Dusk, Dawn, and the Days of the Dead Doorways into Other Worlds

by Terri Windling

"Twilight" by Brian Froud

Between the setting of the sun and the black of night, dusk is a potent, magical time . . . for in its eerie half–light (according to folklore found around the globe) one can cross the borders dividing our mundane world from supernatural realms. Like many children, I longed to discover a doorway into Faerieland or a wardrobe leading to Narnia. I recall a summer night’s solitary vigil in an old graveyard: a small girl huddled in the shadows, escaping the chaos of a troubled home, trying to conjure a portal to a magic realm by sheer force of will. Like many children hungry for a deeper connection with the spirit–filled unknown, what I failed to find that moonlit nightI discovered in the pages of fantasy books, and later through studies and travels in enchanted landscapes of legend and myth.

When my child–self sat among the graves, Iwas in the right place at the wrong time. Autumn, not summer, is the seasonin most folk tales when doors between worlds open. In Celtic lore, October31st is Samhain (All Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en): the night when Arawn,lord of the Dead, rides the hills with his ghostly white hounds, and theFaery Court rides forth in stately procession across the land. In ancienttimes, hearth fires were smothered while bonfires blazed upon the hills,surrounded by circular trenches to protect all mortals from the faery hostand the wandering spirits of the dead. In later centuries, Hallowe’en turnedinto a night of revels for witches and gouls, eventually tamed into themodern holiday of costumes, tricks and treats.

Although the prospect of traffic between theliving and the dead has often been feared, some cultures celebrated thosespecial times when doors to the Underworld stood open. In Egypt, Osiris(god of the Netherworld, death, and resurrection) was drowned in the Nileby his brother Seth on the 17th of Athyr (November); each year on this nightdead spirits were permitted to return to their homes, guided by the lampsof living relatives and honored by feasts. In Mexico, a similar traditionwas born from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholism,resulting in los Dias de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) – a holidaystill widely observed across Mexico today. Celebrations vary from regionto region but generally take place over several days (or weeks). In someareas, October 27th is the day to put out food and water for the unmourneddead – the spirits of those with no survivors and no homes to return to.On the 28th, food is offered to those who died by accidental or violentmeans; these gifts are also placed outside the home, to guard against malignspirits. Within the house, an ofrenda or offering is painstakinglyassembled on a lavishly decorated altar. Food, drink, clothes, tequila,cigarettes, chocolates and children’s toys are set out for departed lovedones, surrounded by candles, flowers, palm leaves, tissue paper banners,and the smoke of copal incense. Golden paths of marigold petals are strewnfrom the altar to the street (sometimes all the way to the cemetary) tohelp the confused souls of the dead find their way back home. The soulsof unbaptized children ("infants in limbo") return on October30th; on the 31st all other children return and are fed with the sweetsand drinks that were known to be favorites of theirs in life. Adult soulsreturn on November 1st, and theirs is a more elaborate feast, includinggifts of new clothes and blankets or baskets to carry offerings away.

According to Fredy Mendez, a young Totonacman from Veracruz, "Between 31 October and 2 November, past generationswere careful always to leave the front door open, so that the souls of thedeceased could enter. My grandmother was constantly worried, and foreverchecking that the door had not been shut. Younger people are less concerned,but there is one rule we must obey: while the festival lasts, we treat allliving beings with kindness. This includes dogs, cats, even flies or mosquitoes.If you should see a fly on the rim of a cup, don’t frighten it away — itis a dead relative who has returned. The dead come to eat tamales and todrink hot chocolate. What they take is vapour, or steam, from the food.They don’t digest it physically: they extract the goodness from what weprovide. This is an ancient belief. Each year we receive our relatives withjoy. We sit near the altar to keep them company, just as we would if theywere alive. At midday on 2 November the dead depart. Those who have beenwell received go laden with bananas, tamales, mole and good things. Thosewho have been poorly received go empty handed and grieving to the grave.Some people here have even seen them, and heard their lamentations."

This past October I travelled the short distancefrom my winter home in southern Arizona to the vivid country south of theBorder, along with a friend researching a novel set during los Dias deMuertos. In one vast stretch of urban cemetery, perched precariouslyon dry desert hills, a raucous festival atmosphere reigned among boothsselling foods and flowers choking the streets outside the cemetery gates.Inside, people of all ages cleaned, repaired and repainted family graves,decorating them with flowers and candles, while musicians strolled amongthe bright crowds playing lively mariachi tunes. In most regions, the traditionalcelebration involves an all–night grave–side vigil. (Some believe it isdangerous to enter cemeteries at other times of year.) The vigil is oftena party where lavish picnics are spread across the graves — feasts of tamales,mole, sugar candies shaped as skeletons and skulls, and pan de muerte(bread of dead), all lovingly shared with deceased friends, relatives, andancestral spirits. In other areas of Mexico the festival is a carnival–likeparade, complete with revelers masked in skulls and other horrific costumedfigures, dancing through the music–filled streets, making mockery of death.

We left the urban cemetery to journey intothe countryside, following narrow mountain roads until we reached a tinyvillage cemetery with a hushed and solemn atmosphere. Candles flickeredon freshly painted graves strewn with red gladioli, white carnations, tallplumes of magenta cockscomb, and golden blankets of marigold petals. OnNovember 1st, a long candle–lit procession passes from village to church,and families here keep watch throughout the night, visiting with departedloved ones. Sitting among pin–points of candlelight reflecting the starsoverhead, it felt indeed like a borderland between the worlds of the livingand the dead . . . and here I was, I realized then,years and miles from my childhood, still keeping vigil among the graves,still searching for mythic worlds.

In Greek mythology, Persephone regularly crossesthe border between the living and the dead, dwelling half the year withher mother (the goddess Demeter) in the upper world — and half the yearwith her husband (Hades) in the realm of the dead below. In the story ofOrpheus, he follows his dead wife deep into Hades’ realm, where he bargainsfor her life in return for a demonstration of his musical skills. Hadesagrees to release the lovely Eurydice back to Orpheus, provided he leadshis wife from the Underworld without looking back. During the journey, hecannot hear his wife’s footsteps and so he breaks the taboo. Eurydice vanishesand the path to Hades’s realm is closed. A similar tale is told of Izanagiin Japanese lore, who attempts to reclaim his beloved Izanami from the Landof Shadows. He may take her back if he promises not to try to see Izanami’sface — but he breaks the taboo, and is horrified to discover a rottingcorpse. When we look at earlier Sumarian myth, we find the goddess Inanais more successful in bringing her lover, Dumuzi, back from the Underworld;in Babylonian myth, this role falls to Ishtar, rescuing her lover Tammuz:"If thou opens not the gate," she says to the seven gatekeepersof the world below, "I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt,I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors, I will raise up the dead,eating the living, so that the dead will outnumber the living." Duringthe three days of Ishtar’s descent, all sexual activity stops on earth.The third day of the drama is the Day of Joy, the time of ascent, resurrectionand procreation, when the year begins anew.

This cycle of death and resurrection, of course,is echoed in many mythic traditions, from the Solstice ceremonies of druidicCelts to the Easter pageants of Christian sects. In the Border region ofsouthern Arizona, where Mexican American, Native American and Euroamericancultures all come together, we find a fascinating mixture of Christian andindigenous myths in the gorgeous Easter ceremonies of the Yaqui (Yoeme)Indian tribe. Various secretive rituals practiced in the months betweenChristmas and Easter, most intensively during the weeks of Lent, culminatein a public drama enacting an unusual version of Christ’s Passion, blendingancient Yaqui mystical beliefs with 17th–century Spanish Catholicism. The"three Marys" (figures of the Blessed Virgin) are guarded in anopen–sided church by hymn–singing women, matachins (a dance societyof men and boys), pascolas dancers (a kind of holy clown), and thedeer dancer — an enchanted figure from the old Yaqui "religion ofthe woods." Opposing them are the forces of Judas: faceless fariseos,dressed in black, and chapayekas wearing elaborate masks, stringsof rattles and painted wooden swords. These dark figures march and dancearound the church for many days and nights . . . andeventually, on the last day before Easter, they attack. The church bellsring, the deer dancer leaps, the faithful pelt the dark forces with flowers.The watching crowds throw flowers and confetti, shouting "Gloria! Gloria!Gloria!" The dark ones fall back, regroup, march . . . andthen attack once more. Again they’re driven back. On the third attack theyare overcome by the forces of good: by songs, prayers, armloads of flowers.They strip off weapons, black scarves and masks (subsequently burned ona huge bonfire), and relatives drag the exhausted men back into the safetyof the church — a ritual resurrection, dedicating new lives to the forcesof good.

The deer and pascola dancers have beenincorporated into this ritual, yet come from the tribe’s pre–Christian past.They are, in one sense, shamanic figures, able to cross over the bordersbetween the human world of the Baptised Ones (the modern Yaqui) to the flowerworld of the ancestors (a magical people called the Surem). Throughoutthe nights of the Easter ceremonies the deer and pascola songs aresung, and an eerie music played on raspers, rattles, gourds, flutes, anddrums. Most years I attend the ceremony in one of several Yaqui pueblosnearby, staying through the night as the crowds drift off, keeping vigiluntil the dawn. This year an unusually chilly night was warmed by fragrantfires of mesquite, while a young deer dancer pawed at the ground in ritual,highly stylized motions, poised on the thinnest of borders between humanand animal consciousness. In the hours before dawn I saw a sight I’d neverwitnessed in previous years: coyote dances, an art newly revived in pueblosnorth of the Border (brought back from older villages on the River Yaquiin Mexico). Stylized movements and high pitched howls conjured visions ofthe tricksy creature who gives the coyote dance its name, sending cold chillsrunning down my spine as magic was evoked by moonlight.

In many myths, Coyote (and other Tricksterssuch as Raven, Hermes and Uncle Tompa) has a special, uncanny ability tocross boundaries and open doors. "They are lords of in–between,"says scholar Lewis Hyde. "[Trickster] is the spirit of the doorwayleading out, and the crossroads at the edge of town. He is the spirit ofthe road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongsto neither. Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns, each addinga stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant ‘he of the stoneheap,’ which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker — it isan altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty . . . . Theroad that Trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact.He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the livingand the dead."

Trickster is one of the few who passes unhinderedthrough the borderlands; the rest of us must confront the guardians whoprotect or bar the doors leading from the world we know to the hidden realmsbeyond. Janus is the Roman two–faced god of doorways, thresholds and beginnings,an ancient figure sacred to pre–Latin inhabitants of Italy. Cardea is thegoddess of door–hinges, mistress to Janus and protector of children fromvampire–witches disguised as night birds. According to Robert Graves’s WhiteGoddess, Cardea was once propitiated at weddings with torches of hawthorne.She had the power "to open what is shut; and shut what is open."A wide variety of other guardians (gods, faeries, supernatural spirits)watch over sacred groves, glens, rivers, pools and wells. Some faeries guardwhole forests and mountains, while others guard individual trees, hills,stones . . . and hidden faery treasure. In folk tales,guardians can be appeased, tricked, outwitted, even slain — but usuallyat a price which is somewhat higher than one wants to pay. Sometimes it’sthe land itself preventing access into realms beyond. In "Thomas theRhymer," a river of human blood stands between Faerie and the mortalworld, and Thomas must pay the price of seven years servitude to make thatcrossing. One princess must climb seven iron mountains to reach the landwhere her love is imprisoned; another must trick the winds into carryingher where her feet cannot. In "Sleeping Beauty," a magical hedgeof thorns divides the castle from the world, and cannot be penetrated tilltime, blood and prophesy all stand aligned.

Many fantasy tales grow from the desire tofind the hidden "door in the hedge" (to borrow a phrase from RobinMcKinley’s excellent story of that title). Unlike Tolkien’s The Lordof the Rings, set entirely in his invented landscape, these tales bringus from the world we know through magic portals into worlds of wonder —a device used most famously in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia,but also in Andre Norton’s "Witchworld" books, Pamela Dean’s "SecretCountry" trilogy, Stephen R. Donaldson’s "Chronicles of ThomasCovenant the Unbeliever," Greg Bear’s Songs of Earth and Power,Richard Bowes’s unusual novel The Feral Cell, Neil Gaiman’s enchantingnovel Stardust (as well as the graphic novel of the same name, withartist Charles Vess), and the excellent, under–rated books of Joyce BallouGregorian’s "Tredana" trilogy: The Broken Citadel, Castledownand The Great Wheel.

In his classic novel The King of Elfland’sDaughter, the great Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany created a landscapepoised on the shifting border between mortal and magical realms. Anythingthat lies between is traditionally a place of potent enchantment:a bridge between two banks of a river; the silver light betwixt night andday; the moment between dreaming and waking; the motion of shape–shiftingtransformation; and all those interstitial realms where cultures, myths,landscapes, languages, art forms, and genres meet. The King of Elfland’sDaughter had a strong influence on a series of books I co–created withEllen Kushner, Midori Snyder, Charles de Lint and a number of other authorsmany years ago: coming–of–age tales for teenagers in which the border betweenthe Elflands and the mortal world is an urban one. The setting of Borderlandgrew, at least consciously, from the street life of Eighties–era New York,and the colorfully squalid "squatting" scene of London in theprevious decade (where I’d been a college student short on cash and commonsense) — yet a few years ago, Claire F. Fox presented a fascinating paperat the annual symposium on Art and Culture at New York’s Whitney Museum(subsequently expanded and published in Social Text #41) exploringthe Borderland books in relation to Mexican–American border arts,drawing fascinating parallels at both political and archetypal levels. Sincethat time, I’ve paid more attention to the theme of "border crossing,"finding it central to my interests and work; it is also a theme one findswidely present in the modern fantasy field. (For those interested in suchconnections, a "Day of the Dead" story by Ellen Steiber bringsMexican "border arts" directly into the latest Borderland anthology:The Essential Bordertown.)

Magical "border crossing" workscan also be found on the mainstream fiction shelves. Rick Collignon’s TheJournal of Antonio Montoya, Pat Mora’s House of Houses, AlfredoVea Jr.’s La Maravilla, and Susan Power’s The Grass Dancerare all extraordinary books where the membrane between the worlds of theliving and the dead is thin and torn. In Thomas King’s Green Grass, RunningWater, Trickster crosses easily from mythic to modern worlds; whilein Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich these worlds are sewn togetherinto the patterns of Indian beadwork. For stories addressing the particularmagic of the Border region of the American southwest, I recommend LikeWater for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (and the movie based on it), Spiritsof the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala, and Leslie M. Silko’s wide–rangingrefutation of borders, The Almanac of the Dead. Border Beat,a charmingly quirky quarterly journal of Mexican–American border arts (JimCarvalho, publisher), is available by subscription from Dog Eat Dog Publishing,5347 East Fort Lowell Road, Tucson, AZ 85712. Nonfiction recommendations:The Days of the Dead, a gorgeous book of photographs by John Greenleigh;In the Eye of the Sun: Mexican Fiestas, mystical photographs by GeoffWinningham; The Skeleton at the Feast: the Day of the Dead in Mexicoby Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer; Yaqui Deer Songs by LarryEvers and Felipe S. Molina; The Autobiography of a Yaqui Poet byRefugio Savala; Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Artby Lewis Hyde; Hermes the Thief by Norman O. Brown; Gods and Heroesof the Celts by Marie–Louise Sjoestedt; The Woman’s Encyclopediaof Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker; and An Illustrated Encyclopediaof Traditional Symbols by J. C. Cooper.

We cross the border every time we step from the mundane world to the lands of myth, from mainstream culture to the pages of a folklore text or a fantasy book. Standing at the crossroads, we must remember to give food to Hecate, wine to Janus, flowers, songs,smoke and dreams to all the guardians along the way. Tricksters, shamans, artists, storytellers: they all cast paths of marigold petals and open the doors hidden in the hedge. As a fantasist, I cannot resist an unknown road or an open gate. I’m still that child in a graveyard at dusk,willing magic into existence.