Santa Muerte: history, religion and esotericism.


Santa Muerte is a cult that is not officially accepted, and yet it has more followers every day, not only in Mexico, where it originates, but all over the world. She has suffered the stage of considering herself diabolical and that of being a new version of the virgin, that of being an entity for the marginalized or of a dangerous life and that of being the general benefactor to grant a good death when the time comes. The veneration of a figure of Death is not exclusive to Mexico either: throughout the world, in ancient religions, there have been gods of death and the underworld. Its novelty and popularity may be due to its unofficial inclusion in a monotheistic religion with the unofficial role of saint; Also in other areas of Latin America, such as Paraguay and Uruguay, Saint Death is venerated, although in its male version, and frequently used more as an amulet than as a devotional saint. In fact, esotericism has given a great boost to this cult, since the different colors of Santa Muerte's cloaks have earned it different attributions and rituals.

Its pre-Hispanic syncretism earns it certain confrontations with Christianity: for example, Christ defeated death by resurrecting on the third day, or death is not considered an entity on a religious level, but rather a folkloric one. For their part, believers have no problems in these aspects: Death is represented as an individual entity in the Apocalypse, as the fourth horseman, and furthermore, in any case, Death would be subject to the orders of God, therefore that she would be a servant on the same level as the angels and saints. In this regard, the name of Saint is neither ecclesiastical nor official, but a name also given by his followers, based, according to some anthropologists, on the anointings of the sick, in which they pray for a "holy death." (Santa Muerte).

A little history

The deities of the underworld of the pre-Columbian Mexica culture, such as Ah Puch/Yum Kimil, represented as a skeleton, or the couple that reigns in Mitclán, the kingdom of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl, who guard the bones of the deceased, were a great influential basis for this syncretism. Specifically, the wife, Mictecacíhuatl, was the patron saint of the festivals dedicated to the dead, later celebrated on the dates of early November along with All Saints and All Souls. The iconography of the skeleton within Christianity, as has already been said, was not accepted, but this did not prevent many other "mixtures", such as Pascual Baylon, who is represented as a crowned and caped skeleton, venerated in Chiapas and Guatemala. This iconography, according to legend, comes from the vision that a Guatemalan had in his last moments, which announced that after nine days his death would come, and the epidemic that devastated the area would also end.

If we follow the studies of Pedigón Castañeda, in the viceroyalties since the 17th century there was the custom of taking an image of Death on Good Friday, as a reminder of mortality. However, this was persecuted by the Catholic Church, and very few of these images could be preserved, since they were also accused of idolatry. But these Deaths, which were actually oriented to the idea of the Christian "good death", - and which, on the other hand, had iconographic representation within Christianity itself, such as the skull of Adam, etc.) have almost nothing to do with with the modern Santa Muerte, whose image and thought developed from the 20th century onwards, when images of her began to circulate again, dressed with a hand and a crown, like a virgin, to pray punctually for a good death. Tradition says that they were given clandestinely, as an amulet, in the Sonora market, which is currently known for its esoteric shops.

It is possible to think that these stamps were distributed among all types of people, but media attention wanted to focus on the use that criminal groups, drug traffickers, mafias, people in prison, politicians, etc. made of them, attributing a negative and violent image to The holy dead. In 2009 there was even a "massive" destruction of Santa Muerte altars due to association with gangsters and drug traffickers. Although this increased its popularity, the truth is that the diffusion was common to all strata, since protecting oneself from dangers and asking for a peaceful death is a universal wish that, in fact, is common in dangerous professions, such as police, firefighters, miners... and also among doctors, nurses, midwives, or simply for the average citizen who wants a relative to recover from an illness. It is worth noting, as Alatriste-Ozuna (2014) did, the relevant role that Santa Muerte will adopt for migrants, as a figure of support and help in uncertainty.

This is, in summary, the true first meaning of the image of the modern Santa Muerte. However, the environment of Mexico at that time was no longer the same as it had been centuries ago, and multiculturalism and modern society quickly altered the idea of Santa Muerte to adapt it to their new lifestyles.

In fact, there is more than one Santa Muerte, since each profile of adept can focus on one or another favors to ask for, but she is nevertheless considered a universal entity. Pre-Columbian and Yoruba indigenous beliefs stomped in their spiritual background, despite the fact that Catholicism notably influences their adorned presentation. Although the first cults were private in homes, little by little they have been able to become public - not official, since the The Vatican rejected the request to include Death as a Saint, and according to its faithful, always in non-bourgeois environments, that is, in environments where poverty or violence are more common. From the little cards we moved on to rosaries, amulets and figurines, which to this day can be seen not only in the Sonora market, but in any esoteric store in America and on the other side of the pond.

