As we gear up for Halloween here in the US, a different holiday will be celebrated on November 2nd in Mexico. I’m talking about Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, and if you’ve never heard of it, this tradition is truly something to behold. Because of their proximity to one another on the calendar and mutually “macabre” costumery, many associate the Day of the Dead with Halloween, but this is far from accurate.
The American adaptation of Halloween instills fear around death and evil, while Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of the deceased and an honoring of change. This ancient autumn festival has become an internationally acknowledged phenomenon, known for its remarkable masks, enchanting decorations, and the sheer magnitude of the turnout. Every year, the holiday effectively shuts down Mexico City, the largest city in the western hemisphere. But there is more to this custom than face paint, street dancing, and ceramic skulls laden with technicolored flowers.
The Day of the Dead is actually an indigenous tradition more than 3000 years old, stemming from an Aztec celebration of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, whose role was to watch over the bones of the dead. Though it might sound grim, the sentiment of the festival, then and now, is one of respect and revelry – a time to come together as a community and honor our ancestors. I wish we had something like this in the States, but for now we can visit other cultures and partake in their time-honored customs!
On to the medicine:
During this timeless two day festival, the masses return to local cemeteries to honor the graves of their deceased loved ones with prayers and ofrendas, or offerings. In homes, churches, and out in the streets, locals make ofrendas that contain candles, incense, and items that once belonged to lost loved ones. The individual components of each altar vary, but there is one ceremonial “must” that participants usually make sure to include – the beloved marigold.
For millennia, the marigold has been used by the tribes of the New World for its power to heal. The legendary flower is featured in many Mesoamerican myths – an attribute that any ethnobotanist is looking for when searching for good plant specimens to study. On the Day of the Dead, it is believed that the sweet fragrance of this other worldly flower are enough to wake the spirits of the deceased, and draw them back into the land of the living to join in the festivities.
But beyond ceremonial uses, why did the Aztec and neighboring civilizations to the north and south hold this plant in such high regard?
Simple. The early native people of the Americas saw that the marigold was not only beautiful, but also an excellent medicine – particularly for the skin.
Extracts from the flower were used to beautify the skin, and as a first aid to treat burns, scrapes, and skin infections. The most common treatment methods were herbal baths, a poultice made of the flowers, or applying squeezed juice from the plant onto the affected area. For quick relief from a minor insect bite or sting, you can simply rub the head of a marigold directly on the irritated area.
A tea from the flower was also prepared for digestive problems including dysentery, upset stomach, gas, colic, and parasites.
It is worth noting that certain species of marigold (in the Calendula genus) are currently being studied for their anti-cancer properties.
How To Make Your Own Marigold Skin Salve
(Makes about 3 cups)
To make this recipe, you will need either a slow cooker or double boiler, which you can fashion yourself with a metal mixing bowl and slightly smaller pot filled with a bit of water.
2 cups olive oil
1/3 cup chopped marigold flowers
1 liter water
2/3 cup beeswax
• Place the first three ingredients in your double boiler. Simmer for 4 hours, stirring from time to time.
• Remove from heat, and allow to cool enough to handle. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing the marigold flowers
with the back of a spoon to extract all
the oils. Discard the marigold.
• Chill for 24 to 48 hours, until the water and oil separate. Skim off the water, and discard.
• Place the oil in a heavy saucepan and simmer over low heat. Do not allow to come to a boil.
• Add the beeswax, stirring until dissolved.
• Pour into storage containers with lids.
Enjoy! The marigold is a great example of the many medical mysteries that live in the heart of the world’s greatest traditions. I can’t wait to share the herbal underpinnings of Christmas in a few months!
Director, The Sacred Science