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The Aztecs and the Day of the Dead, Part 1 (Intro)

The ‘Day of the Dead’ is Mexico’s biggest and most spectacular annual festival - public and yet intimately private at the same time. Just how ancient is it? To open our extended feature on the Day of the Dead we’re privileged to have an introduction written specially for us by Professor John Mack, Professor of World Art Studies at the School of World Art and Museology, University of East Anglia and Head of the British Museum’s International African Programmes. He was previously Keeper of the Department of Ethnography at the British Museum. Very many thanks, John...

Pic 1: Professor John Mack, author of ‘The Museum of the Mind: Art and Memory in World Cultures’
Pic 1: Professor John Mack, author of ‘The Museum of the Mind: Art and Memory in World Cultures’

‘There have been many attempts to define what it is that distinguishes man from the other animals. Man, it is said, is a tool maker; only man is capable of making music and song; man knows how to laugh; and so on. But amongst the most persuasive definitions of human distinctiveness and identity is surely that man commemorates. There are two basic and related ways in which this is achieved. One is through recording ‘history’, documenting events as they occur. The other is through rituals of various kinds which lodge such events in ‘memory’.

Pic 2: The Aztecs leaving their homeland Aztlán in the year 1-Flint (from the Tira de la Peregrinación)
Pic 2: The Aztecs leaving their homeland Aztlán in the year 1-Flint (from the Tira de la Peregrinación) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘In Mexico both have an important place. History was first recorded in painted scenes over 1,000 years ago on folded deerskin scrolls called ‘codices’. Events such as records of births and deaths, the recounting of genealogies, the annals of different rulers, their conquests and their attempts to defend their lands, are all portrayed. This gives vivid pictorial insight into the world of Mexico in the centuries before the Spanish Conquest, and what people then found it important to remember.

Pic 3: Preparations for the Day of the Dead, Xico, Jalapa
Pic 3: Preparations for the Day of the Dead, Xico, Jalapa (Click on image to enlarge)

‘This accounting of the past is largely linear: one event succeeds another in a chronological sequence. However many ritual events are more circular in their approach. The celebration of the Day of the Dead, which occurs on All Saints’ Eve at the beginning of November each year is a major commemorative ceremony throughout Mexico. Its purpose is to celebrate, remember and, as much as anything, to entertain the dead. Sometimes roads of flowers are put in place to guide the dead from the graveyard to the house where their relatives will have constructed an altar dedicated to the most recently deceased and made ready an array of sugary foods and drink.

Pic4: Preparations for the Day of the Dead, main cemetery, Cuernavaca
Pic4: Preparations for the Day of the Dead, main cemetery, Cuernavaca (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Many commemorative ceremonies are, by their very nature, sad and sombre: graveyards themselves are not joyous places. However, the Mexican Day of the Dead is anything but sober and cheerless. It is an effervescent event, full of zest and colour, an annual opportunity to remember and re-engage with relatives and friends who have passed on.

Pic 5: ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’, Museum of Mankind, London, 1991-1993
Pic 5: ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’, Museum of Mankind, London, 1991-1993 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘In an increasingly interconnected and globalised world, such mechanisms of personal and collective memory have, arguably, an increasingly significant role in giving shape and identity to individual lives.’

Pic 6: Pupils at ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’
Pic 6: Pupils at ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’ (Click on image to enlarge)

20 years ago the Day of the Dead was virtually unheard of in Britain. That began to change in the early 1990s when the largest ever exhibition on the festival outside Mexico was mounted in London at the Museum of Mankind. Called ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’ it was a truly ground-breaking 2-year ‘experience’ (1991-93). Young and old alike were captivated, amused and amazed by the realism, humour and creativity displayed so vividly in the hundreds of papier maché figurines seemingly frozen in time and space.

