Mexican Skulls

The cult of Skulls

The cult of the Mexican Skulls is not only from Mexico, since it derives from the cult of the dead, one of the forms of worship that has been repeated the most throughout different times in practically all cultures on the planet. Any cosmogony (myth of the creation of the world) elaborated by a social nucleus gave great importance to the figure of death, both as an anthropomorphic personification and in its associated rites of passage.

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Some history of Mexican Skulls

In Mesoamerica, for more than 3000 years, the vast majority of its peoples venerated the bones of their ancestors as if they were representations of their gods, especially their skulls, which they considered a mode of communication with the other world. But it would be the Mexica or Aztecs who demonstrated a greater devotion to the symbol of the skull, crossing the threshold of family worship and transferring it to temples and objects of power.

One of the most shocking examples is the Tzompatli, literally “rows of heads”, consisting of vertical stakes crossed by other horizontal ones where the skulls of the enemies were inserted, to later place them on an altar. In the Toltec capital 60,000 human skulls were found when the Spanish arrived, an event that marked the end of the local religion and the abolition of these practices.

The cult of the skull remained in a state of lethargy for hundreds of years, except in small populations far from civilization, where it was integrated with Christianity and was able to survive until the middle of the 20th century, when the myth once again spread throughout Mexico.

Origin of the Mexican Skulls

The appearance of the Mexican skull as we know it today began in 1949, when the newspaper «El Socialista» began offering allegorical epitaphs (called literary skulls) in honor of a character, real or fictional, who behaved in a hypocritical manner. . It was almost always related to the claim to wealth or the importance given to material goods. These literary skulls were accompanied by illustrations depicting elegantly dressed and unusually cheerful skeletons.

Although of recent creation and anecdotal emergence, the cult of skulls in Mexico today seems to respond to a religious sentiment that already existed previously, the controversy in this regard being notable. The skull became popular in Mexico during the Benito Juárez government, a time of openness and consolidation of the republic where the upper classes tried to resemble the European elites in their way of dressing and behaving.

This was harshly criticized in the so-called “combat” (left-wing) newspapers, where ladies represented in the aforementioned manner often appeared. It would be José Guadalupe Posada who definitively coined the so-called «garbancera skull», establishing the image of a skull dressed in the French way, attending high society events.


What else can we know about the origin of Mexican skulls?

The allegorical meaning extended to reach those people of humble extraction who pretended to live in opulence. Thus, the criticism is twofold, first, to the excessive importance given to material goods (the medieval concept ubi sunt), and on the other hand the criticism of those who, without having food, try to pretend otherwise. The painter Diego Rivera, in a 1947 mural, would change the name from garbancera to the current Catrina, whose meaning is similar to the previous one, that of a person dressed ostentatiously.

Later, in the 1960s in Veracruz, although from a previous cult, the figure of Santa Muerte was born. It has the appearance of a Christian Virgin wearing a skull for her face; However, her cult is associated with requests for money, love or health and is considered a righteous deity, although it is true that she is especially venerated by people who routinely put their lives at risk.

Their adoration has been linked to the image of the Catrina and both enjoy wide popularity throughout the Mexican territory. Santa Muerte has developed within the Catholic bosom although it has been constantly rejected by all Christianity as a diabolical cult.

Skulls Controversy: Mexico or Europe?

Although the origin of the skull is relatively well documented, there is no consensus when it comes to determining whether it responds to a feeling that already exists in Mexico and, if so, whether it is purely Mesoamerican or has been influenced by contact with European culture. .

Some argue that the origin of the Mexican death cult dates back to the times of the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, the «Lady of Death», when the native Mexica worshiped their deceased relatives, differentiating between children and adults and dedicating everything to August. Celebrations such as the aforementioned Santa Muerte or San Pascualito, a local saint of the state of Chiapas represented by a skeleton, have existed with some variations for more than three centuries during which they have suffered the veto of the Church.

Another point of view is based on the fact that currently the Mexican Day of the Dead coincides with the European Day and the way of celebrating it has resembled the Spanish way until very recently, with the rise of skeletons and skulls. Therefore, it would be difficult to determine whether the two cults are related after a period of several hundred years without apparent continuity. Authors of this opinion defend that the origin is eminently European and the figure of the Catrina arises as a result of the recent traditionalist feelings and the recovery of popular culture that took place so much in various countries of the American continent.

With the intention of adopting an intermediate view that does not reject any of the hypotheses as a basis, most experts opt for the syncretic origin of the celebration of the Day of the Dead. In contrast to pre-Columbian or European origin, the festival would come from the mixture of both religions, resulting in a new cult of which both parties are a primary part.

Meaning of Mexican skulls on the Day of the Dead

Today, the spread of the skull symbol in Mexico projects the idea that it is an ancestral tradition, being in fact of recent creation. Not surprisingly, the Day of the Dead festival holds the UNESCO award as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

It cannot be denied that it has experienced rapid growth and diversification; Among the numerous samples we find the popular alfeñique skulls, cane sugar skulls with the name of a beloved person, normally alive, written on the forehead.

Literary skulls have now been transformed to become light epitaphs written for family or friends in the form of epitaphs in which, in a comical way, prosperity and happiness are requested. Often, «la bony», «la Parca» or «la calaca» are used extended terms to refer to death.

There is no doubt that the Catrina constitutes the most recognizable and widespread element of the Mexican death cult. Figures, makeup, posters, etc. The festivities flood and its precious appearance has made it a very important symbol of all Mexico.

In Aguascalientes, the birthplace of José Guadalupe Posada, creator of the Catrina, the Festival of Skulls is celebrated every year. Among the most outstanding events we find various exhibitions, Catrina costume contests and regional dances.

Regardless of its origin, the truth is that the image that skulls offer in Mexico today is unique and has given it the title of «the country that laughs at death.» According to Freud in his «death drive» a need to associate with the positive qualities that it carries as a way of protecting oneself against it; the stillness, the peace, the end of the road.

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