The appearance of the Mexican skull as we know it today began in 1949, when the newspaper “El Socialista” began to offer allegorical epitaphs (called literary skulls) in honor of a character, real or fictional, who behaved in a hypocritical way. It was almost always related to the claim of wealth or the importance attached to material goods. These literary skulls were accompanied by illustrations depicting elegantly dressed and unusually cheerful skeletons.
Although of recent creation and anecdotal emergence, the cult of skulls in Mexico seems today to respond to a religious sentiment that existed previously. With considerable controversy in that regard. The skull became popular in Mexico during the government of Benito Juárez, an era of openness and consolidation of the republic where the upper classes tried to resemble the European elites in their way of dressing and behaving.
This was harshly criticized in the so-called “combat” (leftist cut) newspapers, where women often appeared in the aforementioned way. It would be José Guadalupe Posada who definitively coined the so-called “garbancera skull”, setting the image of a skull dressed in the French way, attending high society events. The allegorical meaning extended to those people of humble extraction who sought to live in opulence.
Thus, criticism is twofold, first, to the excessive importance attached to material goods (the medieval concept ubi sunt), and on the other hand the criticism of those who have no food, pretends to appear otherwise. The painter Diego Rivera, in a 1947 mural, changed the name of garbancera to the present Catrina, whose meaning is similar to the previous one, that of a person dressed in an ostentatious manner.
Later, in the 1960s in Veracruz, although coming from a previous cult, the figure of Santa Muerte was born. It looks like a Christian Virgin wearing a skull to face; however, its worship is associated with requests for money, love or health and is considered a righteous deity, although it is true that it is especially venerated by people who regularly put their lives at risk.
Their adoration has joined the image of Catrina and both enjoy wide popularity throughout Mexico. Holy Death has developed within the Catholic bosom although it has been constantly rejected by all Christianity as a diabolical cult.
How to make a Mexican Skull
In this video you will see the complete process step by step so that you can make a Traditional Clay Skull from Mexico:
Skull Controversy: 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, whether it is purely Mesoamerican or influenced by contact with European culture.
Some argue that the origin of the cult of Mexican death dates back to the times of the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, the “Dama de la Muerte”, when the Mexican natives worshipped their deceased relatives, differentiating between children and adults and dedicating to it the whole month of August. Celebrations such as the aforementioned Santa Muerte or that of San Pascualito, a local saint in 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 today the Mexican Day of the Dead coincides with the European Day and the way it is celebrated has resembled the Spanish way until very recently, 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 argue that the origin is eminently European and the figure of Catrina arises from the recent traditionalist sentiments and the recovery of 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, the majority of experts choose the syncretic origin of the celebration of the Day of the Dead. In contrast to pre-Columbian or European origin, the holiday would come from a mixture of both religions resulting in a new cult of which both sides are a primary part.
Meaning of Mexican skulls on the Day of the Dead
Today, the spread of the symbol of the skull in Mexico projects the idea that it is an ancestral tradition, being in fact recently created. Not for nothing, the Day of the Dead festival holds UNESCO’s award as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
It cannot be denied that it has experienced a dizzying growth and diversification; among the numerous samples we find the popular alfeñique skulls, cane sugar skulls with the name of a beloved person, normally alive, written on the forehead.
Literary skulls have now been transformed into light epitaphs written for family or friends in the form of epitaphs in which, in a comical way, prosperity and happiness are demanded. Often called “the bony,” “the reaper,” or “the calaca,” extended terms to refer to death.
There is no doubt that Catrina is the most recognizable and widespread element of the cult of Mexican death. Figures, make-up, posters, etc. Flood the festivities and its precious appearance has made it a very important symbol of all Mexico.
In Aguascalientes, the birthplace of José Guadalupe Posada, creator of the Catrina, is celebrated every year the Festival of the Skulls. Among the most outstanding events are various exhibitions, Catrina costume contests and regional dances.
Regardless of its origin, the truth is that the image offered by skulls in Mexico today 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 it entails as a way of protecting itself against it; stillness, peace, the end of the road.
The Cult of the Skulls
The cult of skulls not former exclusive to Mexico, since it derives from the cult of the deceased, one of the forms of worship that has been most repeated throughout different eras in virtually every culture of 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 anthropomorphic personification and in its associated rites of passage.
In Mesoamerica, for more than 3000 years now, the vast majority of its peoples revered the bones of their ancestors as if they were representations of their gods, especially their skulls, which they considered a way of communication with the other world. But it would be the Mexicas or Aztecs who showed greater devotion to the symbol of the skull, crossing the threshold of family worship and moving 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 ones where the skulls of enemies were inserted and then placed on an altar. In the capital of Toltec, 60,000 human skulls were found when the Spaniards arrived, an event that meant the end of the local religion and the abolition of these practices.
El culto a la calavera se mantuvo en estado de letargo durante cientos de años, excepto en pequeñas poblaciones alejadas de la civilización, donde se integró con el cristianismo y pudo sobrevivir hasta mediados del siglo XX, cuando el mito volvió a extenderse por todo México.