Quick Day of the Dead Instructions—And How Things Change

Last Monday a notice popped up in my university email: It’s time to build an altar for the Day of the Dead. (And do it in the correct, traditional manner!)

Several professors of Spanish have organized an altar-building event in the student center for a number of years now. But the event takes its own directions. In 2007, I photographed student-made altars to American war dead, to Victorian British writers, and even an altar to Vlad the Impaler.

In 2008, Wendy Griffin of California State University-Long Beach and I presented at the American Academy of Religion about Día de los muertos celebrations at our two universities. I was taken by the sneaky Paganizatioon of the event:

Since the instructions pushed a particular cosmology and an attitude towards the dead, I (Chas) wondered, having taught classes in American religion, if the altar-building could be construed as a classic church-state issue. After all, this was a state-supported university providing very explicit directions on how to perform a ritual—not that anyone followed them precisely! (Incense-burning in the student center probably violates some regulation.) At this point, I approached my colleague, the Mexican-born, Los Angeles-raised professor of Spanish who sponsors the event. “It sounds like tax-supported Paganism to me,” I said.

“Oh no,” she replied, “It’s cultural.” And she resumed laying marigolds on her altar to Frida Kahlo.

I am putting the instructions for the traditional altar below. But I think that I will stop by the Student Center with my camera to see what the American students have done with instructions from an Ecuadorian professor about how to celebrate a Catholic-Aztec Mexican holiday.

Traditions, they are always changing.

*****

The most important thing to place on your Day of the Dead altar is a photograph of the person(s) to whom you are dedicating the altar.
The three tier altar is covered in papel picado – which is bright colored tissue paper with cut out designs. The paper can be either handmade or purchased.  Three important colors are purple (for pain) white (for hope) and pink (for the celebration).
Candles are also placed all over the altar.  Purple candles again are used to signify pain. On the top level of the altar, four candles need to be placed – signifying the four cardinal points. The light of the candle will illuminate the way for the dead upon their return.
Three candy skulls are placed on the second level.  These represent the Holy Trinity. On the center of the third level a large skull is placed – this represents the Giver of Life.
All bad spirits must be whisked away and leave a clear path for the dead soul by burning in a bracero, a small burner used to cook outside.  Or you can use a sahumerio to burn copal or incense.  A small cross of ash is made so that the ghost will expel all its guilt when it is stepped on.
The Day of the Dead bread, pan de muerto, should be accompanied by fruit and candy placed on the altar.  The pan de muerto is plain round sweet bread sprinkled with white sugar and a crisscrossed bone shape on top. Pan de muerto is available in Mexican food stores and bakeries in Pueblo. You can also add the person’s favorite food.
A towel, soap and small bowl are put on the altar so that the returning souls can wash their hands after their long trip. There is a pitcher of fresh water to quench their thirst and a bottle of liquor to remember the good times of their life.
To decorate and leave a fragrance on the altar, the traditional cempasuchil flower is placed around the other figures.  Cempasuchil comes from Nahuatl cempoalxochitl, that means the flower with four hundred lives.  The flower petals form a path for the spirits to bring them to their banquette.

*The following websites will assist you with ideas as you prepare your altars*
http://www.diademuertos.net/
http://fwww.ladayofthedead.com%2fhistory.html
http://www.ladayofthedead.com/history.html
http://www.dayofthedead.com/

Altar decorations and materials are the property of those setting up the altar, any damage done to the altar during setup, the celebration, or at take down is the responsibility of the entrants and not the responsibility of the Dia De Los Muertos committee or CSU-Pueblo.

Talking about Tlaloc, 3

Reproduction Aztec sacrificial "Tlaloc" knife offered on eBay. Click to embiggen.

As I wrote about earlier, I have been maintaining a small shrine to the rain god Tlaloc under a nearby county-road bridge. Our creek—currently dry except for a couple of beaver ponds upstream—goes through a culvert there, one big enough for me to walk through standing straight.

When my shrine washes away, I will be happy to rebuild it in a different place!

