A tzompantli is a rack of sacrificial or ancestor skulls which often appears as a decorative motif in mesoamerican architecture and art. I think it originates with the Zapotecs of southwestern Mexico, and spread to other cultures of the region during the period of Zapotec colonialism in the ninth century. The mossy skull that is the namesake of this blog is part of a tzompantli. A lot of people over the years have misconstrued the tzompantli as evidence of the bloodthirstiness and barbarism of these cultures, and used it as an excuse to blow out of proportion their practice of human sacrifice. For modern celebrants of the Day of the Dead, it signifies the cycle of life.
I went to this the other day: Day of the Dead Tzompantli at Forest Hills Cemetery. It’s a celebration in Central and South American style, Christian and prechristian, cross-cultural, nondenominational, in memory of loved ones long and recently lost. I like the Phoenix site’s wording: “This event occurs in the past.” I didn’t take any pictures because they asked me not to, though it was vivid and gorgeous and has left an intense impression on me. But nobody told me I couldn’t write about it, so.
Across the street from my house, one of the iron fence rails of Forest Hills Cemetery has been bent to one side next to a scraggly bittersweet nightshade vine. If I duck down low and wriggle a bit I can get through easy.
The earliest graves here date from 1840, and the occupiers lean heavily to the upper class Victorian. The monumental symbolism features a lot of serene robed women with anchors at their feet, inverted torches wrapped in vines, headstones carved to look like tree stumps, lambs with heads eroded away, stone veils caught by the sculptor in the act of being pulled on or off. There are many old trees of great variety, imported by Harvard in the 1880s for the nearby Arboretum. They held the tzompantli ceremony in front of a cultivar of European beech whose boughs bend all the way to the ground and lie heavy across it like snakes, and whose yellow-brown leaves made a curtain like a reef of feathers. Before it, a broad ring of candles burned in colored cylinders surrounding a fire made from hundreds of white candles in a heap. There were four wooden altars at the cardinal points surrounded by pyramids of apples, trays of pastries, bread, tortillas, candy, flowers. On each altar sat a tall, long-haired white girl in a period smock and porcelain face paint that prevented her from making any expression but the familiar serene one of the statues. These girls, I believe, represented the Victorian ghosts. People in embroidered robes strolled about blowing on smoking copal and sage incense in heavy wooden censers carved in the shapes of animal heads. It wasn’t dark yet. The sun was in maples on the hill.
I knew an offering of food was required, but I didn’t have much in the house, so I brought a handful of red chiles dried from a couple summers ago in the pocket of my hoodie. Later it occurred to me that in the traditions of Peru, due to their potency, chiles were prohibited from certain ceremonies honoring the ancestors. And I’ve known some practitioners of this sort of religion who can get touchy on behalf of their dead. So the chiles stayed in my pocket, and I kept back from the circle a bit. They were my garlic, my piece of cold iron, holding me in this world.
It was the kind of slightly damp cold that creeps in and makes you have to force yourself not to shiver. Preceded by a slowly building whoosh like wind in leaves, fifty children with rattles tied to their ankles filed out from behind the tree, circled the fire and began to dance to drums and the trumpet of conch horns. A lady with a microphone recited verse in English, Spanish and some Aztec-descended tongue, honoring Xocomil, Pachamama and the dead.
I couldn’t get the tenor of the crowd at first. Some of the dancing kids were great showmen, doing pantomime bits about death and the spirit arising, the old resisting, the ancestors stepping in to drag them along when the time is right. They were having fun. They donned skull masks and shook canes at each other. During lulls in the choreography they busted out breakdancing moves. I laughed a lot, and the people around me did too–but there was something in their faces that quietly sobered me over the course of an hour, as the sun went down and the cold got stronger.
After the dances, the songs and the dumb-shows, everybody retreated behind the row of percussion instruments, leaving the circle open. The lady with the microphone invited the crowd to come in, stop at the central fire, and hand to the old woman who sat tending it prayers or poems or the names of loved ones written on slips of colored paper, which she would burn. Once you’d made an offering, you got a lighted candle. I stayed back. In the spirit of camaraderie–and of getting a little warmth into my bones–I climbed up over the wooded hill east of the fire ring. I watched the proceedings for awhile from up there among the pines, then circled back around to join in the parade that followed.
Out among the gravestones was a satellite altar, this one with photos of people, jewelry and candy propped against candles and unopened bottles of soda. This I guess was where the mirth backed off to let in grief. Everybody filed silently past it and on into the graveyard through the dusk. The ancestors and the pale-faced girls came with us. People around me talked about what their kids had been for halloween. Kids passed off candles to adults and then came demanding them back again before they burned down. It felt familiar, sad but comforting, like a wake among family, though I didn’t know anybody there.
We walked back to the circle. The kids danced some more with the windstorms on their ankles and sang and blew the conch trumpets, this time, I gathered, to guide the ancestors safely back from their jaunt in this world to the next. When everything was over, the lady with the microphone invited us to step into the circle and take some of the offerings to eat. I had a crunchy suncrisp apple and a piece of pan del muerto, a sweet bread made with anise seed.
She asked us to fill out recommendations saying why we valued the ceremony we’d just partaken in and why we thought it needed to keep happening. Apparently, it’s at risk. That’s why I’m writing this. Even if I’m somewhere else at this time next year, I want it to happen again, and keep happening.
By this time I couldn’t keep from shivering. I walked home alone across the graveyard in the dark, navigating by the light of Jupiter and the reflected glow of the city from the clouds.