Saturday, November 1, 2014

Day of the Dead Altars: Symbols

Today is the first day of Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, a two-day commemoration of those who have died.

One year when we lived in Pátzcuaro, we traveled to a nearby pueblo to visit their panteón, cemetery. On the way, we passed a house whose street door was wide open. Inside we could see a seven-tier altar in commemoration of the grandmother, who had died that year.

Seven-Tier Family Altar Honoring the Grandmother
Photo: Reed Brundage

I've always wondered about the meaning of the seven levels, so I was pleased to come across this article in Aristegui Noticias [News]:
"If there is one tradition that unites Mexicans, it is Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. November 1 and 2 are two days dedicated to those who have departed. It makes no difference whether they left yesterday or a hundred years ago. The deceased return because we call them. 
"They return to enjoy what they find on the altar dedicated to them. Or they return to listen to us sing their favorite songs in the graveyards. They return, and we find them at some point, whether in the cemetery or in what was once their house, where their photographs are still displayed."
The altar is an essential component of Día de los Muertos. Altars with two levels represent Heaven and Earth. Altars with three levels represent Heaven, Purgatory and Earth. The most traditional altar has seven levels, which represent the levels the deceased must pass through in order to rest in peace.

As with most things in Mexico, there is great variation in the arrangement of the altar levels. Here's how they appear on the diagram (starting at the top):
  • Level 1: Image of Saint to whom deceased is devoted;
  • Level 2: Intended for the Souls in Purgatory and that the Deceased might have permission to leave that place;
  • Level 3: Salt is placed to purify the Spirit of the Children from Purgatory and so the body is not corrupted on the journey;
  • Level 4: Pan de muerto, Bread of the Dead, is offered as nourishment for the Souls;
  • Level 5: Food and Fruit preferred by the Deceased;
  • Level 6: Photo of the Deceased to whom the altar is dedicated;
  • Level 7: A Cross fashioned of Seeds, Fruit, Ash or Lime; serves so Deceased may expiate his or her sins.
Source: Notimex via Aristegui Noticias

Across the bottom of the diagram is a row of circles displaying the principal elements used in altars:
  • Water: Water of Life is offered to Souls of the Dead to alleviate their thirst;
  • Candles: Candles and votive lights guide Souls to their old homes and illuminate their return to their ultimate abode;
  • Cut Paper: Represents the Wind and Festive Joy;
  • Flowers: Adorn the altar ...
  • Orange petals of marigolds, cempasúchil, form the path that guides the Souls;
  • White represents the Sky;
  • Yellow represents the Earth;
  • Purple represents mourning and cleanses the place of bad spirits.
  • Figure of Dog Xoloitzcuintle [Mexican Hairless]: Allows the Spirits of Children to feel content as they arrive at the banquet;
  • Woven Bed Mat, Petate: Serves as a bed or table so the Spirits may rest; 
  • Bread of Dead, Pan de Muertos: Its circular form represents the Cycle of Life and Death; it has four appendages in the form of a Cross that symbolize the Four Cardinal Directions;
  • Sugar Skulls: Allusion to the Death that is ever-present;
  • Drinks: Deceased Spirit's favorite beverages.
Let me leave you with one more image. The altar shown below is dedicated to those who have died in the violence in Mexico. The walls are covered with white handkerchiefs on which the story of a victim's death has been stitched in red thread by a member of the group Fuentes Rojas, Red Fountains | Bordando por la Paz, Embroidering for Peace.

Photo: Fuentes Rojas Facebook Page