Afterlife: Mesoamerican Concepts

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The term Mesoamerica defines a broad cultural area of great sociopolitical complexity mediated by many shared religious concepts, cosmological ideas, and ritual practices related to death and the afterlife. Researchers of the Mesoamerican region have divided its history into four periods: Preclassic (2500 bce200 ce), Classic (200650 ce), Epiclassic (650900 ce) and Postclassic (9001521 ce). The archaeological evidence and historical record combine to yield a remarkably rich array of pre-Columbian notions of death and their vital role in the daily lives of people.

Death, Seed of Life

In the midst of great cultural and regional diversity throughout Mesoamerican history, one clear notion was shared by many if not all peoples: death was more than an occasion for fear, mourning and ritual response; rather, death was perceived as a vital, generative, and creative moment in a cosmic process. In this vision of the world, the cosmos and the human body were perceived in a very particular manner: everything in the universe, in one way or another, had supernatural implications. The gods, who traveled in a helicoidal motion, could manifest themselves anywhere and in any shape. The sacred powers of the cosmos reached everywhere and the belief in a complementary dualism pervaded all beings, objects, and places as well as the symbolic systems that expressed their roles and meanings.

Death occupies a vital place in this dichotomous universe, an element that, far from fatal, possesses a renewing quality. The sacred books show that death and all beings connected to it are associated with the creation of individuals, of peoples, and of humanity as a whole. Its name was given to one of the days of the Maya calendar, Cimi, and had its Mexica counterpart in Miquiztli. Furthermore, death was closely associated with maize, which was the sustenance of the Mesoamerican peoples. Death received ritual blood offerings because it was believed thatlike the sun in the skydeath, wherever it resided or manifested itself, ensured the continuity of life. Death also played a fundamental role that related it to the earth: like the soil, it received seeds and made the harvests possible. It also housed funerary bundles and, at the end of the day, it devoured the sun, causing the night to fall.

Also associated with this life-generating notion of death was the concept that life could emerge from the world of the dead, as exemplified in the myth that relates how Quetzalcoatl, god of the wind, stole from the nether region the bones with which he created the human race. Similarly, the Popol Vuh narrates how the "Twin Heroes" were conceived in that region, where it was possible to die and be resurrected. Despite the peculiarities of each culture, there is enough evidence from the Mesoamerican region to suggest that death was a state closely associated to life, and not a lethal element. A chronological review shows several coincidences in the development of notions of death and life in the netherworld.

Death in Motion: Early Agricultural Societies

The regenerative powers of death are shown through different kinds of motion or dynamics. First, death is part of an oscillation between death and life, in that death is a permanent partner of life. This can be traced through the archaeological record. During the middle Preclassic period (1200400 bce), the duality of life and death is emphasized, as exemplified in what is considered an extraordinary clay mask found in the archaeological discoveries at the village of Tlatilco, in the Central Highlands. It represents a human face, half of it corresponding to a living being, the other in skeletal form. In this geographical area the motions of the dead in the afterlife are symbolized by the burial of companions for dead humanscompanions in the forms of not only funeral offerings and various goods like vessels, jewels, or tools, but the skeletal remains of dogs. We know from late ethnohistorical sources that these dogs were believed to accompany individuals, gods, and the sun in their journeys to the underworld. With time, the presence of dogs in Mesoamerican tombs becomes a trait. As for the offerings, they might correspond to materials deemed to be needed by the soul in its journey to the netherworld.

In the western regions of Mesoamerica, a broad variety of funeral rites associated with shaft tombs suggest a kind of social continuity and movement in the afterlife. Archaeologists have learned that these tombs reveal not only distinctive ways of treating the dead body, but also a strong commitment to family ties and ethnic relations. Typically, several individuals were laid to rest in each of these shaft tombs, and in some instances blood ties have been established between the individuals in one grave. The offerings of tools, which would be used by the deceased to perform his or her job in the afterlife, were common in the later periodsin the netherworld the deceased continued with the work performed while they were alive.

