Dances of Impermanence
Many of us, especially in the west, fear death. It's seen as the end of everything - a door slammed, a book closed, a voice and a soul silenced. It hasn't always been that way, however, and for some cultures around the world it still isn't the norm. While skulls and skeletons and bones may send a shiver down our spines, for some the connotations are quite different. As it happens, skulls, human skulls (and bones, too), are frequently used in the rituals and practical lives of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. While this use of skulls and bones is indeed aligned with death, this fact of death is not as morbid as it is many other places: it's just the way it is. The skulls and bones are intended to remind us of the very fact of our impermanence, that death will eventually come to us all, and to embrace lives filled with compassion, service, loving all, and happiness (without the pursuit of happiness) whether the things happening in our life are good or bad.
In Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, when a whole human skull is decorated it is called ayama, whereas a partially decorated skull is called a kapala, or skullcap. Kapalas used as cups are decorated with silver, brass and sometimes gems and may be carved with Tibetan symbols. As human skull yamas and kapalas have become harder to source, crystal replicas are used in their place and may be decorated in a similar manner. Crystal skulls have the added benefit of carrying their own unique healing energy that some find preferable to bone.
The origins of the Day of the Dead trace all the way back to the Aztec festival honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld, who watches over the bones of the dead. This celebration of the continuance of life after death was originally much longer than its current associations, lasting from around the end of July through mid-August, but was shortened after the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in 1521. The Catholic Spaniards attempted to rid the Aztecs of their rituals and convert them to Catholicism and, when they failed to do so, they reached a sort of compromise. The celebration was shortened to two days and moved to early November so as to correspond with the holidays of All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day.
Individual beads in the shape of the skull also call to mind the Goddess Kali, who wears a skull bead necklace. Kali represents the death of the ego and liberation from the notion of I-am-the-body notion, reminding us that our physical bodies are temporary, while we are the the eternal I AM. Mahākāla is also associated with skulls, as he is frequently seen wearing a crown of skulls and carrying a skull cup. This 5 skull crown represents the transformation of the five kleshas (states of mind such as anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, desire, depression) into the five wisdoms. The chopper that he holds symbolizes the act of cutting through negative patterns like aggression, hatred and ignorance. While Kali and Mahākāla's appearances may appear frightening, it is clear that the meaning and purpose being them is anything but.
The Citipati are two skeletons, one male and one female, entwined in dance after their heads were cut off by a thief as the two meditated unaware, never leaving their trance. Their symbol is meant to be a visual reminder of the eternal dance of death, perfect awareness and impermanence. They are honored in dance twice yearly, once during summer and once during winter, symbolic of the cycle of life and death.
Watching these dancing skeletons might have caused a flutter of recognition in your mind; although you may not have been familiar with the Citipati, we're guessing you've seen all of the bright skulls and skeletons that abound surrounding the celebration of the Day of the Dead. The early November holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have passed. Graves are cleaned and decorated with trinkets, homes are filled with food and candies as well as altars with photographs and momentos of the deceased, and stories and anecdotes are told. Skulls are a common symbol of the holiday, and can be seen in masks (called calacas) and snacks such as chocolate or sugar skulls, inscribed with the name of the recipient.
The origins of the Day of the Dead trace all the way back to the Aztec
The origins of the Day of the Dead trace all the way back to the Aztec festival festival honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Underworld, who watches over the bones of the dead. This celebration of the continuance of life after death was originally much longer than its current associations, lasting from around the end of July through mid-August, but was shortened after the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in 1521. The Catholic Spaniards attempted to rid the Aztecs of their rituals and convert them to Catholicism and, when they failed to do so, they reached a sort of compromise. The celebration was shortened to two days and moved to early November so as to correspond with the holidays of All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day.
These two holidays are actually a part of a trifecta of Catholic days of worship collectively referred to as Hallowmas, beginning with All Hallow's Eve, which we now know as October 31st's Halloween. Our modern version of this holiday, filled with candy and costumes, originates with the Celtic (with possibly Pagan roots) harvest "Samhain" and "Calan Gaeaf" harvest festivals. These festivals marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, and were considered a point in time during which spirits could more easily come into our world, allowing souls to revisit their homes. While these familial souls were welcomed in their homes with a feast and a place at the table, at the same time this influx of spirits and fairies were seen as capable of causing home and so needed warding off. These rituals, such as "guising" and "souling" meant for warding off spirits are where our modern Halloween customs of dressing up in costume, going door to door for candy, carving Jack-O-Lanterns and so on arose.
So many cultures have rich traditions surrounding death, and it's fascinating to see how so many of these rituals were more of a celebration and honoring than a mourning. These traditions and their similarities can be traced from North to South and East to West, all around the world in a dance across time and space, joined together in impermanence.