The images of demons and diablos or devils are consistent in Mexican Folk Art. Some devils are completely red like fire while others are covered in intricate designs full of vibrant colors. Typically, we think of the devil as a scary and haunting figure while in Mexican culture the devil has changed over time since its first introduction to the indigenous culture of central Mexico, the Nahuas. Since the introduction of the devil by the Spaniards, the figure was used to erase the previous religions of the Aztec culture. The Aztecs had no comparison to the European devil, so they tried to integrate the devil into their pagan religion. Introduced as a figure behind all evil doings, the devil would evolve in nature over time as a person's vanity or sexuality rather than the emphasizing the devil’s role in the church. The devil would eventually become so generalized it would be adopted to leave blame on someone's bad behavior or misfortunes. As the history of Mexico would unfold, so would the devil become a more popular figure within Mexico. This was made possible by the merging of Catholic practices and ancient Aztec ceremonies.
The Aztecs would perform rituals to honor their deceased ancestors, and the celebration of life. They believed death was a natural part of life that should not be feared but celebrated as a form of rebirth. They used skeletons and bones to express these symbols of death and rebirth, which is still something we see in today's Día de los Muertos celebrations. The Spaniards could not erase these traditions, so they decided to adapt them into their Catholic religion. As the Spaniards adopted this tradition, the Aztecs would also adopt the crucifix and devil icons. Because the Aztecs celebrated the cycle of life and death, the figures of skeletons and devils were not malicious but represented the duality of life. This ceremony celebrated in the August was moved to November first and second to coincide with All Saints and All Souls Day. Today the celebration still uses skeletons and devils as costumes and masks to celebrate death and rebirth along with fantastic colors, flowers, and more.
One common folk-art piece is the Devil Mask. Some of the characteristics in the Mexican devil mask are inspired by the Aztecs. This is because the common devil mask we see today uses physical characteristics from the Aztec God Tlaloc, God of thunder, rain, and the earth fertility along with other attributes. Most of these devil masks’ mimic Tlaloc by surrounding the eyes with two snakes like goggles and 2 large fangs from the mouth. Masks of all kinds are made today but the history of mask making goes even further back than the Aztecs. The earliest ancient Mexican culture recorded are the Olmecs who created miniature masks made from Jade. Other cultures such as the Toltec and Mayans would also continue making masks for various reasons such as ritual or ceremonial and funerary events. As colonization began, the Spaniards were determined to promote Christianity, so they turned Aztec gods into devils and demons by placing horns on the top of their heads to erase the Aztec pagan gods.
Today, the devil masks we see here were used in various dances such as La Pastorela a drama performed during Christmas time that enacts the nativity scene. The Devil in this case acts as a distraction that tries to stop the shepherd from visiting baby Jesus. Another dance includes the Dance of the Devils from the town of Costa Chica that is performed on Día de los Muertos. While the true origins of the dance are uncertain, we know the dance honors the African heritage and history in Mexico. This dance includes a group of “devils” that represent the spirits of the dead that have passed on. While the devils are not malicious spirits, the devils are used to symbolize the role of death in the cycle of life. The group of devils dance together on their way to their loved one’s resting place to honor their family and ancestors like many others do on Día de los Muertos.
Title Image: Felipe Linares. ca. 1984. Mexico City. 1984. Gift of Ted and Carolyn Warmbold. 2017.01.048