Monarchs Butterflies Migrate, Marigolds Bloom: Myths, Legends, and Politics of the Day of the Dead

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

If you spend time in Oaxaca, you’ve heard of El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Maybe as a snowbird, you’ve even arrived in Mexico in time to watch or participate in the celebrations; The Eye has published any number of articles on it. This year’s Day of the Dead – it’s really two days – takes place on November 1 and 2, 2022.

The general idea is that the border between the world of the spirits and the world of the living dissolves, allowing the departed souls to return and celebrate with those they left behind. People prepare altars (ofrendas) at grave sites or in their homes, decorated with mementos of their loved ones, along with food and drink for the celebration and return journey. November 1 is thought to be when the souls of children come back to visit, and November 2 is the return of the souls of adults.

The Disputed Origins of the Day of the Dead

Past historians have mostly proposed that the holiday is “syncretic,” a combination of the traditions of two (or more) cultures. In this case, the synthesis combines the pre-Hispanic Day of the Dead, intended by various ancient indigenous peoples as a remembrance of the dead, with the imported Catholic traditions of the conquistadores, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. This is the way the Day of the Dead is taught in schools, and how it has been listed in Mexico’s “Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” a program of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).

Today, however, Mexican historians are less likely to agree that what we see now is genuinely a product of any classic indigenous culture (dated generally from 500 BCE – 1521 CE, when the Aztec empire fell to Cortés), or even of the synthesis between indigenous and colonial events. In a special issue (2006) of Cuadernos Patrimonio Cultural y Turismo (Notebooks of Cultural Heritage and Tourism), a publication of the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y los Artes (National Council for Culture and the Arts, now the Secretariat for Culture), fifteen academics of various disciplines, mostly history and anthropology, explore the issues involved in understanding the Day of the Dead.

Maybe it was syncretic. Maybe it came from similar celebrations in Europe, brought over by the Spaniards. Its importance may lie in the rituals that “tame death” and ensure continuation of life as it was. Maybe it’s a 20th-century evolution of President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río’s program to promote nationalism and national pride through indigenismo, the valuing of all things indigenous, which is a story in itself for some other time.

Mythic Origins of El Día de los Muertos

Despite the disagreements on how the Day of the Dead came to be, there is no doubt that Mexico’s ancient peoples saw life and death as continuous, and had their own version of Day of the Dead. In the high plains of south-central Mexico, it was believed that death destroyed the body but the soul was indestructible. Many of these tales of the afterlife share common ideas with the mythologies of other cultures.

People who died natural deaths entered the afterlife in Chicunamictlán, a nine-level underworld of the Land of the Dead. Depending on the cause of death, there were other destinations for the dead. Children went to Chichihuacuauhco, where they were fed by the Tree of Milk – they waited there to repopulate the world after the human race was destroyed (not sure why that was supposed to happen!). Warriors killed in battle and women who died in childbirth went to Ilhuuicatl-Tonatiuh, the Kingdom of the Sun. Those who died by water, including rain and lightning, went to Tlalocán, the Mansion of the Moon.

Souls bound for Chicunamictlán were cremated with a sacrificed dog who served as a guide and companion on the arduous, four-year journey to the last level, Mictlán. The dog was a red xoloitzcuintle, or xolo, the ancient hairless dog of Mexico. The xolo was created by a dog god called Xolotl, a dog-headed man whose province was fire and lightning and whose job it was to accompany the sun each day from dawn to dark, the “dark” representing the death of the sun. Xolotl bears a striking resemblance in appearance and responsibilities to a similar Egyptian dog-god called Anubis.

The dog was first tasked with carrying the soul across the great river Apanohuaya, counted as the second level. The remaining levels of the journey presented horrendous challenges – giant underwater lizards, flying arrows, paths paved with slashing obsidian shards, mountains crashing together. On the sixth level, for example, the defunct soul had to cross Tecoylenaloyan (the land of a thousand fierce wild beasts); if a beast caught the soul, the soul had to throw open its chest and let the beast eat its heart – reminiscent of the Greek myth of Prometheus, whom Zeus punished for giving fire to humans by chaining him to a high mountain rock and sending eagles to eat his liver every day.

Upon reaching Mictlán, the soul finally could achieve eternal rest or be condemned to suffer further. Eternal rest was darkness, a great commingling into a single common soul.
Back on earth, the families of departed souls celebrated Hueymiccaylhuitl, the great feast of the dead intended to help the soul on its journey to Mictlán. The families offered up food, water, and tools to help meet the challenges; the holiday also allowed the souls to return and visit with their families. Sound familiar? Perhaps those who downplay the ancient roots of Day of the Dead have been unduly influenced by the commercially constructed holiday we now see.

Marigolds and Monarchs

When you think of El Día de los Muertos, what color comes to mind? Could it be … orange??? The color of marigolds, the color of monarch butterflies, of candles to light the way through the darkness of the graveyard. Those orange marigolds and monarch butterflies are linked to Day of the Dead through several ancient legends and beliefs.

Because the annual migration of the monarch butterfly ends in the fall in central Mexico, often in the Reserva de la Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca in Michoacán. Monarchs have long been associated with the Day of the Dead, providing the means for departed souls to return to their families. Legend has it that the souls of the departed travel in the wings of the monarchs, and those wings shed their orange color on the marigolds. Mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta) are members of the aster family, and in ancient times bloomed in the fall, just in time to take their colors from the monarchs.

