Monthly Archives: October 2022
La Calavera Catrina
Also Known As: La Catrina, Catrina La Calavera Garbancera
Etymology: “Dapper Skeleton” or “Elegant Skull”
Images of La Calavera Catrina are common during the Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos. Elegant and beautiful skeletons adorn many murals, statues, sugar skulls, and other art. Images of La Calavera Catrina and her male counterparts show her being dressed in bright, colorful clothes during a time to honor, remember and revere one’s ancestors and loved ones who have passed on.
The La Calavera Catrina got her start as part of a 1910 to 1913 zinc etching by Mexican printmaker, cartoonist, and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. La Catrina’s popularity took off from 1946 to 1947 when the artist Diego Rivera completed his mural “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” (“Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda”) to commemorate 400 years of Mexican history. This work is also where La Catrina would get her name. Since then, La Catrina has become an iconic image for the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
La Calavera Catrina was first created by Posada as part of a series of satirical lithographs commenting on social and political issues.
The figure of La Catrina is dressed elegantly as a reference to high society’s obsession with European fashions, customs, and excessiveness. By extension, it was also a commentary on the then-ruling dictator Porfirio Diaz. While Diaz had modernized Mexico in the late 18th century and brought financial stability, 1910 would see the Mexican Rebellion removing Diaz from power a year later in 1911 due to government corruption. Images of La Catrina circulating around this time would help fuel that rebellion.
La Calavera Garbancera – This is the name of the leaflet that Posada’s La Calavera Catrina appeared in. This name and term of La Calavera Garbancera is a bit derogatory as it referred to a person ashamed of their indigenous origins who would dress in the French style of the times and wear a lot of makeup in order to make their skin look whiter.
La Calavera del Cólera Morbo – “the calavera of the morbid cholera.” 1910 was also a time of the cholera plague. This art piece by Posada depicted a fantastical humanoid figure with the body of a snake and surrounded by a dozen skulls all representing a variety of occupations such as jewelers, tailors, blacksmiths, clerks, and judges. This piece represented that regardless of one’s station, death comes for everyone.
Painted between the years 1946 and 1947, this mural helped to popularize the image of La Calavera Catrina and cement her place in festivals for Dia de los Muertos. It is the principal or prime work of art at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera next to the Alameda at the historic center in Mexico City. The mural even survived an earthquake in 1985, it would get moved across the street to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera for display.
Fun Fact – Diego Rivera considered Posada to be his artistic father. Rivera was also married to the famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Día de los Muertos
Now La Catrina is found in her more traditional form from hand-drawn art to sculptures, paper- mâché, and pottery. In some of these, La Catrina will be coupled with a male skeleton. Many people will also dress as La Catrina on Dia de los Muertos. Candy skulls will also be decorated in her likeness.
La Catrina has become a familiar part of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations as Mexicans gather with their families to remember their loved ones who have passed on and to leave offerings of food on the ofrendas for them.
In her modern form, La Catrina is a reminder to live life beautifully. Death does come for everyone, and it isn’t and shouldn’t be something to fear.
Syno-Deities & Entities
Grim Reaper – It’s easy to see a similarity between the Grim Reaper’s skeletal image and how close the two holidays of Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos are. Unlike the Grim Reaper, La Catrina wears bright, colorful clothing.
Mictecacihuatl – There are very noted, strong similarities between the imagery of the Aztec goddess of death and La Calavera Catrina. So much so, that there are many will say that La Calavera Catrina is a continuation of Mictecacihuatl’s worship and how she once presided over the festivals honoring the dead.
San La Muerte – A similar male skeletal figure worshiped as a folk saint found in Paraguay.
San Pascualito – A similar male skeletal figure worshiped as a folk saint.
Santa Muerte – A Mexican folk saint, the imagery of Santa Muerte has been compared to La Calavera Catrina.
Also Known As: Angel of Death, Death, The Reaper, The Grim Spectre of Death, der Tod (German), Kosač (Slavic), La Muerte (Latin), La Mort (Latin), La Calaca (in Mexico), Pietje de Dood (Dutch), Smrt (Slavic)
“Only two things are certain in life, death and taxes.”
- Benjamin Franklin
In the modern, Western mindset, the Grim Reaper is either a personification of Death, an angel, spirit, or psychopomp who comes to take the souls of the recently deceased to the afterlife.
