The true meaning of the Mexican Skull

Why are skulls so popular with Mexicans?

It's true. After all, it's a very morbid symbol that most people will have a hard time getting anything positive out of, right?

Well no !

As strange as it may seem, the meaning of the Mexican skull is definitely positive and actually offers us a message of hope.

So let's take a moment together to look further into the meaning of this strange custom, its origins and the lessons it has to offer us.

In short, let's discover together all the secrets of the Mexican skull and crossbones!

Contents :

Dia de Los Muertos

Origin of the Mexican skull

The Mexican skull: a sweet and colorful tradition

The true meaning of the Mexican skull

Several young people dressed as skulls for the “Dia de Muertos” celebration.

Dia de Muertos

“Día de Muertos”, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday that I had the chance to attend during one of my trips.

This is the moment for Mexico to adorn itself in the most beautiful colors, to remember the deceased and to celebrate them. Almost everywhere in the country, the Day of the Dead is therefore an opportunity to set up altars dedicated to our loved ones or to any character who has marked our memory.

Over the years, some traditions have been continued while others have been lost. There are even some that have been added here and there, creating local variations which make the Day of the Dead a very regionalized event.

If, however, there is one tradition common to all the inhabitants of the country, it is that of the Mexican skull.

On graves, in cemeteries or even in houses: we can indeed find small colorful skulls like those present on these necklaces almost everywhere. In fact, the Mexican skull is a central element of the altars created for the Day of the Dead.

A Catholic ring, a Santa Muerte pendant and lucky skull earrings

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Origin of the Mexican skull

Without knowing much more, we might think that the Mexican skull is a symbol of death, an allusion to what we are all destined to become: skeletons.

And this is not necessarily false...

However, stopping at this simple analysis would be truly simplistic. The symbols that certain civilizations of the past may have used can contain meanings (religious or spiritual in particular) that we can only understand by taking a serious interest in the question.

In reality, the theme of the Mexican lucky charm is often tinged with traces of the past, the country's culture being the fusion of European and pre-Columbian traditions.

Don't worry, you won't have to spend hours with your nose buried in books to understand the meaning of the Mexican skull... We've already done it for you!

We were also interested in other Mexican lucky symbols that you can find here.

Anyway, here is now a summary of the information we found about the skull in Mexico.

Ruins of the city of Teotihuacan, an ancient Aztec city.

Pre-Columbian civilizations…

In all likelihood, the use of Mexican skulls as we know it is a direct descendant of an ancient Aztec tradition. Since prehistoric times, in fact, the skull has been a predominant figure in pre-Columbian societies and cultures.

One of the most famous representations was the tzompantli, a kind of wooden support in which the skulls of prisoners of war or individuals who had served as sacrifices to the gods were displayed.

You should know that these ancient civilizations (Aztecs, Mayans, etc.) all believed in life after death.

Thus, the tzompantli served them in a way to send offerings to Mictlantecuhtli, their god of the underworld. Ensuring a good relationship with this power was essential: in fact, it was he who allowed the soul to pass through his domain serenely. If he wanted, he could very well keep one in his kingdom for a hundred years, a thousand years, or even more...

Statue showing the Spanish Catholic conquistadors arriving in America and Mexico.

…when the Spanish arrived in Mexico

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the mid-16th century, they attempted to introduce the Catholic faith to the indigenous people, doing their best to eradicate the indigenous religion.

This inevitably had some effects and certain traditions were lost as a result.

When we know the barbarity of the sacrifices that certain peoples were able to practice, the authoritarian society based on slavery which allowed them to develop and more generally the treatment that certain individuals were able to undergo, this can sometimes seem to us to be a good thing..

However, some of the customs or beliefs of the ancient peoples of Mexico were undoubtedly good to keep. You, like me, understand this easily… The Spanish conquistadors too!

While sacrifices ceased, the Mexican skull was retained for the message of respect to the dead it carried.

Skeleton-shaped doll dressed and decorated to look like La Catrina.

Catrina

Between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, a figure who would change the face (that's fair to say) of the Day of the Dead and the tradition of the Mexican skull would appear.

Known as “La Catrina”, it was under the pen of the designer Jose Guadalupe Posada that she first appeared in newspapers as illustrations.

A bit like the way we came to know the greatest comic book characters sketched at the end of our daily lives, Mexicans thus discovered La Catrina performing everyday tasks with a certain touch of humor.

Concretely, with his character La Catrina, Posada was the first to represent skeletons dressed in contemporary clothing and to include them in scenes of everyday life.

