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Santisima Muerte

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In my wild imaginings I envisaged a Virtual Millennium episode that delved into the mythology of the folk saints and I had, I think, a great little plot all set out in my head but sadly I'm not much of a writer.

I guess the closest to the subject that Ten Thirteen ever got was in Frank Spotnitz's Milagro. Milagros are religious folk charms that are traditionally used for healing purposes and as votive offerings in Mexico but they weren't particularly instrumental to the plot I must admit.

I read a fascinating passage from a book that discussed the popularity of folk saints such as Santa Muerte and as well as the conditions Sigil describes another factor in the prevalence of certain colourful characters is their reputation for granting the petitions of the supplicant.

It was described that if an individual petitions a saint, only to have their problem ongoing then it is not uncommon for a friend to say "here, try my saint" and on it goes until the petition is finally granted and a new devotee is born. There are examples of other folk saints enjoying a popularity akin to Sante Muerte in the past but with new saints emerging on an infrequent basis is not uncommon for believers to try them out and upgrade their saint for a new one in the process.

In a documentary I watched, a woman prayed to The Virgin for a miracle and continued to pray for that miracle until her sister advised her to try out Sante Muerte. After petitioning Sante Muerte her miracle was finally granted and another individual became a firm supporter of the cult.

I guess Sante Muerte has swollen her ranks through a number of factors and one of them certainly seems to be that she is sometimes in the right the place at the right time.

Enjoy your trip to Chiapas Bruno and if you should happen to have he chance to take photographs of any shrines to the folk saints I, for one, would love to see them.


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Guest WaveCrest

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

That's a shame. I know the Mayan calendar was mentioned in The X Files, and one episode in particular (Season 2's "Red Museum") I think mentioned the Mayan calendar.

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  • 3 weeks later...

update: currently in Oaxaca, reading up a little on Santa Muerte. Spent a longer time in Mexico City than planned though still did't see all important things for my Canadian traveling lady friend. She really wanted to check out the "original" Santa Muerte shrine, though didn´t make it due to time constraints and recommendations of not even trying to go for fear of getting mugged or something. Oh well. But went I get back home in a week or so, definitely up for sharing some of what I'm reading at the moment! :)

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Hi Bruno,

Here's hoping you are having a wonderful, and safe, excursion and I can't wait to hear what you have to share with us all upon your return. I am so envious of you right now and would love to be out there in Mexico. To be honest I always feel stupid thinking like that because it's hardly another planet is it? If only I could over my dislike of air travel then I would probably have ventured there years ago.

I found an interesting article recently discussing how immigration has brought Santa Muerte to the United States and how her cult continues to gain ground on US soil. Of particular interest was a note about a small number of Catholic Priests who have begun to assimilate into the liturgy because of the demands of their parishioners. It seemed to me to be a case of modernising in order to keep up with demand.

The cult certainly shows no sign of going anywhere but I guess you will be able to shed more light on it when you're back.

Safe journey my friend!


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  • 2 weeks later...

Thanks Mark! Really an amazing little 2 and 1/2 week trip I took down to Southern Mexico...unfortunately didn't do any more reading on La Santa Muerte while in Chiapas, as it was so amazing what I saw in the short few days in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chamula, and Palenque (and also got focused more on finishing up "How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World" by Francis Wheen...which oddly enough made a mention of MillenniuM in a chapter called "The Catasrophists", though sadly Wheen only makes a passing mention within the same sentence of bring up The X-Files, which he focuses exclusively on UFOs and govt conspiracy fictional works as being considered fact by the public at large during the 90's. Shame, as there probably could've been something said about MM in the context of this chapter). Gorgeous state in Mexico, that I'll need to return to most definitely! And honestly I haven't had much of a chance to catch my breath yet w/ further trips in Mexico...last Sunday to the Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Eastern Michoacan, friend from Mexico City staying with me, and my travel partner in crime returning from further travels, passing though here during her last days to pick up some stuff left at my place and take care of last minute things...tomorrow I'm headed off to a snow-covered extinct volcano that sits next to a very active one!!!

Just so ya know, the book I picked up is "La Santa Muerte: Protectora de los Hombres" by J. Katia Perdigón Castañeda, published by INAH, the national institute of history and anthropology. Good short academic work. So far, she's a bit critical of making the link of La Santa Muerte to anything prehispanic...rather she starts making more links to ideas of Judeo-Christian/Western conceptions of Death personified...both iconographical and biblical references. I think she's really trying to avoid dealing with specifically answering the question of how La Santa Muerte originated with the context of the criminal underground of Mexico, though I really haven't read far enough in depth to see how she builds her arguements and study....

