Dia de los Muertos – Symbols and Imagery
“Mourning was not allowed because it was believed the tears would make the spirits path treacherous and slippery. This day is a joyous occasion; it’s a time to gather with everyone in your family, those alive and those dead.”
— Hayes Lavis, Cultural Arts Curator, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
In times past, each year the ancient Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the underworld. She was also known as the Lady of the Dead, and her role was to watch over the bones of the dead. She is often depicted as a skeleton with an open jaw so “she might swallow the stars to brighten the day.”
Over time the celebration evolved to include both Aztec and Catholic traditions, to become what is known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Celebrated throughout the world in varied iterations, the holiday is a celebration of the lives of loved ones lost.
For more than ten years, Arlington Arts Center has celebrated this holiday with a free community event, featuring Mexican hot chocolate and pan de muerto, live mariachi music, traditional dancing, and arts workshops.
At the heart of each celebration, is an exhibition featuring the work of local artists who incorporate Day of the Dead symbols and imagery into their work. For AAC’s 11th Annual Day of the Dead Celebration, seventeen artists have been selected to show work inspired by the holiday and its distinct iconography.
Read on for AAC’s quick guide to Day of the Dead symbols and their significance. Not only will you find these in AAC’s Day of the Dead exhibition, but in all celebrations of this special holiday…
Calavera (Sugar Skulls)
A prominent and recognizable feature of Day of the Dead. Crafted from a mixture of granulated sugar and meringue powder these molded skulls are decorated with bright patterns and colorful designs, representing the vitality of life and the unique personalities of people.
Can take on many forms, some are tall and skinny, others are short and squat, some have large heads others have small ones; however, all skeletons are depicted as joyful and happy, never scary or sad. Often, the skeletons are dressed in fancy clothes and then, placed in entertaining situations. This is done to portray the lives of the deceased and to remember the shared moments.
Monarch butterflies are often seen in Mexican traditions. Monarchs, in particular, migrate to Mexico every fall and are thought to be the spirits of ancestors coming to visit.
Are often used in Day of the Dead celebrations. Referred to as flor de muerto or flower of the dead, marigolds are thought to attract souls to the ofrendas decorated in their honor to welcome them.
Altars and other special locations are adorned with mementos, photographs, and keepsakes belonging to the dead. These articles are used to help the spirits find the “right” altar where they can find their family waiting for them.
Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead)
Food is used to connect the dead to the living world and to help them on their journey back to the underworld. Traditionally, the deceased’s favorite foods are laid onto altars along with pan de muerto, a semi-sweet bread is baked and dusted with sugar to represent the soil that the bodies are buried in.
Papel Picado (Perforated Paper)
A delicate cut tissue paper used to decorate the spaces which are being used to honor the dead. These colorful, but fragile decorations represent the fragility of life.