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Deities of the World: Mictecacíhuatl, the fearsome Aztec goddess of the Underworld

There was a celebration dedicated entirely to the goddess of Mictlán, which eventually evolved into the Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead is one of the most important celebrations in Mexico; it is the time when Mexicans remember their loved ones. Strangely enough, it is not a gloomy celebration but involves joy, lots of colors, and traditional gastronomy.

Day of the Dead

The celebration begins on October 31, when altars and offerings are placed in every home to receive the souls of the deceased. These are not simple arrangements, but depending on the region, it is how the configuration of the altar is arranged, which in many occasions includes several levels, each one with a special meaning. But among the elements that cannot be missing in the Day of the Dead offerings are water, salt, candles, cempasúchil flowers, traditional papel picado (cut-out paper), bread, sugar skulls, liquor, and the typical food of the place.

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Mexicans receive November 1st by keeping vigil in the cemeteries, together with the graves of those deceased children, or innocent souls as they’re called. Then on November 2, the same thing happens but with the rest of the souls that are believed to come to visit this plane during the days of celebration.

The origin of the Day of the Dead undoubtedly comes from the pre-Hispanic traditions that were practiced in Mexico before the Spanish conquest. By misrepresentation, it is believed that the traditional peoples that inhabited what is now Mexican territory, were merely Aztecs; however, according to the records of the colonial period, the Aztec empire was formed in 1427, only a century before the conquest.

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This is why the traditions that gave rise to the Day of the Dead probably date back many centuries and probably came from the Toltec people who inhabited central Mexico.

A celebration of the goddess Mictecacíhuatl

The Aztec pantheon of gods, which most likely adopted deities from other peoples of the region, included Mictecacíhuatl, goddess of the Underworld. Mythology says that Mictecacíhuatl passed when she was just a baby and magically grew to adulthood in the Underworld. There she married Mictlantecuhtli, with whom she later reigned over Mictlán.

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Mictecacíhuatl is often associated with both death and resurrection. According to one of the myths of the Aztec tradition, the husbands and kings of the Underworld, called Mictlán, one day collected bones so that in this way, they could be resurrected in the land of the living.

But the fear of Mictecacíhuatl and Mictlantecuhtli by the people, made them look for a way to appease their desire to return to the world of the living and began the tradition of burying their dead with food and precious objects, in addition to a celebration dedicated entirely to the goddess of Mictlán.

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Archaeologists don’t know much about what the tradition was like in its peak years, but they assume it involved burning incense, chanting, and dancing. They believe it was celebrated throughout the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, a month that lasted 20 days and corresponded to late July and early August.

The syncretism that gave life to the current tradition

When the Spaniards arrived in America, they undertook the evangelization of all the indigenous peoples that inhabited the region from Mexico to South America. However, the original inhabitants refused to abandon their traditions, so the Spaniards found it necessary to generate syncretisms capable of eradicating the customs.

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This is how they saw the need to move the Mictecacíhuatl celebrations from the end of July to the beginning of November to coincide with Allhallowtide, All Saint’s Eve, and All Souls’ Day. In this way, the celebration of Mictecacíhuatl ended up becoming what we know today, which surely took elements from both traditions and is now one of the most important days in all of Mexico.

Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera

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