The Underworld in Ancient Mesoamerica
- The History and Legacy of Mesoamerican Concepts of Death
- Narrated by: Colin Fluxman
- Length: 1 hr and 29 mins
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The concept of death can be viewed from different perspectives. In general terms, it can be defined as the end of life, but a more spiritual interpretation would describe it as the separation of the soul from the body. Regardless of the definition, death implies change and transformation, even if only on a physical level. The idea of transcendence has served as a source of comfort for humanity that is usually represented in the belief of an afterlife which takes place in another realm.
Since the beginning of history, understanding and explaining it has been a large concern for people all over the world. Death is both a daily occurrence and an irreversible condition, and countless efforts have been made to avoid or postpone it. The constant struggle to transcend its permanence has led cultures to create the idea of an afterlife; of a place or world where life carries on after its end on earth. In ancient Mesoamerica, this concept of an afterlife greatly permeated the worldview of the many pre-Hispanic cultures that developed all throughout the region.
Among Mesoamericans, life and death were closely related and often deeply integrated, and the two conditions were perceived to exist in an opposition that was at once dynamic and complementary. Described later by the Aztecs as the state of nepantla, life and death were viewed by the indigenous people of Mesoamerica as yet another example of the “back and forth” fluctuations common to human life.
Sometimes simplistically described as a borderland or liminal place, nepantla is a far more nuanced term and concept. For Mesoamericans there were no “disasters”; life only happened, and the way of that happening was by this back-and-forth, give-and-take model. Since death, killing, and sacrifice were necessary for life and required for nourishment, their necessity was understood and accepted.
The introduction of ancestor worship and rebirth into the equation further clouds modern potential for understanding Mesoamerican conceptions of death. In Mayan communities, deceased ancestors were not buried apart from their families; rather, they were often buried beneath the floor of the family home. In that way, ancestors were included in daily life and were kept apprised of family milestones. Also, ancestors could influence their living descendants or act as intermediaries between the living and the gods. Unhappy or dishonored ancestors could even inflict diseases from the underworld, seen as the source for illness.
Thus, major festivals honored the deceased, and the living sought to commune with them by presenting offerings of food and flowers. This reverence, and attempts to appease departed loved ones, is another example of a ritual which survived the conquest and became an accepted, albeit folk-Catholic, tradition. Originally conducted during late summer (August), post-conquest iterations of the celebrations gradually migrated through the calendar until they coincided with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Commonly known as the Day of the Dead, this Mesoamerican ancestor-honoring ritual still occurs throughout Latin America, the American Southwest, and anywhere that Latinos with ancestral ties to Mesoamerica live. The physical genuineness of the gifts presented at Day of the Dead shrines, food, drinks, and flowers, mimics the both the content and the idea behind the funeral goods often found in internments of Maya elites.
Furthermore, the underworld in Maya religion is also associated with foul smells, and often these levels were steaming hot scenes of decay and decomposition where the gods of death lived.