By Deborah Van Hoewyk
Who Is She?
Santa Muerte – Saint, or Holy, Death – is all about death. She IS death, or maybe escaping death. The explanations of how Santa Muerte came to be, what she does, and who is devoted to her worship vary widely. Wielding a scythe, carrying a globe or an hour glass or the scales of justice, and accompanied by an owl, Santa Muerte makes a lot of people nervous.
She isn’t supposed be a particular person, with a beatified life, but those interested in the syncretism of indigenous and Catholic religion think she might be, or that she goes back to the Aztecs. She has nothing to do with Día de los Muertos, although lately, she’s been showing up at the celebrations. She started out male and became female. Her cult is condemned by the Catholic Church, but it’s the fastest-growing religion in Mexico, the US, and Canada; in 2017, the number of worshippers was estimated at 10 to 12 million, and the number “exploded” during the pandemic. (“Cult,” when used in the religious sense, is not a negative, it simply means an unrecognized religious group.)
Is she the “complex, multifaceted folk spirit” described by Rebecca M. Bender, Associate Professor of Spanish literature and culture at Kansas State University? Or is she the narco-saint, a “strange hybrid of the Virgin Mary and the grim reaper” profiled by independent journalist Jake Flanigan in The Atlantic? Did she protect people from COVID-19, or, as the angel of death, send them straight to their graves?
Where Did She Come From?
Anyone who has toured an ancient ruin in Mexico knows that death was an overarching theme – human sacrifice, dead warriors, tombs, maybe even the winning team in a ball game – the stories are painted and carved throughout.
While the cult of Santa Muerte emerged in the mid-20th-century, and had mostly stayed out of sight until the 1990s, some anthropologists and archaeologists see its ancestry among the Aztecs. As noted in articles elsewhere in this issue, the Aztecs (in Oaxaca, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs) had an elaborate construction of life after death, including a 13-level heaven and a 9-level underworld. The god of death, Mictlāntēcutli, together with his consort Mictēcacihuātl, ruled Mictlān, the lowest level of the underworld.
The goddess Mictēcacihuātl is immortal and a shapeshifter – she can change her appearance at will, from benevolent to monstrous. Her charge is to guard the skeletons of the dead and govern the festivals honoring the dead; there is a direct line from Mictēcacihuātl to Día de los Muertos. Over time, Mictēcacihuātl gradually became the personification of death itself, as well as the agent through whom the preserved bones of the dead provided the source of life for the next world – unlike their Christian conquerors, the Aztecs believed death was part of an endless cycle of life. Mictēcacihuātl thus develops a dual identity, associated with both death and life, which becomes healing – much like Santa Muerte. Aztecs appealed to her to promote their health and delay their deaths; the pair of them is shown overseeing scenes of sex, fertility, pregnancy and birth.
There are also those who argue that Santa Muerte derives from a 17th-century figure, Doña Sebastiana de Caso y Paredes, who was the niece of a sainted “virgin penitent” in Ecuador, St. Mariana de Jesus of Quito (a virgin penitent consecrates her life to God, lives usually with her family, and refrains from relations with men).
Robert Nixon, a Benedictine friar from London, based his recent book, The Venerable Doña Sebastiana de Caso: the Original Santa Muerte (2022) on the work of Jacinto Morán de Butrón, a 17th-century Ecuadorian historian. According to Morán and Nixon, Sebastiana’s father tried to force her into marriage, but she prayed to Death to rescue her; apparently Death responded, as Sebastiana contracted a fever and died. People began to venerate Sebastiana, who was born on August 15, the feast day of Santa Muerte; a society known as La congregación de la buena muerte sprang up in her honor.
What Happened Next?
The Spanish Catholic conquerors were having none of the worship of death, the multitudinous native gods and goddesses – if they couldn’t co-opt a ritual or belief, they suppressed it. Santa Muerte went underground. While this has led some to believe that Santa Muerte is a modern phenomenon, academic anthropologists use the theory of “bricolage” to explain the evolution of Santa Muerte (nowadays, they’re more likely to use the more dignified term “syncretism”). Either way, it describes the blending of disparate cultural practices into something new.
Defined in 1960 by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, bricolage comes from the French word bricoler, or “tinker around.” Generally, you tinker around with unrelated bits and pieces of this and that (bric-a-brac) until you’ve combined them into something new and meaningful to you. “Meaning” is not fixed forever, but depends on your understanding of the bric-a-brac you’ve assembled. For example, when the Spanish arrived, they brought images of the Grim Reaper to “explain” death to the “natives.” ¡¡Listo!! Santa Muerte now carries a scythe.
