Close-up view of a Santa Muerte south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. (Source: Wikimedia)
Translating roughly to “Holy Death” or “Saint Death”, Santa Muerte is a syncretic sacred figure that is widely venerated in Mexico, mostly by the downtrodden and ostracized segments of society: prostitutes, criminals, substance abusers, the sick, the poor and other lower-class groups.
Saint Death combines Catholic and indigenous Mesoamerican beliefs, therefore embodying two distinct but complementary views of death: the Christian use of skeletons to remind people of their finite lives, and the Mesoamerican reverence towards the power of death.
The Cult of Santa Muerte is very complex, seen as either a part of Mexican Catholicism or a distinct religion altogether – the Church in Mexico condemns it, while individual believers have different views. The exact origins of Saint Death are unknown, although Mexico has long retained a syncretic combination of its European and Mesoamerican traditions, such as through the Day of the Dead.
The cult was said to have surged in lower-class neighborhoods of Mexico City during the 1940s, while other sources suggest it emerged in the 1960s in the state of Hidalgo. Either way, it’s only been recently that this controversial belief system has become more popular and public, with at least two million followers, if not more. As Mexico endures widespread death and violence from its current drug war, and as its political and economic climate faces renewed trouble, reverence of Holy Death seems to be increasing.
Indeed, her popularity is directly tied to individual or national incidences of hardship, to the extent that anthropologists identify her belief system as a “Cult of Crisis,” someone people turn to in desperation.
Iconography and Symbolism
Santa Muerte is referred to by a number of other names, Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of the Shadows”), Señora Blanca (“White Lady”), Señora Negra (“Black Lady”), Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”), and La Flaca (“The Skinny One”). No two images of Santa Muerte are exactly alike, as it often varies from person to person. Her icons range from small images or figurines that can be held in one hand, to statues or full-blown shrines; some people even have the image tattooed on their bodies.
Despite the variances, there are some near-universal motifs, including a similarity to another Catholic-Mesoamerican combination, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Like Mexico’s Virgin Mary, Lady Death is usually dressed either in long robes or long dresses, covered from head to feet with only the face and hands showing. However, this has deeper symbolizing, as it is meant to represent two things: how people hide their true selves from the rest of the world, and how flesh covers the bones of the living. Both these facades are temporary and eventually fall away in death (note that the Aztecs used to portray figures as having half their flesh removed, in order to get a similar point across).
Santa Muerte generally holds two objects: a scythe in the right hand and globe in the left. The scythe symbolizes many things, depending on the individual: the cutting of negative energies or influence, a harvesting tool for collecting hope and prosperity, or the moment of death, when a scythe is said to cut a silver thread representing our lives. The scythe has a long handle, indicating that it – like death itself – can reach anywhere. The globe represents Death’s dominion and presence over the entire world, and can be seen as a kind of a tomb to which we all return; the fact that she even holds a globe is an indication of her vast power (it should be noted that in European iconography, royalty would be depicted holding globes for similar reasons – sure enough, Medieval societies would portray skeletons doing the same, especially during famines or plagues, when death ruled supreme, even claiming nobility.
Other objects that can appear with an image of Santa Muerte include scales, an hourglass, an owl, and an oil lamp. The scales allude to equity, justice and impartiality, as well as divine will: death makes no judgments, as it claims everyone, good or bad. The hourglass indicates many things: the limited time of life on earth, but also the belief that death is the beginning of something new, as the hourglass can be turned to start over. It also denotes Santa Muerte’s patience, as all living things are visited by death eventually. An owl symbolizes her ability to navigate the darkness and her wisdom and is also said to act as a messenger, while a lamp symbolizes the intelligence and spirit needed to light the way through the darkness of ignorance and doubt.
It may seem strange that such a morbid figure could have such positive connotations. But that in itself is a symbol of death’s neutrality: it is not a purely good or bad thing, and it could have elements of both depending on the person. The duality of death, as both a positive and negative force, is prevalent across human cultures. This individualistic and personal nature of this faith – the fact that Lady Death means different things to different people – is largely what makes the faith so popular.
Rituals, Customs, and Beliefs
According to popular belief, Santa Muerte is very powerful and is reputed to grant many favors. Reflecting her nebulous and individualistic nature, the abilities attributed to Holy Death vary widely, and both the methods of worship, and the reasons she is sought after, differ from person to person.
Rites dedicated to Santa Muerte are similar to the processions and prayers seeking help from Catholic saints. Many believers in Santa Muerte identify as Catholics and will invoke the name of God, Christ, and the Virgin in their petitions to Santa Muerte. Often times, she stands near statues of Catholic images of Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Peter, or St. Lazarus. In the north of Mexico, Santa Muerte is venerated alongside Jesús Malverde, another pseudo-saint and folk figure popular among drug traffickers. However, some adherents warn that Santa Muerte is very jealous and that her image should not be placed next to Catholic saints, as it could result in consequences.
In any case, Santa Muerte will be subject to altars that are usually surrounded by any or all of the following: cigarettes, flowers, fruit, incense, alcoholic beverages, coins, candies and candles. As with Catholic saints, Lady Death’s icons are treated as real persons who can give favors in return for the faith of the believer, including miracles.
But unlike her traditional Christian counterparts, Santa Muerte is said to grant favors that no other saint can, such as making someone fall in love with you, damaging property, or even harming or killing someone – albeit only for just reasons.
As Señora de la Noche (“Lady of the Night”), she is often invoked by those exposed to the dangers of working at night, such as taxi drivers, bar owners, police officers, soldiers, and prostitutes. Indeed, she is generally used to protect against assaults, accidents, gun violence and all types of violent death.
Her image is often dressed differently depending on the request: for example, she may be dressed as a bride for those seeking a husband, or as a nun for those requesting hope or faith.
