Butterflies, the Sacrificed, and Fallen Warriors: For the Day of the Dead

 A man who died on the killing stone or on the field of battle did not immediately dissolve into nothingness, or rather everythingness, which was the common fate.

Instead for four years and for four years only he became a member of the warrior escort of the sun during in its progress across the heavens. . .

And that was the end.  . . . The warrior was dissolved into the general life force, the same life force which  was believed to animate hummingbirds and butterflies, creatures summoned into existence by the sun. . . .

Butterflies and hummingbirds are represented as endlessly displaying their beauty, dancing in the sun, and sipping the sweet nectar of flowers.


Monarchs flying in the warmth of the sun. Courtesy farflungphotos. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.


Every year, coincident with the celebration of the Days of the Dead (October 31 to November 1), the skies over the little town of Calvario del Carmen, northeast of Mexico City, are darkened by the fluttering wings of hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies completing their 3000 mile migration south from Canada and the United States.

Next morning before dawn the village youth go out with sticks to knock the butterflies, now numbed with cold, from the trees where they have settled.

Taking them home in plastic bags, they twist off the wings, mottled bright orange, the orange of the marigolds on the tombs in the cemetery, before roasting the bodies and eating them rolled up with salsa in tortillas.

The arrival of the butterflies is regarded as the arrival of the souls of the dead.


The first quote is from Inga Clendinnen’s magnificent, harrowing exploration of Aztec sacrifice in The Cost of Courage (University of Cambridge Press).

The second is from Carlos R. Beutelspacher, A guide to Mexico’s butterflies and moths (México: Minutiae Mexicana, 1994), 27-28. Beutelspacher is probably the greatest expert on Mexican butterflies and moths and author of a book on their role in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.

Googling Calvario del Carmen there is no sign that this custom continues. Nor am I convinced, fascinating as the juxtaposition of quotations above is, that the contemporary Day of the Dead in Mexico owes a whole lot to pre-hispanic culture.

And links to two other Day of the Dead posts.  The first is on the glorious tejocote. The second on the Spanish origins of the pan de muertos.



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