Category Archives: Burial
Pronunciation: Mikt-eyk-as-see-wahl or Misk-tesk-ei-siev-alth
Alternate Spelling: Mictlantecihuatl
Also Known As: Lady of the Dead, Queen of Mictlan
Etymology: Lady of the Dead (Nahuatl)
Mictecacihuatl is the Aztec goddess of the dead and Mictlantecuhtli‘s wife. Together the two rule over the nine layers of the Aztec Underworld and it’s nine rivers. Compared to her husband, Mictecacihuatl doesn’t have much for stories and myths surrounding her. But that could be if we’re just seeing male and female half of the same divine concept with similar, overlapping functions and roles.
Animal: Bat, Dog, Owl, Spider
Month: Tititl (Aztec), November
Patron of: Death, the Dead
Plant: Cempasúchil (Marigold)
Sphere of Influence: Death, Resurrection
Symbols: Bones, Skeletons
Mictecacihuatl is described as wearing a skirt made of snakes, sagging breasts, skull face and clawed feet for digging her way through the earth. She is also shown as being flayed, having no flesh on her body and her mouth open to swallow the stars during the day so that they become invisible. Mictecacihuatl can also be shown as a beautiful woman wearing traditional Aztec clothing and the skull face being more ritualistically painted on.
What’s In A Name
As previously mentioned, Mictecacihuatl’s name translates to “Lady of the Dead” in the Nahuatl language.
Parents – Unknown, it is believed that when Mictlantecuhtli was born, that her parents sacrificed the infant.
Spouse – Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of Mictlan.
Suns – This is a big one in Aztec Cosmology, the Aztecs believed in a cycle of suns or periods of creation. The fourth sun ended with a great deluge or flood that drowned everyone and that the current age is the fifth sun.
There were a number of different paradises or afterlives in Aztec belief. The manner of a person’s death would determine which of these paradises they got to enter. Any person who failed to get into these paradises would find themselves destined for Mictlan.
Fairly common in many world beliefs, the Aztecs divided the cosmos into three parts. The Heavens or Ilhuicac at the top with the Earth or Tlalticpac, being the land of the living found in the middle. Mictlan, the Underworld would be found below.
Depending on the manner of one’s death, would depend on which after life a person to. Mictlan was pretty much seen as the place for all souls who couldn’t get into one of the paradises.
In the Aztec Creation story, there were Ometecuhtli and his wife Omecihuatl who bore four children Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli.
And…. Nothing really happens for about 600 years, so the four children decide that they will set about creating the universe. That of course includes creating the Sun, the first man and woman, maize, and calendar. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Death would be created last.
Mictecacihuatl’s origins are a bit gruesome. When Mictecacihuat was a baby, she was sacrificed and it is there in the Underworld of Mictlan, that she quickly grew to adulthood and married Mictlantecuhtli and from there, would rule over the Underworld with him.
Keeper Of Bones – Resurrection
One of Mictecacihuatl’s functions within Aztec religion is that she kept watch over the bones of the dead. For the Aztecs, skeletons and bones were symbols of abundance, fertility, and health. You couldn’t have one without the other.
Both Mictecacihuatl and Mictlantecuhtli collect bones so that the other Aztec gods might bring them back to life. The mixing up of all of these various bones is also what allows for the creation of new races.
Lord Of The Underworld – Mictlan
With the Christian mindset, the Underworld, any Underworld does not sound like a happy fun place to be or go.
Not quite in Aztec beliefs, most everyone who died went to Mictlan. When a person died, they would be buried with grave goods that they would carry with them on their travels to Mictlan. These goods would be offered up to Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl.
As the newly dead started their journey to Mictlan, they would be accompanied by a small dog who guided them. Mictlan was known to be located somewhere far to the North. Much like in other world myths and beliefs, the Realm of the Dead is pretty much just neutral, not necessarily evil. Mictlan is divided into nine different levels or layers that the dead must travel through and a series of tests they must do on a four-year journey down to Mictlan. We are talking having to run from various monsters, icy blasts known as the “winds of obsidian,” traverse a mountain range where the mountains crash into each other, and to cross the nine rivers of blood guarded by jaguars. Once the soul arrived, they would dissolve, vanishing forever.
Home Sweet Home – While Mictlan is divided into nine different levels, Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live in the last few levels. One legend holds that there is a place of white flowers that was forever dark and served as home to the gods of death.
