Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, wasn’t always about remembering loved ones who passed as we do in the modern day. During the 16th century, before the Spanish conquistadors arrived and brought Catholicism, the Aztecs began their own tradition, one where they worshiped the Queen of the Underworld and protector of the dead. Follow along as we share our favorite version of this myth with this special edition cleanse.

Mictēcacihuātl (pronounced 'Meek-teka-see-wahdl', meaning 'Lady of the Dead') is Queen of Mictlān (the Underworld). According to the Aztec legend, she was sacrificed as an infant and placed in the Underworld to serve as the wife of Mictlāntēcutli (King of the Underworld). She is represented with a flayed body and with jaw agape, which allows her to swallow the stars and make them visible during the day. Similarly, she has also been depicted with a skull face and a skirt made from serpents.

Her role as Queen of Mictlān was to protect the bones of past lives, which were used to create new life in the living world. In order for this to happen, Mictēcacihuātl was forced to betray her husband and steal the bones from him. As the bones’ protector, a part of her own life would be etched into them. This led her to continue protecting them by returning once a year to the living world to ensure the bones were being taken care of properly. The Aztecs would celebrate her annual return with death festivals and traditional dances. This was their way of honoring her protection; both of the bones that created new life and to seek continual protection for those who died.

The Aztecs laid out offerings for the King and Queen of Mictlān for the entire month of August. The Spanish were the first outsiders to witness this and it wasn’t long before they were merging the indigenous beliefs and practices with Catholicism to create a new festival. This is how some of the most iconic and recognizable traditions that are celebrated today, such as decorative skulls and a new figure, La Catrina (the present day Mictēcacihuātl), came to be.