One thing is certain, we will meet Death at the end of our path. Death comes in many ways. Whether it is planned, sudden, in youth, elderhood, or even before we are born, it always comes.
In this share, I will not talk about what is easily found about the Day of the Dead. Instead, I will share the Nahua mythology of the nine underworlds explaining tests that the soul of the dead needs to pass in four years to reach Mictlán; the final resting place. May your heart find a deeper meaning for you when you read this information left by our elders, and may you not wait until you are on the other side to reflect on what you can do in the world of the living.
One of my Zapotec teachers says that before we come into this plane of existence on Earth, we sign two fundamental contracts: birth and death. In the Mayan cosmology, this view is also supported. For the Maya, the “Conception” contract is created by a spiritual guide who helps the energy of your spirit be born in a certain way, to a certain community, and by your chosen parents. There is a guardian energy that leads the way for our soul, always. The guardian energy walks behind you, together with your spirit guide, who walks ahead of you and helps fulfill your destiny. Upon death, the guardian of destiny awaits you. When you have completed your destiny and life. This destiny guardian waits ready with open arms to receive you and lead you back to Source; the big house where souls reside.
Mictlán is the place where all souls rest. According to what is written in the Florentine codices, Mictlán is a place, divided into nine underworlds. When you close your eyes and give your last breath in the mortal world, you will open your spiritual eyes in the land of the dead. For your soul to arrive at its final resting place, it has to visit all nine underworlds and go through a series of tests, passing each one successfully until you reach the ninth and final test.
The nine underworlds are:
Itzcuitlan, (The place where the dog lives) Here the dog, called Xoloitzcuintle, helps the soul of the dead cross the river Apanohuacalhuia. In this underworld, the test is, were you kind to dogs in your life? If so, the dog will help each soul to cross the river. But if the soul mistreated dogs, it will wander around the edges of the river trying to find its way across.
Tepectli monamictlán, (The place of the crushing mountains) The home of Tepeyóllotl (Lord of the mountains, echoes, and jaguars) holds the test for the soul to run in between the mountains without being tortured. If the timing is wrong, the mountains will crush the soul.
Iztépetl, (The obsidian mountain) This is the home of the Lord of the obsidian and punisher of all your wrongdoings, Iztlacoliuqui. The intention for this underworld is for the soul to go through a complete detachment of all earthly possessions. In this underworld, the soul travels through strong winds produced by these mountains as they move closer together. Obsidian knives cut any attachments for the soul to continue forward in a free state.
Itzehecayan, (The place of a lot of snow) This is the home of the Lord of the Northern Winds, Mictlecayotl. This underworld is completely frozen and contains a string of eight very sharp stones. It is difficult to see in this world because of the snow. The freezing winds of the north are blinding and dangerous because of the sharp stones.
Paniecatacoyan, (The place where the body becomes as placid as a flag blowing in the wind) In this underworld, the winds are so magnificent that the dead would be shaken from one place to another without control. The only way out of this world is if a strong gust of wind blows the dead to the exit.
Timminaloayan, (The place of flying arrows) In this underworld, the soul needs to move gracefully because many invisible hands shoot arrows. The challenge is to avoid being hit by one of the arrows.
Tacoyohuelaoyan, (The place where the heart gets eaten) This is home to the Lord of the mountains, echoes, and jaguars, Tepeyóllotl. It is said that in this underworld, wild creatures open the chest of the soul to devour its heart.
Izmictlan Apochcalolca, (The place where water is crossed) In this underworld there is an enormous river of dark and dirty waters awaiting the dead. Here the dead, already without a heart, need to leave their sorrows behind to become light enough to float above and not sink to the bottom of these nasty waters.
Chicunamictlán, (The place of the thick fog) This underworld has a very thick fog through which it is hard to see. In this place, the soul of the dead must reflect on its actions taken while among the living and come to terms with their actions. In this way, the dead is now empty, clean, light, and left with no regrets, or remorse. With this level of purification, the soul is now ready to transcend to the land of Mictlán.
When the soul passes all the tests in all nine underworlds and arrives at Mictlán, it stands before the ruling couple Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl. They stand at its entrance to give the final judgment, assessing if the soul is worthy of reaching Mictlán. If worthy, they welcome the soul home.
For this reason, on Earth, we keep an altar for those loved ones who recently passed away and we tend to the altar for four years to support our loved ones with light, prayers, offerings, and wishes for them to be happy and free. We hope that their soul may pass all nine tests and arrive in Mitclán. If a soul does not pass through each of these nine underworlds, passing each test, one will need to begin again in a new life on Earth.
Once arrived in Mictlán. When Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl receive the dead, after the purification process attained through the nine underworlds, they say, “Your sorrows have ended, go then and sleep and have your mortal dream” After these words are spoken, whatever is left of a previously mortal being resolves into no-thing and joins the great energy or great force.
With such a journey, it seems like our soul is more alive in death than in the world of the living. Or could it be, that when we are in this world, called Earth, we are the living dead?
When souls arrive in Mictlán they are sure to be reunited with their loved ones. They rest and it is said that they have a great time dancing. Free of physical form the soul now can be in the elements and become part of the oceans, rivers, and streams. The free soul can become a bird to come to visit a loved one who is having a hard time with grief or is feeling lonely. The free soul can come to visit also as a thought or dream to share with us a feeling, the image of when we were once together in the living world until we close our eyes and give out our last breath as the first steps into the journey back home to Mictlán.
Seen from the eyes of an alchemist, the nine underworlds describe the alchemical process of the proverbial lead becoming gold. This process of transformation is also represented in the fermentation process of grapes to wine.
I often wonder how the process of the soul going through these tests and tribulations parallels more within our lives than we are aware. In a single day, we have to go through so much sometimes that it does feel like we begin one way and become another by the end of the day. So perhaps we die each day and then we put ourselves to rest in our dreamscapes. We are then reborn every day with the Sun to try life again, perhaps in a different way than the day before.
During these Days of the Dead, do not forget to do an altar for your loved ones. They will be happy to cross the marigold bridge while the veil is thinner to be with you in Spirit. May your warm and beating heart be tender as these times touch you. May those you love who are dancing in Mictlán, cross over to kiss you. May you feel their love through that kiss and know that even though they have gone before us, they are but a thought away.
“May death give you a long life” ~ Margarita Camarena
To learn more about Margarita and her work, read her contributor bio.