There is an Aztec tale of two young lovers, Huitzilin (humming bird) and Xóchitl (flower), who celebrated their love by climbing to the top of a mountain to leave offerings to the god of the sun, Tonatiuh. When the couple is torn apart by war, and Huitzilin dies in battle, Xóchitl climbs the mountain to beg Tonatiuh to reunite them for eternity. Tonatiuh turns Xóchitl into a beautiful flower, the color of the sun – that would be orange, people – and who should arrive but a hummingbird, who carried the soul of Huitzilin. When the hummingbird touched the flower, it opened its 20 petals and gave off a wonderful scent. Thus marigolds, called cempasúchil, lead the returning souls both with their color, so bright it lights their way, and their unmistakable, pungent scent.

Day of the Dead in the 20th Century – Politics and Economics

Before President Cárdenas started promoting the Day of the Dead as indigenous tradition, there was La Calavera Catrina (the elegant skeleton). She was created in 1910, amid the opening salvos of the Mexican Revolution, by the political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913). Posada created her to satirize both the poor women street vendors who had left off selling corn in favor of chickpeas, all the while wearing French hats, and the Mexican elites who fawned over all things European, especially fashion and culture, and patronized the empolvacas garbanceras (sellers of chickpea powder, used to lighten complexions). The elites were much encouraged in their European aspirations by the dictator José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori (ruled off and on from 1876-80, then from 1894 to 1911).

At the time, Posada’s Catrina received a bit of attention from the politically inclined, but got a big boost in 1947, when the renowned artist Diego Rivera painted the mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda Central Park) on a wall in the muy-muy upscale restaurant in the Hotel Del Prado, one of Mexico City’s Art Deco masterpieces (after the 1985 earthquake, the mural was moved to Museo Mural Diego Rivera, adjacent to the Alameda).

As usual with Rivera’s work, the mural was nothing if not political. About 400 characters from the panorama of Mexican history parade through the Alameda, showing the brutalities of the conquest and colonialism, wars and revolutions, cruel dictatorships. The center of the mural shows La Catrina on the arm of her creator Guadalupe Posada, Frida Kahlo and a young Rivera, Porfirio Díaz (shown higher than an angel), all intended to be observed by elite patrons of the Hotel del Prado’s restaurant. What is notable about Rivera’s Catrina, and is perhaps the root of her popularity thereafter, is that Rivera gave her not fancy European fashion to wear, but a simple white dress from the Isthmus, much like one of Kahlo’s own. He blots out the fancy hat with huge white feathers – featherwork, particularly for headdresses, was a major art form for the Aztecs. These attributes ensured that La Catrina became a heroine to the Mexicans, fit for a starring role in the Day of the Dead.

The researchers who disagree on the origin of Day of the Dead do agree that commercialization, particularly tourism promotions, presents a great threat to the authenticity of Day of the Dead celebrations. However, accounts of New Spain written by Diego Durán (1537-88) and Bernardino Sahagún (1499-1590), Dominican and Franciscan friars, respectively, tell us that markets held in advance of the Day of the Dead in Tenochtitlán were bustling – Duran was “astounded” to see what local people spent to offer food, drink, and other goods to the souls of their dead. By the 1700s, that market had become so frenzied that the government had to step in with regulations for market operations and requirements for vendor permits.

Commercialization of the Day of the Dead has continued apace ever thereafter; by the early 20th century, both Mexican and U.S. anthropologists discovered holiday markets in rural villages, basically commercial regional fairs attracting shopers who traveled long arduous distances to sell their wares or make their purchases. By mid-century, Mexico’s tourism apparatus was promoting Day of the Dead to tourists from the U.S. and Europe, pointing out which regional celebrations offered the most authentic experience for the tourist. Ruth Heller-Tinoco, an associate professor of music at the University of California-Santa Barbara, investigated the commercialization of the Day of the Dead on the island of Janitzio (corn silk) in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacán. The festival is that of the Purépecha, an indigenous group the Aztecs never managed to subjugate, so their celebration was considered the “purest” example. Heller-Tinoco concluded that “selling” Day of the Dead on Janitzio transformed what was a small community ritual into a tourist spectacle drawing over 100,000 tourists a year. You, too, can go – just Google it.

Of course, all this commercialization has ensured that Day of the Dead has survived, and even transformed, has been handed down to younger generations. In the last “normal,” i.e., pre-pandemic, Day of the Dead in 2019, Secretary of Tourism Miguel Torruco predicted that 829,000 Mexicans would travel, they would spend about $2 billion pesos (±US $104 million), and hotels in Mexico City would see an occupancy rate of nearly 90%. In 2021, when the pandemic showed signs of abating, about US $5 million was spent on marigolds in Mexico City.

Think Coco, the 2017 Pixar Animation Studios film released and promoted by Disney, in which the young Coco, in a “vibrant tale of family, fun, and adventure,” ends up in the Land of the Dead, learning from his departed ancestors the stories behind his family’s prohibitions on music – Coco wants to be a musician. All ends well, and Coco ranks in the top 20 highest grossing animated film ever – streaming today on Disney+.