So many skulls, so little time…

Being a quick photo tour of Mexican skeletal iconography…

It possibly all started with these guys:


On the left, we have Mictecacihuatl, and on the right, Mictlantecuhtli, goddess and god of death to the Aztecs. They weren’t the only deities of death for the Aztecs, but were the most prominent.

They don’t look so skeletal here, but here’s another statue of Mictlantecuhtli, ribs and all.


The Aztec seem to have had a close connection with death, and visualised it in the most direct way – using images of the human body after death. From the same site (Templo Mayor in Mexico City) as the statues of the couple above, comes a prime example of a carved stone tzompantli, or skull rack, a symbolic version of the real thing upon which the crania of victims of sacrifice or warfare were traditionally displayed.

A tzompantli from Mexico City

The Aztec celebration of dead ancestors had been in operation for more than two thousand years before the Columbian era, and fell in the ninth month of their calendar, around August. As happened across the globe with the arrival of Christianity, old religions were subsumed into new ones. The same thing happened with Yule and Christmas (midwinter fire festivals were nudged to coincide with the day on which Christ’s birth was computed to have occurred), with pagan Spring fertility rituals and Easter (Eostre is thought to have been a pagan fertility goddess), and so on. In post-invasion Central America, the festivities that were a month long celebration of death moved and were pasted over the triumvirate of days October 31st, November 1st, November 2nd that are All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

Though the Catholic Christianity moved the timing of the festivals, it was not successful in  entirely removing their earlier aspects. Imagery of skeletons and skulls persisted into the modern era, in the form of cardboard or papier maché models of skulls and skeletons, and sugar skulls to be eaten.

Alfeñique, sugar paste confectionery, here in the form of calavera – skulls.

These sugar confections are one type of calavera, Spanish for ‘skull’, a term which has grown by extension to have a variety of forms, including the beautiful, highly-decorated skulls we now commonly see, well, almost everywhere. This is the type of skull that’s used on the cover of Saint Death.

SD_cover_new strap
A calavera adorning the cover of Saint Death

But calaveras can be other things. In the late 19th century the literary calavera was born – a satirical poem commonly describing an acquaintance or public figure, literary cadavers were published in newspapers and achieved yet another form through the work of José Guadalupe Posada.

It’s a piece of Posada’s, la Calavera Oaxaquena, that tops this post, an image I love and remember fondly. This was the first image I’d seen of Posada’s – 30 years ago I was the drummer in a band called Swing. A friend of ours made a banner for us to hang behind us at gigs, and this is what he chose. (Swing was an infamous band in Bath in the late 80s. A three piece, Neil went on to form a band called Lincoln in London, Francis disappeared for 15 years then reappeared as Frankie, bass-player in The Darkness, while I swapped the drums for the bass, and went off to join an Abba tribute band. I digress.)

I loved the power of Posada’s work, once seen, never forgotten. It seemed that Mexico at the end of the 19th century felt the same way. His calaveras were political cartoons, satirising the rich of the day – the simple message being that while you may have money, beauty or power now, you’ll soon be a skeleton, just like everyone else.


Without doubt, the most influential of Posada’s images is this one; la Calavera Catrina.


It is this image, Posada’s calavera of the fashionable lady, which has given its name to the more modern phenomenon of Catrina – the attractive skeletal lady, who seems to be exploding in popularity, as Mexican culture is adopted (appropriated?) around the world.

Catrina’s fame was assisted in part by Diego Rivera, who referenced Posada in this famous painting. Here, Rivera depicted Posada himself as a child is holding the skeletal lady’s hand.

Detail from the Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, by Diego Rivera

More Catrinas, as models:

And as fancy dress:



All these different, yet related skeletal figures, and yet still I’ve not mentioned the bony lady herself, La Santa Muerte. ‘Saint Death’.

Her place and time of birth remain obscure. She bears a passing resemblance to the European Grim Reaper, but whether there is influence of that scythe-wielding figure remains unproven. Some say she came out of Southern Mexico, some elsewhere in Central America. A link to the Guatamalan figure of San Pascual Rey has been argued for. Then there’s San La Muerte, from parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. But these skeletons are male and Santa Muerte, for all her bones, is most definitely a female figure, perhaps with origins right back to that goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl.

Here she is, from a shine in Nuevo Laredo:

Santa Muerte, Nuevo Laredo

and from a market in Ciudad Juárez.

Yours for 6,500 pesos, a figure of Santa Muerte for your own home.

Santa Muerte is an extraordinary figure, who at the very least has been worshipped in Mexico for many decades, though it’s only in recent years that she’s started to dramatically increase her reach and popularity. Shrines to her are now found not only in Mexico, but in the US, in LA, and even as far away as New York. Why the recent growth in her stature? It’s not a hard conclusion to reach that the rise in her popularity over the last twenty years coincides with the worst years of the drug violence in Mexico. With no one else to turn to, people are looking to her for support…

If you want to read more about death and Mexico, I can recommend no better book that Claudio Lomnitz’s excellent study; Death and the Idea of Mexico.

Happy Día de Muertos to you. Remember your lost loved ones.



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