Día de Muertos in Mexico is a majestic celebration. It is a time of year when death is commemorated through vibrant expressions of life, including color, music, food, and love. It is a time when we honor our loved ones who have passed on and, with a positive attitude and spirit, come together, visit our departed at gravesites or wait for them at home, sing to them, prepare their favorite dishes, and eagerly await their return for just one night.
But where does this tradition and cultural celebration originate? Let us assure you, it's not derived from anything akin to Halloween, nor did it spring forth from Disney's famous blockbuster film, Coco—though the film did help raise awareness and erase stigma about the celebration. No, long before the arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil, the indigenous peoples had their unique way of interpreting the world, life, and death.
In today's blog post, we delve into the roots of this celebration by exploring one of its cornerstones: the legend of Mictlán. This ancient Mexica underworld opens its gates to welcome the spirits on Día de Muertos. We'll take you on a journey to discover what Mictlán represents, its divine rulers, and the captivating legends surrounding the nine distinct levels within the realm where the departed souls reside.
The Legend of Mictlán, the City of the Dead
The legend of Mictlán is a part of Mexico's cosmogony and answers the timeless question that has preoccupied all civilizations: What happens when we die?
According to the Mexicas, Mictlán is the place of eternal rest for the souls of those who have gone ahead of us on the path of life created by the gods. To reach Mictlán, the departed undertake a journey of four years (a significant period, as it corresponds to the time it takes for a body to decompose). During this journey, they face obstacles that test the strength of their spirits until they reach the gates of Mictlán, where they find eternal rest.
The Florentine Codex states that "Mictlán" was a place in the underworld where the souls arrived. However, it is believed to be divided into nine levels, each corresponding to how loved ones passed away.
The Mexica legend of Mictlán begins with the creation of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, the lords of Death, by the creator gods Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcóatl. These gods of Death are responsible for receiving the souls of those who reach Mictlán and determining the fate of the departed, depending on the manner of their demise.
Mictlán and Other Realms
Mictlán is not the only destination for the departed. According to legend, there are three other places where souls arrive, depending on the circumstances of their death.
Chichihuacuauhco: This is where deceased children go, and they are nurtured by a great tree until the moment of rebirth.
Tlalocan: The lord of this realm is the god Tláloc, and it is reserved for those whose deaths were related to water.
Tonatiuh Ilhuícatl: Ruled by the god of the sun and serves as the final resting place for warriors, sacrificial victims, and women who died in childbirth.
The Levels of Mictlán, the Underworld of Souls
The gods of the realm of the dead, Mictecacíhuatl and Mictlantecuhtli, had one rule for the souls: pass through a series of obstacles to earn your place in Mictlán and attain "eternal rest." In this journey, the departed also receive the assistance of their living relatives, who accompany them through rituals and offerings to help them cross and reach their final destination.
So, let's jump into the nine levels necessary to reach eternal rest, according to the Mexica.
- Itzcuintlán: "place where the dog lives." This first residence is the home of the Mexican hairless dog, Xoloitzcuintli, and Xochitónal, a giant iguana that guards the place. Not all souls can cross here. Legend has it that the dogs assist the souls in crossing the Apanohuacalhuia River, but those who mistreated dogs in their lifetime do not pass and remain wandering along the banks.
- Tepectli monamictlan: "place where the mountains meet." Here, two great hills continuously collide and separate, so the departed must find the exact moment to cross without being crushed. The god who rules here is Tepeyóllotl, the lord of mountains and echoes and the lord of jaguars.
- Iztepetl: "obsidian mountain." The third level is the residence of the god Itztlacoliuhqui, the lord of obsidian and punishment. Within this realm is a wall with a path of obsidian that tears the souls as they attempt to cross. The legend tells of a powerful wind at the end of this path, intended for the souls to cast away all their belongings, even their clothing.
- Itzehecayan: "place with much snow." On the fourth level, there is an area completely frozen, with "eight collados of sharp stones," where it continually snows. The god who inhabits this level is Mictlecayotl of the North Wind.
- Paniecatacoyan: "place where one turns like a flag." The god of the fifth level is still Mictlecayotl, as after the freezing cold, there is a completely desert-like area where movement is challenging due to the absence of gravity, and strong winds go back and forth, much like the waves of flags. Escaping this path is quite a challenge.
- Timiminaloayan: "place where arrows are shot." The Mictlán legend speaks of the sixth level as a long path where arrows are shot, hitting the souls. The challenge here is to avoid being pierced by the arrows and not spill blood before reaching the end.
- Teocoyohuehualoyan: "place where the heart is eaten." In the seventh level, the god of the mountains, echoes, and jaguars, Tepeyóllotl, resides. Here, the legend tells of wild beasts that devour the chests of the arriving souls, and the ultimate challenge is to evade or battle the giant jaguar with a hunger for hearts.
- Izmictlan Apochcalolca: "place where water must be crossed." Before reaching the end and attaining eternal rest, the departed must reach the eighth level. According to the Mictlán legend, black waters await the souls here, and they must struggle against these waters, leaving all their sorrows behind to advance and exit.
- Chicunamictlan: "place with nine waters." In this final level, the souls traverse a fog that obscures everything around them. Here, they must reflect on all the good and bad decisions they made in life to ultimately forget them, gaining access to Mictlán, the abode of the dead, and the place where they will find eternal rest. Once inside, the lords of death, Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, receive the souls and welcome them to eternity, saying: "Welcome to Mictlán, where eternal rest awaits."
Día de Muertos Today
With the arrival of the Spaniards and the imposition of Catholicism, along with the suppression of indigenous traditions, the celebration of All Saints' Day was introduced. The legend of Mictlán merged with new Catholic elements and meanings. The same happened to many elements and traditions that incorporated religious tones to how it was viewed. The most notable example is creating a Día de Muertos ofrenda for the departed to reach and visit from heaven, not Mictlán.
Even though many customs and traditions are now celebrated in markedly different ways, the celebration of Día de Muertos continues to maintain its essence: viewing death with joy and believing in our transcendence, all while holding the promise of returning to the hearts of our loved ones who remember us with fondness and eagerly await for us once a year.
Note: This is not to say that Día de Muertos is exclusively of Mexican origin or that it exclusively originated from the Mexica, this is only to illustrate one of the many (and most popularized) ways in which indigenous people celebrate/d Día de Muertos since before colonization.