The custom of making offerings to the dead exemplifies the racial melting-pot of modern-day Mexico. In indigenous and rural communities, above all, the dead person is seen as a being who must satisfy his basic needs through offerings, a pre-Hispanic custom which has survived in present-day traditions. Furthermore, the dead person must be helped to "die in peace" through services and prayers, as the Catholic tradition prescribes.

In this framework, the very special custom of making offerings for the dead acquires great significance since, ironically, it is through the cult of the dead that family relationships, economic exchange, unity and identity, not only at the family and community level, but also at the level of national culture, are strengthened.
The custom of making offerings to the dead exemplifies the racial melting-pot of modern-day Mexico. In indigenous and rural communities, above all, the dead person is seen as a being who must satisfy his basic needs through offerings, a pre-Hispanic custom which has survived in present-day traditions. Furthermore, the dead person must be helped to "die in peace" through services and prayers, as the Catholic tradition prescribes.

In this framework, the very special custom of making offerings for the dead acquires great significance since, ironically, it is through the cult of the dead that family relationships, economic exchange, unity and identity, not only at the family and community level, but also at the level of national culture, are strengthened.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

The conquest of the Oaxaca region proceeded in a relatively smooth fashion, given that the indigenous population took sides with the Spaniards to defeat the Aztecs, their oppressors. In 1529, Hernán Cortés was proclaimed Marquis of the valley of Oaxaca. To protect his domains from the Spanish colonists, Cortés conferred city status upon the former military camp of the Aztec garrisons placed there, which in Nahuatl was called Huaxyácac.

Oaxaca, which during colonial times bore the name Antequera, was populated by the same indigenous groups which lived in the valley: Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Aztecs, who maintained a fixed image of their identity in the face of the new order to which they were being subjected.

On April 25th, 1532, the Spanish Crown officially recognized the city of Oaxaca, which soon acquired considerable importance due to its strategic location midway between the cities of Puebla and Guatemala.

The evangelization of Oaxaca was the work of the Dominican fathers, who arrived in the region in 1529. This produced a religious syncretism or hybrid combination between pre-Hispanic and Catholic customs and beliefs. T Read More
The conquest of the Oaxaca region proceeded in a relatively smooth fashion, given that the indigenous population took sides with the Spaniards to defeat the Aztecs, their oppressors. In 1529, Hernán Cortés was proclaimed Marquis of the valley of Oaxaca. To protect his domains from the Spanish colonists, Cortés conferred city status upon the former military camp of the Aztec garrisons placed there, which in Nahuatl was called Huaxyácac.

Oaxaca, which during colonial times bore the name Antequera, was populated by the same indigenous groups which lived in the valley: Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Aztecs, who maintained a fixed image of their identity in the face of the new order to which they were being subjected.

On April 25th, 1532, the Spanish Crown officially recognized the city of Oaxaca, which soon acquired considerable importance due to its strategic location midway between the cities of Puebla and Guatemala.

The evangelization of Oaxaca was the work of the Dominican fathers, who arrived in the region in 1529. This produced a religious syncretism or hybrid combination between pre-Hispanic and Catholic customs and beliefs. The idea of another life in the beyond found its place among the indigenous traditions, though in conceptually modified form.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

From the 16th century on, written sources have afforded important information on the burial practices of the ancient Mexicans, as well as their beliefs concerning death.

Burial took place for the bodies of those who had died a sacred death. This was the case of those who, chosen by the god of rain, Tláloc, had died from some water-related illness (such as gout, leprosy or rheumatism), or had been drowned or struck by lightning. These people went to Tlalocan, a place of fertility and abundance, to enjoy a life of pleasure. The Chichihualcuauhco was a heavenly place where there was a tree with fruits in the shape of female breasts which nourished children who had died before they were weaned. These infants were buried opposite the household barn.

Warriors who died in battle and women who died during their first childbirth were servants of the Sun. Every morning the warriors received the Sun and accompanied it on its journey to the zenith, after which it was handed over to the women who had died in childbirth who accompanied it down through the sky to sunset, from where it descended into the nether world. After four years of such existence, these beings w Read More
From the 16th century on, written sources have afforded important information on the burial practices of the ancient Mexicans, as well as their beliefs concerning death.

Burial took place for the bodies of those who had died a sacred death. This was the case of those who, chosen by the god of rain, Tláloc, had died from some water-related illness (such as gout, leprosy or rheumatism), or had been drowned or struck by lightning. These people went to Tlalocan, a place of fertility and abundance, to enjoy a life of pleasure. The Chichihualcuauhco was a heavenly place where there was a tree with fruits in the shape of female breasts which nourished children who had died before they were weaned. These infants were buried opposite the household barn.

Warriors who died in battle and women who died during their first childbirth were servants of the Sun. Every morning the warriors received the Sun and accompanied it on its journey to the zenith, after which it was handed over to the women who had died in childbirth who accompanied it down through the sky to sunset, from where it descended into the nether world. After four years of such existence, these beings were transformed into humming birds or butterflies.

Another way of treating corpses was cremation, applied to those who died of illness or natural causes and had not been chosen by the gods.

Cremation was carried out four days after death; thereafter, the dead person commenced a perilous four-year journey to Mictlán, located at the ninth level below the earth, in the lowermost part of the subterranean world. At the end of the journey, the dead person crossed a river with the help of an accompanying dog and appeared before Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the underworld. According to some sources, these dead souls had the task of accompanying the sun on its night journey beneath the earth.

In every burial, food, drink, objects of daily use and ritual significance and a sacrificed dog were placed beside the corpse. The objects were offerings to the dead persons placed there by their relatives to help them in the moments of peril they faced after bodily death. The ancient Mexicans believed that everything around us has an essence, and this invisible essence was what kept the heart of the dead person alive.

