By MadQueen, July 2013
It is not a common thing to bear witness to the birth of a fledgling, albeit syncretic, religion. Often times this type of dissection is done in hindsight. Tracing practices and deities back to their emerging roots and factoring in the cultural norms of the area from which a religious practice emerges. Today however, we have been given the opportunity to witness the evolution of stoic and age old religious practices and applications through the introduction and veneration of a folk saint. The folk saint in question is none other than the Mexican saint of death herself, La Santa Muerte.
La Santa Muerte, or La Santisima Muerte, is translated as The Holy Death. Her followers have many names for her, some which even sound endearing and loving. Names like “La Flaquita,” or which means “the skinny little girl” or “La Niña Blanca” meaning “little white girl” sound like they are talking about someone’s little sister or niece or something, not the skeleton incarnate of death. As there are many names for Santa Muerte, also are there many presentations of her in statue and idol. One image of her may show her wearing long white robes holding a scythe while a statue nearby shows her adorned with scarlet and roses in her hair, many times you will see simply her skeletal visage grinning beneath the traditional black hooded robes of the grim reaper.
Santa Muerte is a complex deity to pin down mostly due to the fact that she has no consensually agreed upon origin, nor are her roots clear cut. Instead she is a cultural icon that has seemingly morphed with local folk religions and Catholicism. These cultural and religious factors have come together with poverty and crime as catalysts to usher in a new faith. What we are essentially witnessing is the modern birth of a deity or saint, and perhaps even the beginning of an alternate religion unto itself. Already famed with cult status the Santa Muerte following of recent years encompasses a large and diverse portion of the local Mexican population and has been spreading far beyond those initial cultural and geographical borders (Russell n.d). In order to better understand this phenomenon it is important to dissect different aspects of this new found deity starting with origin.
Mexico is deeply associated with skeletal iconography largely due to the yearly “El Dia de Los Muertes” celebration, or the Day of The Dead. This is a day that in traditional Mexican culture the veil between worlds is thin and dead ancestors can come and dine with their living family. Some traditions include putting up ancestor altars adorned with food, visiting the graves of loved ones and bringing a meal to the grave to share with them. Instead of a somber mood however, this holiday instead is a festive occasion. Children will often have their face painted, families will gather together at cemeteries to put up elaborate altars lit by dozens of candles. Another common practice is the making of decorated sugar skulls to leave as offerings and enjoy on the day of celebration.
Some sources credit the incarnation of Death as having Aztec roots. It is speculated that Santa Muerte is the modern form of Mictecacihuatl who was known as “Lady of The Dead” in Aztec mythology. It is believed that Mictecacihautl presides over day of the dead festivities. She was queen of the underworld, married to Mictlantecuhtli; together they are said to guard the bones of the dead. The Aztec creation myth explains how this world was made of the bones of an old world. The deities that guarded bones because of this were very important, for they guarded the potential future of all worlds (Parker and Mills et al., 2007).
Despite these seemingly obvious tie-ins with area culture and history, experts do not necessarily agree that Santa Muerte is a modern form of Micecacihautl. FBI reports, for example, state that Santa Muerte appears to be more European than Aztecan in her lineage. Some think of her as a more sinister aspect of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Bunkner, 2013). Other scholars claim that Santa Muerte is the evolution of La Parca, a female Grim Reaper, who originated in medieval Spain. This idea is supported by the fact that the image of La Parca was later used in the Americas on indigenous people by friars for evangelical purposes. These varying opinions and outlooks as to the origin of the modern Holy Death illustrates that there is no centrally agreed upon record of Santa Muerte’s past. Much like La Dia de Los Muertes evolved to incorporate Christianity over time, Santa Muerte seems to be the product of Aztec spiritual rituals that mixed with Catholicism during Spanish colonial rule (TIME.com, 2007).
Syncretism is defined as “ Reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief, as in philosophy or religion, especially when success is partial or the result is heterogeneous”. A syncretic religion therefore is a belief system that is built on the fusion of different belief systems and ritualized with religious devotion and practices. The combination of ancient Aztec beliefs and deities strongly infused in a Catholic religious culture in Mexico is a modern version of an emerging syncretic religion. The fact that Santa Muerte is titled a “ saint” is a good example of this. She does not fit the Catholic Church’s requirements for official canonization, but she is utilized by the population in as a saint regardless.