An important finding of the late Preclassic period (400 bce200 ce) is a stele found in Izapa, Chiapas, a work considered to be of unparalleled craftsmanship that depicts a seated skeleton wearing a mask on its face. It is one of the earliest representations of death as an element in motion.

Death in the Early Cities

There are many archaeological examples of the funerals of dignitaries and the importance of lineage during the exequies, and of the relationship of lineage with monumental architecture. For the rest of the population, however, funeral rites seem to be associated with domestic spaces.

In Teotihuacan, the most cosmopolitan of the region's urban centers, numerous sculptural and painted images show that rain, fertility and the commitment to sustaining agricultural resources have been found. A fundamental notion of pre-Columbian thought developed in this imposing citythe ritual significance of caves and their association with life and death. These openings, whether natural or man-made, were associated with the netherworld because of their symbolic relation to a uterus, a tomb, and the jaws of the mythic "earth monster." As confirmed by some late narratives, the life of the ancestors is thought to originate in the cave and, in serving as tombs, caves are also the final destination for some individuals. In Teotihuacan, which is a sacred re-creation of the cosmos, caves were a crucial elementfrom them came the raw material to build the city, and rituals took place inside them that were closely associated with death.

Teotihuacan's sophisticated agricultural cosmovision and technology is evident in the astonishing colorful murals found in palaces and apartment compounds. In the eastern quadrant of the great capital, archaeologists uncovered what is known as the Tepantitla complex, and they were able to restore a series of colorful murals depicting something like a terrestrial paradise. This paradise or sacred afterlife shows richly bejeweled characters in different postures and actions, a great blooming tree with a dynamic, twisted trunk and a richly costumed deity presiding over the scene. This image has been interpreted as Tláloc's paradise, or the Tlalocan.

During this period (c. 200 ce) death by sacrifice became a common practice as evidenced by numerous stunning discoveries in the great ceremonial compound known today as the Ciudadela. At the heart of the Ciudadela stands a majestic pyramid-temple decorated with alternating images of Quetzalcoatl and, possibly, Tláloc. Recent archaeological work found 134 human skeletons with their hands tied in the back. Exceptional offerings were placed near the individuals, such as luxurious necklaces made of shell (representing human mandibles). Often, with these immolations, the people returned the sacrifices the gods had made in the original times. Thus, death became fundamental to the operation of the cosmos.

The evidence from other sites is often considered surprising. Iconographic representations engraved in walls and pottery of the Maya region depict skeletons in motion, participating in rituals or presiding over scenes. Examples from the more lavish and complex funerals, such as the tomb of Pacal, the ruler of Palenque, date to this time. The elaboration of a monolithic sarcophagus, the carving of a tombstone, and the construction of the pyramid to function as a sepulcher, are all examples of extensive planning. Together with the sacrifice of companions and the lavish offering, this evidence demonstrates the importance of the notion of an afterlife and, probably, of the journey the ruler had to undergo to reach his destination. In this imposing tomb there is also an exultation of life and death: An image of the deceased was carved on the cover of the sarcophagus, a maize plant emerging from his chest. Such magnificent royal sepulchers are common throughout the Maya region.

Oaxaca is another region where the dual notion of life and death is apparent. The evidence from mural paintings, the clay masks that show skeletal facial features, and the location of Zapotec tombs (placed under rooms, patios, and temples) all point to the importance of death in everyday life. The area of the Gulf of Mexico is not an exception. The clay figurines from Zapotal, Veracruz, are one example, as they represent skeletons that are associated with the god of the underworld.

Urban Reorganization: Symbols of Sacrificial Death

Different notions of death and sacrifice were consolidated during the Epiclassic period. Among these, the importance of the notion of glorious death in times of war becomes common in the archaeological record. In the city of Tajín, references to sacrifice and decapitation associated with ball games are grandly carved in stone. In the Mayan region, Chichén Itzá is another clear example of the increasing importance of such rituals. Towards the end of the period, the record shows an increase in the artistic representation of death, as is the case in Tula, where a snake carved on the side wall of a temple devours a row of skeletal people. The existence of a Tzompantli, or wall of skulls, near the ball court is further evidence of such expanded representation, which also appears at Chichén Itzá.

