What Day of the Dead tells us about the Aztec philosophy of happiness

Growing up in the United States, I remember on Halloween my mother used to say, “Honey, this is not just a day for costumes and candy. You must also remember your relatives. Know their names.” She would show me pictures of great-aunts, uncles and other deceased relatives.

Meanwhile, my family members in Mexico observed Day of the Dead, a national holiday that is celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. They would build small altars at home to honor their loved ones, and put food, drinks, photos and other personal items on them. They similarly decorated their ancestors’ graves.

These days, I am part of a small group of researchers who are working to recover Aztec philosophy. My focus is on Aztec ethics, which the Aztecs thought of as the art of living well, but we call the pursuit of happiness.

I’ve learned that Day of the Dead rituals, which date back to Mexico’s pre-Columbian peoples and are observed all over the Americas, are deeply rooted in Aztec ethics.

By Lynn Sebastian Purcell, Associate Professor of Philosophy, State University of New York College at Cortland

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