Santa Muerte: The Macabre Virgin

pencil drawing of Santisima Muerte Most Holy Death
pencil drawing of Santisima Muerte Most Holy Death

Santa Muerte: A philosophical and cultural view of the origins, beliefs, practices and behaviours.

By Steven Van Neste 

More commonly referred to as just Santa Muerta (Holy Death), Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte (Our Lady of the Holy Death) is probably one of the most unique deities in the world. Her iconography is almost like a macabre virgin. Interesting enough, in Mexico, she is just as popular as the national saint known as the Virgin of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora deGuadalupe – Our Lady of Guadalupe). Some other names given to her are la Flaquita (the Skinny Girl), la Niña Bonita (the Pretty Girl), la Huesuda (the Bony Girl) and la Madrina (the Grandmother) and Señora de las Sombras (Lady of the Shadows). As often tends to be the case with folk saints/deities, the origins go back to a time before Christianity, and in this case to the Aztec period of what is now known as Mexico. [1]

The legend of Santa Muerte grew out the Aztec Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead), [2] who ruled over the underworld together with her husband Mictlantecuhtli (Lord of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld). The function of Mictecacihuatl was to preside over the bones of the deceased, and her depiction was that of a skeletal-like body with wide open jaw bones. It is unsure when and why Santa Muerte grew out of Mictecacihuatl, especially since her worship seems to have been more of a covert something, in contrast to the larger festival of the dead (Día de Muertos). What is known is that in the early 20th century, the artist José Guadalupe Posada made a zinc etching entitled “La Calavera Catrina” (Catrina’s Skull), which led to a transformation of the image of death as a universal something. The art of Posada was not meant as a religious something, but rather as a parody, in which the artist sought to remind those trying to imitate the ‘posh’ European ways, that they would die all the same. 

 Regardless of Posada’s intentions, his work led to a new depiction of death fueling both Santa Muerte and Día de Muertos. What is important in Posada’s esthetics is, however, the idea that in death everything is equal, and it is quite likely this led to the more independent rise of Santa Muerte, as it tends to be more of a religion geared towards the outcasts, as such one prays to death because in death we all are equal. Whereas the regular festival of the death is syncretized with the Christian All Soul’s Day, and as such serves more of a general function of ancestral remembrance; the adoration of Santa Muerte is more towards an active personification of death.

Contrary to her roots and imagery, Santa Muerte is not seen as a dead someone in the traditional sense, especially since there seems to be somewhat of a more traditional Virgin Mary influence. As is generally the case with folk beliefs, a full consensus is probably impossible, as it seems to mean different things to different people, and lacks an organized canon. What seems certain though, is that Santa Muerte is much less concerned with death as such, and much more with the struggles of life, hence her primary association is with oppression rather than death.

Evidence of this is, of course, that the ‘cult’ that has grown around the figure of Santa Muerte is largely made up out of people who find themselves caught within the margins of society, though when properly thought about, we can see such thought is already present in the early 20th century aesthetics which largely shaped Santa Muerte as we know her today. As mentioned above, the aesthetics beginning with Posada’s Catrina, deal with a certain dose of parody, as it mocked the native population suddenly becoming all obsessed with European style and mannerisms. The aesthetics is a reaction to the sudden complacency found in the original man, and how he has forgotten all about the burden of the past, the aggressiveness of the European who invaded the Americas and placed everything under his thumb.

If Santa Muerte is a personification of death, then this is not because she is death herself, but rather because she is struggle, hence the association with minority groups and those at the margins of society. There is, however, another important element here, namely the struggle against hypocrisy and forgetfulness, which is why two of her attributes are the lantern and the owl. Especially the symbolism of the owl is important, as it refers to her seeing what often is forgotten or neglected, as the owl is not just an animal with exceptional night-sight, but is present in the dark of night when we imagine we are alone.

