December 13, 2021   Read time 2 min
The term Mesoamerica defines a broad cultural area of great sociopolitical complexity mediated by many shared religious concepts, cosmological ideas, and ritual practices related to death and the afterlife.

Researchers of the Mesoamerican region have divided its history into four periods: Preclassic (2500 BCE–200 CE), Classic (200–650 CE), Epiclassic (650– 900 CE) and Postclassic (900–1521 CE). The archaeological evidence and historical record combine to yield a remarkably rich array of pre-Columbian notions of death and their vital role in the daily lives of people.

In the midst of great cultural and regional diversity throughout Mesoamerican history, one clear notion was shared by many if not all peoples: death was more than an occasion for fear, mourning and ritual response; rather, death was perceived as a vital, generative, and creative moment in a cosmic process. In this vision of the world, the cosmos and the human body were perceived in a very particular manner: everything in the universe, in one way or another, had supernatural implications. The gods, who traveled in a helicoidal motion, could manifest themselves anywhere and in any shape. The sacred powers of the cosmos reached everywhere and the belief in a complementary dualism pervaded all beings, objects, and places as well as the symbolic systems that expressed their roles and meanings.

Death occupies a vital place in this dichotomous universe, an element that, far from fatal, possesses a renewing quality. The sacred books show that death and all beings connected to it are associated with the creation of individuals, of peoples, and of humanity as a whole. Its name was given to one of the days of the Maya calendar, Cimi, and had its Mexica counterpart in Miquiztli. Furthermore, death was closely associated with maize, which was the sustenance of the Mesoamerican peoples. Death received ritual blood offerings because it was believed that—like the sun in the sky—death, wherever it resided or manifested itself, ensured the continuity of life. Death also played a fundamental role that related it to the earth: like the soil, it received seeds and made the harvests possible. It also housed funerary bundles and, at the end of the day, it devoured the sun, causing the night to fall.

Also associated with this life-generating notion of death was the concept that life could emerge from the world of the dead, as exemplified in the myth that relates how Quetzalcoatl, god of the wind, stole from the nether region the bones with which he created the human race. Similarly, the Popol Vuh narrates how the “Twin Heroes” were conceived in that region, where it was possible to die and be resurrected. Despite the peculiarities of each culture, there is enough evidence from the Mesoamerican region to suggest that death was a state closely associated to life, and not a lethal element. A chronological review shows several coincidences in the development of notions of death and life in the netherworld.

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