So part of the elaborate display in downtown Mexico City devoted to Dia de los Muertos is an exhibit on the afterlife as perceived by the Aztecs and smaller tribes who lived in peace with them or were eventually conquered by them. Last night, I was in the Zocalo with a friend, Jesica, who is a tour guide and Mexican art history expert. She explained it all to me. It is truly lovely hearing about a different concept of the afterlife — it’s intentional that I don’t use terms like “heaven” and “hell” because many of the traditional groups in Mexico did not perceive life after death as a place where you go either to be punished or revered. It had more to do with how you died and what your social status was, than what sort of moralistic-based “sins” you committed on earth. As an agnostic, I appreciate that.
Here are four layers of afterlife (there are roughly about 13), as followed by the Nahuatl speaking Aztecs (many, if not most, modern-day Mexico City residents are descended from this group; Nahuatl is still spoken here in outlying areas). Mexico City was originally a great Aztec city as late as the 1500s.
This is a depiction of where the majority of people went after they died. It’s crowded and you’re anonymous, but there are gods nearby.
A close-up of what the afterlife was like for most people.
If you died a water-related death, you went to this layer, which was presided over by the god Tlaloc, who you can see there in the back. As you can imagine, water played an important role in the valley of Mexico: Tenochtitlan, the former city, was surrounded by water.
A special layer of the afterlife was reserved for two heroic groups of people: Aztec warriors and women who died in childbirth. She is giving birth here. I especially love how warriors are grouped with women giving birth. Beautiful.
Babies and children also had their own layer.
When the babies died, they were surrounded by fruit trees that had fruit shaped like breasts that they could eat. Maternal figures watched.