Tomicca: Our Departed on the Day of the Dead

David Bowles
4 min readNov 1, 2022

Without getting into just how much Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead in Mexico is Indigenous or syncretic, I wanted to share some basic (mostly linguistic) information about similarly-named holidays among the Mexica (“Aztecs”) and other Nahuas before the Spanish invasion.

There are multiple possible destinations for a soul in Nahua belief, but the most common is Mictlān, “Land of the Dead.” Souls that travel into that realm (across a mighty river, aided by a dog) are known as “mictēcah,” literally “inhabitants of Mictlān.” They must spend four years crossing nine “deserts” full of obstacles, gods, and monsters.

The point of these obstacles is to “flense the flesh,” i.e., to free the soul of earthly attachments so that it can reach the center / lowest level of Mictlān and pass beyond, to Quēnamihcān, the “Unknowable Realm” … perhaps Tamoanchan, paradise, or union with the divine source.

That’s why, metaphorically, only one’s bones are left behind in Mictlān. Now, two rulers of that Underworld decide whether one has been fully freed from worldly entanglements: Mictlāntēuctli (literally “Dead Land Lord”) and Mictēcacihuātl (“Dead People Lady,” or “Queen of the Dead”).

The rulers of Mictlan, from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer

As she was in charge of the “mictēcah” (the souls traveling through the Land of the Dead), Nahua families dedicated four days each year for four years, around the anniversary of their beloved’s death, to offer prayers, delicacies, and flowers to Mictēcacihuātl in hopes that she would ease their loved ones’ trek. Her favorite flower? The marigold.

In Nahuatl, marigold is “cempōhualxōchitl,” meaning “twenty flower” (twenty being a number of completeness). Over time, Spanish twisted the Nahuatl pronunciation into “sempasúchil,” as the marigold is now known throughout Mexico.

Another Nahuatl name for the blossom is “miccāxōchitl,” which can be translated “departed one flower” or “flower of the dead.”

I want to dig into that important root, “miccā-” for its rich connotations.

Normally, the word for “dead person” is “micqui.” It’s the participle form of the verb “miqui” (to die, which is “mic” in the past tense … to which we add -qui to form the participle “dead”). But when we talk about OUR dead, our dearly…

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David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. VP of the Texas Institute of Letters.