Edited by wolvesevolve
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Hi my friend,

Wonderful to hear that you had a safe and enjoyable trip. Thank you so much for sharing some additional info on Santa Muerte and strangely enough I found a little article yesterday that carries a brief quote from Katia Castaneda. The blog writer that brought this to my attention is in the same quandary as I am. Both of us would love to read her book but neither of us can read Spanish. I'd be grateful for anything you can share when you get the chance.

Welcome home,


On the first day of each month, one of the most unusual religious congregations in Mexico gathers here at Alfareria Street in a tough barrio that even aspiring outlaws regard as a place to watch your back.

In the late afternoon, thousands of acolytes arrive in the Tepito neighborhood, home to the wildest black market in Mexico, where truckloads of pirated goods -- from bootlegged Disney DVDs to stolen vials of swine flu vaccine -- are trafficked in back alleys where police fear to go, and God help the unwary.

So perhaps it makes sense that they come here cradling portable altars bearing a statute of a female skeleton, often sporting a Barbie wig and wrapped in a sequined gown -- a specter the Lonely Planet guide says bears "an eerie resemblance to Mrs. Bates from the film Psycho" -- a sexualized grim reaper wielding a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. The icon represents one of the most popular cults in Mexico: Santa Muerte, or Saint Death.

The devotion to Santa Muerte rattles many, even in Mexico. She is widely and purposefully misunderstood. The media focus on the lurid cult as a sign of the country's descent into new-millennial madness, a perfect partner for a danza macabra, played out against the backdrop of a modern plague -- the drug war -- and its obsessions with body counts and ritualized decapitation.

The Catholic Church has rejected the cult, calling it demonic, and the Mexican military has swept across the border region, destroying roadside shrines built in the saint's honor. The authorities have condemned Santa Muerte as a "narco-saint," worshipped by drug traffickers, cartel assassins and dope slingers.

But the worship is more a reflection of contemporary Mexico, says the anthropologist J. Katia Perdigón Castañeda, the author of "La Santa Muerte: Protector of Mankind." The cult is an urban pop amalgam, New Age meets heavy metal meets Virgin of Guadalupe. It is no accident that it is also cross-cultural -- that the centers of worship are the poor, proud heart of Mexico City and the violent frontier lands of Laredo, Juarez and Tijuana. The cult borrows equally from Hollywood and the Aztec underworld. Altars, necklaces and tattoos honoring Santa Muerte also make appearances in Mexican American neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Boston.

"The believers may be drug dealers, doctors, carpenters, housewives. The cult accepts all. No matter the social status or age or sexual preference. Even transsexuals. Even criminals. That's very important, that the cult of Santa Muerte accepts everyone," Perdigón told me, "because death takes one and all."

Where mainstream Mexican Catholicism promises a better life in the hereafter, "central to the devotion of Santa Muerte is the fact that the believers want a miracle, a favor, in the present, in this life, not when they are dead," Perdigón said. "They want help now."

Enriqueta Romero began to worship Santa Muerte more than 50 years ago. Now the mother of seven is the patron of this patron saint in Tepito. She and her family tend the main altar in the neighborhood where the faithful gather each month. An hour-long devotional rosary is recited by the thousands of people who close down the streets, so it's like being in church -- if your church includes supplicants smoking big, fat joints.

During the service, the faithful promise devotion while imploring for miracles large and small -- for work, health, money, love and, sometimes, for protection from enemies corporeal or spiritual. "Santa Muerte may give something different to each person," Romero explains. "It depends on the problems that each person has. Maybe a pregnant woman will pray for the health of her baby. Or a man will pray for a job."

After the rosary is recited, the crowd mingles and begins to form a line snaking several blocks to enter the shrine. As they wait, holding images of the saint in their arms, the believers make offerings. Some place cigarettes or candies at the feet of the saint. Others blow marijuana smoke in her face. There are gifts of apples, coins, flowers, tequila, bread.

The faithful include many young goth Mexicans, dressed in black, with tattoos and piercings. But instead of fulfilling the sinister stereotype that they worship Santa Muerte to help them smuggle dope, several of the faithful told me they prayed to the deity to keep them away from drugs.

"I ask her to save my son, to keep him from harm, from prison, from the police, to protect him from the drinking and the marijuana, to help him find work," said Carmen Quintero, 44, who said she believed in Saint Death with all heart. "She takes," Quintero said, "but she also gives."

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  • 3 weeks later...


On my daily peruse of the internet I found another example of the worship of folk deities and the veneration of skulls, this time taking place in Bolivia during a festival known as The Day Of The Skulls.

