Skull Imagery in Mexico and its History
"Skull imagery has a long history dating back to the traditions of pre-Columbian civilizations. The Aztecs had several festivals of remembrance where they would worship the Goddess Mictecacihuatl, ruler of the afterlife and keeper of the dead. Mictecacihuatl was often represented as a skeleton, adorned with a crown of flowers and skulls. For many pre-Columbian cultures, human skulls or skull motifs were used as decoration on walls as a sacrificial offering to the gods. These are commonly referred to by the Nahuatl term Tzompantli. Some of these, such as the Mayan Chichen Itzá Tzompantli in Yucatán, and the Aztec Huey Tzompantli in Mexico City, remain to this day and can be viewed by visitors.
Another motif that may have influenced calavera imagery as we know it today is likely a type of European art known as Danse Macabre. These paintings and engravings, often featuring dancing skeletons, were meant to represent the inevitability of death and were used as decorations in churches across Europe. It is probable that the Danse Macabre motifs were brought over by Spanish missionaries and later fused with Indigenous skull imagery."
Today people like to paint their faces as sugar skulls for the American holiday, Halloween. Knowing the history behind the sugar skull is important because it gives the design a greater meaning. In Mexican culture, death is not mourned or hidden away, it is not viewed as scary, nor is it taboo to discuss. Death is celebrated in a warm, welcoming way. The Day of the Dead is considered a celebration for those who have left us; it is a time of remembrance and gratitude. The sugar skull transforms the skull we are used to seeing into art, beauty, and hope because it gives us new meaning to what it means to pass while gently reminding us that we all will, but not without the color and richness of a life well lived.