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Day of the Dead: Why are marigolds used for Dia de los Muertos?

In the context of Day of the Dead altars, marigolds hold a special significance

Marigolds, known as “cempasúchil“, are an essential element of the Day of the Dead altar and play a significant role in the celebrations of this mexican tradition.

The word “cempasúchil” derives from Nahuatl, specifically “cempoalxochitl,” which translates to “flower of 20 petals.” It is also referred to as the “flower of the dead” due to its prominence in the Dia de los Muertos festivities in Mexico.

Marigold, the legend

One of the legends associated with marigolds, or cempasúchil, suggests that these flowers serve as a guide for the spirits who visit on November 1st and 2nd, thanks to their vibrant color and aromatic scent. The marigold petals are believed to absorb sunlight, enabling them to illuminate the path for the spirits.

Another legend tells the pre-Hispanic origin of the cempasúchil. It narrates the story of Xóchitl, a beautiful woman living in a valley, whose beauty captivated the Sun god, Tonatiuh. Every day, the Sun god would pass by her house, watching her as she combed her long hair.

One day, Tonatiuh decided to take on human form to approach his beloved. He dressed in clothes and a hat, introduced himself to the young woman, and invited her to watch the sunset together. Xóchitl fell in love with the humanized god, and they spent 20 sunsets filled with happiness, despite the heartbreak of parting at dawn.

Driven by curiosity, Xóchitl decided to follow Tonatiuh one night after their farewell. When Tonatiuh reached a hill, he discarded his garments and emerged in his full brilliance. His radiance blinded Xóchitl, who fled in fear, stumbling and falling into a ravine, where she lost her life.

Tonatiuh discovered her lifeless body and, overcome with grief, caressed it with his rays. His sorrow caused him to shed a tear, which, upon touching Xóchitl’s body, transformed her into a beautiful flower with vibrant yellow and orange petals.

This flower became known as cempasúchil.

Marigold and Dia de los Muertos

In the context of Day of the Dead altars, marigolds hold a special significance. Their vibrant colors and fragrance are believed to guide the spirits back to the world of the living. According to the pre-Hispanic belief, cempasúchil captures the rays of the sun in its petals.

In pre-Hispanic Mexico, cempasúchil was considered a ceremonial flower, and remnants of this flower have been found in the censers used by the Aztecs at the Templo Mayor.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún detailed the use of the “flower of the dead” in his work “Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España” (General History of the Things of New Spain), describing its ceremonial use in Aztec festivities.

Beyond its symbolic importance, marigolds have other uses and properties. They are used to obtain pigments and colorants and are employed in animal feed factories. Due to their color, marigolds are administered to fattening birds to enhance the color of their skin or egg yolks.

READ: Dia de los Muertos: What are the typical offerings for Day of the Dead?

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