Fascinating stuff.


In Bolivia, the Day of the Skulls is a colourful collision of ancient ritual with Catholic belief. The BBC's Andres Schipani went to a central La Paz cemetery to find out more.

Oscar Morales kneels down facing two crystal boxes, each containing two beret-wearing human skulls.

"I pray to Saddam [Hussein] and Che [Guevara]," he says. "I have them with me, at my place in a shrine. I give them offerings and they give me their protection. They've never failed me, never, I am their most faithful devotee."

Oscar Morales

Oscar Morales says he makes offerings to his skulls, seeking "protection"

Surrounding him, thousands of people are walking around the huge graveyard, singing and playing popular music to their decorated skulls, praying to them, and making all kinds of offerings, from flower bouquets to sweets and bread.

Monica, an Andean indigenous woman, is wearing a bowler hat and flouncy skirt. She sits by a grave next to Justo, her great-grandfather's skull.

"He is so good and he takes such good care of my mother and me that he is an integral part of my family. I have a lot of faith in him," she says.

This is Dia de los Natitas - a local religious rite that reaches its high point each year in early November - just a week after the Catholic All Saints Day.

'Ancient death rituals'

The "natitas" - or "flat noses" in the local Aymara indigenous language - are human skulls that are revered by thousands of Catholic indigenous Bolivians who believe they protect them from evil, help them attain goals and even work miracles.

Skull known as "Victor"

Captain Victor is one of La Paz's most popular skulls

The skulls - which are not necessarily from relatives or loved-ones - are sometimes exhumed and sometimes passed from hand to hand. They spend most of their time indoors but are paraded in the city's main public cemetery every year at this time.

"The rite is now a blend of Catholic and indigenous beliefs, but has its roots in ancient rituals for the death practised by the country's Indian groups such as the pre-Inca Aymara and Quechua," says Dr Josef Estermann, an Andean theology expert.

"These practices remain very much embedded in the everyday life of Bolivia's indigenous majority."

All of the "natitas" have names - but they do not necessarily correspond to those of the people they originally belonged to.

Captain Victor is one of La Paz's most popular objects of devotion. This cigarette-stained skull, supposedly of a former policeman, is revered as a deity by a faithful group of followers who believe he is an "integral part of their faith".

Tradesmen, poor indigenous women, students, police officers and even members of parliament visit him year round to ask favours and shower him with flower petals, coca leaves and cigarettes.

"Somebody gave me Victor 22 years ago with the condition not to let him go. How could I let him go if he is one the most precious parts of my life?" says Victor's owner, Virginia Laura, a diabetic mother of three, with tears in her eyes.

"He helped me overcome the most difficult times of my disease, he protects my home, my family, everything that I value. I don't think I can live without him by my side," she says while kneeling down before a human skull sporting sunglasses and wearing an olive-green police officer's hat.

'Confused religious ideas'

In order to honour the bones of their ancestors, some people like to throw parties after the celebrations at the cemetery. Such is the case of Victor's most loyal followers.

Sofia Fernandez

Sofia Fernandez says she prays to God at the same time as she prays to Victor

At a restaurant near the cemetery, packed with candles and banners, devotee Sofia Fernandez says: "I pray to the Lord at the same time I pray to Victor."

Sofia has been an absolute fan of Victor for the past 20 years, and she says he has helped her with debt problems and even physically punished an "unfaithful" who "threatened" her.

But the Roman Catholic Church does not feel comfortable with such a collision of beliefs. And they have been trying to convince devotees to let go.

Earlier this month the Church called on the faithful to stop using human skulls at special mass celebrations. The Archbishop of La Paz, Edmundo Abastoflor, urged followers of the Andean rite to "let them rest in peace".

Some inside the Church even link the practice to the occult.

However, some priests believe they have no other choice than to let people pray Catholic prayers to their skulls, and even allow them to go to church with them.

"I receive them and not as enemies of the Catholic faith," the cemetery's Roman Catholic priest, Father Jaime Fernandez, told the BBC after giving an informal blessing to thousands of skull-carrying devotees at the cemetery's chapel.

"They don't have bad spirits or bad consciousnesses; they are not anti-religious; they are not enemies of the Catholic faith. Somehow I understand them, but I also understand they have very confused religious ideas."

"Officially the Catholic Church does not recognise such a thing," Father Fernandez adds.

"I've been here for 15 years. I know my brethren and I've tried to explain to them that what we have to celebrate is not death but resurrection and that they cannot use human skulls as intermediaries between them and God.

"But, let's be honest, in the end, who am I to stop their uncontrollable faith?"

SOURCE: bbc.co.uk

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