The Return of the Dead in Mayan Tradition

Corn-Human Life and Death Cycles

In the wake of Mayan civilization some 5,000 years ago, corn and humans became one. Till today, humankind’s flesh is believed to made from corn dough. The intimate corn-human relation is kept alive by reflecting how death and birth cycles are interwoven. When the corn seed is in-terred, it is as though a dead human is buried. When, at the closing of the season, corn cobs are fully ripe, it is as if the dead person surfaces to join the living.

An antagonist corn-human metaphor in Mayan philosophy entails alive impersonators instead of dead impersonators. It speaks of how a human seed travels into the womb so to emerge as a baby, and how a corn seed enters the earth so to become a baby, too. Human and corn seeds go through a 260-day full-being formation cycle. For both, the 260-day cycle is lead by Venus, a time-councilor for mothers who are home-and-cornfield caretakers.

Be it as morning star or evening star, when Venus’s first appearance coincides with February 12th “blessing of the seeds” -seeds soon to be buried- and with the “announcement of human pregnancy” -no menstrual blood-, something striking happens. The star accompanies the gestation cycle of both the human baby and the corn baby. Both will ripen and be ready by November 1st. Only then, Venus star shall sink in the horizon, for its infusion of vital energy is now completed.

Month “Skull” in the Original Calendar of the Maya

Societies of Mesoamerica have always been organized by calendars that mark times for rituals. Back then and till today there are specific times for hunting, rain making, corn growing and harvesting. For the Mayan peoples in Southern Mexico, the Original Calendar instructed them to expect their dead on November 1st through to November 20th. That month was called Tzec, meaning “Skull”, and the glyph of the month was a skull. (Image above.)

For Mayan people of Pomuch, Campeche, tradition says that skulls of their dead relatives must be pulled out of the boxes and cleaned with much reverence and respect -like the rest of the bones. Once clean, family members offer their dead special food and drink, including toys if children and liquor and tobacco if adults. Eight days later another offering is made and, towards the end of November, there is a special farewell.


Skulls in Homuch, Campeche.
Skulls in Homuch, Campeche, are brought among the living in month Tzek (Skull). Photo by Katelyn published by Julio Garcia Castillo.

Why Did Two Cultures Pick November For Their Dead?

Currently my colleagues from Universidad de Oriente are visiting places and promoting intergenerational conversations. They intend to better understand how the original twenty-day ‘month’ of Tzec was juxtaposed by the Christian month of November. Surely, there are reasons of cultural survival: not using Christian references cost Mayan priests their lives. But it is fascinating to see how a culture as old as the Mayan picked November 1st some 2,600 years ago, while All Saints celebration (also on November 1st) was incepted by Gregory IV in middle of the ninth century.

Is there some natural phenomenon at that instant of time that facilitates communication between the dead and the alive? Perhaps yes, but clearly, agricultural cycles must be playing a role in how human minds conceive the interring of a seed as an act of bringing to life fully-grown fruits. Both Western and Mesoamerican are agricultural societies on the same hemisphere. Surely, November is a good month to reflect about how the hoop of death and life is closed.