The actual house or dwelling place that Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live at in the Mictlan is reputed to have no windows.
Vaticanus Codex – In this Colonial codex, Mictlantecutli is identified and labelled by the Spanish as “the Lord of the Underworld, Tzitzimitl” and equated with the Christian Lucifer.
This is the name the Aztecs used for the northern direction associated with Mictlanteculhtli. The northern direction is where the Aztecs believed the land of the dead to be. This would be a region of the earth that was a dark, barren and cold place that was eternally still and quiet. Which makes sense for the Artic. Sometimes, Mictlanteculhtli could be associated with the south, just as equally likely if one were to make it to Antarctica, that’s pretty cold and lifeless the further inland you get.
Souls Of The Dead
The Aztecs recognized three types of souls and Mictlantecutli governed over all of them.
- People who died of normal deaths as in old age and disease
- People who died heroic deaths such as in battle, sacrifices and childbirth
- People who died non-heroic deaths, accidents and suicides
While this sounds like every soul ends up in Mictlan, a soul could end up in another place. For example, if someone died violently drowning or lighting, they would end up in Tlalocan (a realm in the Heavens), for the Tlaloc, the water god.
Like many cultures, the Aztecs buried their dead with offerings for the afterlife, namely for Mictlantecuhtl and Mictlantecutli. These items would be offerings of food and various ceremonial or precious items.
Cempasúchil – Also called Flor de Muertos and Marigold, specifically Mexican Marigold in English, these flowers are held sacred to Mictlantecuhtl. These orange & yellow blossom’s scent is thought to be able to wake the souls of the dead and bring them back for a Dia De los Muertos in autumn. Many altars, graveyards, and decorations would be festooned with these flowers. The Mexican Marigold is a familiar wildflower that grows in many places of central Mexico.
In the Aztec Calendar, Mictecacihuatl was honored and celebrated throughout the ninth month, a 20-day period that roughly corresponds to the Gregorian calendar of late July and early August. When Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1519, Mictecacihuatl’s corresponding holiday of Hueymiccaylhuitl was moved forward to October 31st to November 2nd to correspond with the Catholic observance of All Saint’s Day.
An Aztec holiday, the “Great Feast of the Dead” was celebrated for the recently deceased and to help them on their journey to Mictlan. Hueymiccaylhuitl would be celebrated in the Aztec month of Tititl where an impersonator or stand-in for the god Mictlantecuhtli would be sacrificed.
When someone died, the Aztecs would cremate the remains. It was believed that the soul would than undertake a four-year journey to Mictlan through the various levels of the Underworld and needing to pass a series of trials. Those who succeeded would make it to the lowest levels of Mictlan.
Hueymiccaylhuitl was also celebrated as an annual celebration as it was believed the dead could return to the lands of the living and visit. Plus, it was a way for the living to help those on their journey as the living could communicate with the deceased souls.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, bringing Catholicism with them, the traditions of Hueymiccaylhuitl transformed, becoming known as Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Families still leave offerings of food and goods for the dead to take with them on their journey.
Under more modern and current celebrations and influence from the Catholic church, Día de los Muertos coincides with All Saints’ Day or Feast of All Saints on November 1st. It is a celebration that combines imagery from Aztec beliefs with an air of carnival and festivities with families gathering at cemeteries to share a picnic meal with deceased loved ones and sugar skulls in the image of Mictlantecuhtli.
Mictecacihuatl had a month-long celebration for her. However, not much is known about it and all Archaeologists and historians know for certain is that there was song and dancing, incense burnt and very likely blood sacrifices.
Dia de Los Muertes
Mictecacihuatl not only has presided over the older Aztec celebrations for the dead but continues to watch over the contemporary festivals of Día de Los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. Celebrations and observances for this holiday start on the evening of October 31st, coinciding with the holidays of Halloween and Samhain. In Mexican tradition, families will hold graveside vigils with deceased loved ones. Then on November 1st and 2nd, the dead are said to awaken and celebrate with their living family and friends.
Santa Muerte – Mexico
A female deity, early images of her started off as male. Santa Muerte is a folk saint whose worship and popularity have been increasing since the start of the 21st century in Mexico and has been spreading. Devotees of Santa Muerte may or may not be disenfranchised with the Catholic Religion and many turn to her for healing, protection, and a safe passage to the afterlife.