I recently finished the novel Cemetery Boys, and one of several things that struck me about the story was a strong similarity between the Latinx Día de Los Muertos and the medieval-Renaissance Danse Macabre traditions: the idea that in spite of death being interpreted as the end of a life, it’s considerably less permanent than generally perceived, and as are the divides between the two statuses (life and death). While there are certainly the Christian elements attached to the idea of death not being eternal, at least potentially, in both sets of traditions, what interested me was some of the visual and more practical parallels.
In general, the Danse Macabre is a trend in visual art, dating as early as the fifteenth century. The key component of the images are the skeletons that dance with or around someone who is dying or has just died. The interpretation is usually seen as a metaphor or allegory on the inevitability of death. There are a handful of different variations on this theme, including skeletons interacting with or observing the living as a reminder of how close death always is, no matter who or what the living individual happens to be. For examples as well as explorations, see: https://www.medievalists.net/tag/danse-macabre/
While the Danse Macabre is more of a visual trend, there are similar representations in literary texts as well, often poetic. Unclear boundaries between life and death, the inevitability of death, and the power of life are all common themes. The poetry I’m thinking of seems to date from around the same general time period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including “Liffe and Death”, Audelay’s “De Tribus Regibus Mortuis”, “Disputation of the Body and the Worms”, and various debates between the body and soul. All of these poems are in Middle English, although there are also earlier Latin ancestors, especially in the Body vs Soul tradition which trace back to at least the thirteenth century.
The Día de Los Muertos traditions of gathering and honoring the dead in the family with the belief that those family would be closer or even with the living during certain times goes back to the ancient indigenous peoples of Mexico, Central America, and South America including civilizations like the Aztecs. Similarly in western Europe, the ancient Celtic Druids had similar rituals and festivals, specifically Samhain. The parallels are mostly superficial, but they do include a very similar time frame, linked to the passing of fall into winter, and shared concept of the separations between the living and dead getting thinner or weaker at this particular time. Once Christianity was eventually introduced to the two regions, there’s the overlap with the All Hallows, All Saints, and All Souls days, both in general content and timing.
The particular fascination of the Danse Macabre and the imagery of the modern Día de Los Muertos with the figure of the skull and skeleton is striking though, all the more so when the literary side of things does not include them as a major focus. I can’t speak for historical or literary examples from the Día de Los Muertos traditions, but at least in terms of popular images, the colorful and decorated white skull is probably the most recognizable feature of that festival; a simple Google image search is proof enough.
This particular sort of image also features in the manuscript of a poem in Middle English titled “A Disputation between the Body and the Worms”. Again, the parallels are superficial but they are still intriguing. The only extant copy of the text survives in British Library MS Additional 37049, ff.33r-35r. The first page presents the figure of Christ on the cross, but on the following 33v:
In addition to the vague similarities in the figure of the skull, the interesting feature of this particular skeleton and its image is that on the following page the same image is re-used and then again on 34v but this third time, the figures have been repositioned to reflect progress in the debate:
The narrative presents the body of a young courtly lady who is disgusted with the worms and their practical function, namely to eat away at her body, and she requests them to be gentlemen and leave her alone. The worms respond that they are just doing their jobs as God and nature intended, and that she should be more concerned about the state of her soul than her now dead body. She eventually concedes to their point, as the good Christian she is supposed to be.
The physicality aspect is the interesting part since this poem, as well as the many examples of the Danse Macabre tradition, hint at the unstable physicality of the transition and spaces between life and death. In some of the Celtic pagan traditions for example, physical symbols like carving skulls or faces into turnips, now pumpkins, represent another facet of this idea during the time of Samhain. The more separate treatments of the physical and spiritual is more of the Christian influence in most cases, since the older traditions often reflect less of a binary opposition and more of a transitionary, permeable boundary between the physical and the spirit worlds.
At least in the poetic traditions, even the Christian understanding of the boundaries between life and death are somewhat flexible; in many of the debates between the Body and the Soul, often more serious and theological in nature, the body and the soul coexist but have been separated at least for a time after death. These poems typically end with either predictions or the enacting of the final and often violent or painful separation between the soul and body.
That these festivals coincide with each other is likely due to some extent with their shared connections to the passing season of fall into winter. Again, a superficial yet interesting parallel comes up in the Christian tradition of following the celebration and memory of those who have died with Christmas which is typically represented as a revival of life given that the Biblical narrative begins with the birth of a child. Timing-wise in the pagan Celtic calendar this roughly compares with the solstice in December and Imbolc (a welcoming of impending spring) in February. I don’t know of a Latinx celebration that would be similar in its timing, but that doesn’t change the significant overlaps (superficial but still there) in the late October-early November time frame. Death is certainly a common theme in memorial celebrations or traditions in many cultures, and late fall is certainly a symbolic time that matches well.
To wrap up these rambling thoughts and go back to the original observations about the skeleton imagery and the notions about the boundaries between the living and the dead for just a few moments, the shared symbolic timing of the memorial celebrations in honor of those who have died in a time of natural transition would make sense in connection with the concept of the transitions back and forth between life and death suggested directly by non-Christian (at least not originally) origins of some of the rituals and images, and indirectly by some of the Christian ones. The Middle Ages seem to have been a little more open to the idea of the boundaries between life and death being flexible than later Christianity, if the art and imagery of the skull or skeleton connected with the Danse Macabre are taken as serious commentary about the nature of the possible flexibility of the borders involved. As I’ve said before, these connections are superficial, but they’re still interesting, especially since the European Middle Ages is often understood (unfairly a lot of the time) as being more uptight about this kind of thing.