Mexican Skulls (Day of the Dead)

Origin of the Mexican Skulls and Day of the Dead.

The appearance of the Mexican skull as we know it today began in 1949, when the newspaper "El Socialista" began offering allegorical epitaphs (called literary skulls) in honor of a character, real or fictional, who behaved in a hypocritical manner. It was almost always related to the claim of wealth or the importance attributed to material goods. These literary skulls were accompanied by illustrations representing elegantly dressed and unusually cheerful skeletons.

Despite the recent creation and anecdotal emergence, the cult of skulls in Mexico seems to respond today to a religious feeling that already existed before, the controversy in this regard being remarkable. The skull was popularized in Mexico during the government of Benito Juárez, the time of opening and consolidation of the republic, where the upper classes tried to resemble European elites in the way they dress and behave.

Mexican Skulls

This was harshly criticized in the so-called "combat" (leftist) newspapers, where ladies often appeared in the manner mentioned above. It would be José Guadalupe Posada who definitely coined the so-called "chickpea skull", placing the image of a skull dressed in the French way, attending high society events.

The allegorical meaning extended to reach those people of humble extraction who pretended to live in opulence. Thus, the criticism is twofold, first, to the excessive importance attached to material goods (the ubi sunt medieval concept), and on the other hand the criticism of those who, without having food, intends to appear otherwise. The painter Diego Rivera, in a mural of 1947, would change the name of chickpea to the current Catrina, whose meaning is similar to the previous one, that of a person dressed ostentatiously.

La catrina

Later, in the 1960s in Veracruz, although from a previous cult, the figure of Santa Muerte was born. It has the appearance of a Christian Virgin wearing a skull on her face; However, their cult is associated with requests for money, love or health and is considered a righteous deity, although it is true that it is especially revered by people who routinely risk their lives.

Their worship has joined the image of the Catrina and both enjoy wide popularity throughout the Mexican territory. The Holy Death has developed within the Catholic bosom although it has been constantly rejected by all Christianity as a diabolical cult.

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Controversy of the skull: Mexico or Europe?

Although the origin of the skull is relatively well documented, there is no consensus in determining whether it responds to a feeling already existing in Mexico and, if so, if it is purely Mesoamerican or has been influenced by contact with European culture.

Some argue that the origin of the Mexican death cult dates back to the times of the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, the “Lady of Death”, when the Mexican natives worshiped their deceased relatives, differentiating between children and adults and dedicating everything August. Celebrations such as the aforementioned Santa Muerte or that of San Pascualito, a local saint of the state of Chiapas represented by a skeleton, have existed with some variations for more than three centuries during which they have suffered the veto of the Church.

Another point of view is based on the fact that currently the Mexican Day of the Dead coincides with the European date and the way of celebrating it has resembled the Spanish mode until very recent dates, with the rise of skeletons and skulls. Therefore, it would be difficult to determine whether both cults are related after a period of several hundred years without apparent continuity. Authors of this opinion defend that the origin is eminently European and the figure of the Catrina arises as a result of the recent traditionalist feelings and recovery of the popular culture that took place in various countries of the American continent.

With the intention of adopting an intermediate vision that does not reject any of the hypotheses as a base, most experts opt for the syncretic origin of the Day of the Dead celebration. In contrast to the pre-Columbian or European origin, the holiday would come from the mixture of both religions resulting in a new cult of which both parties are a fundamental part.

Meaning of the Mexican skulls on the Day of the Dead

Today, the spread of the skull symbol in Mexico projects the idea that it is an ancestral tradition, actually being of recent creation. Not surprisingly, the Day of the Dead festival holds the UNESCO award as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

There is no denying that he has experienced vertiginous growth and diversification; Among the numerous samples we find the popular skulls of Alfeñique, sugar cane skulls with the name of a beloved person, normally alive, written on the forehead.


Literary skulls have been transformed today to become light epitaphs written for relatives or friends in the form of epitaphs in which, in a comical way, prosperity and happiness are called for. Often appeals to "the bony", "the Parca" or "la calaca" extended terms to refer to death.

There is no doubt that Catrina is the most recognizable and widespread element of the Mexican death cult. Figures, makeup, posters, etc. The festivities are flooded and its precious aspect has made it a very important symbol of all of Mexico.

In Aguascalientes, birthplace of José Guadalupe Posada, creator of the Catrina, the Calaveras Festival is celebrated every year. Among the most prominent events we find various exhibitions, Catrina costume contests and regional dances.

Skull festival

Regardless of its origin, the truth is that the image offered by skulls in present-day Mexico is unique and has given it the title of "the country that laughs at death." According to Freud in his "death drive" a need to be twinned with the positive qualities that it brings as a way of protecting against it; the stillness, the peace, the end of the road.

The cult of Skulls

The cult of skulls not exclusive to Mexico, as it derives from the cult of the dead, one of the forms of worship that has been repeated throughout different times in virtually every culture on the planet. Any cosmogony (myth of the creation of the world) elaborated by a social nucleus attached great importance to the figure of death, both as an anthropomorphic personification and its associated rites of passage.

In Mesoamerica, for more than 3,000 years the great majority of their peoples venerated the bones of their ancestors as if they were representations of their gods, especially their skulls, which they considered a mode of communication with the other world. But it would be the Mexica or Aztecs who demonstrated greater devotion to the skull symbol, crossing the thresholds of family worship and transferring it to temples and objects of power.

One of the most shocking examples is the Tzompatli, literally "rows of heads", consisting of vertical stakes crossed by horizontal stakes where the skulls of the enemies were inserted, and then placed on an altar. In the Toltec capital, 60,000 human skulls were found when the Spanish arrived, an event that marked the end of the local religion and the abolition of these practices.


The cult of the skull remained in a state of lethargy for hundreds of years, except in small towns far from civilization, where it was integrated with Christianity and could survive until the mid-twentieth century, when the myth spread throughout Mexico.