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Santisima Muerte

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Hi folks,

For many years I have been fascinated by the subject of folk saints, individuals who are not officially recognised by the Catholic Church but have been afforded the status of saints by those who adore them. Amongst the many colourful characters who make up the pantheon is one particular saint who satisfies my sense of the macabre as well pandering to my life long fascination with Mexico.

I have tried, over the years, to collect as many books and articles on the subject as I am able but as few are translated into English I have struggled but one Saint who's name is frequently mentioned in whatever literature I find is Santisima Muerte or Saint Death.

Folks Saints tend to evolve from the needs of the people and are entrenched in the culture, traditions and daily lives of the people who venerate them and many claim that Santisima Muerte's cult began amongst the Mexican criminal underworld who flirted with death so regularly it made sense that they befriend her. More likely this is a resurgence pre-Christian Aztec beliefs in deities such us Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl who ruled the Aztec underworld.

Unlike most Saints, Santisima Muerte turns no one away. The only thing we all have that is certain for us is death, death embraces all of us at some point, and for that reason all who approach her are welcomed. Here are a couple of Youtube videos that give more of an insight in to this fascinating phenomena and whilst it is evidently biased to towards the more sensationalist, and seedy, aspects of the cult it gives a better overview than I could alone.

If you like things a little spooky then I have a feeling this Saint is for you :oneeyedwinK




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Nice post Mark!

I've been living in Mexico for the past couple years now, and really don't understand the whole La Santa Muerte thing though certainly like to read up on a more informed view on it (wonder if any cultural anthropologists have/are working on it?). As you all know the narco-trafficking problem here is pretty big (I'm convinced the drug trade keeps Mexico going as a nation, that even though it's a "war" and the violence id horribly bad, especially at the border and the Mexican states where these drug cartels are based, all the money gets filtered and laundered in a major way into the economy), and so it seems with the growth of "narco culture" we've seen La Santa Muerte enter into Mexican pop culture. And this is a very recent phenomena, like the recent exponential growth of the drug business. I'm not sure what came first here...La Santa Muerte or the narcos. I can see where it might have been invented in the prison system...though I'm skeptical about how this cult of La Santa Muerte has much to do with a pre-Hispanic heritage, seems like some armchair anthropology to me, trying to make connections (that MIGHT loosely be present) that aren't really there. And as you see from the piece, the Catholic church is none too happy with the surge of the Santisma Muerte cult...but it's funny how the pilgrimage behavior and gestures given to La Santa Muerte images are identical to how Mexicans treat Catholic saints. And I wouldn't be surprised if many, like the woman that put the image in her window, are profiting from this cult as well.

Of course death has been and continues to be a part of Mexican popular culture, which does have pre-Hispanic origins. Not so much to the Aztecs, but rather to the Zapotec culture of the state of Oaxaca, famous for its Guelaguetza summer festival and the Day of the Dead celebrations, deeply rooted in their multi-ethnic indigenous peoples in that state and their pre-Hispanic heritages, maintaining a continuity of cultural traditions. El dia de los muertos is also important in other areas that have high indigenous populations, like in the Lake Patzcuaro area in Michoacan (Purepecha/Tarascan homeland)and other areas of central Mexico. During the 20th century, many of these festivals became incorporated into Mexican society as a whole (which is dominated by mestizos (mixed indigenous and European ethnicities) and criollos (of European heritage, born in the Americas) when forming a national identity in a modern world (to include the indigenous peoples even though they continue to be marginalized) and so we have a Day of the Dead that coincides as the eve of All Saints Day, being perhaps the most important religious holiday in Mexico after Semana Santa w/ Easter week and Christmas/The Epiphany. Images of "La Catrina" (the image of a female skeleton, sometimes just her head, sometimes in full form dressed in fancy clothing) became part of Mexican pop culture by the turn of the century and certainly into 50's and 60's when Mexico saw a surge in indigenismo and a romanticized vision of the pre-Hispanic cultures.

