal the degree to which “heathenism and idolatry are present everywhere: in sowing, in reaping, in storing grain, even in plowing the earth and in building houses; in wakes and funerals, in weddings and births.” This destruction served to conceal heathen significations, enabling mockeries of the true faith to go undetected, a point Durán made again in The Ancient Calendar. He also harbored a peculiar motive. Having noticed parallels between the Christian and Aztec religions, he suspected that ancient Hebrews or early Christians had proselytized in the Americas before the arrival of the Spanish. Horcasitas and Heyden note that Durán vacillated on this issue, but in his later years he was certain this had taken place. Either these teachings had been corrupted by the devil, or the devil had created an infernal parody of Christianity. In any case, he was determined to tear out these infernal “roots.” There was a very thin line between proper worship and hell-raising satanism. Durán searched for an ancient book in Ocuituco, hoping it would be “the Holy Gospel in Hebrew,” but its Indian owners had destroyed it, fearing its possession could bring them harm from Catholic authorities.

Sahagún, for his part, considered priests to be “physicians of the souls for the curing of spiritual ailments.” Aztec religion was therefore a spiritual sickness. Like Durán, Sahagún was concerned that insufficient knowledge of indigenous beliefs permitted “idolatrous things in our presence without our understanding it.” He characterized Aztecs as unsurpassed idolaters, and judged them “inhuman… more than bestial and diabolical.” After a brief mention of child sacrifice, he identified the ultimate culprit: “our most ancient enemy, Satan.” Sahagún identified Mexico and its indigenous “songs and psalms” as “the cave, the forest, the thorny thicket where this accursed adversary now hides” like a wild beast or a poisonous serpent. He found the Aztecs so “abhorrent and idolatrous” that he doubted Christian preachers had preceded the Spanish, though he admitted that certain parallels could be taken as evidence of prior evangelization. 

The Aztec Calendars and Festivals of the Dead

Mesoamericans utilized a 260-day ritual calendar. They also possessed a 365-day solar calendar, divided into eighteen months of twenty days each, with five inauspicious days added to the end. Since it lacked a leap day, it was a “vague” year with a “wandering calendar”: it would be off by more than a twenty-day month’s time in less than a century. Our focus here will be the ninth and tenth months of the vague year as commemorated by the Aztecs. 

Early colonial sources indicate that two twenty-day months were dedicated to the dead. Confusingly, their names and records of their commemoration are contradictory. The ninth month of the Aztec calendar is most often referred to as Miccailhuitontli. The suffix is diminutive. Thus it can be translated as the “Feast of the Little Dead” or the “Little Feast of the Dead.” The former interpretation would imply that it was a commemoration of dead children. The latter would belie its lesser status in comparison to the tenth month, called Miccailhuitl, which can be translated as the “Great Feast of the Dead” or the “Feast of the Great Dead.” Different interpretations have been promulgated: it could be a bigger, more important feast than the ninth month (Michel Graulich), a feast celebrating bigger or more important people (Horcasitas and Heyden), or a feast with a greater incidence of human sacrifice as a marker of significance (Durán).

Some recollection of these two twenty-day festivals, which took place from July 23 through August 31 in 1519, was compressed down to two days and cryptically celebrated within the Catholic liturgical calendar. Consequently, in much of Mexico — and unlike other Latin American countries with Day of the Dead traditions — All Saints’ Day is dedicated to children, and All Souls’ Day is dedicated to adults. (Government promotions, beginning in the 1970s, helped to spread modern Day of the Dead commemorations throughout Mexico.) Unfortunately, it is difficult to say precisely what took place in Aztec times. A high proportion of Aztec elites — who best understood their complex and often secretive rituals — perished in the conquest. Many of those who survived understandably refused to cooperate with the Spanish friars’ program of cultural genocide. 

We do know how the Spanish commemorated All Souls Day in the 16th century, when they brought these practices to Mexico. Hugo G. Nutini gives this account in an article updated in 2019:

“During the vigil of November 2 the souls of the dead [in heaven] came back in spirit to bless the household where they had died. On November 2 the souls in purgatory came back in the form of phantoms, witches, and toads, lizards, and other repellent animals in order to scare or harm persons who wronged or injured them during their lives. Food offerings were made to the dead in the cemeteries, ritually disposed of by those concerned after the souls had symbolically tasted the food. Special food offerings, consisting of a dish or drink that he or she had particularly liked, were made to prominent departed members of the household. Garments … were displayed on the family altar so that the souls would rejoice upon contemplating such a display of affection and become effective protectors of their living kin. The way to the house was marked by recognized signposts of flowers and other decorations so that the returning souls could more easily find their earthly homes. This veritable cult of the dead during the Dark and Middle Ages had probably changed little since Roman times.” 