It is quite common to find statues and candles of Santa Muerte in botanicas, though it is important to remember that she is separate from other folk faiths and that she exists more in her own right rather than as a deity connected to a set system. Santa Muerte exists as its own unique adoration, and hence she is not seen as part of more known systems of folk faith, such as Vodou or Santeria. That being said, it is interesting to more than other faiths have similar figures. The most common denominator here would be to focus on her aspect of death and hence it is tempting to liken her to Oya in Santeria or Maman Brigitte in Vodou. Such associations, however, are superficial and read too much into the roots of Santa Muerte, rather than focusing on her independence. At least in Vodou, a much closer analogy would be the more obscure deity known as Marinette Bras Cheche (Dry Arms Marinette), whose name bears resemblance to some of the epitaphs given to Santa Muerte.

What is interesting in the similarity with Marinette, is that both figures are strongly independent and tend to give protection against something foreign, both also have the owl as an animal association. Furthermore, Marinette is associated with the concept of Anima Sola, the forsaken soul trapped in purgatory, and hence there is an association with hopelessness, an element that is also found in the similar adoration of San La Muerte in the Southern Americas. Much more than with the regular gods and saints of death, who are more for everyone, deities such as Santa Muerte and Marinette are more specific in who they attract and hence tend to function more as patrons for the poor and the oppressed.

Perhaps it can be said that the devotion to Santa Muerte is mainly for those whose life resembles something hellish; more traditional deities involved with death, on the other hand, tend to function more along the lines of ancestral worship. By comparison, the similar adoration of San La Muerte, grew out of the hardship experienced by Guaraní, so even though San La Muerte is a death-figure, his worship is mainly associated with the struggle associated with indigenous people in the Southern Americas. Likewise, Marinette is strongly associated with the Haitian slave revolution and in spite of her skeletal appearance is associated with liberation rather than anything ancestral.

Though the worship of Santa Muerte is sometimes referred to as a cult, it is important to understand that the use of the word ‘cult’ here, is strictly in the original sense of ‘adoration’, as there is no central body or rite associated with the figure of Santa Muerte. Nor would we say that Santa Muerte is a new religion, as once again it lacks any real set of cohesive principles and beliefs, hence it cannot be compared to religions such as Santeria or Vodou. It must be pointed out, however, that there are individuals dedicated to starting their own churches dedicated to Santa Muerte, likewise the Iglesia Católica Tradicionalista Mexicana-Estadounidense (Traditionalist Catholic Church of Mexico and the United States) is sometimes seen as an embodiment of the Santa Muerte cult, though in reality, the figure of Santa Muerte is just a part of their rite, as the Church us first and foremost a Christian sect (albeit excommunicated).

Outside of the existence of some loose groups, the main worship of Sante Muerte is rather individualistic and tends to operate more through little roadside shrines. The main form of worship is the same as found in many other forms of saint adoration and magic, namely through the use of burning a votive candle and the making of a petition, and as is common in such rites, different candle colours correspond to a different motivation. As is common in folk faith, there is also a strong aspect of making offerings, namely by pouring drinks for the deity or even by blowing smoke on its representation. It is important to understand here, that there is nothing unique about the rituals associated with Santa Muerte, nor is there anything ‘satanic’ about such rites, as they are standard practices not just in folk religion, but are also in Catholic saint worship as well. Note, that the burning of votive candles is a standard Christian practice as well, including lighting a candle to accompany a specific ‘prayer’.

It is perhaps ironic that something so loose and undefined is at the same time seen as a source of great horror and notoriety. The mention of Santa Muerte goes, at moment, together with a pathos similar to the one felt during the Satanic Panic. Depending on where one lives, folk religion and folk magic are not necessarily uncommon, especially in parts of the USA with strong Hispanic population, it is quite common for there to be stores specializing in objects concerning folk faith and the magic associated with it. As such, through a practice such as Santeria tends to be regarded with suspicion, it is generally not seen as something evil. Santa Muerte, on the other hand, is almost always associated with something, and this is not because of the connection with death since Día de Muertos does not enjoy the same status (to the contrary).

