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Dia de los Muertos Skulls: history, meaning, craft ideas ...

Updated on June 14, 2011
Dia de los muertos skulls are often brightly decorated with flowers - read on to find out why...
Dia de los muertos skulls are often brightly decorated with flowers - read on to find out why...

Dia de los Muertos skulls

One of the most well-known images associated with the Day of the Dead are the Dia de los Muertos skulls. On Dia de los Muertos many Latin American people, especially in Mexico, use images of skulls to decorate their homes, paint their faces and they even make and eat 'sugar skulls'. In case you didn't know already, skulls are a big part of Dia de los Muertos!

Read on to find out more about:

  • History of Dia de los Muertos skulls
  • Meaning and symbolism of Dia de los Muertos skulls
  • Dia de los muertos skull arts and crafts ideas
  • Sugar skulls


Catalinas are figurines popular as part of Mexican Dia de los Muertos traditions.
Catalinas are figurines popular as part of Mexican Dia de los Muertos traditions.

History of Dia de los Muertos and Skulls

El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead in English) is a fusion of indigenous Latin American traditions with the Catholic holy day of Todos los Santos (All Saints). Catholicism was brought to the region now known as Latin America by the Spanish and Portuguese conquisadores in the 16th century. While at first the Europeans struggled to convert the native population to Christianity except by force, they had greater success when they began to tolerate a certain adaptation of Catholicism to include some of the symbolism which already had meaning for the native population.

Many Latin American indigenous peoples at this time had a strong belief in their connection with their dead ancestors - for example Incas in Peru regularly left offerings of food beside tombs. It was believed that if your ancestors were not kept satisfied with offerings they would come back and haunt you. The Aztec people of Mexico believed that death was part of the balancing of the universe - when people died they believed they travelled to the underground world of the skeletal god of death Mictlantecuhtli, and his consort Mictlancihuatl.

The celebration of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico can be traced to a yearly Aztec festival dedicated to honouring dead family members, which used to take place in August. Many of the traditions associated with this festival have influenced the celebration of All Souls Day in Mexico and caused it to be known as the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). For example, marigolds were associated with the dead in Aztec culture, and today day of the dead skulls are often decorated with these flowers. The Catalinas (skeletal female figurines) are an echo of the goddess Mictlancihuatl, while skulls are also associated with the Spanish Catholic tradition of marking graveyards.



Meaning and Symbolism of Day of the Dead Skulls

Skulls were powerful symbols in both Spanish and Mexican Aztec culture in the Middle Ages.

In Spain, skulls were used to mark the entrance to graveyards. In fact, across medieval Europe most cemeteries did not have room to keep people permanently buried. Instead, people were buried for seven years and then their skeletons were dug up again, and their bones were placed in an ossory. You can still visit medieval cathedrals in Europe which have crypts full of skulls and bones.

In Aztec culture, like many ancient cultures, the head was believed to be a source of human power and energy. The Aztecs are recorded to have made human sacrifices to the gods, in order to make sure the sun would continue to rise each day. The remains of these sacrificial victims were kept as relics - skulls and bones were bleached, painted and put on display.

Skulls were, therefore, part of both Spanish and Aztec beliefs about death and the afterlife. However the practice of decorating skulls and altars with marigolds and other flowers seems to have come purely from Aztec tradition, as do the skeleton figurines. Other parts of Latin America, such as Brazil Peru and Haiti celebrate the Day of the Dead, but neither marigolds nor skulls are such an important part of the day's symbolism in those countries.

Day of the Dead face painting involves symbolism of both skulls and flowers.
Day of the Dead face painting involves symbolism of both skulls and flowers.

Day of the Dead Skull Gift Ideas

Make your own Dia de los Muertos Skulls!

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