Worship centers

The popularity of altars or cult centers to Santa Muerte is "disputed" amicably between the altar on Alfarería 12 Street, in the Tepito neighborhood, and the international cult center of Tultitlán. A third place is the so-called only National Sanctuary, also in Tepito,

On Calle (Street) Alfarería 12 we found a sculpture of Santa Muerte more than a meter high, which Enriqueta Romero decided to exhibit, having belonged to a family member who prayed to her in privacy. From 2000 to 2016 she gained devotees silently but profusely, and when in 2016 her husband Raymundo was shot to death in front of the figure, media attention popularized the place, not without regret for her, who continued despite everything with the altar, increasingly visited, and with a small shop selling figures and votive offerings.

In Tultitlán, Jonathan Legaria Vargas, alias "Panther Commander" (Comandante Pantera), had raised a sculpture more than 22 meters high, and there he officiated a cult towards the White Girl, as she is also called. In 2008 he was also shot dead and his mother, Enriqueta Vargas, who at first was somewhat doubtful of the movement started by her son, ended up becoming the new leader of the cult, becoming an international meeting point for devotees.

In the National Sanctuary of Santa Muerte, governed by priest David Romo Guillén, self-proclaimed bishop, and imprisoned in 2011 accused of robberies and kidnappings, the cult of Santa Muerte began as a revival of the ancient Christian Death. However, its philosophy is particular, since, except in the ordination of women as priestesses, it has been open to youth, sexual diversity, the use of contraceptive methods, and performs complete liturgies presided over by the Saint. Likewise, he himself married and had children. His model has spread among new priests ordained by himself and other devout laymen, and in addition to the Tepito center, he is actively involved in centers in other regions, some even in the United States. Needless to say, he lost the affection and support of the Catholic Church, which does not tolerate any of his practices.

These examples clearly show how easy it is for the media to distribute an image of dangerous environments for Santa Muerte, adding morbidity and fear in equal parts. Novels, films and series have contributed to the image of Santa Muerte linked to drug trafficking, and also to fulfill unethical purposes, such as wishing the death of others. Perhaps this is where its double popularity lies: well, you can also ask other saints for help or health, but how can you ask a saint for the death of another person? Or how to beg a saint not to be caught trafficking? How to pray to a saint if you are a criminal or a prisoner? That's what Santa Muerte is for, who, despite her terrifying appearance, is treated with affection by her followers that is difficult to find, today, towards other saints. Thus, she is called the White Girl (La Niña Blanca), the Pretty Lady (La Dama bonita), but also the Skinny One (La flaquita), the Bony One (La huesuda), the 'Hairy' One (La pelona), even The Bitch (La Cabrona), something unthinkable with other saints. Santa Muerte moves between a kind and a punishing attitude. On some of its candles you can read: Law, stay away! Or Death to my enemies!

But as was said before, Santa Muerte makes everyone equal, so all strata and all social profiles have a place. According to some studies, in some cases Santa Muerte surpasses in popularity inside and outside Mexico even the Virgin of Guadalupe and San Judas Tadeo, the two figures most related to difficult and impossible requests.

Types of Santa Muerte and esotericism

Although a large part of the faithful of Santa Muerte associate her with the Catholic religion and a religious devotion, another large part link her to esoteric practices, since she is a saint almost exclusively used for specific requests, due, in part, because it is not linked to a complete cult or festivity. This is not correct either since the cult is mostly personal, private and homely, and on the other hand, between the festivals of the dead (November 1 and 2) and visits to the aforementioned cult centers, the acceptance of celebrations in the first days of each month. Even so, its possible origin in the Mercado de la Sonora, as well as its extension in other cults (Western esotericism, European paganism, Santeria...) promotes its use in the world of magic. However, the general cult treatment of this image is similar in the vast majority to that which would be given to any saint in Catholicism: processions, prayers, petitions and altars. Both in the prayers and the spells in which the help of Santa Muerte is requested, it is curious to see that the requests end in a Christian way, that is, praying the Lord's Prayer or with Amen.

Starting with its symbolism, the main characteristic of Santa Muerte is to be covered in a tunic and mantle. This symbolizes how human beings try to hide their mortality. There are figures that appear crowned and uncrowned. Those with a crown symbolize that Death reigns over all things, in addition to being a transposition of the Marian image, while the one that appears without a crown is said to be a sign of humility. Sometimes he carries a globe in his hands, symbolizing his control over the world, or a scale, alluding to his equitable role at the hour of death. Likewise, the presence of an hourglass is common, indicative of the passage of time. Although the figure of Santa Muerte is androgynous, she is sometimes represented with a skeleton baby in her arms, in a maternal attitude, and other times with a monk's robe and scythe, in which case she is usually considered a male entity.

