Santa Muerte is Spanish for “Holy Death” or “Saint Death.” Santa Muerte is worshipped today primarily in Mexico and in the South Western United States, but even if you don’t live in those areas, there is a good chance you’ve seen a depiction of Santa Muerte before. On the surface, she looks a lot like the classic image of the Grim Reaper- she’s a skeletal figure, usually wearing a robe and holding both a scythe and a crystal ball or globe. Sometimes she is depicted with other objects- a scale, an hourglass, an owl- and alters or shrines devoted to Santa Muerte may contain a variety of different offerings or different versions of the saint, different outfits, jewelry, hairstyles, and other accoutrements often depending on the intention of the devotee.
If you’ve seen the show Breaking Bad, there’s an episode that opens with a memorable scene where the two Mexican cartel assassins are crawling on their bellies to a Santa Muerte shrine to sort of pray for Walter White’s demise. And actually her association with criminal activity is something we’ll be exploring a little bit later on in this episode. But, before we get into that, we’re going to get into a bit of the history behind this Saint Death.
In order to get a feel for Santa Muerte, we have to begin with death. Now, I generally try to avoid making broad generalizations, but I think its safe to say that pretty much every culture, religion, and even individual has some sort of relationship with death. It is one of those universal things- maybe the universal thing- that is fundamental to the experience of human life. We all inevitably die. How that looks and what it means varies considerably depending on who you ask, and the role of death of and the notion of an afterlife has been, and still is, interpreted in all kinds of unique and beautiful ways. Whether it is seen as a definitive end or merely a transition into another state, death is pretty much indisputably universal.
So, what are we to make of this particular idea of Holy Death, or Santa Muerte?
The exact origins of Santa Muerte are somewhat uncertain, but scholars typically agree that she is a syncretic deity, mixing elements of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican belief, namely Aztec, with Catholicism. In ancient Mexico- amongst the Nahua people, the Mexica, and with the Aztecs- death was an extremely significant part of religious life.
The Aztec myth about the creation of mankind begins with a journey to the land of the dead, or underworld- a place called Mictlan.
Within Aztec mythology, there are actually a few sort of cycles of creation and destruction of the world and of human life before this one, which I’m not going to get into today, but very basically there are a few previous cycles- 4, actually- of the world and human beings that end up as sort of failed experiments and the gods wipe everything out and have sort of a do-over. This story picks up at the dawn of a new era, or the 5th Age— the gods have created a new world, a new sky, a new sun and moon. The god Quetzalcoatl, who is depicted as half serpent/half bird- sometimes called the plumed serpent- remembers the previous worlds and the joy of human life. And he wants to bring human beings to this new world. In order to accomplish this, however, he has to descend into the land of the dead- Mictlan- and bring back the bones of the people who had died in the destruction of the previous worlds.
The underworld was lorded over by Mictlantecuhtli and his wife, Mictecacihuatl.
So, Quetzalcoatl ventures down into the underworld and asks Mictlantecuhtli for the bones of the dead. Mictlantecuhtli doesn’t really want to give up the bones, so he tries to trick Quetzalcoatl by giving him a seemingly impossible task. He tells him to travel around the realm of Mictlan 4 times, blowing a conch shell. Quetzalcoatl put his lips to the conch shell and gave it a mighty blow, but no sound emerged. Upon closer inspection, the Lord of the Underworld had given him a shell that hadn’t been cut in a way that would produce any sound at all, no matter how hard he blew. Mictlantechutli smirked as Quetzalcoatl struggled with the conch shell, but Quetzalcoatl was crafty. Undeterred, he asked some worms that were burrowing into the ground if they would help him, and they agreed. The worms burrowed through the conch shell, opening up an airway. Next, he asked the bees of Mictlan if they would fly through the new passageway in the shell. When they did this, and Quetzalcoatl blew into the shell, the buzzing sound reverberated throughout the underworld. And so, having accomplished the task, the Lord of the Underworld reluctantly told Quetzalcoatl that he could have the bones on one condition: the bones would give life to a new race of humans, but when those lives ended they would have to be returned to the underworld. Quetzalcoatl was kinda like uh-huh, sure, but he actually wasn’t really planning to honor this agreement. He wanted the new people to have eternal life.
