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The Nahuas are indigenous peoples from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

The Nahuas from the Mexican highlands believe that death is not an end but a stage of a long transformation process. All living elements, such as humans, animals, plants, stones, or the winds, are animated by a vital force or a spirit. In this context, the deceased can manifest and play a role in the tangible world through the vital force.

Nahuas: traditional dress

The death’s cause determines the place where the soul is allowed to accede later.

The chosen ones reside at the thirteenth level of heaven because they are dead by sacrifice. The Nahuas consider chosen people the warriors who died in battle or on the sacrifices’ stone, the women who died in childbirth, the dead in connection with the water: by drowning, by gout, by leprosy, by lightning strikes, and the stillborn children.

At the ninth level of the infra world sit those dead by natural death. Before reaching this space, they must cross many areas populated by dangerous beings and objects.

To enter its last resting place, the soul separates itself from the deceased’s body and undertakes a long journey, up to several years, on the formidable paths of the infra world. The soul must face there many terrible trials. He has to pass between two mountains that touch each other at the risk of being crushed and disappearing forever, face a great cold, climb mountains, cross deserts, advance on paths guarded by snakes or lizards, be pierced by arrows, or have the heart devoured.

The soul may cross a large area of water on the back of a black dog. On its way, the soul can meet many crows, and to avoid being pecked on his head, it has to give them corn grains. Then, the soul passes through a land that abounds in vegetation, corn fields, streams, on flowers. At the end of this journey, other souls come to welcome it.

For the Nahuas, the dead work just as much as the humans. They can bring the wind and the clouds full of water and may talk to the gods. The dead leave their physical bodies. Nevertheless, in a certain way, they continue to participate in the proper functioning of the community. The soul, free from its body, becomes light and fast.

The death rituals are composed of many songs and dances. The deceased go to «the dead’s place» which represents a world of tranquility where he no longer feels the pains of the living world. There, he continues to exist under a shadow or a spirit form.

The family and the loved ones manifest their sadness through the lamentation process. During that weeping period, they review the deceased’s life stories and his famous deeds. For the vast majority, they bury the body accompanied by different offerings.

The warriors and those dead by natural death are cremated.

The Nahuas believe that the human body is animated by three entities who split up at death:

Nahuas family
Nahuas: mother and son

– The first is located in the heart. That is considered the center of emotions and corresponds to the individual human essence, life, and mental faculties. This entity leaves the earth after death and animates the deceased in the afterlife.

– The second is located in the head, the place of reason and consciousness. This entity is related to everyone’s individuality and destiny. After death, it remains on earth, in the cut hair strands, one at birth, the other at decease. That part serves as support for the post-funeral rituals and the ancestor’s worship.

– The third entity, the motor of passions, is hosted by the liver. At the moment of death, it scatters on earth and can turn into a ghost or various diseases.

For the warriors, the mourning can last up to eighty days. During this period the grieving family has to fast, have only one meal per day, and not wash their face or hair.

The corpse in decomposition, a symbol of the absolute sign of death, is undesirable among the living. The body is considered as dangerous and is subject to various funeral rituals. All these rituals encourage the deceased to leave this world in the best conditions and accompany him on his metamorphosis towards his new existence in the afterlife.

For the Nahuas, it is essential to remember the dead. Memory and the narrative are important factors to favorise the conceptualization of life after death.

Sources

Louise I. Paradis, Nous mangeons la terre et la terre nous mange. Conceptions de la mort chez les Nahuas du Haut Balsas, Guerrero

(https://www.erudit.org)

Nathalie Ragot, Le corps en transformation : représentation et conception du cadavre dans la pensée aztèque

(https://journals.openedition.org)

Tara Malanga, Earth is no one’s home, Nahua perceptions of illness, death and dying in the early colonial period 15201650

Patrick Saurin, La pensée nahua sur le divan de la psychanalyse, la psychanalyse sur la natte de la pensée nahua

(https://www.cairn.info)

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