For this non-end-of-days end-of-days, a word on Death in Mayan and Mexican culture from new Morbid Anatomy Scholar in Residence Salvador Olguín:
I’ve been following the Morbid Anatomy blog for quite some time. This is my second guest post in the blog (the first can be found here); this time I am officially writing as Morbid Anatomy’s new Scholar in Residence. I told Joanna Ebenstein I wanted to write a few lines to commemorate such major occasion as the end of the 13th baktun of the Mayan calendar –that is, the 13th cycle of 144,000 days since the world began, otherwise known as The End of Times. Posting this text after the announcement of the Morbid Anatomy Library’s recent acquisition of a lot of Santa Muerte artifacts, also celebrated in this article by David Metcalf, is a happy coincidence. Finally, being able to use this post to introduce Posada’s Mexico, a book about José Guadalupe Posada recently acquired by the MA library, is a real treat.You can find out more about Santa Muerte in these recent posts (1, 2); you can find out more about our upcoming Santa Muerte lecture and party by clicking here, and more about The Morbid Anatomy Library by clicking here. You can find out more about Morbid Anatomy Scholar in Residence Salvador Olguín by clicking here. All images are scans from Posada’s Mexico, a book about José Guadalupe Posada recently acquired by the Morbid Anatomy library.
José Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican engraver and illustrator who started working in the late 1800s as a cartoonist. He produced a vast number of etchings, most of which first appeared in the news papers and cheap periodicals published in Mexico City during the last decade of the 19th and the early 1900s. Posada’s was a time of social turmoil. The publications where he worked criticized the autocratic government of Porfirio Díaz for favoring Mexico’s Europeanized higher classes over the workers and the dispossessed. In this milieu, Posada used his art to satirize the rich and powerful, but also to illustrate current events and the news: murders, cases of cannibalism, floods, earthquakes and the End of the World, which people in Mexico believed was imminent 100 years ago.
Posada created a series of iconic characters like Don Chepito Marihuano (Mr. Chepito The Pothead), a gentleman who entertained the habit of smoking large amounts of weed. You can see him holding a skull, Hamlet-style, in the bottom illustration above. One of his most iconic illustrations was La Calavera Garbancera, later baptized as La Catrina by Diego Rivera. She came to represent Death personified for all Mexicans. Posada conceived her as a working class woman of mixed Native American and European blood, wearing a pretentious French hat. Later Rivera painted her in one of his murals (4th image down), but instead of using her as a vehicle of social commentary he dressed her up in a full fancy gown, making her a proud symbol of the unification of Mexico’s dual roots: Spanish and Native American. The fact that this symbol is embodied as a skeleton shows the importance of the personification of Death in Mexican iconography, and makes La Catrina a direct precursor of Santa Muerte.
Most Mesoamerican cultures had a cyclical notion of time. There were times of destruction and times of renewal. There had been other Worlds, and other versions of Humanity in their mythical pass, and there would be new worlds and a new humanity in the future. A Mayan wouldn’t be surprised that the world didn’t come to an end: today marks the beginning of the 14th baktun. Death remains the only certain thing in life; believing She’s a person, a being that watches over us, is certainly a soothing idea. Knowing She likes to smoke, drink, and feast like Santa Muerte does is simply the best. Take a look at these images from Posada’s Mexico, now available for researchers at the Morbid Anatomy Library.