Before the Spanish arrived, Mictēcacihuātl was the patron of a month (August) of celebrations of the dead. The Spanish arranged to have the Catholic Church exorcize Mictēcacihuātl, since she was obviously inflicting the power of Satan on her believers; they cut the commemorations to two days and moved them to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1-2), which we now know as the Days of the Dead (the first day for children who have died, the second for adults).
There is, however, no doubt that Santa Muerte went underground in the colonial period – failure to adopt Christianity precisely as the Spaniards ordered was a major cause of death at the time. Veneration of Santa Muerte continued under cover, though; records of the Spanish Inquisition (a joint state-church effort to “purify” Spanish Catholicism, 1478-1834 in Spain, 1571-1820 in Mexico) report Santa Muerte worship in Guanajuato in 1797. The Chichimeca
at night gather in their chapel to drink peyote until they lose their minds; they light upside-down candles, some of which are black; they dance with paper dolls; they whip Holy Crosses and also a figure of death that they call Santa Muerte, and they bind it with a wet rope threatening to whip and burn it if it does not perform a miracle.
In 1793, the Inquisition reported that indigenous people of what is now Querétaro worshipped – on the altar during mass, no less – “the figure of a complete human skeleton standing on top of a red surface, wearing a crown and holding a bow and arrow.”
What with the War of Independence (1810-21), the Mexican-American War (1846-48), and the Mexican Revolution (1910-21), not to mention minor conflicts and political contretemps, Mexico was very busy for quite a while. Santa Muerte continued to stay underground.
The 20th Century: Santa Muerte Returns
From the 1940s to the 1960s, anthropologists described Santa Muerte as a saint who could guide matters of the heart, a saint of love. By the 1980s, however, Santa Muerte had a wide repertoire of influence. She was soon appealed to for help with (or hindrance of) issues involved in education, business, legal affairs – pretty much the spectrum of modern life. She is the preferred saint of marginalized people, the destitute and desperate, those who feel are in danger because of who they are (based on their professions, private lives, or sexuality).
You can get an idea of Santa Muerte’s versatility from Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, by R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth University (2017 [2 ed]). The first book focused completely on Santa Muerte, Devoted to Death covers her history, her adoption of elements of Catholicism – the whole gamut. Chesnut explains her powers with seven chapters, each covering one of the colors of Santa Muerte’s votive candles.
Red is the most popular single color, and accompanies petitions concerning passion and love. White represents purity and protection, while black is for black magic, and offers support for the “black” activities involved in narcotrafficking. Gold is for financial gain and overall prosperity, and purple represents miraculous healing. Brown is for learning and wisdom, and green offers advocacy to all followers for all reasons, no questions asked. There is also the best-selling seven-color candle, calling on all of Santa Muerte’s powers.
Santa Muerte has kept up with the times, always open to providing new protections on the one hand, and new persecutions on the other hand. Perhaps the most interesting area to adopt Santa Muerte as its saint is narcotrafficking. This is the “black” part of Santa Muerte, and has given rise to her identity as the patron saint of the drug cartels. Santa Muerte can protect you from the narcos and kidnappers, or help the narcos wreak vengeance on their enemies and the kidnappers succeed in capturing their targets.
Even though the black candle apparently sells poorly, statues of Santa Muerte and black candles have been found at sites where narco violence has occurred. When DEA and Mexican police raid drug safe houses, they find altars to Santa Muerte.
Chesnut deplores the concentration on the “black,” violent, and amoral aspects of Santa Muerte the media seem to promote, and says “Most American and Mexican nonbelievers … have little idea that the Skinny Lady [one of her many names] heals sickness, finds employment, and helps alcoholics and drug addicts in their struggles for sobriety.”
The Future for Santa Muerte?
The Catholic Church is generally opposed to “folk saints” – those who, like Santa Muerte, arise from grass-roots veneration. The cult of Santa Muerte particularly offends the Catholic Church – in 2016, Pope Francis called it “satanic,” and explicitly linked it to narcotrafficking. In both the US and Mexico, the church issues warnings against the growing popularity of including Santa Muerte in the second (adult) Day of the Dead celebrations.
Notwithstanding Church opposition, adherents to Santa Muerte are often Christian, if not Catholic. They have no trouble believing in Jesus Christ, or the Trinity, or the Virgin Mary, but Santa Muerte seems to offer a more efficient way to get your prayers answered, regardless of who you are. Moreover, COVID-19 greatly increased the numbers of people, Mexicans especially, who appealed to Santa Muerte to protect them from “the plague.”
Given that life in Mexico can be, depending on where you are, increasingly insecure and violent, that Mexican politics continue to be unstable, corruption remains rampant, and narcotics have thoroughly infiltrated business and government, the need for a saint who can guarantee your safety, encourage your love life, and promote your health and wellbeing, can only grow.