Do you remember the game Packman?
Ghosts used to appear to chase you around a maze. You
didn't want to rub up against one of those ghosts. It
was the end of the line if that happened. Well, the game
was a pretty good allegory for the way we live our lives.
We are perpetually running away from a phantom --the phantom
of Death. Because if we stopped to confront it, that would
be the end of the line, right? At least we think
it would be, because that's what we've been told all our
The great world cultures treat death in
different ways. Yet all of them believe in something
that continues after death, either to physically reincarnate
or continue in a some kind of spirit form. It is this
something that is the virtual or symbolic reminder
that we ourselves will die. Cultures create forms for
these reminders, these packman ghosts, and then spend
every waking hour running from them.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross suggested that, at
least from a Western perspective, there are five stages
a person goes through when faced with the immediacy of
their own death. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression
and acceptance. When death is not imminent, it would seem
peoples' lives are pretty much consumed by the first stage.
That first stage is when we show our heels to the chasing
packman ghosts. The last four stages are something we
leave for the final few hours of our life.
It's generally accepted that Mexicans accept
death as something inevitable and they show a lot of public
bravado or machismo in the presence of it. They make fun
of Death. It's very common to see young Mexican males
wearing T-shirts that sport the phrase NO FEAR.
There's a social publishing of a stoic, fatalistic attitude
toward death that isn't seen privately, except as an automated
knee-jerk reaction. At the private individual level, the
average Mexican is no different from any other set of
heels running from the packman ghosts. Someone who feels
the need to proclaim his condition of NO FEAR
obviously has an abiding interest in fear and spends a
lot of time thinking about it.
once talked to a Mexican mechanic who nurtured a strong
cocaine habit. Certain cocaine addicts are easily identified.
They allow a single fingernail (usually on the right hand
little finger) to grow abnormally long as a kind of ready,
at-your-fingertip coke spoon, convenient and not easily
misplaced. The mechanic told me about the death of an
acquaintance of his. The police were called to collect
the body. He laughed as he described how the police were
terrified to enter the house of the dead man. They didn't
want to touch him, much less have to carry him out. So
they each stood on the stoop, drinking from a bottle to
screw up the courage to go inside.
I also experienced first hand the deep and
troubling presence of this fear in a young Mexican girl
who was asked by her employer to remain in the small apartment
adjoining the restaurant where she worked. The owner had
to leave town for a day and because of a rash of break-ins
in the neighborhood, asked the waitress to stay the night.
The owner's husband had recently died and his ashes were
in an urn behind the counter. The waitress readily agreed
but when the proprietor was out of earshot, she pleaded
with me to take her place. She was genuinely mortified
at having to stay in a building that contained the ashes
of the owner's husband, a man whom she had known. When
I tried to get a rational reason for her fear, she was
unable to explain. The fear was entirely visceral and
unfocused. She was simply terrified, despite what any
T-shirt said. I agreed to take her place and saw profound
relief flood her face.
Mexico's modern attitude toward death does
not reflect her history. In pre-Columbian times the Aztecs,
like the Christians, had a dualistic perception of death.
Unlike the Christians, who saw death as the beginning
of an eternal paradise or torment, the Aztecs saw their
lives as being . They did not fear death as the
harbinger of judgment, resulting in condemnation or reward.
They believed they were collaborators of the gods, chosen
to support and nourish the gods, who were crucial for
the survival of the world in general, and for the flourishing
of the Aztec people in particular. It was thought the
food eaten by mortals was too coarse for the gods. It
was the energy seated in the heart and blood, known as
teyolia, that could strengthen and sustain the
gods. The Aztecs likened teyolia to a divine fire. It
animated the human being, giving shape to their sensibilities
and thinking patterns. So toward this end, the Aztecs
created the ritual of the human sacrifice. Among rival
groups, the Aztecs participated in exchanges called flowery
wars. Unlike wars of conquest, the sole purpose of
the squirmishes was to take captives for human sacrifice
to the gods. The wars were more like sporting events,
competitions to gather food for the gods. Captives from
neighboring city states were usually sacrificed by the
Aztecs to their sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who had chosen
the Aztec nation above all others. Aztec warriors were
in turn sacrificed to the reining deity of the city who
Nezahualcoyot, ask this:
By any chance is it true that one
lives rooted in the earth?
Not always in the earth:
Here for only just a while;
Though it be made of jade, it breaks;
Though it be made of gold, it breaks;
Though it be made of quetzal plummage,
it shreds apart.
Not forever here on earth:
Here for only just a while.
The entire sacrificial event was conducted
in a ceremonious manner and it was not shameful but almost
a great privilege for a warrior to become captive. This
attitude was a reflection of what Aztecs believed regarding
the role a sacrificial victim played before and after
When a person died, his or her teyolia traveled
to the world of the dead, known as the sky of the
sun, where it was transformed into birds (Carrasco,
68). When a warrior was sacrificed to the sun, it was
believed that by extracting the heart his teyolia was
released and received by Huitzilopochtli as energy. In
this manner, the human body was considered to be a container
of cosmic power which could be used to replenish the gods.
This use of one's teyolia was considered to be a huge
honor and a person destined for sacrifice was held in
the highest esteem and admiration. The people thought
that the victim's teyolia also served as a messenger carrying
their own pleas to the gods, and as a result, treated
the captured warrior as a beloved guest as they housed
and prepared him for the ceremony. The responsibility
of catering to the captured warrior's needs fell to his
captor, and it was a duty that was not taken lightly.
and royal treatment was not what lured men into participating
in the "flowery war" however. Their true reward
was thought to exist in the afterlife. According to the
Aztecs, the place a person's soul went after death was
not determined by his or her conduct in life, "but
rather by the manner of his [or her] death and his [or
her] occupation in life (Caso, 58)". In the Aztec
afterlife the highest level of paradise was called Tonatiuhican,
or "the house of the sun," and this was where
"the souls of warriors who fell in combat or who
died victims on the sacrificial stone" resided (Caso,
58). "In gardens filled with flowers they [were]
the daily companions of the sun, they [fought] sham battles,
and when the sun [rose] in the East, they greet[ed] him
with shouts of joy and beat their shields loudly. When
they return[ed] to earth after four years, they [were]
transformed into hummingbirds and other birds with exotic
plumage and [fed] upon the nectar of flowers. They [were]
the privileged ones whom the sun [had] chosen for his
retinue and [lived] a life of pure delight (Caso, 58)."
Assured of this sort of afterlife, it is little wonder
that so many warriors willingly participated in the "flowery
war" and did nothing to resist being sacrificed upon
When Cortez arrived, however, things changed.
The Conquistadores were amazed to find that part of Aztec
beliefs included an incarnate God named Quetzalcoatl who
had died, was resurrected and had promised to return.
So similar were some of the Toltec and Aztec Indian myths
to Christianity that the Jesuits, in order to avoid the
inevitable doubts and questions from their own missionaries,
invented the explanation the similarities were the works
of the devil, created to confuse missionary work. Of course
when the new religion of Christianity was forced on the
Aztecs, the similarities made it easier for the locals
to live with it, in their own way.