Why is Mexican folk art so filled with skulls and skeletons?
The convention has its origins in the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, who decorated their temples with walls of skulls, often from human sacrifices, to please their gods. The Aztecs kept skulls as trophies, displayed them on walls and in temples, and used them during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
The skulls honored the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during an annual ritual. They viewed death as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. They celebrated Day of the Dead as early as 3,000 years ago.
When the Spanish arrived, they were appalled by the veneration of the skulls, and viewed this practice as barbaric and pagan. But, like the Aztec ancestors themselves, they could not quash it. Instead the Spaniards simply incorporated Day of the dead into Christianity, or perhaps more likely, the Aztecs brought it with them when they were converted.
The Aztecs celebrated Day of the Dead in the summer, but the Catholics moved it to November 1 and 2 to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, thereby merging it with a tradition they could understand.
Skulls and skeletons are still seen widely in Mexican folk art, especially at the time of the Day of the Dead. Realize that they are not about death but rather about the duality of life and death, a statement that death is an integral part of life. Because the skeletons are never dead! They are riding bicycles, selling their wares, taking a shower, dancing, getting married, feeding their children, and generally enjoying life. They accept death and even make fun of it. Some say they are laughing at the hubris of the living, who are foolish, fearful, and unappreciative of life! “You who are living,” they seem to say, “are rejecting the joy of life. You are not embracing each other enough! Watch us!”
In about 1910, the cartoon illustrator José Guadalupe Posada created the skeleton “Catrina,” to make fun of wealthy Mexicans who thought the only worthwhile style was that of European aristocrats. Catrina has been widely reproduced in every form of Mexican folk art and has become closely associated with Day of the Dead.
So when you see a skeleton or skull in a piece of folk art, realize that you are viewing a powerful symbol, a reminder that death is integrally entwined with life, an invitation to enjoy life, and you are participating in a tradition that dates back 3,000 years or more.
Day of the Dead Altars
Mexicans believe it is critically important to keep the memory of loved ones alive by creating altars that honor them. There are three deaths, they believe: the first death occurs when you stop breathing and physically die. The second death occurs when you are buried or cremated. And the third death occurs when no one living remembers that you existed. That is why the Day of the Dead altars are so important. By remembering and honoring your loved ones, you prevent that third death.
The altars display photos of loved ones who have died along with some of their favorite foods and symbols of their occupations or hobbies. Traditionally the altars include bright marigolds and candles so the dead can easily find their way back to you and water to quench their thirst when they arrive.