Since the earliest times, there are numerous stories showing death being a part of life. Even modern literature and media will show that death happens and that the figure of the Grim Reaper is frequently one who’s there to guide people on to the next life.
One can rightfully argue that the concept and personification of the Grim Reaper have existed for a very long time. Even before their modern appearance, numerous cultures have some variation of a Death deity or psychopomp. Prominent deities are the Greek Thanatos, God of Death, and more recently from Brittany, France the Ankou who bears a striking resemblance to the modern Grim Reaper, it’s easy to see them as both the same entity doing the same job.
From European history, it’s easy to see a personification of Death taking on the skeletal visage they have during the fourteenth century when the Black Death plague is sweeping through, with so many people dying and bodies piling up. Artists would paint images of skeletons with weapons or scythes, riding on white horses through the streets with wagons full of bodies. From all of this would eventually come the dark figure dressed in black robes and carrying a scythe.
As for the name “Grim Reaper,” that wouldn’t come until 1847 when the name “Grim” was a popular name for Death that can be traced to the thirteenth century.
The Grim Reaper is often described as a skeleton dressed in black robes with a hood pulled up and carrying a scythe. In Europe, the Grim Reaper or Death may be dressed in white, a traditional color worn during funerals in some cultures.
During the Medieval Ages, the Grim Reaper was thought of as a decaying corpse before becoming the more familiar skeletal figure.
The Grim Reaper is a familiar figure who appears in numerous media and literature and can appear as either his familiar robed figure or as an ordinary person, male or female going about doing their job.
Scythe – It should go without saying, the scythe represents a harvester’s tool for bringing in the grain. So does the scythe representing harvesting a person’s soul or spirit when they did. Depending on the story, the Grim Reaper doesn’t have to use their scythe, just their mere presence and arrival is enough to signify that a person’s time has come.
Hourglass – Some depictions of the Grim Reaper have them with an hourglass representing the ticking off the sands of time and moment of death.
White Horse – When connected as a Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Grim Reaper or Death as they are then known is seen riding a white horse or possibly, riding in a chariot pulled by white horses.
Regardless of the description of the Grim Reaper that you go by or calling them Death, the Angel of Death, their job is that of a psychopomp, an entity that guides and takes the souls of the deceased to the afterlife.
While researching the Grim Reaper, I came across numerous articles that break down and go into all the myriad personifications of Death around the world, either as a deity, angel, or psychopomp. Including dozens of examples of the Grim Reaper in modern media where they are still a very active figure who is simply doing their job.
Or the “Dance of Death” is a medieval French allegory for how death unites everyone, regardless of age or social status in life. The Danse Macabre has been shown in various forms of the arts beginning as theatre plays and poems, wall paintings, and drawings. The majority of these come from the 15th century, an era of numerous famines, plagues, and wars. All things that people associated with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The imagery invoked is Death summoning the spirits of the dead to come and dance along their graves. The more commonly used figures would be the pope, a king, the young, old, and the laborer to remind the audience watching that death is an inevitable part of life and the Danse would highlight those too attached to worldly possessions.
The French believed the Grim Reaper would arise every year in the local cemetery at midnight, the Witching Hour. The Grim Reaper would then play a fiddle, summoning all the skeletons and ghosts of the dead to come dance until dawn, and the rising sun would force them back to their graves. This belief inspired Henri Casalis’ poem “Danse Macabre” which would be made into a musical piece by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in 1874.
Kalan Goañv – A Breton festival occurring on October 31st and similar to Halloween and Samhain. Similar to the tradition in the Mexican Dio Los Muertos, the Bretons would feed the Ankou, a figure similar to the Grim Reaper with milk, cider, and crepes. The tombstones in cemeteries across Brittany have small cup-like holders where offerings for the dead can be left.
Looking at the Grim Reaper through the lens of Christianity, the Grim Reaper is the angel of death sent by God to do his bidding. This is the angel who is to have smote some 185,000 Assyrians in their camp. The same destroying angel who killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. Just about any time that an angel of death or destroying angels is mentioned, there’s a connection made to the Grim Reaper. With this connection, the Grim Reaper’s name is Azrael. The Talmud will connect him to Samael. In Eastern Orthodox beliefs, Death is one of the three enemies of humanity, with the other two being sin and the devil.
