Santa Muerte – Mexican skeleton saint characteristics
Santa Muerte is a skeleton popular saint from Mexico. Santa Muerte means Holy Death. That seemed to me a bit tricky at the begining of my research. Because, c’mon, how Death can be holy? And it turned out that it certainly can!
It is practically impossible to determine the exact genesis of the Santa Muerte cult. As a phenomenon characterized by high syncretism and having no well documented sources, we are not able to reconstruct the history of Holy Death.
Another issue is that, due to its syncretic nature, the genesis of this cult is certainly not characterized by linearity, but rather by diffusion. Thus, despite the fact that genesis usually researches the development of a given phenomenon historically, in this case we have to look at it “spatially”. The cult of Santa Muerte and its figure itself is the result of a meeting of two cultures (pre-Columbian from the regions of Mesoamerica and European) with other influences such as African religions, santeria and esoteric.
All these factors seem very exotic to us Europeans. Perhaps that is why sociologists believe that this is the so-called “Cult of crisis”, which is a response to the difficult situation prevailing in Mexico. Thus, many think that this is a new phenomenon, dating back only to the beginning of the 21st century. Nothing could be more wrong. In fact, the cult itself is much older, and a dozen or so years ago it gained popularity to have even 12 million followers.
Santa Muerte – the history of the cult
However, there is evidence that this phenomenon dates back to at least the end of the 18th century. According to church documents, the first mention of the figure of a skeleton worshiped by the Indians named Santa Muerte was first mentioned in 1787 in San Luis de Paz, Guanajuato¹.
In addition, in the Latin America region there are also other figures of skeleton saints appearing in folk tradition. The best example here will be San Pascualito Ray, currently found in the southern states of Mexico and Guatemala.
El Ray Pascal, as they also call him, is a figure of a cortical skeleton, which is a fusion of Mayan beliefs and the cult of Saint Pascal Bailon – a 16th-century Franciscan monk from Spain. And all this was carried out remotely – Bailon never appeared in the vicinity of Chiapas, where his worship has its source.
Still, his followers believed that he came to the Indians of the region in the vision of one of them. Like Santa Muerte, San Pascualito remained in hiding for many centuries, being fought by the church and its cult came out relatively recently².
Another very similar folk saint is San la Muerte, worshiped mainly in Argentina and Paraguay. He first appeared in the province of Corrientes in northeastern Argentina. Legend says that he was a Jesuit monk, who was accused of witchcraft for treating people in a way incomprehensible to those times, and then died in wonderful circumstances◊.
This figure seems to have been a combination of one of the European personifications of death – the Grim Reaper – and Jesus or the Just Judge of the Apocalypse of Saint John. By the way, the latter was also worshiped in New Spain (as Mexico was called during the colony) in the city of Queretaro.
Still, it wasn’t his classic performance. The Indians worshiped him in the form of a skeleton with a crown on his head and with a ribbon and arrow in his hands ♠. Interestingly, the first mention of this cult comes from 1793, i.e. six years after the first recorded fact of the existence of Santa Muerte. A similar date applies to the first records of the cult of San la Muerte, which dates back to the mid-eighteenth century ♣. Also the first documents about San Pascal are from the 18th century ♥.
So, as we see all the cults of the holy skeletons, or at least their first documentation, appeared at the same age, in the case of Santa Muerte and Justo Juez, as the Just Judge is called in Spanish, they are separated by a difference of several years.
It seems that the worship of holy skeletons was a certain trend in Latin America, i.e. in Bolivia we can find a phenomenon called las Ñatitas – skulls, which are decorated during the Dias de los Muertos, from 1. until November 8♦. Other exampe of latinamerican holy skeleton is Niño Compadrito in Cusco, Peru. His followers believe that they worhisp child’s corpse. He looks alike Santa Muerte – has long black hair and is dressed in richly decorated robes¹¹.
All these figures are objects of folk beliefs, being the result of pre-Columbian syncretism with Catholic iconography. One can therefore observe the occurrence of similar folk saints throughout Latin America, where vivid Indian customs remained.
Thus, the folk religiosity is the result of preserving old traditions in the customs of the lower social clases. The higher ones usually acculturate, and ieaven if not, the upper classes in Latin America were Spaniards or Creoles.
Thus, the lower clases in Latin America (which were contested to ethnicity) became a mainstay of the old identity, which in order to survive, was mixed with new faith, which resulted in these syncretic cults of saints, who, however, differed from the blessed of the Catholic church. The folk saints normally fulfilled the pragmatic needs of the oppressed people, that is, they fulfilled their prayers.
Holy skeletons, as well as other folk saints, which I will skip here because of the lack of space, are corelated by help carried out at the request of people, i.e. a kind of fulfillment of wishes or more, as their followers say, miracles (milagros). At first, Santa Muerte herself was mainly responsible for the love wishes that betrayed or abandoned women carried to her¹².
Santa Muerte and the folk religiosity
This approach to the saints really brings their followers closer to pagan beliefs, in which the believers enter in a kind of exchange with deity. For making a sacrifice, reparation was expected in the form of fulfillment of the begging of a supernatural being. In the case of Christianity, you can also ask for saints for help, but everything really depends on God’s grace.
Thus, followers turned to Santa Muerte. They say that official Catholic saints are more unreliable, while la Flaca, as they call her, is more willing to fulfill their request. In connection with this typical pagan approach, the church is obviously opposed to Santa Muerte and all other popular saints, although their followers consider themselves Catholics. This is also the case for believers in Santa Muerte, who do not see any contradiction in reconciling this cult with Catholicism, after all Death is God’s messenger²¹.