Sorry to be a bit long-winded here, but given this background on how death has been a part of Mexican culture and how it's found a popular place in modern society, I find it a little hard to swallow that there's any direct relationship between the Santa Muerte cult and pre-Hispanic roots. Even a movie (or two?) came out last year or the year before calle La Santa Muerte. A bunch of books just with the last couple years have come out featuring La Santisima Muerte (which I need to give a better look at to see if there's any substance to them or just out there for fun and to cash in on the current cultural climate)....this is a fascinating subject, controversial, dangerous given the connection to narcotraficantes.

Another interesting and likely related subject are the many local Virgin Mary incarnations that also exist throughout Mexico and Latin America w/ "cults" around them...stemming from the original apparition and image of the Virgin of Guadalupe from 1531, who is THE patron saint of this nation, not sanctioned by the Catholic church until the 18th century and only recently has been made an official miracle.

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Hi Bruno,

What a wonderful contribution and so valuable given your proximity to the events. I share your misgivings with regards to idea proposed by some historians that the Cult of Santa Muerte is a modern day reboot of pre-Christian traditions. In the 1970's when Wicca was the new kid on the block, many British practitioners claimed the tradition was a hearkening back to the pre-Christian beliefs of Briton. Gerald Gardner, who is largely responsible for the birth of the tradition, looked to a much more modern source for inspiration when compiling the rituals and practices that would comprise The Book of Shadows and much of what they contain can be found in the writings of ceremonial magician and creator of Thelema, Aleister Crowley.

However, what fascinates me about Santa Muerte is that anyone, ourselves included, can create a bespoke deity equipped to provide for our unique needs. I could, for example, create Saint Millennium - The Patron Saint of Millennium Fans - but it would take some effort on my part to convince even its target audience that such a Saint existed and it would even more of a stretch to convince anyone to worship it. I can't help think that Santa Muerte must have touched a nerve of some sort, it has to be more than simple 'needs must' to explain why she has gained such popularity. Maybe she does speak to an ancestrol memory or cultural tradition that other saints do not.

Akin to Santa Muerte appears to be the veneration of San Pascualito, a skeletal folk saint said to be the 'King of the Graveyard'. San Pascualito appears to have begun life as Saint Paschal Baylon who is alleged to have appeared to a dying man and cured him of fever. The man reported that Saint Paschal Baylon appeared to him in a skeletal form. Again, this wholesome saint appears to have undergone a transformation to become something bigger than his original mandate trading his clothes as a spiritual man of God to become something more akin to the Voodoo Loa, Baron Samedi or the Yoruba Orisha, Oya.

Maybe it's just be but in many of these folk saints there appears to be more than a hint of death of about them. Difunta Correa died of thirst in the desert but miraculously fed her child from her breast as a corpse, Maximón appears to take up the guise of Judas Iscariot once a year and is displayed as a hanging corpse before returning to his more regular guise as San Simon who's effigy his devotees house in a coffin. Juan Soldado became a figure of devotion when he displayed mircaulous powers beyond death including blood seeping from his grave and ghostly voices emanating from his coffin. Nino Compradito is a child's skeleton dressed in saintly attire who's cult's success is attributed to the Andean belief in the power of skulls and bones. Miguelito is Miguel Angel Gaitan who's mummified corpse is venerated after the child died of meningitis shortly before his first birthday.

Though this may sound unduly macabre it is my assertion that this is par for the course with regards to most saints. A cursory glance through any encyclopaedia of Catholic saints will reveal stories of disembowelment, the gouging out of eyes, the removal of organs and stories of incorruptible bodies and relics of bones, blood and flesh.

It is, to my mind, a fascinating subject and one that I know far too little about. I am hoping to go to night school this year to learn Spanish. There's a whole world out there I have no access to and it's time my language skills caught up with my thirst for knowledge.


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Wow, you weren't kidding that you're really interested upon the subject of macabre cultural phenomena of Latin America!!!

Really enjoyed reading your post, particularly the mention of San Pascualito, which I know nothing about but there's a Nick Cave-esque Mexican band called San Pascualito Rey which uses macabre imagery on their albums, no doubt in reference to the story behind the saint. Definitely need to read up more this and the other stuff you've mentioned!