However, in the esoteric environment its main symbolism depends on the candles and the colors of its cloak. As with the candles, the color of the mantle influences the influence that the figure may have on what is asked of him. The most common colors are white (purifying), red (love and blood) and black (absolute protection), but we also find blue (work), yellow (money), green (health) or there are even Santa Muertes with the mantle of the 7 colors of the Seven Powers.

As occurs with the cult of many other saints and divinities, it is common for Santa Muerte to have a small personal altar prepared where requests are made to her and offerings are served. These can be of all types, since this entity is considered to be very grateful, as long as the offering has been made in good faith. The offerings of bread and water are, so to speak, "mandatory", and must be changed regularly. It accepts flowers, fruit, drinks (also alcoholic ones, but these are customarily served in a glass!) and tobacco. In the opinion of his followers, he also likes chocolate, sugar and honey. Among the favorite flowers are white and red roses, something it shares with its Marian counterpart.

The colors of the offerings also influence when making a request, for example it is common to look at the color of the flowers or fruits, which usually have a specific objective. On other occasions, you can include a symbolic or practical element of the request, such as money. To this we can add that, for her or for the request, candles and incense are lit that identify the desire. Tobacco smoke also serves as a purifying element.

As a religious-esoteric element, despite everything, it is necessary that the altar be placed in sight. It would make no sense, according to her followers, to hide it, since it would not only anger her, but it would be contradictory to her own nature. It can be in a reserved place (such as a personal room or a display case), but not hidden in a drawer or box. The types of altar, however, vary greatly, even more so when it has been merged with the tradition of Day of the Dead altars, which also do not have a closed profile. The esoteric relationship, compared to the religious one, provides greater intimacy and personality to the believer.

Working at an esoteric level with Santa Muerte is becoming more common every day, since, as can be seen, there are no limitations or strict rules. This allows for versatility and strange fusions with other cults, in addition to Christianity. For example, from Western esotericism, and especially from Wicca, the idea has spread that both what you ask for and what you damage her, Santa Muerte will claim it back for three. In the first case, it is easy to return the favor with multiple attentions and thanks, but in the second, Santa Muerte is presented as a very vengeful being.

In the Santería environment, for example, there are two aspects: one of them partially "fuses" Santa Muerte with the orisha Iku, an orisha who, according to her patakin, stopped being one and serves as a collector of souls for having lost a duel with Orula. The counterpart does not agree with this vision, and is outraged at the comparison of Iku with Santa Muerte, since Iku is not an orisha and does not receive worship, except through the Eggun or deceased, and therefore, a tribute and an altar are meaningless. Of course, it must be understood that these two aspects follow, in turn, two socio-ethnic lines: Santería is African and Santa Muerte is Mexican. Somehow, it is only in Afro-Latin culture where this fusion makes sense.

Finally, it should be noted that Chesnut (2012) considered this spiritual practice as one of the most widespread in the world, since in a very short time 5% of the Mexican population was openly devout, to which is added that, by not having a fixed clergy or cult, allows thousands and thousands of followers who do not appear in the ranks of followers, along with those who are linked by the esoteric branch, which reaches followers who are not always marginal in many other countries of the world. Chesnut was the first to write books in English about Santa Muerte, and precisely his chapters are distributed talking about the colors of the candles, which demonstrates their very clear esoteric connection. The incipient distancing from traditional religions, the rise of esotericism and spiritualism, and the adoption by youth, predict a promising future for Santa Muerte.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada -


-Alatriste-Ozuna, I. Análisis iconográfico y del discurso sobre la Santa Muerte en tres escenarios: ciudad de México, Tijuana y Los Ángeles.(Tesis) México, 2014

-Chesnut, A. Santa Muerte:La segadora segura. Ariel- Grupo Planeta, España, 2013.

-Chesnut, A. Devoted to Death:Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. Oxford University Press, 2012

-Gaytán Alcalá, F. Santa entre los Malditos. Culto a La Santa Muerte en el México del siglo XXI. Revista LiminaR. Estudios sociales y humanísticos, año 6, vol. VI, núm. 1, Chiapas. Junio de 2008.

-Perdigón Castañeda, J. K. La Santísima Muerte. Antropología. Revista Interdisciplinaria Del INAH, (68), 36-43. 2002.

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