The Origins of All Souls’ feast day

The latest origins of All Souls Feast Day take us back almost five hundred years to Mexico, when Spanish conquerors landed in the region today known as Central America. The land they discovered was inhabited by the ancient civilization of the Aztecs. They encountered a gathering of indigenous people who were performing a ritual which seemingly defied death. Yet, they were observing a tradition handed down from generation to generation, formed to honour their ancestors. This tradition persevered for whole centuries, until the European influence reigned over the North American continent.

It is said that “Los Dias de los Muertos” (All Souls Day) emerged from within the Olmecs, a civilization that dominated Southern Mexico between 1200  and 400 before Christ. They were the predecessors of domineering civilizations such as the Aztecs,  the Mayas, the Toltecs and many others.

Whilst the Olmecs were decimated little by little, the  Aztecs continued to observe this feast, and the tradition lived on from generation to generation. They were a great influence in Mexico between the fourteenth and sixteenth century. In the Aztec month of  Miccailhuitontli (end of July – beginning of August), rituals were carried out and celebrations ensued. They believed that during this time there reigned the goddess Mictecacihuatl, who was known as the Lady of the Dead. In Aztec mythology, she was depicted with a skeleton face and a skirt made out of snakes.

Legends have it that she died while giving birth. Her role in this Society was to keep guard on the bones of the deceased, due to the belief that the bones were used to create humans in future life. Her counterpart in these celebrations was Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of wars and the sun. He is portrayed as a blue-coloured man covered from top to bottom with fighting gear and with bird feathers adorning his head. The Aztecs used to offer as human sacrifice prisoners of war in order to assure them of military success. Rituals were often violent and consisted of plucking out the human heart from a living person. This event, although relating to death, was one of joy with a multitude of celebrations.

This ancient ritual went on to be practiced for almost three thousand years, and involved individuals celebrating the life of their ancestors. Those taking part used to keep the skulls of the dead as a souvenir, of death as well as of a new birth. However, this ancient feast underwent a complete overhaul when European influence began leaving its mark on their culture. The European conquerors tried many times to eradicate this holiday, believing that it was a sacrilege profaning death. Try as much as they tried, the tradition remained.

On their part, the Spanish conquerors integrated their Catholicism with the Aztec customs. The most important change affected the period when it took place. The Catholic Feast of All Saints Day used to be celebrated on the first of November, and then immediately after, on the second of November, All Souls Day. Originally, this day was created by the Catholics, in the fourth century, in order to commemorate martyrs who gave up their lives for their Lord. Consequently, All Souls Day had to be marked on the second of November, instead of in the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar, in order to coincide with the Catholic Religion.


One thought on “The Origins of All Souls’ feast day

  • Reply Ramon Casha 2nd November 2013 at 6:21 pm

    A more likely influence is Samhain, which means “Summer’s End” in Gaelic. This was held between 31 Oct and 1 Nov. It was the end of harvest (in the northern countries like Ireland and Scotland) and the beginning of the “dark season” of Winter. Samhain and Beltane (31 Apr-1 May) were liminal times when it was believed that spirits and other creatures could enter our world. One belief was that these spirits had to be propitiated through gifts of food from the previous harvest. Today that ancient tradition has morphed into “trick or treating”. As Christianity took over from several previous religions, old traditions were given new meanings. The spirits and other creatures became souls of the departed, for whom the faithful were expected to pray.

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