You've really hit the nail on the head Mark, along with something I do agree about the news piece, is that there is definitely a need among the middle class and poor of Mexico that have turned to crime, for something more to believe in than what generally is offered my society at large (i.e. the Catholic church). La Santa Muerte seems to fill that role (rather than anything explicitly evil like images of Satan that have been used by underground youth movements as the Norwegian black metal scene in the 90's, or activism/anti-political rhetoric of some punk movements and the civil rights movement) of being a source of hope and support within the dark underworld of black market enterprises. Though I wonder how La Santa Muerte plays a role in the higher-ups of drug cartels? Or outside the boundaries of Mexico to other locations in Latin America involved in the drug trade?

And as I've already mentioned, the Virgin of Guadalupe seems to be a nearly identical history as La Santa Muerte, though perhaps having a much more historical socio-political role. It was a "saint" that was frowned upon by the church, but at least appeared to unite the suffering and sometimes insurgent indigenous populations of Mexico to be part of the New Spain colony (having overtones of Mexica/Aztec "pagan beliefs"). The mystical story and unexplained details of the image of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe has persevered (and played an important role in some of the Mexican revolutions), to where she remains the undisputed champion of Mexico as a nation and to her brothers and sisters that struggle in the face of economic adversity and personal hardships where ever it may take them (at least among modern "practicing" Catholics). Though upon looking at her history through critical eyes, its almost TOO convenient that the Virgin of Guadalupe would be an apparition to an indigenous man, that it would probably facilitate the Christian conversion of the Nahuatl-speakers, descendants of the old Mexica/Aztec empire minions, despite its controversial nature as viewed by the papal authorities.

Maybe we need a Millennial Goddess as our saint in our support of the return of Frank Black like you've implied ;)

I'll need to be keeping an eye out for more stuff about La Santa Muerte so we can keep our discussion going!

And great to hear you might be taking some Spanish classes Mark! Don't hesitate to ask me if you need some help understanding something written in Spanish...

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Hi guys,

There are heaps of books available if you are able to read Spanish but if, like me, you merely an English speaker then these are the books I have purchased and whilst the don't cover the Cult Of Santisima Muerte exclusively they do touch upon devotion to her and the concept of folks saints on the whole. Much of what I have gleaned has come through watching online videos and from searching through forums and internet articles. There's a fair bit of information out there if you are interested.


Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America

Guatemala's Folk Saints: Maximon/San Simon, Rey Pascual, Judas, Lucifer and Others (Hardcover)

Folk Saints of the Borderlands: Victims, Bandits & Healers (Paperback)

Brujeria: Study of Mexican-American Folk-magic (Llewellyn's world magic) (Paperback)

Santa Muerte: Saint of Death (Paperback)

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Guest SpooktalkGiGi

Mark, I had 4 years of Spanish in High School, now granted that was many years ago i still can speak some of it and read it. If you need any help i might be able to help you sweetheart. makingeyes.gif

Laura :)

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Santa Muerta was the subject of a lecture in a college anthropolugy class I took years ago. IIRC I was taught this movement had gained legs because the people involved in the criminal underworld did not feel worthy to pray to traditional Saints, but were also loathe to leave thier faith. Worship (if that is the right word) has spread to the lower classes, because it is thought that this is a Saint that hears all prayers, even from criminals, so she should be willing to hear from the wretched poor as well.

One thing that was also covered in that lecture is how religious myth (this is the fairest word i can think of, and I am not trying to be disrespectful. Your myth may be true or not, but it is a matter of faith and to my mind at least, is a myth) is interpretted by culture. For example the story of the birth of Jesus, is very familiar to most of us, but only the European version. When it was introduced to the Mayan it was mixed with thier own myths and made nearly unrecognizable. In fact, the professor told us the Mayan story and asked us to identify it, and the entire class could not.

Officially, the Catholic church sees these stories as heresy, but on a closer look there are even differences between American Catholicism and European Catholicism, and bith of these groups enjoy a snactioned orthodoxy.

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Guest WaveCrest

It's a fascinating subject. :thumbsup: Forgive me if it has been mentioned in The X Files and Millennium, but have these shows covered this whole subject in an episode or episodes?

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The rise of La Santa Muerte is so recent that I don't think MM of TXF touched at all on this phenomena.

Sigil, nice post! Sounds like you had a pretty cool anthro class! I never got to learn much about modern Mayan take on religion and mythological syncretism/adaptation...but I'll be headed to Chiapas by next week! !!!

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