The major reason for Santa Muerte’s infamy is due to her association with criminality, especially with the Mexican drug cartels. There are two elements to this association between Santa Muerte and criminality, the first of which is the connection through poverty. Poverty and crime often manifest themselves together, especially in the absence of proper systems of social security. This first element is, hence, one of petty crime arising out of a sense of social necessity. Here, the connection with Santa Muerte is only slightly direct, as she is generally seen as a patron of the poor, however, it must be understood that this does not mean that Santa Muerte herself is associated with crime. On a side note, in Vodou there is a deity named Baron Kriminel, who is directed linked to an image of crime, and what is interesting here is that he as well is somewhat linked with a patronage of the poor, as he is syncretized with the Peruvian saint Martin de Porres.

Whereas the first element of the association between Santa Muerte is the more connection with poverty and how it often comes together with crime, the second element is the continuation of this, which is found when crime becomes more of an organized something. The panic surrounding Santa Muerte is mainly situated around this element, as the way it has been portrayed, there seems to be a link between the cult of Santa Muerte and the Mexican drug cartels. Two names that come to mind here are Daniel Arizmendi López and David Guillen Romo; the arrest of the former is what brought Sante Muerte more into the open, whereas the arrest of the latter, brought about the panic of Santa Muerte is a dangerous cult. Of the two, the case of David Romo is the most interesting, as he also was a self-appointed priest of Santa Muerte and founder of the Iglesia Católica Tradicionalista Mexicana-Estadounidense.

As pointed out already, the Iglesia Católica Tradicionalista Mexicana-Estadounidense was not just a church of Sante Muerte, as it was founded as independent Catholic body; the founder, David Romo, was not just a self-styled priest of Santa Muerte, but was indeed a regularly ordained Catholic priest until he went rogue and founded his own church. Eventually though, in 2002, Romo did found another ‘church’ dedicated more exclusive to Santa Muerte (Santuaria Nacional del Ángel de Santa Muerte – National Sanctuary of the Angel Santa Muerte) which he led until he was arrested in 2011, charged with money laundering, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. And as if the association with drugs and crime was not enough, in 2012 there was the arrest of Silvia Meraz Moreno, a serial killer who committed her murders in order to obtain Santa Muerte’s favour.  

Of course, there is no surprise as to why the above references would not make anyone cringe and imagine Santa Muerte must indeed be a cult of horror. It is, however, important to keep our own prejudices in check and attempt to see a slightly grander picture. There are several points to keep mind here. First, as mentioned already, the connection with criminality is not quite direct, as Santa Muerte’s patronage concerns the poor, and the association with crime is only due to the link between poverty and crime. It is not that we should condone crime, but we should keep in mind that at moments, there are reasons people turn to crime. One popular television that had a brief Santa Muerte reference was the acclaimed Breaking Bad, where two hitmen of the cartel are seen paying homage to Santa Muerte before embarking on their quest to kill the Walter White (the main character of the show). Yet interestingly enough, the character of Walter White, also reveals the connection between crime and Santa Muerte, as what drives him to become a drug lord is not at all a desire of criminality, but simply the desire to make ends meet and provide for his family in spite of his cancer.

Furthermore, it is known that Santa Muerte is a patron saint of people in prison, this, of course, furthers her image as a patron of criminality, but to anyone who dares think deep enough this is obviously misleading, as plenty of people in prison pray to Jesus as well, and yet we do not think of Jesus as being a patron of criminality. As for the larger organizations surrounding Santa Muerte, such as certain drug cartels or Romo’s Santuaria Nacional, the question we should ask is as to why it is imagined such groups/persons are to be considered as being illustrative of Santa Muerte. Plenty of criminals are Christians and pray to Jesus to aid them, even more so, the old-fashioned mafia always comes together with an idea of Catholicism, yet this does not mean that we think Catholicism is necessarily a criminal organization.