As Quetzalcoatl was leaving Mictlan, The Lord of the Underworld sensed that he was lying about returning the bones, and he sent a bunch a quail birds after him to bring back the bones. Quetzalcoatl heard the birds coming and he started running, trying to get out of Mictlan in a hurry. With the quail in hot pursuit, Quetzalcoatl tripped and dropped the bones, causing them to break in to many different sizes. This is the, as per the story, the reason that people come in many different sizes.
The quail birds descended on the bones and began to peck at them relentlessly, weakening them and causing fracture lines to appear in each one. This damage done by the quail of Mictlan caused the bones to become to weak for people to live forever, and in this way the request of the Lord of the Underworld holds true.
Eventually, Quetzalcoatl was able to gather up all of the broken bones, fend off the quail, and escape from Mictlan. He took the bones to the a land of the gods called Tamoanchan, where the gods ground up the bones into a fine powder and mixed it with their own blood to give rise to the first humans of this new age.
Mictlantecuhtli was typically depicted as a skeleton, or with a skull for a head, or as having sort of a half-skeleton, half-alive face, which was a very common motif in Aztec culture and can be seen on pottery and in other forms of craft. And, actually a lot of Aztec deities had skeletal aspects.
For the Aztecs, bones were symbolic of fertility, abundance, and health.
The relationship between life and death was very much cyclical, rather than linear, and this is a concept reflected over and over again in the mythology, so the idea that destruction gives rise to creation- or death to life- is really something very fundamental when looking at ancient Mexica- or Aztec- culture, and its a concept that carried into folk religion and its something that we can see reflected in Santa Meurte as being both a skeleton and as a deity associated with fertility or, more generally, abundance, as well as health and protection from harm.
The Aztecs were a very complex, highly developed, society that comprised a big chunk of Mesoamerica in the 14th-16th century, ending roughly with the Spanish conquest, which started in 1519. I won’t be getting into the full scope of Aztec mythology or history in this episode, but since we’re talking about death and the Aztecs, I’ve got to mention human sacrifice because that’s the thing that everyone always wants to know about when the Aztecs come up… It is a well-known fact that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice… did they ever! Some sources say that during the re-consecration of the Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487 the Aztecs sacrificed around 80,400 prisoners over a period of 4 days, although this number is often thought to be an exaggeration… According to a Codex written in the 16th century by missionaries, old Aztecs who they spoke to put the number at a more modest 4000… and really it would be impossible to get an exact number here, but either way that’s a ton of people. And this was just at one particular event, albeit a very significant one… but, regardless of the numbers, its safe to say that sacrifice, in general, was an big part of Aztec religious life- and, that could include offerings of food, flowers, the breaking of pottery, animal sacrifice, and other forms of ritual offering, with human sacrifice being considered the greatest sacrifice of all.
Now, this is actually a pretty complex topic that is still rife with areas of debate- the specific sacrifice rituals of the Aztecs were very deeply integrated with their calendar, and their relationship to the cycles of time, with different deities requiring different sacrifices on different days. In some cases, the sacrifice victim would spend a designated time period, sometimes over the course of several years, living as sort of an impersonation of the deity to whom he would eventually be sacrificed. During this time, as you can imagine, the person lived large- all kinds of luxuries were lavished upon him (I say him here because from what I understand this particular role was undertaken exclusively by men, although women and children were also sacrificed). Eventually, the time would come and the person would offer himself to the gods- and a priest would cut open his diaphragm with a ceremonial knife and rip his still-beating heart out of his chest. Not always… sometimes people were flayed or drowned or otherwise dispatched, but heart removal was definitely the go-to method. And, of course, that’s quite the image. Its easy to stamp this practice as something quite barbaric, which is exactly what the Spanish did when they showed up, but its important to understand that while it may seem fairly gruesome, human sacrifice was in fact a highly ritualized aspect a very organized set of religious and cultural beliefs, and that the practice was ultimately driven by a sense of being indebted to the gods- a need to sustain the world by providing for the gods. In many cases, it was considered a great honor to be sacrificed, and individuals would willingly offer themselves to the gods… so, it would be a misnomer to use the term victim there, although there were definitely also sacrifices of war prisoners, slaves, and other less enthusiastic parties who were sacrificed against their will…
The Aztecs were a bloody people, and this is actually an important segue into the mythology behind this perpetual blood sacrifice and sense of being indebted to the gods. We got a sense of this in the story of Quetzalcoatl retrieving the bones of mankind from Mictlan and ultimately giving life to them by mixing the ground up bones with his own blood, as well as the blood of the other gods… Another important element of this sense of indebtedness- or sacred duty to provide continuous sustenance to the gods- has to do with the sun. Something that distinguished the Aztecs from other Mesoamerican societies was their emphasis on the sun, which was really at the center of Aztec religious life. The sun god, Witzeelohpochee (note: phonetic spelling), was a deity of paramount importance. The sun formed the basis of the Aztec calendar and the god of the sun was thought to be perpetually engaged in a sort of cosmic battle with the moon and stars- the cycle of day and night.
