AztecsThe calavera's ties to the past heritage of the Aztecs can be seen in various ways. The indigenous culture of skulls and death-goddesses Mictecacihuatl is common in pre-Columbian art. Lady of the Dead, Mictecacihuatl was keeper of the bones in the underworld, and she presided over the ancient month long Aztec festivals honoring the dead. With Christian beliefs superimposed on the ancient rituals, those celebrations have evolved into today's Day of the Dead.
SpainAs for the Spanish heritage (the death-orientation of the monastic orders, and the dance-of-death and memento mori traditions), it blended in the average Mexican's stoic, but far from humorless, view of death.1 It should be noted that some find La Catrina to have more European ties to Dance – of – Death for to see the origins of the calavera in the art of ancient Mesoamerica. It differs markedly from the rigid sobriety of skulls carved by the Aztec or images of decomposing corpses depicted by the ancient Maya. In prints and various other art forms associated with the Day of the Dead—everything from papier-mâché to papel picado (perforated paper) to sugar and chocolate—images of the calavera are unmistakably humorous. The skeletons, often dressed in finery, move playfully and smile widely. In some ways, these animated figures are much closer visually to the European “Dance of Death” motif in which limber skeletons lead, lure, or drag unwitting mortals to their ends.
Though these interpretations seem to ignore the full relationship that the Mexican’s have with death, as well as the macabre humor which ties to the cycle or life, death and ceremony that the Aztecs had, it should be fully understood that few countries pay homage to death the way Mexico does: Offerings, songs, respect and humor are just some of Mexicans' expressions towards death.6 The European ties are there both for comic effect as well as depicting the symbolic shell that Europe cloaked Mesoamerica in, but the native bones still lie within.