Getting into the Biblical Book of Revelation, particularly in chapter six, there are four horsemen who appear, each signaling another sign of the end of the world and Judgement Day. The four horsemen are said to be Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death. It is the figure of Death, the only one outright named, riding a pale horse that has many connecting the imagery of the Grim Reaper. Many modern depictions of the horseman Death will show him being dressed and looking like the Grim Reaper too.
In the Major Arcana of the tarot cards, death is one of the cards that can turn up. Depending on the specific deck in use, the death card may depict the familiar robed figure of the Grim Reaper.
The modern imagery of the Grim Reaper and how he or she appears varies wildly depending on the media in which the figure appears. From the traditional skeletal figure dressed in robes with a scythe to a very ordinary-looking human woman or man just doing their job. But they almost always appear in some capacity to release the soul of the recently deceased and guide them to the afterlife. For some characters, they’re ready to go, for others they are scared and don’t want to go and try to find a way to cheat death, claiming a false death, one more chance, unfinished business before some stories have the character realize they can’t beat the inevitable and that it’s time.
Playing Games With Death – This has been a popular motif used and spoofed in many media and literature. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman first brought this concept in his 1957 movie “The Seventh Seal” where a medieval knight plays a game of chess against Death. Since then, many movies and shows have spoofed or made use of this idea later. One of my personal favorites is in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” – This is a song from 1976 by Blue Oyster Cult found on their album Agents of Fortune. The lyrics to the song encourage listeners to not fear death, but rather instead to see it as symbolizing eternal love. Author Stephen King found inspiration from it for his novel The Stand and the song features in the opening of the 1994 miniseries adaptation and again in the end of the fifth episode for the 2020-2021 miniseries adaptation. Plus, if you want a song with more cowbell, this is for you.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – In the 1988 movie, Baron Munchausen is constantly being pursued by Death, shown as a skeletal angel with raven wings and wielding a scythe and hourglass. At the end of the film, Death takes Munchausen’s soul with Munchausen is given a lavish funeral where Munchausen then boldly states that this was “one of the many times I faced Death” before the movie finally comes to an end.
The Sandman – This graphic novel series and recent Netflix adaptation show Death as an immortal and one of Morpheus’ siblings. In the comics, she is shown as a Goth Girl and in the live-action, she is dressed casually. The episode featuring Death shows her appearing to a person at the time of their death and guiding them on.
I could keep going on with all the various appearances of Death or the Grim Reaper. Suffice to say they are still a rather active figure and one who is truly timeless whose motifs will always fascinate people and seek to explore.
Father Time’s Age-Old Companion
It’s notable how the imagery for both Father Time and the Grim Reaper are very similar in appearance. Both wear a robe, and both carry a scythe. One just happens to be an old man while the other is a skeleton. Despite how similar the two look in certain details, they are not the same being.
Syno-Deities & Entities
As a psychopomp and representation of Death, the Grim Reaper has numerous counterparts around the world. Many of the more European-based figures will certainly share similarities in their depictions while other cultures are likely to have different appearances. They do share in common, either being the guide to the afterlife or the one that greets spirits on arrival.
Ah Puch – The Mayan god or lord of death.
Ankou – Essentially, the Grim Reaper and Ankou are largely the same entity, both wear black robes and carry a scythe. The Grim Reaper is very much the modern Ankou, appearing in several various media and literature.
Arawn – The Celtic god of the Dead, the Ankou is sometimes equated with him.
Azrael – The Angel of Death in Jewish traditions. More accurately, they are the Angel of Light and Darkness from the Talmud.
Azrail – The Angel of Death in Islamic beliefs. He, along with many angels under him will guide and take souls to the afterlife.
Bag an Noz – The Boat of Night, those who live along the seashore in Brittany tell of how the last person to drown in the year, will roam the seas at night to collect the souls of the drowned and guide them to the Afterlife, just as the Ankou does on land. It is a ghost ship that appears whenever something bad is about to happen and disappears when people come too close. The crew of this boat is said to call out soul-wrenching sounds.
Charon – The Greek ferryman of the dead has also been equated with the Grim Reaper due to similar garb and taking souls to the Afterlife.