Nutini’s passage (minus the reference to purgatory) reads like a description of putatively “indigenous” Day of the Dead rituals in contemporary Mexico. Nutini further notes that secularization in Europe pushed these practices into marginal and lower status areas, particularly the Mediterranean. The same dynamic operated in Mexico. Beliefs and customs that had been widespread became the domain of rural and generally less affluent indigenous and mestizo communities. Knowledge of archaic Spanish customs was lost. Surviving practices were viewed as uniquely indigenous, rather than Spanish or common to both cultures. Today they are celebrated as quintessentially Mexican rituals, and partaking of them in Mexico or emulating them in other countries is deemed a means of connecting with the indigenous peoples. 

Diego Durán’s Account of the Ninth and Tenth Months in Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar

a. The Ninth Month (Miccailhuitontli, the Little Feast of the Dead)

Confusingly, in the English text (following Durán’s Spanish), the name of this feast is translated as “Little Feast of the Dead” under the title, and as “Feast of the Little Dead” in the first paragraph of this section in the Ancient Calendar. Durán specifically states that it was for “the commemoration of innocent dead children.” Durán saw offerings being made at cemeteries on October 31 and November 1. When he inquired about their purpose, he was told that they were made in honor of the children and the adults, respectively. Durán recognized the persistence of indigenous traditions: “I saw clearly that the Feast of the Little Dead and [the Feast] of the Adults were still being celebrated … I saw people offering chocolate, candles, fowl, fruit, great quantities of seed, and food.” Durán stopped just short of denouncing the survival of pre-Hispanic beliefs: “I suspect that if it is an evil simulation (which I do not dare affirm) the pagan festival has been passed to the Feast of Allhallows in order to cover up the ancient ceremony.” Durán had no doubt about what was taking place, but perhaps too explicit a denunciation could imperil his project or subject the converts to excessive punishments (such as torture or execution). Durán laments the persistence of “superstitious and magical” practices. Mothers thought offerings could prevent the death of their children in the coming year: “A thousand diabolical inventions were used: hair croppings, sacrifices, anointing, baths, tarring, feathering, covering with soot, beads, and little bones. All of this has lasted until the present day, and mothers still observe these practices with fascination, happy, satisfied, desirous of offering gifts to the cursed and deceitful sorcerer or witch.” 

Durán was especially perturbed by the respect shown to a huge pole, called a Xocotl because it was venerated with the honor and reverence accorded to the Christian cross. He notes that the pole was “blessed and hallowed each day with splendid ceremonies, singing and dancing, incense, the letting of blood, fasting, flagellation, and many other forms of penance practiced while the tree trunk lay there [at the entrance to the city].” 

The Xocotl Huetzli festival (detail) as depicted in Durán, fol. 276r.

The Xocotl Huetzli festival (detail) as depicted in Durán, fol. 276r. Aztec youths try to capture the bird made of amaranth dough at the top of the pole

b: The Tenth Month (The Great Feast of the Dead) Miccailhuitl

Duran reports that numerous men were sacrificed and cannibalism took place, indications of the feast’s high rank. Presiding dignitaries donned luxurious ceremonial clothes, tiaras, and jewels, further signaling the day’s importance. For Durán, the absence of Christianity was synonymous with the absence of reason. The feast lacked “any trace of the presence of our God, and [was] not founded upon reason.” It was proof, he declared, of their blindness, of the degree to which they were “deceived by the devil,” and of the blindness of “those in whom the roots of these things still survive!” Having blessed the pole with “diabolical ceremonies” the previous month, the Aztecs raised it in the temple courtyard and placed the dough bird at its summit. In the chapter titled “The Feast of the God Xocotl Huetzi” [Durán, who never learned the meaning of the word xocotl, mistakenly thought it referred to a god] in Book of the Gods and the Rites, Durán goes into more detail. The dough bird is fabricated inside a net, with a gilded neck, “fancy green feathers,” and it is outfitted with a base of branches and flowers made of four other portions of dough. The pole was erected on the eve of the feast day, when a great fire was stoked by the Divine Brazier. The next morning, several god impersonators were sacrificed, each followed by several slaves: “half-roasted, before they were dead, [these victims] were pulled out and sacrificed, their chests opened.” Afterwards, offerings were made and the young men and women were released from their cloisters in the Great Temple. With new clothes, painted faces, and feathers covering their arms and legs, the young women danced all evening. The high lords formed a ring around the youths. The male dance leader — who dresses like a bird or a bat — moved out of sync with the other dancers. Durán cautions against allowing natives to “sing their idolatrous chants,” which they do when no one understands them, only to switch to a song to Saint Francis followed by a hallelujah when someone arrives who can understand them. An hour before sunset, the youths ran to the pole, with the four victors descending with the dough bird’s head, two wings, and tail, as if they were “the chosen ones of the god.” The victors had their ears bled, fasted for four days, then had a ritual bath.  