The culvert is as near as I can come to the classic site:

Tlaloc did not only dwell in temples and on mountain tops. He lived in moist, fertile, and secluded caves too.

But the reason you will not find me going too far in any kind of neo-Aztec direction is that I am a little squeamish about sacrificing kids. Just candles and turkey feathers so far.

Yep, children were (are?) Tlaloc’s favorite—or so the Aztecs thought. Some were kids from enemy tribes, captured during raids or the flower wars. (As a euphemism, doesn’t “flower war” beat  Obama’s “kinetic military action” completely?) Or sometimes not. You had to be tough to be Aztec nobility.

The children were beautifully adorned, dressed in the style of Tlaloc and the Tlaloque. On litters strewn with flowers and feathers; surrounded by dancers, they were transported to a shrine and their hearts would be pulled out by priests.

If, on the way to the shrine, these children cried their tears were viewed as signs of imminent and abundant rains. Children who did not weep could have their fingernails torn off in order to achieve this effect. Every Atlcahualo festival, seven children were sacrificed in and around Lake Tetzcoco in the Aztec capital. They were either slaves or the second born children of nobles. . . According to the chronicler Durán, Tlaloc had the additional name of ‘Path Under the Earth’ or ‘Long Cave’.

Investigators such as Doris Heyden suggest that the little passages that lead off of the main caves underneath the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan could have been used to house the bodies of children that were sacrificed to this god each year. At an excavation elsewhere, the burial chambers of seven infants placed in a circle inside a cave were found. The centre of the cave roof was open and let in rain. There were also storing facilities thought to have once been grain deposits. The archaeologist who worked on this site, Linda Manzanilla, equated the caves, water, childrens’ bodies and grain with the mythical Tlalocan; the Tlaloque who lived there were small, like children, and it was abundant with both water and grain. Out of Tlalocan’s opening came the rain, seeds and new life and into it came the dead and retreating rain clouds

Well, there is a cosmology for you. How far down that road to go?

Was Tlaloc “the same” as the Mayan “Chaac,” or did one god displace the other, as this article (in Spanish) suggests, during a desperate time of drought?

Afterthought: the school bus used to stop almost on top of the shrine. Currently it does not, because there are no kids on our road young enough to ride it—except for two who are apparently homeschooled.  You cannot escape these connections?

Talking about Tlaloc

Feather offering for Tlaloc

Bundle of turkey, Steller’s jay, and flicker feathers placed in a dry spring basin.

On Friday morning, April 29, back from a early morning fire call (shed + trash + grasses at the edge of the prairie), I climbed the ridge behind the house and made an offering to Tlaloc, the god of rain.

(I think I need to make a lot more of them, given that it has not rained for a month.)

Later that day the Sand Gulch Fire exploded, forcing us to evacuate our house and spend the night in our pop-up camping trailer parked next to the fire station. But the next day it snowed four inches, helping to bring the fire under control.

The desert ecologist and nature writer Craig Childs got me thinking about Tlaloc a while ago with some evocative passages in his book House of Rain, which I reviewed on the other blog here (also referenced in this post).

At high, prominent springs or caves in Guatemala or the Yucatán,  one is likely to find the head of a decapitated rooster (replacing the turkey, which was commonly used in the past) along with pools of melted wax from votive candles (365).

This post kicks off my discussion about being an American Eclectic Witch reviving the cult of Tlaloc on a household basis—no stepped pyramids here, just real mountains.

Tlaloc

Both Aztec depictions of Tlaloc and Mayan depictions of the equivalent deity, Chaac (if you follow a sort of interpretatio azteca), leave me cold aesthetically, for all that they are richly symbolic. But one thing at a time—perhaps I can find one done in the style of pop-Mexican calendar art.

The worship of the gods can change over time—consider this “feast of St. Tlaloc.” We could do that!

More to come.