Witzeelohpochee’s creation story begins at the dawn of the fifth age, when four supreme sort of creator gods decided it was time to bring about a sun to illuminate the darkness. These gods knew that a feat of this scale could only be accomplished with a major sacrifice, and they debated on which of them was going to sacrifice himself to create the sun. None of them wanted to do it, but eventually two kind of lesser gods came forward and volunteered. One of them was Tueccizttecatl, and the other was called Nanahuatl- or the Ulcerated One, because his skin was covered in boils. The first god, Tuecciztecatl, ran towards the fire, but turned back, unable to throw himself into the flames. This happened four times, until Nanahuatl, demonstrating incredible bravery, ran forth and threw himself full-on into the fire, and his burning body became the sun. After this, Teucciztcatl stepped up and somewhat bitterly thew himself into the fire, and he became the moon.
At this point, the sun hung in the sky, but it did not move. It became clear that the sun needed hearts and blood in order to move, and with that all of the rest of the gods sacrificed themselves to the sun, to ensure that it would move across the sky.
So, if the sun was not provided with continued sustenance- I.e. Blood and hearts- the Aztecs believed the world would be consumed by darkness. Really, inherent to their worldview was a sense of impending doom- or, I guess, more accurately a sense that they were responsible for the perpetuation of life on earth. It was their job to nourish the sun and the other gods or else the world would descend into chaotic darkness and crumble into oblivion, as it had done during the previous 4 ages.
We can get a sense here of the ancient association between death and fertility- the gods must be perpetually sustained by sacrifice in order for the world to continue producing life and sustaining the people. Death and life are in a cyclical relationship, and we see elements of this ancient indigenous association with death as a provider of life, or the notion of fertility or abundance manifested in aspects of Santa Muerte. Devotees regularly petition Santa Muerte for matters of health and healing, for luck in becoming pregnant and in material matters- money, possessions, acquisition of wealth or success in employment- things to help them thrive in life.
We’ve established that Santa Muerte has origins in the indigenous Pre-Columbian people- i.e. The Aztecs. And we’re going to switch gears a bit and head to Ancient Rome. I’m sure some of you are wondering what a relatively contemporary, predominantly Mexican grim reapress could possibly have to do with Ancient Rome…
Well, in Ancient Roman mythology- and in Greek and Norse mythology, as well- there was a concept of the Three Fates- in Latin called Parcae- who were depicted as three women who together sort of wove the tapestry of each individual life- the first being the spinner of the thread, the second the one who drew out the length of the thread for each life, and the last the one who would cut the thread with her scissors, and determine the manner of that person’s death. This third of these women was called Morta, which is the latin root for the Spanish Muerte- and also where we get English words like mortuary, mortal, morgue, and so forth.
In medieval Europe, there was no real personification of death up until the late middle ages- there was no image of what Death looked like- and yet, this was the time of the bubonic plague, which wiped out a third of the population of Europe, The Spanish Inquisition, witch burnings, wars, etc. So, lots of death. It was during this time, around the 15th century, that artists in Europe began to depict death as a skeleton, often with a scythe, and we got this image of what we know call the grim reaper.
In Spain, this image was called La Parca, after the Latin Parcae- of the three Fates of Ancient Rome. Because both parca and muerte are feminine words, we had the people of medieval Spain referring to this personification of death as a female grim reaper. La Parca.
This image very likely fused with- or syncretized with- the surviving indigenous images of Mictecacihuatl, The Lady of Mictlan, who was also depicted and understood as a partially skeletal female associated with death- and gave rise to the ongoing development of Santa Muerte.