Before the pole was cast down, Durán says “an amazing amount of food and pulque [the Mesoamerican alcoholic beverage] was placed around it.” The lords also danced around the pole, holding images and balls made out of dough, instead of the flowers that accompanied most ceremonial dancing. 

Durán doesn’t attempt to explain why the humans were sacrificed and stewed. The Ancient Calendar also lacks an explanation of what the dough bird or the pole signified. In the Book of the Gods and the Rites, Durán informs the reader that the dough images (a combination of amaranth, corn, and dark honey) represented the “flesh” and “blood” of deities. Observing ritual washing and fasting, the Aztecs would joyously eat the dough images, which they referred to as “the flesh of God.” The consumption of dough effigies was deeply troubling to the Spanish missionaries. Durán gives a particularly ardent description/condemnation in a chapter of the Book of the Gods and Rites that treats human sacrifice. At the end of the festival in honor of the Aztec patron god Huitzilopochtli, the dough is “consecrated” with the blood of sacrificial victims. Everyone subsequently “received communion” with the tzoalli (dough effigy). As Durán characterizes it: “All received it with such reverence, awe, and joy that truly it was a thing of wonder! The people claimed that they had eaten the flesh and bones of the gods, though they were unworthy … Let the reader note how cleverly this diabolical rite imitates that of our Holy Church, which orders us to receive the True Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, at Eastertide … either (as I have stated) our Holy Christian Religion was known in this land or the devil, our cursed adversary, forced the Indians to imitate the ceremonies of the Christian Catholic religion in his own service and cult, being thus adored and served.” 

Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón, a Taxco priest, was equally outraged when he witnessed the consumption of a dough effigy in the next century. In his 1626 Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, he recalls witnessing a first-fruits ceremony featuring an amaranth dough image that “vividly emulated and imitated the most singular myth of the most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, in which our Lord, summing up the benefits of our Redemption ordained that most truly we should eat him.” Ruiz de Alarcón took this ceremony as proof that “the devil, ape-like, enemy of all good, contrives a way for these wretches to eat him, or to let themselves become possessed of him by eating him in those idols.”

In the Book of the Gods and Rites, Durán also expresses incredulity that once the xocotl tree is felled, the populace sought to take a piece — even a mere splinter — as if it were a relic of the True Cross. The tenth-month chapter concludes with a denunciation of drinking that takes up more than a third of it, including this passage: “This accursed beverage was a special offering to the gods. Thus I have heard of sacrifices and offerings where, besides food, feathers, incense, foolish and childish things such as bones and little clay dishes and beads, tiny pots filled with pulque were used.” 

Durán is most deeply offended when an indigenous religious ritual reminds him of a Catholic practice. But when the resemblance is insufficient to constitute an “evil simulation,” then the ritual act is deemed to be laughably childish and foolish. By his reasoning, these ritual practices — which he attributes to sorcerers, witches, and devils — necessarily defy explanation because they are guided by the antithesis of reason. Durán, aware that he could be accused of reviving these rites, notes that their practitioners are well-versed and needed no instructor. He hopes to see all these practices erased, but in the meantime, he cannot remain silent in the face of “ancient idolatry, superstition, and wretchedness!” 

Diego Bernardino de Sahagùn’s Account of the Ninth and Tenth Months in the Florentine Codex

a: The Ninth Month (Tlaxochimaco)

Sahagùn calls the ninth month Tlaxochimaco. He says it is dedicated to Uitzilopochtli [Huitzilopochtli], the Aztec patron deity, which Sahagùn refers to as “the god of war.” Huitzilopochtli is usually translated as Hummingbird on the Left, or of the South. Hummingbirds were associated with flowers, bloodletting, sacrifice, and war. After preparing many types of food the night before, the priests decorate Huitzilopochtli and other statues with garlands of flowers. This action is followed by feasting, dancing, chanting, drumming, and singing. The old men and women drink heavily: they are severely punished if they fail to imbibe sufficient amounts of pulque. Sahagùn’s chapter twenty-eight provides considerable detail pertaining to the ninth month, including the extensive use of flowers. Today, Day of the Dead is associated almost exclusively with marigolds (cempasuchil). The Aztecs, by contrast, utilized a remarkable variety of flowers. Great efforts were made to comb the countryside: “there was looking for every flower — various flowers, mountain flowers, dahlias, hummingbird flowers, mountain tagetes, ranunculus, bocconias, tiger lilies, plumerias, didymeas, forest magnolias, taluamas, earth plumerias, tagetes, lobelias, white water lilies, red water lilies, casttalias.” In Aztec society, flowers had great symbolic importance: they were associated with human sacrifice. Furthermore, the Aztec “Flowery Wars” were undertaken expressly to capture warriors to sacrifice (rather than to conquer and capture territory). 

