Day of the dead, dia de muertos, la catrina, aztec, Mexico, Moesgaard Museum, momu, collections, death, underworld, skeleton, skull, Mictēcacihuātl

La Catrina: From the Aztec underworld to the Day of the Dead

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North America

This weekend Moesgaard Museum celebrated the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, in style. We had paper flowers, coloured paper hangings, lively skeletons greeting our guests, face painting, and an altar for the dead.

And in our ethnographic exhibition, La Catrina and her male companion held court, as they do every day of the year (because in our exhibition The Lives of the Dead, it is the day of the dead everyday). Today, I want to tell you the story of La Catrina.

The Day of the Dead has deep roots in Mexican history, dating back to Pre-Columbian festivities for the dead, which has since been fused with later Christian beliefs. While the Day of the Dead is in essence a time, in which the veil between the living and the dead becomes thinner, allowing for an annual coming together across the void, it has also long been claimed as an opportunity to enact a bit of social commentary.

La Catrina first appeared in a broadside in 1910, in an illustration made by printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada:

Day of the dead, dia de muertos, la catrina, aztec, Mexico, Moesgaard Museum, momu, collections, death, underworld, skeleton, skull, Mictēcacihuātl

The original name of the print was “La Calavera Garbancera”, which was a term used to refer to native Mexicans, who cast off their own culture and took on that of the Europeans, adopting a French wardrobe and painting their faces to make their skin look whiter. In the picture, La Catrina looks out at the viewer with a skeletal grin, and a great plumed hat on her head; the hat which would go on to become a signature feature of La Catrina in the years to come. The original image, and the many iterations that followed, serves to remind us all (and perhaps especially the rich and influential) that in the end, we all suffer the same fate.

But as mentioned above, La Catrina’s heritage goes back much further. In the Aztec mythology, the goddess Mictēcacihuātl rules the underworld. Mictēcacihuātl was not as neatly dressed as the La Catrina of today. In fact, her body was flayed, and she would usually wear a skirt made of serpents, and an ornate headdress (admittedly, in the illustration below the headdress looks to be made of Poké balls, though surely that would change the entirety of human history if that was the case). Mictēcacihuātl’s tasks as queen of the underworld was twofold; firstly, she protected the bones of dead humans, as well as all the races that came before us, as the bones could be used for terrible things, if they fell into the wrong hands. Secondly, she presided over the yearly festivals of the dead.

Day of the dead, dia de muertos, la catrina, aztec, Mexico, Moesgaard Museum, momu, collections, death, underworld, skeleton, skull, Mictēcacihuātl

The idea of Mictēcacihuātl and the Aztec celebrations of the dead adapted with the arrival of the Spanish and Catholicism, and over the years all the various traditions became what is now celebrated as the Day of the Dead.

And every year, La Catrina, with her great plumed hat and deathly smile, reminds us that we are all equal in death. But also that even though the dead leave us, they are never that far away. And just maybe, a few days out of the year, they are even closer than we think.

//Sophie Seebach

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