The Real Thing, Part 1
In this humble altar, the Day of the Dead, comprises a floor of knowledge that fuels almost everything we do, including healing, blessing, teaching, seeking the best life possible. We can’t list here how many philosophies, methods, inspirations, and powers we have learned and used from participating in the actual event. And from attention to our ancestors we have used the reality of death to energize our evolution for the time we have on Earth.
The ceremony and celebration of Día de los Muertos, November 2 is no joke. Nor is it a party, not exactly anyway. Definitely not a superstition (and I imagine, since you’re reading this, you might feel the same).
We’ve been privileged to be part of legitimate versions of the Day of the Dead as originally practiced in Mexico. That is to say, a Toltec-based, Aztec-observed ceremonial practice, passed via tribal authority. In the Aztec dance tradition, the Day of the Dead is one of the Five Winds. Each Wind gets an overnight (up to 12 hours or more) ceremony, and a serious Dance the next morning, except the Day of the Dead. We don’t dance after that Wind, some mourning being in order.
We’d been meeting and doing ceremony in this Santuario for a year, and we’d seen the sacred room take many forms and functions. Walking in for my First Día de los Muertos ceremony, however, almost floored me. Really, it took a moment to adjust.
The presence of ancestors fills a room, takes over an environment, especially when they are welcome. The Jefes motioned us to wear headbands and get our “weapons,” our rattles, ready. The Smoke was coming from three Sahumadores attended by three women Dancers.
We hear the waist high, tree trunk Drum, the Huehuetl, a mark of our tradition, behind us and we hear the Concha, the Shell call. The Chiefs, Jefes, welcome us and give us an idea of the agenda. Two main events: the Dead, of course, and the Ollin.
Volumes can be written and sung about the Ollin, another keystone in our traditions. Google it and you’ll get so many interpretations, images and stories you’ll beg for simplicity. Ollin is one of the 20 Day Names in the Aztec/Mayan Calendar. Simply translated it symbolizes the Gift of Movement. For us it is a quickening, an enlightening; a healing movement.
After the initial ceremony and the lighting of about 20 something candles of all shapes and sizes, the Jefes choose a man and a woman to “lower the Ollin.” This is about 10:30 PM Nov 1 and while this sets up, a Dancer collects the names of the recent dead from each participant. They ask us to keep mostly to relatives and close friends who had passed in the last five years or so.
Assuming the Dead are in the right place, we feel like they stay around for a time, for an afterlife review, what they did or didn’t, who they loved or didn’t, all those issues. After that, we believe they move on, next cosmos, back to Earth, to Heaven, somewhere out there or in here. Circle of Life.
Plentiful items of food, drink, tobacco, sweets and pictures of the Dead are all over the altar surrounded by strong colors, multiples of skulls, in all shapes and sizes, tall glass Mexican candles representing every Deity imaginable. The two main events occur simultaneously.
The couple chosen to lower the Ollin are on the floor seated by a square board centered in front of the altar. They are surrounded by baskets of multi-colored flowers on short stems. Branches and leaves are bundled neatly next to the flowers. As a new round of Song and Smoke kicks up, the couple begins, flower by flower, lowering the Ollin!
Then a Dancer stands up holding the list of our departed. She begins reading one name at a time, loud and clear. She reads one name per verse of song. Considering there were 40 people there, each offering a few names, we Sang, Rattled, Drummed and Prayed quite a few songs, until 2:30 AM.
It was hard to see the Ollin, since there were so many in various states of prayer and participation, but I took a mental picture that comes now, so many years later, to inspire when needed. That mental picture is something I can take with me.
The Ollin is lowered, our prayer for the communities of the living and dead is set. During the break, much expectation for the future sneaks into most of our conversations, and while there were only 40 of us, we felt like we were in an auditorium of hundreds.
Day of the Dead, the Real Thing, Part 2, November 1, 2020.