The veneration and cult of the dead is a remote symbolic manifestation and is considered by anthropologists as one of the cultural elements of the first human civilizations . However, in some territories, death rituals take on a special meaning and are part of everyday life. This is what happens with everything that has to do with death in Mexico, and especially with the altars of the dead. What is Altar of the Dead?
For Mexicans, November 2nd is the day the dead must be honored. Before that date, All Saints’ Day is commemorated during which an altar is raised with offerings, a cultural event considered by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
the origin of tradition
In pre-Hispanic Mexico the various civilizations believed that the place where someone had died should be respected and therefore could not be inhabited. According to the pre-Hispanic view, dying meant the beginning of a journey into the realm of the dead. What is Altar of the Dead?
Once at his destination (known by the term Mictlan) the traveler made an offering to the lord of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli, who would later send the dead to a region from which he would remain for a time, until finally reaching eternal rest.
On the day of the burial, an altar was built with objects of the deceased and elements that could be used on his next trip. From the 16th century onwards, the colonizers introduced their Catholic view of death, but the pre-Hispanic traditions did not disappear. Thus, there was a fusion between the two cultures (commonly known as religious syncretism ) and occasioned the celebration of the Day of the Dead, with elements from both traditions. What is Altar of the Dead?
The meaning of the Altar of the Dead
There is not a single model of altar in Mexico, however, all its variants are an allegory of death.
On the Day of the Dead it is believed that the dead come back to life to relive it with the family during the day of the celebration, for this reason, there is a decorated altar. Normally, this altar is installed in a room and uses a table with different levels. When there are two levels, heaven and earth are represented; when there are three levels, it indicates purgatory. However, the traditional altar is one that has seven levels, of which symbolize the steps necessary to reach eternal rest. What is Altar of the Dead?
To prepare the altar of the dead, a series of elements is used: each step is covered with a black and white cloth, an image of a saint who has devotion is placed, in addition to salt, bread, water and a variety of foods that were pleasing to the deceased, as well as photographs of the deceased, some candles, a Christian crucifix and skulls distributed on the different levels of the altar. The decorative elements symbolically evoke the indigenous world and the Catholic world.
The altar of the dead is definitely a cultural expression that expresses the way of understanding death for Mexicans, who believe that death is not tragic, but that there is a festive component. In this way, the altar has a playful ingredient and, at the same time, it is a metaphor for life itself, that is, a place of transit that takes us to death.