Fall is upon us and while some are ready for Pumpkin Spice Lattes, another seasonal item we might all be used to seeing is the marigold. Commonly known to Latinxs as the “Flor de Muerto,” the flower is used during Día de los Muertos to honor our beloved past loved ones.
But before it was called the Flor de Muerto, its only name was in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people, Indigenous to both Mexico and parts of Central America.
The Flor de Muerto is also called “cempasúchil ” which derives from a compound Nahuatl word, Zempoalxochitl.
Zempoal means the number 20. Xochitl means flower. Literally, the word translates to “20 flowers.” When figuratively speaking, it can represent the “flower of many petals,” or “numerous flowers.” This flower was extremely symbolic to the Aztec people because it represented life and rebirth even after the death of their ancestors’ souls passing onto the next life. Hence why this flower became so popular for Dia de los Muertos.
Andrea Rodríguez, a researcher at the Faculty of Architecture of the Autonomous University of Mexico told BBC Mundo that a 16h Century Nahuatl Florentine Codex detailed that there are both male and female flowers and that their child has “many flowers,” as if it’s a “ball with many flowers together.”
Scientifically, it is called Tagetes Erecta and is native to present-day Mexico, Central America and part of South America. Whether the tagetes erecta, the marigold, the Flor de Muerto, or the cempasúchil, this flower is rich in Aztec history.
The flower hails from a love story, separated by the tragedy of grief and death and representing the bittersweet reality of the cycle of life.
The ancient Aztec legend says that two lovers named Xochitl, which means flower in Nahuatl, and Huitzilin, which means hummingbird in Nahuatl, climbed the mountain dedicated to Tonatiuh, the Aztec name for the God of Sun, and brought him flowers. One day, when war erupted, Huitzilin went to fight to defend the Aztec land and died in battle. Devastated with grief, Xochitl asked Tonatiuh to reunite her with the love of her life, Huitzilin, who she believed passed to the heavenly place near the sun. Tonatiuh shed his sunrays on Xochitl and she transformed into a beautiful yellow flower. Legend has it that a hummingbird came, landed in the center of the budding flower, sucked its nectar, and opened the flowers 20 petals which released a strong aroma.
Researchers like Andrea Rodriguez believe that in pre-Hispanic times, the Aztecs used this flower for its scent, especially to honor the bodies of those who’ve passed. The scent of the zempoalxochitl is totally recognizable. The legend and tradition say that what attracts the dead is the smell of that flower and the love, life, and cycle of life it represents.
To this day, because of Tonatiuh’s declaration, Xochitl and Huitzilin’s love will continue to flourish as long as there are hummingbirds and cempasúchil flowers in Mexican fields.
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