Here one could, of course, point that there is also evidence of Santa Muerte being linked to human sacrifice, as in the case Silvia Meraz. Yet here as well there is an immediate problem that ought to arise in anyone thinking with a clear mind, namely that just because a person does things in the name of ‘something’, it does not automatically mean that ‘something’ is wrong or even is to be implicated.  seems to be, first and foremost, a person suffering from a serious mental disorder, hence, how could we equate her delusion with some true doctrine? Are there not people who commit heinous acts in the name of God or Jesus? Granted, one could say that Meraz was guided by voices (and in part family members) telling her that through her killings she would gain the favour of Santa Muerte, however, this is not any crazier than the Biblical sacrifice of Isaac. One might object here that Abraham did not actually slay Isaac, but that it is a misnomer, as the essence of faith portrayed here is that one should be willing to kill one’s offspring in the name of some ‘spiritual’ being.

When it comes to Santa Muerte, or indeed any other similar form of spirituality that differs from the norm, it is important that we keep our prejudices in check and try as much as possible to see a larger picture. There is no denying there is a connection between Santa Muerte and criminality, especially in the form of the Cartels; it is, however, important that such connections are properly understood rather than be taken at face value. As mentioned already there are two elements to the crime aspect, one is the link with poverty, the other is unscrupulousness of certain individuals using Santa Muerte in order to intimidate. To understand this latter point, we may refer to something similar, namely the way Vodou was used by Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, specifically his fondness of the Vodou deity Baron Samedi. To most, it should be obvious Duvalier used Vodou in order to garner his cult of personality, and that his use of Vodou imagery does not reflect upon Vodou as a whole.

Sometimes it is said that Santa Muerte is a prison deity as well, as a matter of fact, in the aforementioned case of Daniel López, he asked to be allowed to bring his Santa Muerte figure with him to his cell, a request that was honored, and which added to the rising notoriety of Santa Muerte. To many people, something like this showcases the ‘evil’ of Santa Muerte, however, even if there is a strong devotion to Santa Muerte found among prison inmates, this does not necessarily mean Santa Muerte is thus to be considered a criminal deity. More importantly, that criminal petitions Santa Muerte for her aid, does not mean crime is necessarily condoned by her. There also are plenty of criminals who pray to Jesus and petition him for his aid, even more so, it sometimes is said there is a link between the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Mafia, so it important we learn to keep an open mind and see things for what they are.

Speaking of the Roman Catholic Church, it also ought to be mentioned that in general it is vehemently opposed to folk religions, especially when there is a blending with its own imagery, as such it should come as no surprise that the greatest enemy of Santa Muerte is Catholicism and Christianity in general.  One of the first factors of critical thinking is to always consider the sources, as such, when Santa Muerte is branded as evil, then in order to come to a less biased opinion, we must ask the question as to where this idea of evil comes from. As it turns out, Christianity is generally opposed to most elements of folk worship, so much so, that even the worship of saints is not something strictly condoned by the Catholic Church, and which in Protestant Faith is scrutinized even further.

To some, what might be even more ominous than the association between Santa Muerte and criminality, is how often it is said that there is a cult of Santa Muerte. The word “cult” of course tends to bring up a lot of negative connotations, but what must be understood is that it is a word that can be used in two different ways, and though there often is the overlapping of these two meanings, one does well by understanding the difference between the two. The meaning of the word “cult” most common today, is a latter twist, which defines a cult as an enclosed group that sees itself as being apart from society (similar to the usage of the word “sect”). The original meaning of the word “cult” is, however, more innocent, and its etymology is that of adoration, as such it signifies an object or idea that is adored by a group of people. It is, of course, clear as to how easy it is for these two ideas to merge into one, however, it must also be understood that even when there is the movement from the original idea of adoration into that of an enclosed cult-group, that this necessarily implies the adoration itself is dangerous and cultish.