Santa Muerte is considered a modern folk saint by her followers although she has been recently denounced by the Catholic Church as blasphemous. On May 8, 2013 Vatican official Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, made the Catholic Church’s first public statement regarding Santa Muerte worship and the subsequent cult. He called it a “degeneration of religion”(BBC News, 2013). “It’s not religion just because it’s dressed up like religion; it’s a blasphemy against religion,” he said (Guillermoprieto, 2013).
While typically the Vatican does not concern itself with the majority of passing cults as they emerge the Santa Muerte is a special case. Worship practices of the Holy Death borrow heavily from traditional church ritual practices, and some practices that are not sanctioned by the church, although they might be traditional in any given area. Some examples of this might include crawling long distances on one’s knees to a shrine as a sacrifice to the saint, or tying pieces of cactus to the back as a form of self-scourging. In Mexico City at the most famous shrine to the Holy Death young men might crawl on their knees carrying the image of Santa Muerte over great distances to the shrine. Traditional rosary and other prayers are said, many times offerings are left on the altar in exchange for granted prayers. Often times instead of incense, worshipers might burn marijuana or tobacco as an offering as well as pour out, spit out, or leave tequila at the altar for Lady Death (Guillermoprieto, 2013).
This type of worship and sacrifice has not been sanctioned by the Church in Rome, yet remain popular in poor sections of Mexico despite this. These practices have been kept alive by the rich cultural background of Mexico and solidified by the poverty and violence of the area. Desperate for a holy intervention many people have turned from traditional Catholic saints in favor of underground folk saints such as the Holy Death. Although the Church has denounced Santa Muerte as blasphemous, many of her followers still consider themselves devout Catholics. Self professed priests of Santa Muerte claim that her altars and temples are part of the official Church despite statements to the contrary (Guillermoprieto, 2013).
It is not simply the questionable worship practices that cause the Catholic Church to refute Santa Muerte’s legitimacy, her composition is markedly different than that of a saint. Canonization is the name of the process that a potential saint must go through in order to be named an official saint of the Church. This process has been in place since the tenth century . For hundreds of years before the canonization process was established saints were chose n by public opinion and acclaim. Often times because of this method the stories of the early saints were often distorted or non-verifiable. To try to curb this, the Vatican took over the authority for naming saints. Pope John Paul II initiated some changes to the canonization process in 1983 to include multiple stages of review. The most important and first rule of sainthood is that the saint must have been a living person, now deceased. This is the first compositional difference we see between the Saint Death and the definition of a saint in the Catholic Church (Catholic Online, n.d.). Although there is debate as to the origin of Lady Death, there is no debate stating that she was ever at one time a living person. As opposed to a living person who can obtain sainthood, Santa Muerte is a more comparable to a supernatural being, archangel, demon or demi-god. She is not an individual associated with death, rather she is death personified (Bunkner, 2013).
Although the FBI can trace Santa Muerte ideology back about fifty years, she truly began growing in popularity beginning in the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s where she spread north to the United States and south to Central America (Bunkner, 2013). She gained popularity with criminals and drug cartels as a nonjudgmental protector who would assist them. This particular brand of followers have been linked prostitution, kidnapping, drug trafficking and sales, and murder. As well as being denounced by the Vatican, Mexican churches have proclaimed Santa Muerte devotion to be synonymous with devil-worship and cult immersion (TIME.com, 2007).
While being associated with these types of people and heinous crimes such as ritualistic murder, it is important to remember that the criminal element does not reflect all those who are devoted to Santa Muerte. The Holy Death has emerged from crime addled and poverty stricken parts of Mexico. The criminal element is common place as well as a great deal of violence and death. In the past six years over 70,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico (BBC News, 2013). The popularity of Santa Muerte grows as the violence does. Death is already a part of many of these people’s everyday lives.
Santa Muerte is the “Saint of Last Resort” (Bunkner, 2013). She appeals to those living in desperate situations and extreme circumstances because she is a nonjudgmental and powerful ally to have. This is the primary attraction for all Santa Muerte devotees; because she is death itself she judges no individual less or more than another. All come to meet death in the end and this brings a level of equality to her worship. She does not judge merits of people based on their position or life choices, but rather she grants favors based on exchange. Devotees will leave offerings and bargain with her, promising different things they will do for Lady Death if their prayers are answered (Torres 2011). It is understood amongst her followers that Santa Muerte is a vengeful deity. She requires that all debts be paid in full or there will be consequences. The supremacy of death over all men is also shown in her altar. Santa Muerte does not like to share her space of veneration with other deities or saints.
In fact worship of Santa Muerte is another area where there is lots of room for disagreement. Some followers will ask of her anything because of her nonjudgmental nature. Most will come to her for traditional requests such as health and protection. It is known that Santa Muerte allies herself with the wives and husbands of cheating spouses and will step in to stop infidelity and preserve the family. Still others will approach the saint with personal requests for favors of vengeance. Many argue this is the result of the criminal element of Mexico utilizing worship of the saint, this subset of followers is often considered a cult and is generally the aspect of Santa Muerte reported at on the news and sensationalized in the media. Those who hold this point of view will attest that the Santa Muerte may not judge a person but she will not assist in an evil act or answer an evil prayer (Torres 2011).
As varied as the requests of the saint are the idiosyncrasies of worship which are extremely varied. For example one will find the Santa Muerte in a myriad of colors instead of a standard white or black robed figure. The colors have all come to carry specific meanings which are typically understood, but by no means exclusive or official. Colors are often chosen based on their associations in other paradigms. Altars may be dressed in specific colors depending on the request to the saint. Candles, altar cloths, offerings and even the idol itself can be seen in different colors. For example the FBI lists the associated colors of Santa Muerte as follows: Red for love and passion; black for protection and power against enemies; white for personal protection; green for legal issues; blue for spiritual harmony and enlightenment; purple to transmute negativity into opportunity; gold for prosperity; silver for luck and success; copper to remove negative energy; bone for peace and harmony in general in life. In addition to these colors one might see the Santa Muerte dressed in rainbow robes of seven colors. These statues carry the “power” or associations of seven colors: gold, silver, copper, black, purple, red, and green (Bunkner, 2013).
As more and more attention has been cast upon the Holy Death we are witnessing the struggle between traditional organized religion and cultural folk beliefs. While the Catholic church does not recognize Santa Muerte as a saint they still are treading lightly to not alienate their parishioners. Santa Muerte seems to be following the age old Catholic tradition of sainthood by public adoration and acclaim despite being rejected by the church for not fitting the requirements of sainthood. There are strong attractors bringing Santa Muerte close to the hearts of thousands, potentially millions. The idea of all people being equal in her sight and not judged for some of their life choices is appealing to many people. As the cult of Santa Muerte continues to sensationalize her with acts of ritualistic violence and criminal atrocities, more traditional forms of worship from a non-criminal subset of the population is catching on hundreds of thousands of new devotees around the world every day. The Saint of Last Resort is now a favorite by business owners, entrepreneurs, mothers, students, gay rights activists and many other people. She has been gaining popularity in the United States for the past five or six years and while no official numbers have been recorded it is thought her followers number into the millions globally (Russell n.d).
Santa Muerte is one to watch. An unlikely ally to the impoverished and oppressed, Lady Death has risen to sainthood and religious icon. A god born in the past fifty years she has reached epidemic proportions of the population. This is a very exciting time to witness the birth of a new religion syncretic with traditional ones. The skeletal figure of the Holy Death has only gained momentum and increased in popularity in spite of the criminal associations. Apparently the idea of all people regardless of class or past being equal is appealing; the concept that all people are eligible for her protection strikes a chord in the hearts of many.
- BBC News (2013). Vatican denounces Mexico Death Saint. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-22462181 [Accessed: 10 Jul 2013].
- Bunkner, R. (2013). Santa Muerte: Inspired and Ritualistic Killings. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/2013/february/santa-muerte-inspired-and-ritualistic-killings-part-1-of-3 [Accessed: 10 Jul 2013].
- Catholic Online (n.d.). Frequently Asked Questions about Saints. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.catholic.org/saints/faq.php [Accessed: 09 Jul 2013].
Guillermoprieto, A. (2013). The Vatican and Santa Muerte. [online] Retrieved from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130512-vatican-santa-muerte-mexico-cult-catholic-church-cultures-world/ [Accessed: 08 Jul 2013].
- Parker, J., Mills, A. and Stanton, J. (2007). Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies. Sydney: Global Book Publishing, p. 483.
- Russell, C. (n.d). ‘La Santa Muerte’ spreading across US after years linked to Mexico drug cartels, love, magic. The Canadian Press.
- TIME.com (2007). Santa Muerte: The New God in Town. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1671984,00.html [Accessed: 30 June 2013].
- Torres, J. 2011. Santa Muerte: She’s Not Judgmental | The Bronx Journal. [online] Available at: http://www.thebronxjournal.com/santa-muerte-shes-not-judgmental [Accessed: 11 Jul 2013]