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Where does Pan de Muerto come from?

By Tribune Travel

November 01, 2022

Pan de Muerto is a staple these days all over Mexico. It is an integral part of the altars set up to welcome the dead on their visit to their old home. Coming from a long trip, they sure are hungry. So, we must offer them a special feast, and Pan de Muerto sure is one. But, here does Pan de Muerto come from?

Records show that in pre-Hispanic period, natives made the “papalotlaxcalli.” Papalotlaxcalli was a tortilla of raw dough with an imprint of a butterfly seal.

The bread of the dead present in Mexican altars during the offerings on November 1 and 2 represents death. Its characteristic circular shape is an allegory of the cycle of life. The figures that adorn it feature the shape of a bone, with a circle on top representing a skull.

The “papalotlaxcalli,” or butterfly bread, was popular particularly for this rite in pre-Hispanic periods.

According to the archives, it was similar to a tortilla with a butterfly-shaped seal stamped on the dough. It was then colorfully painted after baking.


A similar sacrifice to today’s Day of the Dead was that of the goddess Cihuapipiltin. It was dedicated to women who died in their first birth. People thought they roamed the air bringing diseases among infants. Therefore, they demanded presents in the temple or at crossroads.

The offerings included “breads” shaped like butterflies or rays (xonicuille) made from amaranth and “pan ázimo,” which was a dry and roasted maize bread known as yotlaxcalli.

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Others offered tamales (xucuientlamatzoalli) and toasted maize, or Izquitil, and practically all of the offerings included amaranth because it was regarded as a special meal.

In his record of Huitzilopochtli’s sacrifice, Fray Diego de Durán mentions that “they did not eat anything other than tzoalli with honey.”

They created a gigantic idol in the likeness of the god out of this concoction based on amaranth and wasp or maguey honey. Also, they ornamented and dressed it, and manufactured large bones to place at the feet of the idol.

They also served various “breads,” similar to little tortillas. They divided and ate them after the feast.

The Mesoamerican Day of the Dead

The Miccailhuitontli was a portion of the twentieth of the xiuhpohualli (year count). In one of the two Mexican calendars, it lasted two days at the end of the rainy season. They also signaled the end of the Mexica year.

Aztecs lavishly adorned their main gods’ temples with a wide variety of flowers. They honored Huitzilopochtli, the sun deity, Tezcatlipoca, the deity of darkness, and Yacateuctli, the protector of commerce. According to 16th century records, it was also a sacrificial ritual celebration.

At the festival conducted at the end of the twentieth, the ancient Mexicans cut a tree or xócotl (fruit in Nahuatl) and set it in a designated spot covered with paper.

They placed a deified figurine made of amaranth dough or tzoalli on top of the xócotl. After that, they danced and celebrated around the xócotl before eating the tzoalli, also known as tamale or corn “bread.”

The origins of pan de muerto

Archaeological research indicates that missionaries attempted to put an end to Mesoamerican celebrations. Because of the relationship with ritual sacrifices, they modified the celebration of the Miccailhuitontli to the Catholic ritual of the Day of the Dead. They did so with Tonantzin and the figure of the Guadalupana, among other examples.

In other words, it is a phenomenon of syncretism, linked to the evangelization process.






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