Pic 7: Graciela teaching pupils to make cut-out ‘dancing figures’ at ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’
Pic 7: Graciela teaching pupils to make cut-out ‘dancing figures’ at ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’ (Click on image to enlarge)

School groups flocked to the exhibition which inspired a veritable eruption of artistic creation, from simple paper/card cut-out skeleton figures (Pic 7) to highly imaginative works full of energy and spirit (pic 8). For the full two years the Mexicolore team worked full time at the Museum, running workshops every day for parties of school children. Each session began with a gentle introduction to Mexico and a look, via codices, at the influence of Mexico’s ancient past (Pic 9) - something we return to in detail in Part 2.

Pic 8: A group of disabled pupils show off their ‘Tree of Lights’ inspired by ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’
Pic 8: A group of disabled pupils show off their ‘Tree of Lights’ inspired by ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’ (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the centrepieces of ‘Room 6’ at the Museum (where the school workshops took place) was Graciela’s personal ‘ofrenda’, dedicated every year to her parents (Pic 10). Some 15 years later she still regularly prepares a small ofrenda in primary schools studying life in Mexico today (Pic 11), which children help to decorate.

Pic 9: Graciela and Ian introducing children to ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’
Pic 9: Graciela and Ian introducing children to ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Mexicans living abroad have always kept alive the traditions of the Day of the Dead, preparing set-piece altars to coincide with the festival: contact any university’s Mexican Society (and there are close to 20 in the UK) and the chances are that they will be planning to celebrate the ‘Día de los Muertos’ in style.

Pic 10: Graciela’s ofrenda, Education Room, Museum of Mankind, London, 1991-1993
Pic 10: Graciela’s ofrenda, Education Room, Museum of Mankind, London, 1991-1993 (Click on image to enlarge)

Today, teachers increasingly find the Mexican Day of the Dead a creative source of inspiration to satisfy the learning objective of ‘exploring the beliefs and customs of other cultures’. For their October 2005 issue Teacher magazine (the Primary section of the Times Educational Supplement) commissioned Mexicolore to create an A2 poster (Pic 12) which centred on a simplified version of Graciela’s family altar; on the reverse was a picture key, background information, useful links and resource ideas for schools, focusing on a class assembly. We’ll expand on these in Part 2.

Pic 11: A mini-ofrenda for Graciela’s parents in a Mexicolore school workshop
Pic 11: A mini-ofrenda for Graciela’s parents in a Mexicolore school workshop (Click on image to enlarge)

So what of the festival itself? Strictly we should refer to the DAYS of the Dead, as there are 2-3 of them, and they last every year from the afternoon of October 31st. into the night of November 2nd. The date coincides with Hallowe’en (celebrated in Europe and the US) and with All Saints’ (and All Souls’) Day. Far from being a morbid or spooky occasion, Mexicans have a healthy, positive, carefree, ironic approach to the subject of death and this is reflected in their great festival ‘El Día de los Muertos’, ‘Días de Muertos’ or just ‘Muertos’ for short.

Pic 12: Graciela with Teacher magazine poster, October 2005
Pic 12: Graciela with Teacher magazine poster, October 2005 (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s a time of celebration as families come together to share memories of those loved ones who have died, and to welcome their spirits back to Earth and into their homes. Since most people have fond memories of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or sometimes younger relatives who have died, it’s hardly surprising that this festival is almost universally celebrated throughout Mexico.

Pic 13: Graciela, TES staff Louise Mills & Sharon Grant, Ian and granddaughter Joanna in the studio preparing the ofrenda...
Pic 13: Graciela, TES staff Louise Mills & Sharon Grant, Ian and granddaughter Joanna in the studio preparing the ofrenda... (Click on image to enlarge)

As with a birthday party, every family makes a big effort to prepare for the reunion - the more life, colour, music, dance, joy and food-related ‘goodies’ that can be provided the better. It is a veritable family ‘feast’, laid on every year especially for the dead, and it aims to appeal to all the senses: attracted by the sounds (from music to fireworks), lights (of candles), aromas (of foods, flowers and incense) and general festivity, the souls can come back to Earth to enjoy, however briefly, some of the pleasures they remember when they were alive.

