Central for the Day of the Dead is the idea that during the two days, souls come back from the underworld to visit the people they loved in life. The souls have a crucial role as intermediaries between the supernatural and the humans, so family and friends gather to pay their respects. Day of the Dead is a highly symbolic event in which the participants have a “personal stake”, a time of homecoming, remembering the dead, cementing and intensifying one’s kinship, and even temporarily sacralizing, interpersonal relationships on a community wide basis.
The sugar skull (calavera) is an edible representation of a human skull made out of sugar clay and colorful flower decoration, and is traditionally eaten during The Day of the Dead. The production of the classic sugar skull is the same as it was in the 17th century, when the Spanish, Creole, and Native culinary tradition merged, creating this imaginative confectionery.
The origins of these particular edibles are still disputed, but it’s loaded with symbolic meaning. Research suggests that calaveras are a result of cultural and religious appropriations and borrowings. No matter its origin, it is clear that sugar skulls are still an important part of Mexican traditions.
How Sugar Skulls Make for a Very Sweet Day of the Dead
In pre-Hispanic Indigenous cultures, different facets of the dead were honored through the 18 months of the agricultural calendar. When the Spanish landed on the American continent, friars shaped the traditions of the Indigenous communities into the cult of saints and altered them to fit the liturgical calendar. Syncretism is the practice of merging or assimilating traditions. Sometimes this can occur organically, and sometimes this process, especially through colonization, includes elements of violence and the fundamental change to a culture and religion.
Fray Bernardino de Sahagún was a 16th century Spanish Franciscan friar and wrote about the religion and customs of the Mexica people after his arrival to the American continent. In his chronicle called General History of things in the New Spain, Sahagún writes that during the 15th month of the Aztec calendar, they used to make sacred images of wood, covered them with amaranth seed and shaped them anthropomorphically, highlighting the mortuary meaning of amaranth dough.
Mesoamerican cultures used amaranth as currency, and for its resistance to drought and its nutritional value. Amaranth was considered sacred, and was associated with the sun due to its reddish coloration. According to the Mexican Association of Amaranth, “In religious festivities, the Aztec women used to grind the seed, mix it with honey, piloncillo (a type of molasses), and blood from human sacrifices. They shaped it into statues of idols and gods, and they were consumed in religious ceremonies.” These ceremonies were considered a perversion by the Inquisition, who restricted the cultivation of the seeds, and punished those who were caught with it.
Hematophagy and Anthropophagy
The Mesoamerican practices of hematophagy and anthropophagy -the consumption of blood and human flesh- are largely disputed, mostly for the lack of unbiased sources. Stanley Brandes states that the problem with claims of Indigenous hematophagy and anthropophagy “extends to the nature of the source material itself. Sahagún and other Spanish chroniclers had as their main goal the conversion of Indigenous peoples, not the preservation of accurate information about pre-conquest culture.”
As for the use of blood for the amaranth dough, archaeologist Gabino López argues that blood was not consumed since it was exclusively meant for the gods. In his research, López discovered cut marks and long fire exposure in human bones, suggesting that during the Post Classic Mesoamerica Period, human meat was cooked and eaten by rulers, priests and some warriors. “It was observed the flesh was removed from the victims right after being immolated, a big quantity of bone parts presented cuts or alterations made on fresh bone, and traces that were exposed to direct fire.”
López adds that anthropophagy had the purpose of absorbing “the divine strength contained in the body of the sacrificed. For the Mexica, the human victims were the incarnation of the gods they were representing, and by eating their meat, they practiced a kind of communion with the divinity.” This suggests that human meat was ingested in certain ceremonies by individuals of the high strata of society, but was not part of their daily diet.
Still, there is no consensus as to why flesh and blood were consumed. Other than the evidence of archaeological sites, the primary sources perceived Indigenous peoples through a Western, Christian lens. The substitution of the “human sacrifice” for the “sacrifice of Christ” was a process that took over a century and wasn’t fully completed, since elements of the ancient religiosity kept showing up even after the old cult of the dead was eliminated.
Why the skulls?
In Mesoamerican societies, skulls and skull imagery were integrated into everyday life. Scholar and poet Ruben Bonifaz Nuño describes a carving on a Tlaloc sculpture: “Skulls and two crossed bones is another way to represent the quincunx; such a combination, usually related to the underworld. […] The skulls, by being the account of what resists the destruction caused by death, represent the perpetuity of life, and the crossing of the bones denote cosmopolitan action. The combination of bones and skulls alternating each other would mean the permanence, the constant, and the act of creation.”
Even after Spain became the dominating force in Mexico, the relevance of skulls prevailed, and the mortuary customs slowly started to resemble what we see in modern Mexico. By the end of the 17th century, some mestizo and native communities shared funerary customs in the Oaxaca Valley, but it was in the middle of the 18th century when the Day of the Dead took its most modern form.
Sugar Skulls to the Dead
Mexican gastronomy was born out of geography and desperation, developing out of the desire to recreate Spanish traditional dishes with the new local tastes and ingredients. Mexican confectionery is a cross-breed that took place in the kitchen of both wealthy families and monasteries, where Spanish, Creole, and Indigenous women interacted. In her book Sabores de Antaño (Flavors of Yesteryear), Teresa Castelló Yturbide writes that by the 17th century, nuns of the convent of San Felipe de Jesús were pouring sugar dough into skull-shaped clay molds, and decorating them with egg and vegetable dyes. Some of the Aztec traditions, like the consuming of human shaped edibles during important celebrations, prevailed and merged with the Roman Catholic feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.
the sugar skull becomes a symbol of how this permanence relies on thought and memory, a process that happen in our minds, inside our skulls.
The sugar skull as we recognize it today, most likely comes from the work of the 19th century lithographer, José Guadalupe Posada, who immortalized the flowery skull in his zinc etching, La Catrina. It portrays a Dapper skeleton wearing an outfit common to the upper classes. Although it was a satire mocking the native Mexicans trying to look like European aristocracy, it became an icon of the Day of the Dead, and has been reproduced several times over the years.
The sugar skull motif is sometimes considered as inherent to Mexican identity, and has become a staple of pop culture, art, and fashion. The plethora of skulls and skeletons in folk art, candies, and toys seem to reflect the Mexican view of death, that has been described as towards “acceptance”. This colorful presence of the underworld displays the great difference between the Mexican and Western attitudes towards death. Skull imagery has also led to an inevitable mass production of items and Halloween costumes.
Oh, Sweet Death!
Whether or not the sugar skulls come from a literal practice of consuming the dead, people still consume it as a symbolic act of Memento Mori. The sugar skull may appear to be just a candy (no longer made of sweet amaranth), but it carries significant meaning and a history that has survived the passing of time.
In its simple roundish opalescent white form, the sugar skull conveys the way Mexicans perceive death, grief, and joy. People write their names on the skull, and eat it during the Day of the Dead, as a way to remember that all must perish. A hope to keep your name after you pass away.
The sugar skull, in its simplicity, tells a story on its own, forged by the clash of two cultures. The new population, born out of conflict, decorated death with vibrant colors. Now it’s not only eaten, but also visually appreciated around the world, a symbol that death doesn’t have to be just bitter. In the spirit of the Day of the Dead, the dearly departed continue living as long as they are remembered, and the sugar skull becomes a symbol of how this permanence relies on thought and memory, a process that happen in our minds, inside our skulls.