In the Mexica or Aztec calendar, there were two months dedicated to celebrations of the dead. The first was the ninth month or celebration of the infant dead. The second was the tenth month, dedicated to the adult dead, the great celebration of the dead, an occasion on which many men were sacrificed in a context of great solemnity. Only in these celebrations did the dead return to earth and recover their vital necessities, for which reason it was necessary to offer them provisions.

The introduction of Catholicism changed the course of the immortal soul of the dead to one of two destinations: Heaven or Hell. This brought about a different appreciation of death, since now what was important was the way the person had lived. The terrors of death and Hell were basic components of the new religion, which imposed these vestiges of medieval doctrine.

Just as the religious orders brought to the New World the sense of horror of dying without hope of going to Heaven, the soldiers and civil population maintained the custom of dance, music and fireworks at burials of infants who, in their view of things, went straight to Heaven because they were without sin. To the present day, the "little angels" are sent off with joy, while adults are mourned.

The fusion of indigenous and Spanish cultural trends gave rise to a new form of worship and new burial ceremonies, in which the Church remembered all of those who were on the path to salvation. This syncretic process gave birth to what we know today as the celebrations of the days of the dead.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

The evangelization of Oaxaca

The evangelization of Oaxaca.

INAH

MEXICO
© INAH


"What the ancient inhabitants and lords of this land said was that the souls of the deceased who went to Hell were those who died of illness".

"After shrouding and preparing the body of the deceased, they would kill his dog and take them both to a place where they would be burned together".

"After four years, the funeral rites were finished and complied with according to their custom..."

"...afterwards, the deceased leaves and passes through the nine Hells where he crosses a very wide river named Chiconahuapan, and there dogs live and run along the banks of the river which the deceased people cross swimming on top of the dogs".

"They say that when the deceased arrives on the banks of the river, he then looks at his dog, and if the dog recognizes his master, he jumps straight into the river, swimming to where his master is, and carries him on his shoulders to the other shore".

"...Only the dog with bright red hair could properly carry the deceased on its shoulders, in this place of the ninth Hell where the deceased finally ended their existence".

Father Be Read More
"What the ancient inhabitants and lords of this land said was that the souls of the deceased who went to Hell were those who died of illness".

"After shrouding and preparing the body of the deceased, they would kill his dog and take them both to a place where they would be burned together".

"After four years, the funeral rites were finished and complied with according to their custom..."

"...afterwards, the deceased leaves and passes through the nine Hells where he crosses a very wide river named Chiconahuapan, and there dogs live and run along the banks of the river which the deceased people cross swimming on top of the dogs".

"They say that when the deceased arrives on the banks of the river, he then looks at his dog, and if the dog recognizes his master, he jumps straight into the river, swimming to where his master is, and carries him on his shoulders to the other shore".

"...Only the dog with bright red hair could properly carry the deceased on its shoulders, in this place of the ninth Hell where the deceased finally ended their existence".

Father Bernardino de Sahagún
Florentine Codex, 16th century

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Various sources indicate that the ancient Celts divided the year into four quarters whose starting dates were as follows: the first of November, the first of February, the first of May and the first of August. These dates marked the days on which financial commitments had to be paid. The eve of these dates was considered a witches’ night par excellence and up to the present day, the first of November has retained this connotation in northwestern Europe. The medieval English form of the celebration was "Allhallows Eve".

According to custom, this was the end of summer and the beginning of the New Year. Bonfires were lit to frighten off spirits, and it was the moment for renewing laws and social commitments. In those times the image of a skull carved in a turnip was already current.

(Anthropologist León Ferrer, 1991)

Since the ninth century, All Souls Day had been celebrated in some European monasteries. In the twelfth century, Saint Odilo the Abbot officially inaugurated this commemoration in the Monastery of Cluny. As the story goes, one of the monks heard devils screaming in rage at the monks’ prayers which were teari Read More
Various sources indicate that the ancient Celts divided the year into four quarters whose starting dates were as follows: the first of November, the first of February, the first of May and the first of August. These dates marked the days on which financial commitments had to be paid. The eve of these dates was considered a witches’ night par excellence and up to the present day, the first of November has retained this connotation in northwestern Europe. The medieval English form of the celebration was "Allhallows Eve".

According to custom, this was the end of summer and the beginning of the New Year. Bonfires were lit to frighten off spirits, and it was the moment for renewing laws and social commitments. In those times the image of a skull carved in a turnip was already current.

(Anthropologist León Ferrer, 1991)

Since the ninth century, All Souls Day had been celebrated in some European monasteries. In the twelfth century, Saint Odilo the Abbot officially inaugurated this commemoration in the Monastery of Cluny. As the story goes, one of the monks heard devils screaming in rage at the monks’ prayers which were tearing the souls of the deceased that they were tormenting from out of their hands. Consequently, Saint Odilo issued a decree ordering all the monasteries under his jurisdiction to proclaim the 2nd November as the day of commemoration of All Souls, celebrating mass for all those who had died since the beginning of the world. In later times, the Dominicans in the monastery in Valencia found themselves obliged to celebrate three masses on the day of commemoration, in order to satisfy all the requests for aid for souls in purgatory made by relatives, a custom which survives to this day.

(José María Bradomín, 1984)

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Explore the culture and traditions of the State of Oaxaca, Mexico
  • Appreciate that there is a succession of overlapping cultures in time and space
  • Understand, using examples from Mexican culture, the influence of colonialism on indigenous peoples and traditional cultures

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