The color of the robe can indicate the nature of the petition as well: white is the most popular, symbolizing loyalty, purity or the cleansing of negative influences. Red is for love and passion with one’s partner, friends, or family, and also signals emotional stability. Blue garb indicates wisdom (popular for students), brown robes are used to invoke spirits or the dearly departed, and purple robes indicate the need to open some kind of pathway or opportunity (such as for a career). Gold indicates economic power, success, money and prosperity, while green signals justice or unity with loved ones. Amber or dark yellow indicates a search for health and/or money, and Lady Death figures can be seen wearing this color in areas frequented by alcoholics, drug addicts, or ill people. When dressed in black, the image is said to provide total protection against black magic or sorcery (though conversely, she may be dressed this way in pursuit of negative magic or power).
There is also a version of the image in a rainbow-colored robe, known as the Santa Muerte of the Seven Powers. The colors of this robe are gold, silver, copper, blue, purple, red and green. Gold is for wealth, red for love and passion, purple for the changing of negative to positive, silver for luck and success, green for justice, copper for lifting negative spirits, and blue for spirituality.
In additional to these variances, each worshiper adorns his or her own icon in their own way, using dollar bills, gold coins, jewelry, flowers, a paper with a request, and so on.
Santa Muerte also has her own “Saint’s Day,” which is celebrated on either November 1 or August 15, depending on the adherent. She’s often dressed in a bridal outfit during the occasion, and is subject to public gatherings and festivities.
Despite its growing popularity, the controversy of the faith means that it remains secretive: most worshiping is done in homes of devotees or in shops tending to spirituality and the supernatural (tarot readers, curanderos, herbal healers, etc) However, more shrines and public festivities devoted to her are appearing in public; some time ago, a believer by the name of Enriqueta Romero Romero decided to take a life-sized image of Santa Muerte out of her home and build a shrine for it, visible from the street. Though it doesn’t hold Catholic or occult rituals, thousands of people continue pray and leave offerings. Several public shrines have been set up elsewhere in the country in response.
Raising of Santa Muerte images during a service in the deity’s honor on Alfareria Street Tepito Mexico City. (Source: Wikimedia).
Furthermore, a group called Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos (Mexican-US Traditional Catholic Church) built the first temple dedicated to Santa Muerte in Mexico City, with plans to develop devotional material to be sold or disseminated across the country.
Popularity and Demographics
As I noted before, Santa Muerte is especially popular among the lower-classes of Mexican society. For decades she had a following in Mexico’s poorest neighborhoods. The phenomenon stems from scarce resources, desperation, exclusion from the educational and economic systems, and socioeconomic oppression – as such, it is based primarily in t inner cities and the very rural areas. It should be noted that most new religious beliefs start with the lower classes for this very reason.
She’s also gained many adherents who have become disillusioned with the dominant Catholic Church and the inability of established Catholic saints to deliver them from poverty. Indeed, some of the more blighted communities are said to revere Lady Death more than Jesus.
Though most upper-class people look down on the cult as an unsettling or foolish superstition, there have been some accounts of Lady Death making inroads among the wealthy and successful. Whether or not this is due to perceived trendiness is unknown, as the practice is even more secretive among the well-off than the poor.
Some of her most devoted followers are prostitutes, pickpockets, petty thieves and drug traffickers, especially those who turn to crime out of survival. Still, the cult is most strongly associated with the drug cartels that are wreaking havoc on Mexico, a connection that has only heightened the taboo-status of the belief. Mexican authorities regularly linked the worship of Santa Muerte to prostitution, drug trafficking, kidnapping, smuggling and homicides. Indeed, criminals are among her most fervent believers, praying to for a successful operation, or for escaping the police. She is considered to be the “Virgin of the Incarcerated,” such that a large number of convicts will convert to the faith after several months. Many prisons cells have been seen bearing the images of Santa Muerte.
In the north of Mexico, a major center of drug trafficking, she is venerated along with Jesús Malverde, the “Saint of Drug Traffickers”; altars with images of Santa Muerte have been found in many drug houses in both Mexico and the United States.
Interestingly, it has been reported the law enforcement and military personnel conducting the current drug war have asked Lady Death to bless their weapons and keep the same – an interesting twist considering that the criminals they fight do the exact same thing.
Figurines of Santa Muerte for sale in Sonora Market, Mexico City. (Source: Maurice Marcellin).
Santa Muerte and the Catholic Church
Mexico’s Catholic Church considers the worship of Santa Muerte to be equivalent to Satanism or black magic, claiming the she is used to mislead desperate people (many protestant denominations make the same warning). Priests have tried to inform people that death is a phase of life, rather than a figure to be worshiped; they also warn against idol worship, which is a defining element of death cult but officially discouraged by the Church.
Furthermore, the cult is seen as competing with the Catholic Church, since many followers end up leaving to become exclusive Santa Muerte devotees. Nonetheless, the majority of devotees to Santa Muerte do not worry about any contradiction between the church and the worship of Santa Muerte.
Santa Muerte in the United States
Devotion of Santa Muerte has been on the rise in the United States, mostly following the millions of poor Mexicans who have immigrated to the country. Her presence can be found almost anywhere that has a large Mexican community, including New York City, Houston, Tucson and Los Angeles, which alone has 15 registered temples and organizations devoted to her. It should be noted that many of these “adherents” bear icons or symbols mostly for cultural reasons.
The cult has gained some non-Mexican followers as well, most notably in Northern California’s Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage, which was founded by a white woman. Though it’s doubtful that will spread outside the Mexican working-class, the possibility can’t be ruled out. So far, America’s Catholic Church has not issued any official statements on the matter (though local churches are said to be addressing it).