There is extensive and varied belief in ghosts in Mexican culture. The modern state of Mexico before the Spanish conquest was inhabited by diverse peoples such as the Maya and Aztec, and their beliefs have survived and evolved, combined with the beliefs of the Spanish colonists.
The Day of the Dead incorporates pre-Colombian beliefs with Christian elements. Mexican literature and movies include many stories of ghosts interacting with the living.
After death the soul of the Aztec went to one of three places: Tlalocan, Mictlan, and the sun. The Aztec idea of the afterlife for fallen warriors and women who died in childbirth was that their souls would be transformed into hummingbirds that would follow the sun on its journey through the sky. Those who drowned would go to Tlalocan, the first level of the upper worlds. Souls of people who died from less glorious causes would go to Mictlan, the lowest level of the underworld, taking four years and passing through many obstacles to reach this place.
The Cihuateteo, spirits of human women who died in childbirth, were not benevolent. On five specified days of the Aztec calendar they descended to earth and haunted crossroads, hoping to steal children whom they had not been able to have themselves.
The Cantares Mexicanos is an important collection of lyric poetry transcribed from Náhuatl into Roman letters around 1550 CE, about 30 years after the fall of Tenochtitlan. In his 1985 edition of these poems, John Bierhorst interprets the poems as “ghost songs” that were intended to summon the spirits of dead Aztec warriors back to earth to help their descendants under Spanish rule. If the songs were successful the ghosts would descend from heaven fully armed and ready to fight, demanding payment in human sacrifice. This interpretation is, however, controversial.
The traditional Maya live in the continual presence of the ‘(grand)fathers and (grand)mothers’, the usually anonymous, bilateral ancestors, who, in the highlands, are often conceived of as inhabiting specific mountains, where they expect the offerings of their descendants. In the past, too, the ancestors had an important role to play, with the difference that, among the nobility, genealogical memory and patrilineal descent were much more emphasized.
Thus, the Popol Vuh lists three genealogies of upper lords descending from three ancestors and their wives. These first male ancestors – ritually defined as ‘bloodletters and sacrificers’ – had received their private deities in a legendary land of origins called ‘The Seven Caves and Seven Canyons’ (Nahua Chicomoztoc), and on their disappearance, left a sacred bundle. In Chiapas at the time of the Spanish conquest, lineage ancestors were believed to have emerged from the roots of a ceiba tree. Comparable beliefs still exist amongst the Tz’utujiles.
The Day of the Dead in the Mayan area is called “Hanal Pixan” in Castilian, meaning food of souls and participants start the parade at the cemetery and walk along the streets with painted faces.
Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead (Spanish: El Día de los Muertos), is a holiday celebrated in Mexico and by Latin Americans living in the United States and Canada. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The celebration occurs on November 2 in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. Due to occurring shortly after Halloween, the Day of the Dead is sometimes thought to be a similar holiday, although the two actually have little in common. The Day of the Dead is a time of celebration, where partying is common.
The Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to the indigenous cultures. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed by these civilizations perhaps for as long as 2500–3000 years. The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the god. known as the “Lady of the Dead,” corresponding to the modern Catrina.
People go to cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed who are paying a holiday visit home. The descendents build private altars, containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them.