Remember the dead, overcome the fear of death,
and celebrate life!
I’m always fascinated to see the face painting done every year for Dia De los Muertos also known as All Saints Day. I decided to share it’s History on my website.
The traditional celebration of Dia de los Muertos started over 3,500 ago by the Aztecs who practiced a month-long celebration that honored those who had died and welcomed their spirits back to earth for a visit. During this ritual, they would often display skulls that they had collected as symbols of life, death, and rebirth.
When the Spanish Conquistadors infiltrated what is now known as Mexico, they brought with them their Catholic faith and began an effort to convert the natives and put an end to the pagan observance. Their attempts to squash the ritual were unsuccessful, but somehow over time the celebration was altered to coincide with the more “acceptable” Catholic holidays, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.
Dia de los Muertos begins on the evening of October 31st. Legend says that the gates of heaven open at midnight, and that the souls of dead children “ angelitos” are the first to visit their loved ones still on earth. They roam the earth for just one day, and then the following midnight, the gates are opened once again to allow the adult souls to descend.
The dead are welcomed by their families on earth through the construction of elaborate altars known as” ofrendas” or offerings. The altars consist of many items that are well-considered with the dead loved ones in mind. Flowers, are also laid out on the altar. The flower most associated with Dia de los Muertos in Mexico is the marigold, or Cempazúchitl which is known as the flower of the dead. In Aztec belief the marigold was sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, their god of the dead. According to Mexican belief, the souls of departed family and friends return to earth on the day of the dead, and it is believed the strong scent of marigold helps guide them back to their families on earth. Other potent smells such as spices, incense, and scented candles are often also part of the ofrenda construction for the same reason. Pictures of the deceased, portions of their favorite foods and drink, toys for the angelitos, and other personal items are displayed on the altar table in honor of those who have passed. Even grooming items such as soap and shaving supplies are sometimes left, in the belief that the souls will be weary from their long journey and in need of freshening up.
One of the items almost always displayed somewhere among the items of the ofrenda is the sugar skull. Skulls known as calaveras orcalacas in Mexico – are an essential part of the symbolism of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.
Skulls and skeletons were an important part of All Saints Day festivals in medieval Europe, especially since the Black Death ravaged the population of Europe in the 1300s. Across Europe artists, playwrights and poets mused on the theme of ‘memento mori’ (remember death) and the ‘dance of the dead’. Many artworks and books from the time depict dancing skeletons, or portraits with a skull to ‘remember death’.
At the same time, in Mexico, the Aztec culture believed life on earth to be something of an illusion – death was a positive step forward into a higher level of conscience. For the Aztecs skulls were a positive symbol, not only of death but also of rebirth.
People in Mexico wear traditional skull masks, and the tradition of painting faces to look like a skull has grown up as a variation to this. The wearing of masks has been a powerful symbol throughout traditional cultures, of the ability of humans to get in touch with their darker, chaotic side. Face-painting as skulls is a chance to overcome fear of death, act recklessly and get up to the mischief that is forbidden at other times of the year!
The making of sugar skulls was introduced to the indigenous people who still remained, not having fallen victim to disease or slaughter brought on by the Spanish settlers and their armies. Since sugar was abundant and inexpensive, it’s logical to conclude that the early Meso-Americans would have found the making of sugar skulls a satisfactory substitute for real skulls, a practice which would have been abolished along with all other native rituals. Over time, the newly defined Catholic rite would completely dominate any other religious notions, with the threat of death as punishment for those who would dare resist.
The sugar skull is now an important integral part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Just as the use of real skulls was a symbol of life and death to the ancient tribes during their month-long ceremonies, the sugar skull now represents the celebration of life and death as part of the modern-day festivities. Although the Spaniards all but erased the existence of an entire civilization, this one remaining, altered – ritual seems to be the only hinge that still connects modern-day Meso-Americans with their ancient predecessors.
How are Sugar Skulls Made?
Sugar skulls are made from very few ingredients – sugar, meringue powder, and water. The mixture is pressed into a mold and allowed to dry, creating a plain white three-dimensional skull. The artistic part of sugar skull creation is how it’s decorated once the molded skull is formed.
Icing in numerous bright colors is used to trim the eyes and adorn the head and face. But not all decorations are edible. Feathers, flowers, hats and other objects can be used to make the sugar skull more personal in honor of the dead loved one it’s made for. Sometimes a blank area is left on the forehead for writing the name of the deceased that it’s dedicated to. Sugar skulls aren’t dark, they’re colorful, whimsical and cheerful, sometimes even humorous. Then they’re placed on the ofrenda along with all the other honorary gifts.
Large three-dimensional sugar skulls typically are not eaten, but sometimes smaller ones are given to friends and family still living. Their names are placed upon the foreheads of the smaller, two-dimensional skull and they are invited to “eat their own death,” another way that they acknowledge the belief that death is nothing but the passing from this life into the next.
Dia De Los Muertos Face painting
Since flowers (in particular Marigolds) are also symbolically important part of day of the dead, many face-painting designs of skulls incorporate flowers. Below are some modern day Dia De los Muertos Face painting examples I took from the internet. It is not hard to replicate these looks. All you need is white grease paint which can be purchased at your local Party City, costume stores, pharmacy etc. loose pigmented eye shadows in your color choice (I recommend using Maybelline Eye studio Color Tattoo pure pigments eye shadow which costs about $6.99 at your local pharmacy), black eyeliner pencil, loose setting powder, and if you really want to go the extra mile, you can add jewels using acrylic adhesive or eyelash glue, and beautiful eyelashes.