Whenever one hears it uttered that there is a cult of Santa Muerte, then what must, first of all, be understood here, is that the word “cult” reflects much more upon the concept of adoration, than it does upon that of an organized group seeking its own private type of adoration. To understand this better, when we think of Jehovah’s Witnesses stance against blood transfusion, we do not think this is a stance associated with Jesus Christ, nor do we imagine that the idea of promiscuity as found in certain factions of Latter Day’s Saints is also illustrative of Christianity in general. One might be tempted to point out these are sects removed from the regular body of Christianity, yet this does not change that they themselves see themselves as belonging to Christianity. The ‘good’ Christian imagines he knows what is the real essence of his faith, yet when it comes to any other faith he always is immediately drawn to condemn it to be a cult.

During the second world war, the Roman Catholic Church kept a surprising silence concerning the atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich, should we thus conclude that the adoration of Jesus goes hand in hand with Fascist principles? At first, this may seem ludicrous, yet quite often we are guilty of making such quick associations since our own convictions and worldview are taken for granted. Especially when it comes to folk faith, we must always be mindful of our own cultural bias, as generally we always have the tendency of interpreting everything from within our own cultural framework. It is easy to brand something as evil just because we do not understand it or fail to appropriate it free from bias. The idea that Santa Muerte is evil is ludicrous since the only reason many feel so is because our own established culture has declared it to be so.

In my conclusion, it ought to be said, that we must always strive to discriminate between behaviours belonging to individuals and behaviours that can be said to belong to the element of adoration itself. When we look at the connection between Santa Muerte and crime, we see that the criminal behaviour is illustrative of certain individuals who have this behaviour as inherent, rather having it through their association with Santa Muerte. Of course, here one may be tempted to associate the existing behaviour of criminal devotees with their reason to worship Santa Muerte, though, in all honesty, such a view fails to see the larger connection with a crime, as something that arises out of a feeling of social repression. For the most part, the petty criminal does not pray to Santa Muerte because he sees her as being part of criminality, but rather because crime is his last resort and hence he prays to Santa Muerte so that he feels blessed regardless. It also cannot be stressed enough that there is no cult of Santa Muerte, now, this does not mean that there might not be groups using the image of Santa Muerte for more sinister aims, however, a cult grown out of an existing ‘adoration’ does not imply said adoration is cultish in and by itself. For instance, the Thugees enjoyed a cultish worship of the Hindu goddess Kali and used her as a patron in committing murder and robbery, however, this does not mean that the figure of Kali herself is criminal in nature.

Though Santa Muerte is relatively young, it is also unfair to classify her as a New Religious Movement, as what defines such a movement is that it wishes to attain something through a group effort. Though the efforts of David Romo could be seen as an attempt to create a cult, this does not mean anything further, as anyone can make a cult out of anything. The fear of Santa Muerte is nothing but a placing of the cart in front of the horse, as it is imaged that a particular usage of the Santa Muerte concept is wholly illustrative of it all. If anything, the fear some have of Santa Muerte plays directly into the hand of unscrupulous individuals who use her imagery for their own benefit. As should be clear, by itself Santa Muerte does not mean anything sinister, and the major reason for the opposition to her is because of people using her imagery for their own selfish purposes, or people opposed to her through their own cultural bias. The Santa Muerte panic is more revealing about the cultish influences dominating the lives of those in mainstream society than it tells us anything about Santa Muerte. What we must focus on is the behaviour of individuals, rather than trying to see things as arising out of some cult of evil. Fear never teaches anything and only leads to witch hunts, as such it only traps us further in the cult created by our own culture. We should not seek scapegoats, but rather we should look at what is the case, and try to understand the reasons for it being what it is.

[1] Wikipedia: Santa Muerte

[2] Wikipedia: Santa Muerte

Additional resources and suggested reading:

Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint