By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
While the ubiquitous images of painted skeletons and sugar skulls that abound across Mexico this time of year might be a bit off-putting for visitors from other countries, the golden orange color of thousands of marigold (cempasúchitl) flowers that line Avenida Reforma and decorate the omnipresent ofrendas (altars to the deceased) at least give a cheery note to the country’s otherwise gloomy two-day Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
But what exactly do these pungently aromatic flowers play in the scheme of Mexico’s annual celebration of death?
Dating back to pre-Columbian times, the saffron-hued Mexican marigold has been closely associated with maintaining contact with the dearly departed spirits of loved ones.
The Mexica, or Aztec, people – who practiced their own brand of a Day of the Dead observance long before Catholic missionaries decided to morph it into a celebration of the Christian All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day – believed that it was the favorite flower of the goddess Mictēcacihuātl, the guardian of the underworld and protector of dead spirits.
Consequently, the cempasúchitl, as they called it, was associated with sacred powers and used for medicinal purposes.
The Aztec also believed that it’s sharp scent could serve as an olfactory-based trail to help guide their spirits back to the physical world for occasional visits.
Like many elements of the pre-Hispanic traditions of the native Mexicans, the practice of incorporating marigolds into Day of the Dead observances was preserved and is still practiced throughout Mexico to this day.