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History of : Pan de Muerto

Pan de Muerto is now a staple for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations in Mexico and beyond. The tradition, however, has its roots in a more gruesome part of history - the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice.

Aztec ritual human sacrifice portrayed in the page 141of the Codex Magliabechiano

When the Spanish first colonised Mesoamerica they were shocked at the barbaric practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism undertaken by the Aztecs. One such part of the ritual to appease the god of war, sun and human sacrifice "Huitzilopochtli", involved cutting open the chest of a young virgin sacrifice while still alive and pulling out her heart to be offered up towards the sun god. The heart was then covered in amaranth seeds and offered to the priest to take a bite (Think back to Indie in 'The Temple of Doom' for a poor cultural reference).

Another offering to the god was made from dough and shaped into images of the gods. These were called tzoalli and were a mix of ground amaranth mixed with honey and human blood from the sacrifices. Before the Spanish conquest, amaranth was thought to make up 80% of Aztec energy consumption.

Understandably, the Spanish were horrified by these practices, and instead introduced an alternative to this ritual by coating bread with red sugar to try and emulate the human heart eaten by the priest/ the bread created with blood from the sacrifices. The amaranth was replaced with wheat flour (a European import) and more closely resembled Pan de Muerto as it is known today. Some bakeries still use red sugar! This swap by the Spaniards was not a goodwill gesture by any means, but rather a way to enforce their Christian religion onto the Aztecs, with the bread coming to symbolise Christ and marking the beginning of the slow conversion of the population to Catholicism. Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican celebration, but is celebrated at the same time as All Saint's Day in the Catholic church. There is some debate as to how Dia de los Muertos came about at all, and whether its origin was indeed an Aztec ceremony, European tradition, or a byproduct of reform laws under Benito Juárez (President of Mexico 1858-1872) that brought it to its modern form today.

As well as the origins of Dia de los Muertos being confusing, so too is the symbolisim of Pan de Muerto - with different interpretations being attributed to both Aztec and Spanish Colonial histories.

Pan de Muerto in their natural habitat

Some say the four lines on top relate to the four deities in the Aztec tradition: Quetzalcóatl, Tláloc, Xipetotec , and Tezcatlipoca. Another interpretation takes a more Christian-centric view, with the lines symbolising bones and the small ball in the centre being the skull of those who have passed away. Nowadays, a tear is also baked onto the loaf to symbolise the goddess Chīmalmā's tears for the living, and some recipes may call for orange blossom which symoblises the everlasting presence of the departed souls : another way to celebrate the connection between life and death. This connection is also reflected in the circular shape of the loaf which is said to signify the constant cycle between life and death. Pan de Muerto can, however, come in different shapes across the country, for example in Oaxaca, bread is baked into anthropomorphic figurines, faces included!

On Dia de los Muertos, Pan de Muerto are placed on on the altars of loved ones, mirroring the Aztec tradition of placing food as offerings on tombs of the deceased.

A typical Mexican Altar for Dia de los Muertos

Pan de Muerto is really a symbol of Mexico, drawing influence from the many facets of its history. An assortment of cultures and traditions have been melded together to form a hybrid of Aztec tradition, colonial catholicism and contemporary Mexican history.

Sources and further reading


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