In Mexico, November 1 is known as Dia de los Inocentes, the “Day of the Innocents”, to remember and honor departed children. It is the second day of the Day of the Dead holiday and coincides with All Saints’ Day. The celebrations have its roots among pre-Columbian civilizations. Historians speculate that the observance had been going on for 2,500 to 3,000 years — so at least 500 years before Christianity.
Back then, these ceremonies were performed in honor of the Aztec death goddess Mictecacihuatl, who ruled the underworld with her husband and was known as the “Lady of the Dead.” It is believed she was born and sacrificed as an infant. Ancient depictions show her as a flayed body with an agape jaw. Some real old school body horror going on here.
Later, folk Catholicism would recognize this goddess as Santa Muerte, or “Our Lady of Holy Death”. Condemned by the Catholic Church, Santa Muerte is a personification of death that nevertheless is associated with healing, protection, and safe delivery to the afterlife. She also is known by a variety of absolutely metal names: the Skinny Lady, the Bony Lady, The White Sister, The Godmother, and The Lady of Shadows.
About 100 years ago, the Lady of the Dead made a transition in the same way the real life Saint Nicolas got a kid-friendly makeover thanks to Thomas Nast cartoons and Coca Cola ads. Thanks to a series of cartoon illustrations by Jose Guadalupe Posada, Mictecacihuatl morphed into a female skeleton known as La Calavera Catrina (a.k.a “Dapper Skeleton”). She started off as a skeleton wearing a nice hat. The image was satirical. Posada was lampooning locals who were blindly adopting fancy European aristocratic traditions.
My guess is that the irony was lost on everyone, though, because boy did this image go viral.
Artist Diego Rivera popularized La Calavera Catrina by having her as the central figure in a massive mural in Mexico City.
Now, though, she’s far more easily recognizable as a beautiful woman with jet black hair and elaborate skull design. The whole thing about the head being an actual skull? Underplayed. Remember La Muerte from the animated movie, The Book of Life? That’s basically her… a combination of all previous incarnations of the Lady of the Dead, including the fancy hat.
Her appeal should be obvious. She’s an all powerful goddess of death whose worshippers go back millennia. But, wow, does she look fabulous, and she rocks that make-up like no one’s business.