Church v. State, Mexican style

A crackdown on the cult of El Santo Muerte:

It is particularly popular with Mexico’s powerful drugs traffickers, a link which may explain why, protected by soldiers, municipal workers in Nuevo Laredo last week used back hoes to tear down the shrines lining a road just across the border from Laredo, Texas.

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Review: Apocalypto

Not one to rush into things, I finally watched Mel Gibson’s slightly a-historical movie of Mayan imperial collapse, Apocalypto, a gory but amazing adventure story.

My father was a big fan of historian Will Durant, so I got the impact of the Durant epigram about the fall of empires at the beginning.

I know that a few blowhard Chicano Studies types complained about the movie, but face it, all those things such as slave raids and the sacrifice of prisoners to the gods were happening, there and of course in Tenochtitlan.

Ever since I took a graduate seminar in Mesoamerican religion with Davíd Carrasco, I have been suspicious of cultures with large, astronomically aligned buildings. They always seem to reflect a society where the king is the Son of Heaven and the Few rule the Many with a heavy hand.

I suspect that Stonehenge might have been produced by a Neolithic version of that cultural template too, for all that Pagans revere the place.

Or you might say that polytheism + imperialism = imperialism.

Along with prisoners of war, the Maya apparently favored sacrificing boys.

Gibson being Gibson, the movie’s final message apparently is, “The world is a corrupt and violent place, so you are better off dying as a Catholic.” Extra ecclesiam nulla salus and all that.

El Niño Fidencio

I first heard about El Niño Fidencio (“Kid Fidencio”) from Davíd Carrasco, my thesis advisor at Colorado, who grew up partly in El Paso.

A 1920s folk healer from the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, he continues to be channeled by present-day psychic healers.

That was the connection for me: the mediumship, which fit with some research in Afro-Brazilian religion that I was doing at the time.

Among the many Web sites relating to him are a Fidencio blog (in Spanish) and a bilingual Yahoo group.

Megaliths, archaeology, and the ‘stoned age’

In graduate school, I took a couple of classes on Mesoamerican religion taught by Davíd Carrasco, an scholar of such edifices as El templo major in Mexico City.

One thing I came away with was that such structures served often to demonstrate how King Somebody’s reign was in sync with the gods, the will of Heaven, or however you want to phrase it.

It made me look at places such as Stonehenge with new ideas. Could it really be not so much an observatory as an expression of Royal Will? (Or several Royal Wills, since it was built over centuries?) Ditto such American sites as Casa Rinconada, the huge kiva at Chaco Canyon. Was it as imperialistic as Hitler’s Olympic stadium? Was Stonehenge laid out by a Neolithic Albert Speer?

And let’s bury once and for all the idea that megalithic structures told farmers when to plant. Farmers and gardeners do not need giant rock arrangements for that. Every locale has its signs in the natural world. “When the oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, it is time to plant warm-weather crops” — or whatever works for you.

All of this is a prelude to an interesting article about a megalithic site in Brittany that offers unusual opportunities for archaeological work.

In most cases, virtually no artifacts or other evidence of the builders has survived, leaving the field wide open for speculation:

As man emerged from the caves and forests to cultivate open ground, he replicated the old, sacred caves by building cave-like tombs. These were made of groups of stones, covered with soil. At some point, in around 4000 to 3500 BC, mankind emerged further into the light. The pattern of stones within the tombs was expanded and uncovered to form ceremonial stone circles.

What happened inside such enclosures has excited fevered speculation for centuries. Human sacrifice? Elaborate astronomical observations? Sexual and drunken orgies? Ceremonies at the winter and summer solstices to encourage the healthy growth of crops? Professor Burl suggests that, far from being elaborate astronomical observatories, most stone-circles are shaped by local topography. They do often, however, have alignments with summer and winter solstices and the movements of the Moon. Professor Burl’s best guess on their purpose is a mixture of propitiation of the crop gods and sexual and alcoholic-psychedelic orgies. There is much archaeological evidence that the late Stone Age was also a stoned aged.

Read the whole thing, quick, before the link expires.(Hat tip: Cronaca.)