At the beginning of the ninth month, Huitzilopochtli was decorated at the break of dawn: “they adorned him with garlands of flowers … And before him they kept spreading … they kept hanging in rows all the various flowers, the precious flowers, the gifts made as offerings.” On a symbolic level, this offering of flowers was like an offering of copious amounts of blood and sacrificial victims. After Huitzilopochtli had been given his due, offerings of flowers were made in the other temples and in the homes of the lords and the youths. This was followed by feasting, drinking, dancing, and singing. Sahagún specifies that the dancing girls were “courtesans, the pleasure girls.”

b: The Tenth Month (Xocotl uetzi)

Sahagùn calls the tenth month Xocotl uetzi. He says it is dedicated to the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli. Sahagún refers to the large pole. He says many bound slaves are burned on coals at the edge of a great fire. Yiauhtli, an anesthetic powder is sprinkled on their faces to lessen their pain. Before they expire from the heat, they are removed with a hook-like device so their hearts can be extracted on the sacrificial stone before an image of Xiuhtecuhtli. These sacrifices take place atop the Great Pyramid. The burning of the slaves — as a preliminary to heart sacrifice — is characterized as a tribute to the god of fire. Elsewhere Sahagún details the preparation of the pole, the sacrifice of captives, and the capture of the dough effigy atop the pole.

Sahagùn’s informants sometimes gave vivid descriptions: “then they cast him into the fire. High did the ashes shoot up; they indeed billowed. And the brave warrior’s flesh thereupon sputtered; blisters quickly formed; burning spots quickly arose. Then the old priests quickly seized him; they quickly drew him forth. They stretched him out on the offering stone. They cut open his breast; they split open his chest. Then they cut out, they tore out, his heart; they cast it before Xiuhtecuhtli, the representation of fire.”

The sacrifices were followed by singing, eating, and dancing. Then young males competed to capture the dough effigy at the top of the pole. The victor “scattered them [the pieces of dough] on the people.” This caused pandemonium: “everyone stretched forth his hands. As if there were brawling, so was there shouting.” The captor of the dough image was awarded gifts and special brown cape, which was a very high honor. 


Clearly, the Aztec religion, the practices that characterized it, and the ceremonial centers where it had been staged had already largely vanished by the time Durán and Sahagún wrote their studies. Their informants likely had a better grasp of the forms of these rituals than of their underlying significance. Horcasitas and Heyden conclude that the Spanish crown was more concerned with the predations of English pirates and the threat posed by the Protestant Reformation than with pagan survivals in New Spain. Be that as it may, King Phillp II’s suppression of Sahagún’s work in a royal cedula of 1577 proves how dangerous this work was deemed. It recognizes that Sahagun’s compendium of “rites, ceremonies and idolatries” was produced with “the best intentions.” Nonetheless, the cedula forbids its transmission: “this book should not be printed or circulated in any manner in this country … get hold of these books, omitting no originals or copies, and send them immediately to our Council of the Indies.” It further stipulates: “you are not to allow any person to write anything concerning the superstitions and way of life these Indians had, in any language, because this is advantageous to the service of God our Lord, and our own.” It would be centuries before Durán’s and Sahagún’s books were printed. This royal antipathy and intolerance stretched from the kings and their inquisitors to the village priests.  