The Body and Life after Death

During the Postclassic period, the Mexicas and other contemporary peoples of the Central Highlands believed the body held three souls. Each soul was believed to reside in a specific region that served a function in the body and, upon death, had a specific fate. The teyolía resided in the heart, and was indispensable for the preservation of life. The tonalli was located in the head; it could exit the body and, were it not to return after a certain time, its proprietor would die. The ihíyotl resided in the liver. It was associated with the human passions, and it, too, could exit the body. Upon the death of the individual, these souls would dissipate, and the teyolía would travel to the world of the dead (López Austin, 1980, 360370). Apparently, the Maya also believed in a kind of soul that traveled to the netherworld. This can be interpreted from the colonial records that tell of the placing of a stone in the mouth of the deceased that would receive the soul at the last breath.

The destinations of the dead are true funeral geographies, as evidenced in the three more powerful groups: Mexica, Tarascan, and Maya. It was believed that these locations could be in the heavens, the water, or under the earth, and that their entrances were caves, lagoons, or nebulous places located somewhere in the earth. Dangerous locations associated with the landscape had to be traversed in order to gain access to them. In other instances, these territories combined environmental elements with supernatural traits. The three above-mentioned groups coincided in perceiving the underworld as the main realm of the deceased. Among the Mexica, this region was known as Mictlan. Friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1997) writes that it was the destination of those who died of old age or common illness, regardless of their origin.

Nine areas had to be crossed in order to reach this region, which was located under the earth. The deceased was left all necessary items for his or her journey. The route is described in the Codice Vaticano Latino 3738 (Vatican Latin Codex 3738). The first stop was the Chiconahuapan River, where a brownish dog awaited his master to help him across. After the crossing, the deceased ascend through a region where mountains crashed into each other. Later, he or she would face the Obsidian Mountain, and then a place where the wind was so cold that it cut like a knife. The blankets given to the dead during the funeral would help in this stage. The deceased next had to cross a place where flags wave in order to reach the place where people are pierced by arrows. More dangers awaited upon his or her arrival in the place where wild animals eat human hearts. After four years, the journey was completed with the arrival at Mictlan, a dark, windowless place ruled by Mictlantecuhtli and his wife Mictecacíhuatl. The god of the underworld was a semi-skeletal being, with curly hair and a nose made of a flint knife.

Those who died of a reason related to water faced a different fate, since they traveled to Tlalocan, a place of abundance and fertility ruled by Tláloc, god of the rain. The descent into the paradise of Tláloc could be caused by an illness associated with the powers of deity. For instance, it was believed that death by drowning or a lightning strike was more than an accidental occurrence; it was the god taking possession of the person through that force. It was believed that the god chose those who died that way.

Once they reached Tlalocan, they would help the deity, who granted water for harvests and storms. These victims were buried directly into the ground, as if they were seeds. Another special place, probably located in Tlalocan, is Chichihuauhcuahco, a nursing tree that was the destination of the souls of suckling children.

It was believed that those who died in war would travel to the "House of the Sun." These deceased were considered illustrious, and their job in the netherworld would be to fight for the preservation of the universe, insuring the transit of the sun from dawn to noon. At that point, it was handed over to women who had died in childbirth, who would accompany it until dusk, before handing it over to the lords of Mictlan.

The Maya also believed in souls having different fates. Among inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula, the underworld was known as Mitnal. The Quiché Maya called it Xibalbá, "the region of those who vanish," the lowest stratum of the underworld, which was reached by descending a road full of dangers. Such notions were recorded in the Popol Vuh, a sacred book written during the early colonial period.