However, for centuries the church authorities did not change their minds and during their reign in Mexico, the followers of Holy Death had to hide her. Because of her own exclusion, she became associated with excluded regions, entering the homes of the poor neighborhoods of the City of Mexico and various other regions of the country, becoming a confidante of the secrets of her followers, with whom she developed very intimate relations²². It doesn’t have to be said, that those relations were different from those with official saints, or distant God the Father.
Such hidden Holy Death survived until the Mexican Revolution, which deprived the church of its influence and enabled Santa Muerte to stop from hiding. This kind of coming out turned out to be a big break for her, because she was made a national symbol.
However, even the Revolution did not really rehabilitate this cult at all. Therefore, she still remained among the excluded in the underground. The first real changes in the cult of Santa Muerte began in the 1960s. The first skeleton figure that gained its followers officially appeared in 1965 in the city of Tepatepec in the state of Hidalgo.
There, thanks to parishioners, a figure of Holy Death was placed in the corner of one of the churches. Two years later, however, in the city of La Noria in the state of Zacatecas, where another figure of the skeleton was worshiped, placed in the church next to the paintings of Mary and the saints²³.
Santa Muerte currently
However, the true popularity of this cult is associated with the eighties and Mexico’s debt crisis. In that time Santa Muerte comes out of hiding for good, to become what sociologists call, the cult of crisis and to accompany mainly people from the lower social classes (though not exclusively) and to find a place outside of churches, on the streets of the poor neighborhoods of Mexico City and other regions of the country , dressed like the Mother of God or the bride – hence her other nickname Nina Blanca (White Girl). Her followers put on her long black hair wigs and dressed in decorative dresses, which is a derivative of the Spanish rites³¹.
The main center of the cult of the Holy Death is considered the Mexico City district – Tepito, considered one of the most dangerous areas of the capital. It was there in 2001 that the most famous public altar Santa Muerte was erected in the house of Enriqueta Romero. Dona Queta herself, as she is called, claims to have been a follower of Holy Death since the 1960s. As she told me, she met this cult through her aunt.
Initially, she kept the altar in her living room, but at the beginning of the 21st century it was exposed it to the public. Next to the altar, she founded her candle and devotional shop dedicated to Santa Muerte. This is now her source of income. And this is not difficult here. People come, buy candles, put on the altar, asking Nina Blanca for various favors. In return, they not only light her candles, but also bring flowers, fruit, sweets, alcohol and cigarettes.
When asked how this adoration of Holy Death relates to Catholicism and God, Dona Queta answers that God is over everything and also over death. However, to her one could offer all kinds of sacrifices. In the end, no one will, for example, bear fruit to Our Lady of Guadalupe or another saint from Catholic church.
And here we can find the basic meaning of the genesis of this cult. Although it has European iconography and researchers see it more as a transfer of Spanish traditions to Indian soil³², it seems to be too simple explanation. Santa Muerte is the result of a clash of cultures (and not only European and pre-Columbian, but also African and modern esoteric traditions). On the other hand, making sacrifices in the form of sweets, fruit or alcohol is a very clear element of pagan tradition. The followers themselves recognize it as something very familiar, closer to them than the figures of Catholic saints³³. Many see it as a direct continuation of the Aztec beliefs, because there was a devine pair of skeletons rulled the Underworld – Mictlan.
Thus, Santa Muerte would be the incarnation of Mictecacihuatl, wife of the god Mictlatecutli◊◊. However, this statement cannot be accepted either. Although Holy Death may indeed appear to be a different version of this deity, the mere representation of it as a skeleton is an insufficient and actually the only connotation (Mictecacihuatl appeared as the female complement of Mictlatecutli, according to Aztec dualism, which assumed gender duality, which may also be related with divinity in general).
It seems, however, that the idea and essence of this figure is indeed associated with pre-Columbian beliefs and female deities, but certainly we can not speak of a one-to-one translation. The Aztec idea merged with European iconography and was enriched with African influences or the esoteric tradition (which is syncretic in itself). Therefore, the exact genesis of the described cult must be discussed in the following chapter on a “spatial” basis – by analyzing the factors that make up its syncretic character. This approach will verify the thesis presented above that Santa Muerte really had pre-Columbian roots in its essence, but would be additionally enriched with European iconography.
¹ J. G. Olmos, La Santa Muerte: La virgen de los olvidados, Ciudad de Mexico 2012,. Kindle Edition, p. 29.
² R. A. Chesnut, Devoted to death – Santa Muerte the skeleton saint, New York 2012, p. 31.
♠ R. A. Chesnut , p.. 32.
♥J. G. Olmos, p. 56.
♦ P. Kondunaris, Memento Mori, United Kinngdom 2015, p. 154.
¹¹ Source: http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2009/10/05/cronicasdesdelatinoamerica/1254750565.html, 15.1.2017.
¹² R. A. Chesnut, p. 34.
¹³ Source: own research
²² J. G. Olmos, o. 33.
²³ Ibidem, pp. 67 – 68.
³¹ R. A. Chesnut , p. 28.
³² E. Malvido, Cronicas de la Buena Muerte a la Santa Muerte en Mexico.
³³ Source: own research
◊◊ R. A. Chesnut , p. 28.