If you are interested in the subject, you will find more information on the Wikipedia page dedicated to Catrina. We have checked the information there and it appears to us to be completely correct and relevant.

Known as "Calaveras", his characters were often servants and employees of the wealthiest social classes. Almost always depicted in the form of women, his Calaveras were able to conquer the hearts of the people who, in many ways, undoubtedly identified with them.

We have already mentioned it but, if there is one character who stood out from the other Calaveras, it is La Catrina.

While her friends were dressed in the rags of the poor, the latter strutted around in the most expensive outfits, displaying all the characteristics of social success at the time.

There was, however, one element that united all Calaveras: the Mexican skull.

In fact, there was a strong political message hidden behind this figure. With her half-skeletal, half-bourgeois appearance, she reminded the people that death applied to everyone, even the most fortunate.

Thus, as for the Aztecs but in a completely different register, the Mexican skull here also occupied an important social role.

Two Mexican skulls made of sugar paste and decorated with pink and blue icing.

The Mexican skull: a sweet and colorful tradition

If you ever walk through the streets of Mexico City on All Souls' Day, you will see amazing little skulls of all colors...literally everywhere!

In store windows, in street stands, printed on locals' t-shirts and sometimes even painted on their faces. In particular, mosaic bracelets of this type or even skull-shaped rings have been particularly popular in recent years.

In this profusion of colors and shapes, there is, however, one way of representing the Mexican skull that surpasses all others: the sugar skull.

Sold by candy vendors throughout the city, you can find something for everyone.

Seeing the Mexican skull in this form can make us wonder.

Throughout our research, we came across a whole bunch of explanations as to the meaning of the Mexican skull. However, the message these candies carried was rarely explained to us.

This may seem like a “light” question, but you must understand the extent of this tradition in Mexico…

There are actually millions of little skull-shaped candies that are eaten every year!

How on earth could we have arrived at this strange situation where an ancient custom linked to human sacrifice had given rise to amusing folklore which was known to delight children?

It's clear: learning more about these little sugary skulls from Mexico could help us learn more about the skull symbol as a whole.

We will therefore be interested in this point, yes, but not only.

The themes of masks, tattoos, and the different colors of the Mexican skull will also be discussed here.

Sugar skulls presented on a pastry shop stall in Mexico.

Sugar: what an astonishing material

It’s clear: if you celebrate “Dias de Los Muertos”, you will see a wide variety of skulls made of sugar and therefore edible.

We've been talking about sugar since the beginning of this article... but that's not entirely accurate.

In fact, Mexican skulls are made from a paste called alfeñique which is a mixture of sugar, hot water and lemon.

Taken together, these ingredients form a molasses comparable in substance to caramel. It is then this paste which allows confectioners and other pastry chefs to create the famous skulls.

If you want to prepare alfeñique and, why not, make it a fun moment of exchange with the whole family, here is a delicious recipe that has proven itself.

For the record, this paste, called alfeñique, was initially brought to Mexico by the Spanish. The recipe probably comes from the Muslim community, which ruled Spain from the 6th to the beginning of the 15th century.

Far from being the only material used, sugar is sometimes replaced by other foods. In reality, the type of food the Mexican skull is made from will depend heavily on what region of the country you are in, with some states having historically had access to much more expensive sugar than others.

The main ingredients that can make up your Mexican skulls are as follows:

  • Almonds, mainly in paste form
  • Honey-based preparations
  • The peanuts
  • More industrial gum, the type of candy that our little ones love so much
  • Chocolate (dark, white, milk, etc.)
  • Various types of cookies

    Be careful where you put your teeth though!

    You should know that many of these Mexican skull-shaped candies are decorated with glitter, rhinestones and other decorations that are not edible. Try to eat them and you'll have a bad time.

    Mexican skulls of several colors (red, white, blue and black in particular) placed side by side.

    The color of the Mexican skull

    Obviously, who says candy says varied colors.

    More than a simple desire to vary flavors and icings, the different shades in which we can find the Mexican skull help us to better understand their deeper meaning.

    Already, this aspect helps them not look too scary.

    For children in particular, seeing the skull decorated with lots of colors, each one more bright and fun than the next, helps them not to be afraid of it, and thus to participate in the party with their family.

    Imagine the reaction of the little ones if they were instead offered gray, dark and sinister skulls... This would clearly be a game-changer!

    In fact, these are all Day of the Dead traditions that are cute, colorful, and fun. Everything must be done to make this holiday the brightest of the year.

    Furthermore, when we know that the Mexican skull is one of the offerings we make to the deceased, we understand that, out of respect and to show them our attachment, we must all do so that these gifts are as good as possible.

    As such, a colorful Mexican skull, covered with a delicious glaze and in which the smallest detail has been carefully carved, is undoubtedly a more beautiful gift than a common wooden or stone statuette.

    Respect and memory of those who have left us…

    This is precisely the reason why this celebration, although centered around death, is so full of color.

    Indeed, All Souls' Day is not just an opportunity to remember and mourn those we have lost. It is also the time of year when we can celebrate with them, thus remembering the good times we were able to spend together, keeping them in this way in our hearts and minds.

    Let us also point out that the meaning of the Mexican skull can vary depending on the color that the family chooses to represent it.

    Here is a brief list of the tones that you can find most frequently and their specific meaning:

    • Red is used to represent our blood
    • Orange is associated with the sun and the power of its rays.
    • Yellow represents the worries, worries and worries that can inhabit us
    • Purple is the color symbolizing pain in Mexico
    • Pink and white are important signs of hope, purity and celebration of life
    • Finally, black represents the land of the dead, hell.

      Thus, pendants in neutral and contemporary colors will suit (both in their message and in their look) goths, bikers and other rockers.

      Artist writing the name of a woman by calligraphy.

      Names written on our Mexican skull

      To better understand the meaning of the Mexican skull, we will here describe the progress of a typical ceremony.

      First, the family sets up their altar in the living room, rearranging boxes to act as shelves which will later be covered with a blanket or tablecloth.

      Then, photos of deceased loved ones are placed on what then resembles an altar. Particular attention is given to the presence of empty spaces between these photos. You have to keep a place to put the offerings all the same!

      These offerings will consist of dishes and drinks. .. but not just any dishes. To please them as much as possible, these are the favorite foods of our deceased that are offered to them.

      With this food necessarily comes the Mexican skull which will then be used to finalize what the Mexicans call “the ofrenda”. Often, these skulls stand out from the rest of the altar by their colors which catch the eye.

      Anyway, the ceremony then begins.

      Using a knife or a needle, names are then engraved on the small heads of sugar.

      These names, you must suspect, are dead people to whom the family wants to pay tribute. Personalizing an offering is indeed certainly a great mark of respect.

      Once this is done, the party itself can begin. Everyone then starts eating, drinking and dancing. We warned you: Day of the Dead remains above all a major popular celebration.

      A man and his wife wearing skull masks as a disguise for a carnival or Day of the Dead.

      Drawings, masks, clothing and other Mexican skulls

      In addition to its use as a symbol of the Day of the Dead, the Mexican skull has entered Mexican culture and is therefore found in a whole host of places in society.

      As we mentioned when talking about La Catrina, in Mexico there is a tradition of drawing, satyr and parody based on the Mexican skull. Often, famous people (politicians in particular) are the subjects of sometimes very critical jokes.

      Obviously also, and this tradition has also reached us, there are many clothes whose design is inspired by the skull. From a simple printed t-shirt to a cap, including the chicest designer jackets, there is something for everyone and for all tastes.

      There is, however, one way of wearing the skull which has remained entirely Mexican: it is the mask.

      While it is customary to paint children's faces to make them look like skeletons, adults prefer to wear masks.

      In fact, the mask is a real institution in Mexico. In traditional cultures it was already a powerful symbol of the dark and chaotic side that inhabits man.

      Tattoo on a woman's back showing skulls and roses, in a very Latino style.

      A very popular tattoo subject

      Nowadays, many people choose to get a Mexican skull tattoo for a variety of reasons. There are probably as many variations as there are tattoos.

      While some will choose to get one to pay tribute to a deceased loved one, others may choose the Mexican skull as a tattoo to show their membership in a group (particularly gangs and cartels). However, most people choose it simply for its aesthetic qualities and the very colorful tattoos that can be made from the Mexican skull.

      Often the designs are merged with other symbols. Flowers in particular occupy a special place.

      By associating the skull, symbol of death, with the flower, symbol of love and life, this type of Mexican tattoo invites us in some way to overcome the fear of death but also to mourn our deceased, life continuing all the same and having to be celebrated.

      Truly, the skull is a very popular subject among tattoo artists. Here are examples of such tattoos and drawings which will illustrate the subject.

      Sugar skulls presented on a pastry shop stall in Mexico.

