What Day of the Dead tells us about the Aztec philosophy of happiness

7 mins read

Lynn Sebastian Purcell, State University of New York College at Cortland

Growing up in the United States, I keep in mind on Halloween my mom used to say, “Honey, this is not just a day for costumes and candy. You must also remember your relatives. Know their names.” She would present me footage of great-aunts, uncles and different deceased family.

Meanwhile, my relations in Mexico noticed Day of the Dead, a nationwide vacation that’s celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. They would construct small altars at dwelling to honor their family members, and put meals, drinks, images and different private gadgets on them. They equally adorned their ancestors’ graves.

These days, I’m half of a small group of researchers who’re working to recover Aztec philosophy. My focus is on Aztec ethics, which the Aztecs thought of as the art of living well, however we name the pursuit of happiness.

I’ve discovered that Day of the Dead rituals, which date again to Mexico’s pre-Columbian peoples and are noticed throughout the Americas, are deeply rooted in Aztec ethics.

A quick introduction to Aztec philosophy

Shortly after Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, Spanish folks colonized the area. In 1521 the Aztec empire fell in a two-year war led by the Spaniard Hernán Cortés.

Afterwards, Spanish monks wished to know the native inhabitants to be able to convert them to Christianity. They painstakingly detailed the Aztecs’ beliefs in volumes of materials written in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. The most vital of these sources is the “Florentine Codex,” written between 1547 and 1577.

The fundamental downside of life for the Aztecs, in response to these sources, is that people aren’t excellent – they make errors. “The earth is slippery, slick,” the Aztecs would say. And to keep away from falling into error, folks have to dwell a balanced life on three totally different ranges: of their psyches, their our bodies and their society.

The high particular person aim in Aztec ethics, then, is for folks to stability their psyche. It is finished by aligning the coronary heart, or yollotl, and face, or ixtli. By “heart,” the Aztecs meant ideas and wishes. By “face,” they meant the rational group of these wishes.

Where Day of the Dead suits in

For the Aztecs, then, a contented life is achieved by means of stability. Individually, this implies balancing one’s “face” and “heart,” however socially this entails associates, household and ancestors. Day of the Dead rituals assist with this social stability.

It’s vital to notice that the “heart” is a metaphor for all of the physique’s wishes. Also, the Aztecs didn’t distinguish minds from our bodies. They believed every area of the physique had its personal “mind.” For instance, our eyes suppose a technique, our ears one other, and our pores and skin one other method nonetheless. As the scholar Alfredo Lopéz Austin argues, the Aztecs thought of consciousness as the end result of this ecosystem of minds, with every thoughts competing for consideration and expressing its personal wishes.

Within this ecosystem of minds, the Aztecs believed that three areas held the highest focus of the cosmic forces that make humans living, moving beings: the coronary heart (the bodily coronary heart, on this case), the head and the liver.

The coronary heart homes the “yolia,” which expresses one’s aware and remembered persona. The head homes the “tonalli,” which expresses the strength of one’s character and destiny. And the liver homes the “ihiyotl,” which is accountable for our respiration and well being.

When we die, the Aztecs believed these three powers separate from our our bodies. The ihiyotl, or breath, instantly rejoins nature. The tonalli, or very important power, returns as vitality to be referred to as on in want. One’s yolia. or persona, nonetheless, travels to the land of the dead, referred to as Mictlán. There, it endures a collection of trials, together with starvation and chilly winds.

To assist in the journey, every individual’s yolia is accompanied by somewhat yellow canine and no matter choices one’s family members make. That’s why on varied days of the 12 months – not solely throughout Day of the Dead – family members are supposed to help the yolia of just lately deceased family by providing them meals, drink and different presents at their dwelling shrines.

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But after 4 years, the yolia finishes its journey and rejoins the fundamental energy of the universe – “ometeotl,” or god. All that is still of the deceased, then, is their drive of persona as tonalli, which, the Aztecs believed, could possibly be referred to as on by remembering their title.

By remembering our ancestors, Aztecs thought, we assist stability our lives whereas we’re right here on Earth and in addition help our loves ones of their afterlife. This, in essence, is the goal of the Day of the Dead that many observe at the moment.

Lynn Sebastian Purcell, Associate Professor of Philosophy, State University of New York College at Cortland

This article is republished from The Conversation below a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Charlene is a Bay Area journalist who hails from the small community of Fresno. Drawing from her experience writing for her college paper, Charlene continues to advocate for free press and local journalism. She also volunteers in all the beach cleanups she can because she loves the water.