The cult of “Santa Muerte”: pre-Columbian deity venerated even today
“El que apura su vida, apura su muerte”
“Who accelerates his life, accelerates his death“.
This Mexican proverb describes the death, common and certain destiny of every living being. Yet, despite death is an obvious epilogue of our existence, it is not so obvious how to deal it during our earthly stay!
There are people who consider it as a deity who address to, able to change our fate. Patron of the poor, prostitutes, prisoners, the Santa Muerte is the deity whom the “poor” of society ask help. The cult of Santa Muerte developed spontaneously in the poorest areas of Mexico about five centuries ago, mixing ancient Aztec burial beliefs, Spanish Catholicism, imposed by the conquistadors in the sixteenth century, some typical customs of hechicería (witchcraft) and yoruba culture, which subsequently spread to the Americas through the African slave trade.
In Aztec mythology and other ancient cultures of the Mesoamerican area, such as the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, the figure of death was represented by Mictlantecuhtli, the God of the dead, imagined as a skeleton and, by the Deity Mictecacihuatl, called the “Lady of death”, which watched over the bones of the dead. These feared deities were the Lords of Mictlan, the afterlife, and the cult of the Goddess of the Dead Mictecacihuatl was at the center of the rituals and celebrations held in honor of the deceased, who later converged on the feast of the Dia de los Muertos, imported by the missionaries Catholics.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, in addition to the territorial conquest, the spiritual one began, through a process of forced evangelization of the peoples subjected to the new rulers, who considered any indigenous beliefs as demonic. What was not destroyed was therefore simply replaced, wherever there were similar affinities that could be assimilated to the beliefs, customs and iconographic images imported by the new Catholic conquerors. So it was that the ancient places of worship were Christianized, the old recurrences merged with the Christian holidays and the idols replaced. The ancient Deities could survive in the garments of Madonnas or Saints, to the point of merging completely with them, in the inexorable flow of time that each memory cancels.
The Santa Muerte, also affectionately called the Niña Blanca (the white child), or the Lady Poderosa (the mighty woman), is depicted as a skeleton dressed in veils, which may be of various colors depending on the protection that is required.
The image is dressed differently depending on what is being requested. Usually, she is dressed with differently colored robes, but it is also common for the image to be dressed as a bride, for women seeking a husband.
White is the most common color and can symbolize gratitude, purity, or the cleansing of negative influences. Red is for love and passion, but can also signify emotional stability. Gold signifies economic power, success, money, and prosperity. Green symbolizes justice, legal matters, or unity with loved ones. Amber or dark yellow indicates health. Images with this color are usual in rehabilitation centers, especially those for drug addiction and alcoholism.
Black represents total protection against black magic or sorcery, or conversely negative magic or for force directed against rivals and enemies.
Blue candles and images of the saint indicate wisdom, which is favored by students and those in education. It can also be used to petition for health.
Brown is used to invoke spirits from beyond while purple, like yellow, usually symbolizes health.
The heart of veneration for Santa Muerte is in the run down neighborhood of Tepito, in Mexico City.
It is the oldest corner of the Mexican metropolis, but also the most dangerous and infamous. It is precisely in one of its streets, exactly at no.12 of Calle de Alfarerìa, that there is one of the most famous altars dedicated to her. The owner of this altar is Ms. Enriqueta Romero, better known as Doña Queta, who exhibited it for the first time to the public on October 31st 2001, thus interrupting a long period of clandestinity.
Around the altar numerous offers are left, in particular precious jewels, money, fruits, sweets, cigarettes and beer.
On November 1, Enriqueta Romero celebrates her at her historic shrine where the famous effigy is dressed as a bride.
The cult openly accepts abortion, the use of condoms, admits transvestites and transsexuals in its church and many Mexican LGBTs pray to protect them from homophobia and intolerance.
At the same time, however, it is not only considered a merciful saint, but is highly feared. It is said that to ask for a favor to Santa Muerte you must have a valid reason, otherwise she will take away with her the loved ones of those who dared to disturb it!
Once you ask for the grace, you have to build a small altar with its effigy in your home, as the faithful call it an “ofrenda”, to leave gifts and where to be able to venerate her. First, you must leave a rose on the ofrenda and, if it wilts at night, the deity will have agreed to grant the request.
Rites dedicated to Our Lady of Holy Death include processions and prayers with the aim of gaining a favor.
Some believers of Santa Muerte remain members of the Catholic Church, however, millions are founding independent Santa Muerte churches and temples. Altars of Santa Muerte temples generally contain one or different images of the Lady, generally surrounded by any or all of the following: cigarettes, flowers, fruit, incense, water, alcoholic beverages, coins, candies and candles.
According to popular belief, Santa Muerte is very powerful and is reputed to grant many favors. Her images are treated as holy and can give favors in return for the faith of the believer. For example, as Señora de la Noche (“Lady of Night”), she is often invoked by those exposed to the dangers of working at night, such as taxi drivers, bar owners or prostitutes. Devotees believe she can protect against assaults, accidents, gun violence, and all types of violent death.
Below, a prayer for Santa Muerte (source: Medium.com):
“My Dearest and Most Holy Saint Death, My Beloved Black Lady,
Thanking you for all that you do, have done and go on doing for me, I ask you to please bring light upon my way and that you keep away from my way all possible aggressions, obstacles and limitations, so that I may go on freely progressing towards happiness and prosperity. I especially ask of you, my Bony Child of my heart, that you do not permit anyone or anything to hurt me, and that you show to anyone who may try to hurt me in any way what happens when someone dares to threat a child, a protector and a protected of The Patron.
Please make it so that my enemies stop being it, and that, if they insist on being it, even before they may even get to try to do something against me, they feel in their skin and in their lives ten times the harm that they may want to cause me.
This I ask of you, my Most Holy Saint Death of my life, while surrendering my full devotion to you.
So may it be, with your blessing. Please stay with me and keep me with you at all times.”
At Santa Muerte it does not matter who the applicant is or what sin he committed: if he is a good devotee she will stretch out his hand to fulfill any request!