      Benefit from the power of skulls

      symbols of life and death in Mexico

      Discover

      The true meaning of the Mexican skull

      The Mexican skull is seen in different ways around the world.

      Some people are afraid of it because they associate it with a whole bunch of bad things. Others view it as a celebration of life or as a tribute to their deceased ancestors and loved ones.

      However, everyone agrees that the skull is one of the most famous forms of celebration of death in the world.

      We looked at the meaning of the Mexican skull, its origins and some notable forms in which we can find them. All this has provided us with some valuable information in our quest for meaning, but certain questions remain unanswered...

      It is precisely these questions that we will try to answer in this part of the article.

      We will thus better discover the meaning of our famous skull and by what means it was able to achieve the role of popular icon in Mexico.

      Statue of a skull placed in a dark and sinister atmosphere.

      Making fun of death

      Many images associated with the Day of the Dead seem to somehow mock death.

      Funny skeletons are dressed in colorful outfits, skulls are decorated with symbols associated with joy, and even coffins sometimes find their way into the hands of small children as toys. Here you will find some of the most beautiful Mexican skulls that will better show you what we are talking about.

      In fact, this way of making fun of death is typical of Mexican culture.

      We have already mentioned it with the caricatures of illustrators from the beginning of the 20th century and more particularly Calaveras and La Catrina. This tradition therefore seems to have become a lasting part of Mexican folklore.

      White rose placed on the stele of a grave, in homage to a deceased loved one.

      A tribute to the deceased

      We have said it again and again but it is essential that this information sinks into everyone's heads: unlike many other cultures around the world, Mexican skulls are absolutely not representative of the dark and sad side of death..

      If they're this bright and made with delicious ingredients that smell festive, it's proof that they're celebrating something positive.

      It's a thing, it's the existence that those who left were able to live.

      In fact, we don't really pay homage to them in the literal sense (although some people interpret the meaning of the Mexican skull that way). The idea is rather to remind through celebration and joy that, although they are no longer here, our departed experienced moments of happiness and fun and as such should not be mourned.

      We can say that the goal is to “capture” the spirit of joie de vivre that once animated our deceased loved ones. Thus, it is common to see skulls decorated with various accessories that recall what the dead man had most.

      If he had a passion, for example hunting, a small rifle could be worn on his head. Anyway, you get the idea.

      This tradition has thus been able, through this strong message of hope and cheerfulness, to unite all the Mexican people around the celebration of their famous “Día de los Muertos”.

      In case we haven't given you enough information for your liking, here is an article that will tell you about the Day of the Dead from another perspective.

      Carnival where we see women paraded wearing Mexican skull makeup, in allusion to the Mexican Day of the Dead.

      A message that went beyond the Day of the Dead

      With its festive and joyful appearance, the Mexican skull has gone far beyond the borders of Mexico.

      It's clear: the Mexicans wanted to make their skull tradition a marker of joy and fun and they succeeded quite well... so much so that the phenomenon has little by little conquered the rest of the world!

      Today, you can find the Mexican skull at various levels of society.

      T-shirts, sweaters and shirts commonly use it as a pattern.

      Some alcohol brands have created entire lines dedicated to the Mexican skull. We can for example cite the Cubanisto beer which made it its logo.

      These are just two examples among many others, but they nevertheless allow us to understand that, yes, the message of the Mexican skull has conquered the hearts of the whole world.

      Lucky charms featured in this article

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      Mexican calavera necklace

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      Calavera mosaic bracelet

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      author picture(Cyril Gendarme)

      Discover the author: Cyril Gendarme

      Cyril Gendarme is a writer whose website "The Lucky Door" ("La Porte Du Bonheur" in French, his native language) has become a reference in the field of esotericism. Born in Belgium, Cyril has been attracted to the mysteries of the world since he was a child. When his interest in occultism was awakened, a particular subject caught his attention: lucky charms.

      After years of study and in-depth research on esoteric traditions from around the world, Cyril decided to share his knowledge with the public through the internet. In 2019, he launched "The Lucky Door," a website dedicated to exploring lucky charms, magical symbols, and esoteric arts.

      The Lucky Door is much more than just a showcase for those curious about magic, divination, or tradition. It is the result of Cyril's passion for researching and understanding the mysteries of the universe. Every piece of information available on the site testifies to his dedication to sharing his knowledge of the most hidden symbols and their unique powers.

      In addition to his online work, Cyril regularly organizes workshops and conferences in different countries. His presence on social media is also highly appreciated, where he offers personalized advice and happily answers questions from his community.