Pic 14: Day of the Dead, shop front
Pic 14: Day of the Dead, shop front (Click on image to enlarge)

The festival is now a major tourist attraction in half a dozen towns and cities around the country (Pic 19), and has somehow managed to blend modern trappings (mainly found in large cities) - sugar skulls, dancing paper figures, cartoon skeleton characters poking fun at daily life, huge set-piece ‘ofrendas’ (offerings) commissioned by museums and galleries (see examples in Part 2!)...

Pic 15: Day of the Dead, Mixquic
Pic 15: Day of the Dead, Mixquic (Click on image to enlarge)

...with ancient roots that go back to pre-Hispanic times. In small villages and towns throughout the land families still decorate their traditional household altars with much the same foods (such as tamales and hot chocolate) and flowers (such as the yellow marigold) that their Aztec (or Mixtec, Maya, Totonac...) ancestors did (Pic 18).

Pic 16: just a taster of the goodies...!
Pic 16: just a taster of the goodies...! (Click on image to enlarge)

Images of ancient gods may have been replaced with those of Christian saints, but deep down you sense that the Spanish never quite succeeded in eliminating customs that may actually have been older even than their ‘Old World’ equivalents. Family-centred feasts for the dead are an ancient tradition in many parts of the world, going back long before Christianity.

Pic 17: try to imagine the sweet smelling aroma of the ‘copal’ incense...
Pic 17: try to imagine the sweet smelling aroma of the ‘copal’ incense... (Click on image to enlarge)

In Mexico, by tradition, the souls of dead children (‘angelitos’) return first, and October 31 is kept for welcoming them back to Earth; after they’ve left, the adult souls return on November 1. Everything is carefully arranged on the offering table, centred around the photographs of those who have died. You can’t see the returning spirits, you can’t talk to them (well, you can, but they never answer back!), but Mexicans strongly believe - and sense - that they are most definitely there with them.

Pic 18: traditional foods and flowers, Mixquic
Pic 18: traditional foods and flowers, Mixquic (Click on image to enlarge)

The souls will enjoy and benefit from the goodness, the essence, of the foods and drinks on offer to them, refreshed for the long journey back to the other world: later the living family members will physically consume what’s there, but, they say, it never quite tastes the same...

Pic 19: Mixquic, famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations (120,000 tourists visited Mixquic in 2005)
Pic 19: Mixquic, famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations (120,000 tourists visited Mixquic in 2005) (Click on image to enlarge)

The festival may be family-centred but, unlike Christmas in modern Britain, the Day of the Dead is also a time to share with the wider community: families gather in their hundreds in cemeteries to decorate graves, leave further offerings, mourn (it’s a time for tears too) and join with neighbours and friends in sharing memories, dishes, drinks - perhaps a song or two - before they settle back into their ordinary, everyday routines.

Find out just how Aztec is the Day of the Dead (Go to Part 2...)

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 05th 2005

emoticon Recently we asked primary-age children if they’d heard of the ‘Day of the Dead’; a few hands went up. When then asked ‘Where’ve you heard about it?’ most replied ‘I’ve seen the video’! Sure enough, there’s a 1985 zombie-plague horror film by that name that still dominates (UK) search engine pages...

The Aztecs and the Day of the Dead, Part 2

A little more about death and its portrayal in Mexico over time...

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Mexicolore replies: A fair question, but you shouldn’t doubt John Mack’s qualifications in this field: John was Keeper of the Museum of Mankind during the iconic ‘Skeleton at the Feast’ exhibition, which lasted two years. He worked very closely with Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer, the two curators of the exhibition, with our Mexicolore teaching team, and with the long list of both academics and artisans from Mexico who took part in the educational support programme, and became immersed in the meaning and background of the Day of the Dead. This, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of world cultures generally, makes him very well qualified to write on this subject, and to put it into an international context - which he does both here and in his highly regarded book on memory in world cultures.