The content of this book was broadly diffused throughout the Maya region. It was believed that the entrance to Xibalbá was in Guatemala, and that in order to reach it one had to descend a steep staircase before crossing a river with a strong current that flowed between thorny calabash trees. Along the way, the deceased encountered another river, the river of pus, and then moved toward a river of blood and another one of water. The latter was located between two steep cliffs. Soon afterward the traveler would be at the junction of four roads, and only the black one would lead to Xibalbá, where the council chamber of the lords of the underworld was located. It was also the site of a garden with birds and flowers, and of a ball court. There was also a spring that was the source of a river and six houses that were torture chambers. Hun Camé and Vucub Camé were the supreme gods of this region, although there were other lords who caused illness and death.

Recent scholarship on the Popol Vuh has reiterated one of the main points made herenamely, that Mesoamerican peoples understand death to be one crucial stage in a creative, regenerative process. Several mythic episodes in the Popul Vuh reveal that this underworld of Xibalbá was also a region closely associated with life. It was there that the mythic heroes were conceived during one of the cosmic creations. And it was in the threatening regions of Xibalbá that each mythic hero was brought back to life in order to become the Sun and the Moon. Another deity associated with death is called God A in the classification of Paul Schellhas (1904). This god is also known as the skeleton (ah Puch ) or the flatulent one (kisín ). He was represented as being a skeleton, with body blotches caused by putrefaction, emaciated arms, and a protruding abdomen. He was associated with violent sacrifices and decapitations and is depicted on a throne of bones with his eyes closed and mouth agapeor sometimes as a feminine form.

Another world of the dead mentioned by the Maya was the Paradise of the Ceiba, or Coral Tree, a land of plenty that was the destination of the souls of those who hanged themselves. Like Tlalocan, in this place there was a large tree under whose shade one could rest.

In Michoacán, the Tarascan believed that the underworld was under the earth and called it Cumiechúcuaro (place where one is with the moles). It was a region inhabited by deities that looked like people and animals, and it was divided in four directions, with its entrance facing the East, where the sun rises. Cumiechúcuaro was ruled by a mole named Uhcumo.

Another world of the dead was Pátzcuaro, the entrance to which was in the lake of the same name. Associated with blackness, this place was the destination of those who died by drowning and was ruled by Chupi Tiripeme, a deity of water.

As was the case in the Central Highlands, Uarichao was the "place of women" and was to the west. It was for those who had died giving birth to their first child. Thiuime (Black Squirrel) was the deity who inhabited this region. Unlike the emaciated characters of the Maya and Mexica, these gods had the shape of animals commonly associated with the fields.

Other areas show a certain unity of beliefs about life after death, although they have not been as well documented as the above cases. In Oaxaca, the Mixtec worshiped Pitao Pecelao as the god of the underworld, and they made offerings to him during times of illness or death and to counteract the effects of omens. He was associated with wealth and luck, as well as the cultivation of the nopal, or prickly pear, again showing the unavoidable relationship between life and death.

The Encounter of Two Visions of Death

The quick and violent social transformations that took place after 1521 had an immediate impact on perceptions of life and death. The imposition of Christian mores and the death toll caused by war resulted in a transformation of funerary customs. The Western concept of life in the netherworld was based on the idea of resurrection, and the allocation of the dead in the afterlife was dependent on their behavior in life, thus becoming a reward or a punishment. This view contrasts with that of Mesoamerican religions, where the immaterial element of the body played a cosmic role in the netherworld that contributed to the functioning of the universe. Death in pre-Columbian times was related to life, and the journey to the netherworld was associated with the type of death, not with behavior.

Change in the new Spanish society was gradual. The adoption of saints, the ability of some friars to indoctrinate, and the passage of time all led to Christianity's dominance. Nevertheless, it is easy today to observe beliefs and practices that reflect syncretism and cultural wealth. In some contemporary communities it is still possible to record the continuance of pre-Columbian elements mixed with the Christian religion. The offering of dogs in contemporary Lacandon Maya tombs or the Totonac belief in the underworldwith a region for those who have drowned, one for women who died giving birth, and another one for suckling childrenare very clear examples.


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Translated from Spanish by Fernando Feliu-Moggi

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Afterlife: Mesoamerican Concepts

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