Day of the Dead: Aztec Dance Honoring the Soul’s Rest

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To the Mexica, souls exist after death, resting in Mictlan, the land of the dead, until the day each year when they could return home to visit their loved ones.

Day of the Dead, Los Angeles

In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls were kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. These ancestors passed down the knowledge that souls exist after death, resting in Mictlan, the land of the dead, not for judgment or resurrection, but for the day each year when they could return home to visit their loved ones. Photo by Jessica Aldridge.

Aztec Origins of Día de los Muertos

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they encountered native Nahua people‘s extended celebrations honoring death and the fall harvest. For more than 500 years, the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead) presided over Aztec harvest rituals using fires and copal pom incense, costumes of animal skins, images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers, foods, and drink. Previously it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August (Miccailhuitontli), and was celebrated for the entire month.


Day of the Dead invocation from Danza Azteca Xocoyote at the Autry in Los Angeles. The holiday blends Meso-American indigenous Nahua traditions (Aztecs, Toltecas, Tlaxcaltec, Chichimec, Tecpanec as well as the non-Nahua Maya) with Roman Catholic sensibilities, where death becomes a colorful dance and souls never die, they rest in Mictlan.

Day of the Dead

On Day of the Dead people paint on or wear wooden skull masks called calacas.

The Aztec, Maya and other indigenous traditions have enriched the Mexican’s attitude about death. In the pre-Hispanic era, skulls were kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. These ancestors passed down the knowledge that souls exist after death, resting in Mictlan, the land of the dead, not for judgment or resurrection, but for the day each year when they could return home to visit their loved ones.

STORY: Aztec Myth: Quetzalcoatl Rescues Humanity in the Land of the Dead

Ballet Folklorico Nueva Antequera

Ballet Folklorico Nueva Antequera dancing Day of the Dead at the Autry Mueum in Los Angeles.

In the cemeteries, gravesites are groomed and decorated with marigold petals, colorful wreaths and streamers. Local musicians go from grave to grave and people sing “calaveras,” songs often self-composed that range from fun to morose. A priest may be present to pray with the families. The celebration follows as such:

  • The eve of 31 October the souls of departed children (“los angelitos”) arrive.
  • They are hosted at home on 1 November, the “Dia de Muertos Chiquitos.” That evening, the “Night of Mourning” (“Noche de Duelo”), a candlelight procession leads them back to the cemetery. Sometime during this day, the souls of the adults arrive.
  • The adult souls are celebrated on 2 November at their gravesites. They leave that evening after a family meal.

STORY: Is Day of the Dead Culture in SF’s Mission Endangered?

Day of the Dead, Los Angeles

Dancer from Danza Azteca Xocoyote on Day of the Dead.

Photography by Jessica Aldridge

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature’s all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion — Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt