The skull is the universal image of death and the afterlife. It is one of the most powerful images of the transitoriness of our human experience, and at the same time almost mystically embodies the concept of the afterlife. While many of us may today think about death as the ultimate ending of the experience called life, the distinction was not as strong in antiquity.
In fact, for many ancient civilisations the concept of death did not signify simply an end, but rather a step that everyone must take to enter the underworld or the afterlife. Accepting the natural cycle of human life, those populations were not afraid to confront the concept of death. Indeed, the idea of life and death is often expressed in their art forms and constantly present in their daily life and rituals.
For example, in Meso-American cultures the skull was not intended as a macabre symbol, but as concomitant with life, existing side by side, the one essential to and nurturing the other.
The Maya, the Aztecs, and other cultures regarded the ‘other world’ as an integral part of the physical world, and that the barrier separating the two was like a revolving door. Since the afterlife is ‘peopled’ with spirits and deities, they must be honoured and given offerings so as to ensure their favourable help in the material world. Therefore, cults venerating and appeasing death flourished for centuries, and are still a fundamental part of many cultures. Skulls featured heavily in those cults and practices.
These magnificent artefacts grab our attention in an instant. They strike deeply into our primordial consciousness. Their unadorned power is elemental, forceful and penetrating.