Church Grim – Or the Grim, in English and Scandinavian lore it is a black dog that has been killed and buried in the graveyard at either the beginning or end of the year in order to protect the church and graveyard. Other animals such as lambs, boars or horses.
Crom Dubh – This one is a bit of a stretch. Crom Dubh was an ancient Celtic fertility god who demanded human sacrifices every year, of which, the preferred method was decapitation. Eventually the god fell out of favor and somehow this god becomes a spirit seekings corpses and eventually becoming the Dullahan.
Death Coach – A general Northern European, especially in Ireland where it is called the Cóiste Bodhar. The Death Coach is known for arriving to collect the soul of a deceased person. Once it arrives on earth to collect a soul, it will not leave empty. It is a black coach or carriage that is driven or led by a headless horseman who is often identified with the Dullahan.
The Dullahan – also known as Dulachán means “dark man” or “without a head.” This being is a headless fairy often seen dressed in black and riding a black headless horse while carrying his head under an arm or inner thigh. The Dullahan is armed with a whip made from a human spine. Death occurs wherever the Dullahan ceases riding and when it calls out a name, the person called dies. Death can also come if the Dullahan tosses a bucket of blood at a person who has been watching it.
In other versions, the Dullahan rides a black carriage. Sometimes they are accompanied by a banshee. Nothing can stop the Dullahan from claiming a victim save the payment of gold.
Giltinė – The Lithuanian personification of Death. She was depicted as an ugly, old woman with a long blue nose and poisonous tongue.
Gwyn ap Nudd – The Welsh god of the Dead, in some later folklore, he leads the Wild Hunt, especially on Halloween to guide and take wayward souls to the afterlife in Arawn.
Hel – In Norse mythology from Scandinavia, she is the goddess of the Dead and rules over a realm with the same name.
Hermes – This is the Greek god sometimes known to guide souls down to the Underworld where Charon, the Ferryman would receive them for the next part of the journey to Hades.
La Calavera Catrina – A popular figure to see in Mexican culture and during Dia De Los Muertos.
Jeoseungsaja – Or Saja is the Korean version of the Grimm Reaper who escorts souls to the afterlife.
Magere Hein – Also known as Pietje de Dood, this is the personification of Death in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Maweth – In Hebraic scriptures, Death or Maweth is the personification of either the angel of death or a devil.
Memitim – A name for a class of angels in biblical lore that presides over those dying whom a Guardian Angel was no longer protecting.
Mercury – The Roman version of the Grecian Hermes, he too is a psychopomp that guides souls to Avernus, a crater in Italy thought to be the entrance to the underworld.
Mictecacihuatl – The Aztec goddess of death
Mictlantecutli – The Aztec god of death
Morana – The Slavic goddess of winter, death, and rebirth.
Mot – The Canaanite personification and god of Death.
Omolu – The Brazilian spirits known to bring death, disease, and even healing.
Pesta – Meaning the “plague hag,” in Scandinavia, during the Black Plague, she was depicted as an old woman wearing a black hood. Pesta would come into town carrying either a rake or broom. If she brought the rake, it meant some people would survive the plague. If she brought the broom, it meant that everyone would die.
Samael – This the name for another angel in Jewish tradition who does the Lord’s bidding as his executioner.
San La Muerte – A similar figure found in South America, mainly Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Santa Muerte – The female version of the Grim Reaper. Her imagery is very similar in appearance to the Ankou and Grim Reaper wearing robes and wielding a scythe. Santa Muerte is worshiped primarily among many Hispanics & Latinos, especially in places like Mexico.
San Pascualito – A folk saint of Death found in Guatemala and Mexico.
Śmierć – This figure of Death is female and comes from Poland where instead of dressing in black like the Grim Reaper, they dress in white.
Shinigami – These are the Japanese gods of Death.
Thanatos – The Greek god of Death.
Valkyries – The “choosers of the slain” and warrior maidens in Norse mythology, they would escort the souls of the dead with half going to Odin’s realm in Valhalla and the other half going to Freya’s Hall of Folkvangr.
Yama – The Hindu god of death, as well as the judge of souls in the afterlife.
Yanluo – From Chinese mythology, Yanluo is the god of the dead and ruler of Di Yu.
And if I have done nothing else, let death be greeted as an old friend instead of something to be feared…