Something that is particularly interesting about Santa Muerte is that, despite having ancient origins, her popularity in Mexico and amongst immigrant communities in the US has exploded really only over the past decade or so. We can see in her the influence of an ancient Mesoamerican depictions of a skeletal Lady of the Underworld and an association with death and fertility or abundance, as well as the European influence of the image of death personified as a grim reaper, or La Parca… but this still doesn’t answer the question of where she’s been all this time and why she’s suddenly become so hugely popular, with her number of devotees surpassing 10 million and still growing today, and what contemporary sort of mythology or folk belief has risen up around this deity of Holy Death.
It is important to note here that Santa Muerte is not recognized as a legitimate saint by the Catholic Church- quite the opposite, actually she is roundly denounced by the church and her followers are often described as being a Satanic cult- and yet, a big percentage of her followers consider themselves to be practicing Catholics. It is not uncommon to see images or statues of Santa Muerte on alters right alongside images of Jesus or The Virgin Mary (or Lady Guadalupe, in Mexico), and amongst those devotees, there is no conflict of interest. However, its really only been in the last few years that people have begun to openly worship Santa Muerte.
The general consensus amongst both scholars and devotees seems to point to a long history of secrecy, in which people practiced religious rites concerning Santa Muerte behind closed doors due to fear of persecution. Because of this, it is difficult to get a clear picture of her evolution through the ages.
There are accounts of Spanish monks in 18th century Mexico who witnessed indigenous people performing some sort of ceremony with a skeletal figure whom they addressed as Santa Muerte- and actually according to the monks, the people had tied up the skeleton and threatened to whip her if she didn’t grant them certain miracles.
Evidence of Santa Muerte worship has been documented in parts of Mexico throughout the 20th century, but really it seems that until the early 2000’s things were still relatively underground. People were afraid to openly worship Santa Muerte due to fears of persecution, which wasn’t unfounded. Throughout the 20th century, there has been documentation of Santa Meurte shrines being destroyed. Even as recently as 2009 the Mexican Army destroyed 30 Santa Muerte shrines near the border in Nuevo Laredo. Nonetheless, over the past decade or so there has a been significant movement of Santa Muerte and her devotees out of the shadows and into the public sphere.
Part of the symbolism of the scale that is often seen with Santa Muerte is that, in death, all people are equal. And to her contemporary devotees, this is a big part of her appeal. Santa Muerte doesn’t discriminate. She accepts everyone. No matter who you are, what you’ve done, what status you’ve attained in life, the end is ultimately the same. Death. There’s an old Italian proverb that says something like,“When the game is over, the king and the pawn go in the same box.” It is perhaps for this reason that many marginalized populations in Mexico and among immigrant communities in the US have found solace in Santa Muerte.
In Mexico, she is hugely popular in the prison system- not only with inmates, but with guards, lawyers, and policemen as well. She is popular with the LGBT community and with sex workers, people who are often unable to find a place within the Catholic church, with taxi drivers, the sick, and amongst people who live in dangerous areas or have dangerous professions. By her devotees, Santa Muerte is often called affectionately by other names- sometimes she’s called La Flaca- The Skinny One or La Flaquita— the skinny Lady- or La Nina Blanca- the white girl. Although the vast majority of Santa Muerte devotees are regular people, the media in US and in Mexico has made a big deal about equating her with drug traffickers and criminals. On the one hand, that isn’t an accurate depiction of the majority of her devotees- on the other hand, its not entirely unfounded.
An important element of the kind of lore that surrounds the contemporary Sante Muerte is her willingness to grant miracles, and also her impartiality. So, one can ask Sante Muerte for things that one wouldn’t ask other Saints for, and she doesn’t weigh in on whether the outcome of your wish is ultimately for the greater good. She just grants your wish. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Thank God for unanswered prayers.” Santa Meurte doesn’t work like that. She can be invoked for matters of good or evil, and her power remains impartial. And that’s likely a part of the reason why she does have a following amongst criminals.
I think its really interesting to see the emergence of a what’s really become a contemporary folk saint that has these origins in ancient indigenous culture blended with aspects of Catholicism. And I definitely look forward to watching how she develops as a really active deity in the world today.