Story Power author Kate Farrell has written a new blog post on the ancient Aztec mythology of Mictecacihuatl and Miclantecuhtl- wife and husband who rule the afterlife, read the post here.

In Latinx communities today, the beloved dead are remembered and honored during Día de los Muertos each year, October 31st through November 2nd. Others beyond the Latinx culture celebrate this annual observance in private and public spaces with home altars and displays. Yet all who do so owe the origin of this heartfelt practice to the ancient Aztec mythology of Mictecacihuatl and Miclantecuhtl, wife and husband who rule the afterlife. 

Many of these customs have been passed along for centuries with surprisingly few changes. Modern Día de los Muertos celebrations would likely seem quite familiar to the Aztecs. 

The Myth

In the mythology of the Aztec people, the ancient culture of central Mexico, Mictecacihuatl was literally named “lady of the dead.” Along with her husband, Miclantecuhtl, the goddess ruled over the land of Mictlan, the lowest level of the underworld where the dead live. 

Mictecacihuatl’s role was to guard the bones of the dead and preside over festivals of the dead. These festivals eventually added some of their customs to the modern Dia de los Muertos, which was also heavily influenced by Catholic Spanish traditions. The Catholic Church observed the holy holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1st and 2nd, and so absorbed the Aztec festivals to coincide with the Catholic holidays.

Fairly elaborate stories surround Mictecacihuatl’s husband, Miclantecuhtl, but there are fewer stories about the goddess. It is believed that she was born and sacrificed as an infant, then become the mate of Miclantecuhtl. Together, these rulers of the Mictlan had power over all three types of souls dwelling in the underworld—those who died normal deaths, heroic deaths, and non-heroic deaths. 

In one version of the myth, Mictecacihuatl and MIclantecuhtl are thought to have a role in collecting the bones of the dead, so that they could be gathered by other gods, and returned to the land of the living where they would be restored to allow the creation of new races. The fact that many races exist is because the bones were dropped and mixed together before they made their way back to the land of the living for use by the gods of creation.

The worldly goods buried with the newly dead were intended as offerings to Mictecacihuatl and Miclantecuhtl to ensure their safety in the underworld. 

Mictecacihuatl is often represented with a defleshed body or skeleton, with jaws wide open, so that she can swallow the stars and make them invisible during the day. Aztecs depicted Mictecacihuatl with a skull face, a skirt made from serpents, and sagging breasts.

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Source: Cline, Austin. “Mictecacihuatl: the Goddess of Death in Aztec Religious Mythology.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020.


Story Power by Kate Farrell

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