Wikipedia and Contemporary Popular Accounts of Day of the Dead

Wikipedia has disseminated inaccurate — and widely copied — information pertaining to Day of the Dead. I link its May 10, 2005 edit, which holds: “The festival which was to become El Día de los Muertos fell on the ninth month [the tenth month is not mentioned] … near the start of August [there is no acknowledgement of the “wandering” calendar]. Unspecified “festivities” were allegedly “presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl [the relatively minor consort of the death god Mictlantecuhtli], known as the ‘Lady of the Dead.’” Mexico is apparently thought to be in Central America, where Spanish Conquistadors, “in an attempt to convert the locals to Catholicism moved the popular festival to the beginning of November to coincide with the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days.” The entry posits a degree of tolerance and accommodation that didn’t exist. It mentions Samhain, the Celtic feast of the dead, then makes this leap: “The Spanish combined their custom of Halloween with the similar Mesoamerican festival, creating The Day of the Dead.” One still encounters verbatim copies of dubious portions of Wikipedia’s 2005 article on the web: “an attempt to convert the locals to Catholicism moved the popular festival to the beginning of November … The Spanish combined their custom of Halloween with the similar Mesoamerican festival, creating The Day of the Dead.” A passage in the current Encyclopaedia Britannica entry reads like a paraphrase of the 2005 Wikipedia: “Led by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as ‘Lady of the Dead,’ the celebration lasted a month. After the Spanish arrived in Mexico and began converting the native peoples to Roman Catholicism, the holiday was moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1 and 2, respectively).”

The travel book World Party: The Rough Guide to the World’s Best Festivals (2007) expresses a similar viewpoint. Spanish religion is characterized as “ostensibly Christian” but with ancient, pagan Irish Celtic roots. It says “deceased childen were remembered” during Miccailhuitontli. The next month sounds familiar: aromatic flowers guide the spirits “to a banquet prepared as temptation.” Next, it alleges that a devastating “clash of cultures” forced “pragmatic priests to seek only a partial conversion.” Thus “heathen Aztec practices were tolerated as long as they could be subsumed into the new religion.” Consequently, “Miccailhuitolntli and Hueymiccaulhuitl [both misspelled] were shifted a couple of months back to November,” creating “a pseudo-Christian Halloween that became inextricably entwined with Aztec spirituality, and quickly took on a uniquely Mexican identity.” 

The 2005 Wikipedia article and the World Party book clumsily grapple with issues that Nutini treats adroitly. Christianity was born from multiple ancient religions, and one of its defining features was its ability to absorb a multitude of other religions.  

In her 2009 book Day of the Dead in the USA, Regina M. Marchi states: “When missionaries in Latin America could not eradicate Indigenous rituals for honoring the dead, they instead relocated them to correspond with the Roman Catholic liturgical dates of November 1 and 2.” I can’t speak for all of Latin America, but in Mexico, the indigenous peoples preserved what little they could by concealing their beliefs under the cloak of Catholicism. Marchi again asserts Catholic tolerance in her 2013 article “Hybridity and Authenticity in US Day of the Dead Celebrations” in the Journal of American Folklore. She says “native rituals for remembering the dead were ‘tolerated’ by missionaries and relocated to correspond with the Roman Catholic liturgical dates of November 1 and 2.” None of the writers who posit the intervention of forbearing Conquistadors or priests provide evidence of these atypically tolerant souls, or instances of relocated indigenous rituals or practices.  

The current Wikipedia article still speaks of a single, month-long Aztec death festival in August dedicated to Mictecacihuatl. It drops all mention of helpful Spaniards relocating indigenous festivities. But now it says the Aztec “goddess known as the ‘Lady of the Dead’” corresponds “to the modern La Calavera Catrina.” Catrina originated as a satiric head-and-shoulders print created by José Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century. Originally, she had no connection to indigenous culture or to the name Catrina, but she was elaborated into a full figure by muralist Diego Rivera, who also endowed her with pre-Columbian emblems. Though she is ubiquitous during Day of the Dead, she is a secular, nationalist emblem. For the complex transformation of the Catrina image, see my Glasstire article “José Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera Fashion Catrina: From Sellout To National Icon (and Back Again?).” Aztec death festivals were deeply religious, but they were not dedicated to the “Lady of the Dead.” Today’s Day of the Dead festivals are not generally dedicated to Catrina. The claim of correspondence is a fraudulent assertion of continuity from Aztec times; it implies that essentially nothing has changed. Wikipedia supplies simplistic explanations of complex phenomena. The Durán and Sahagún texts treat some of this complexity: so much was going on during these two months that the good friars can hardly explain it. 

Many important issues are not addressed in this article. Were the Aztecs a characteristic or a highly singular Mesoamerican civilization? How do we reconcile the differences and contradictions within the accounts of Durán, Sahagún, and other early colonial sources? Is it possible to construct a somewhat comprehensive account of Aztec religious beliefs out of these various sources? Generations of brilliant scholars have toiled to shed light on these questions, and they will be taken up in a subsequent article. 


Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and curator. His exhibition The Day of the Dead in Art opens at Centro de Artes (the former Museo Alameda) in San Antonio on October 24. It argues that much of the received knowledge about Day of the Dead is incorrect. It features over 100 works by more than 50 artists, including vintage prints by Posada and his contemporaries, and many versions of Catrina. 

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