Santa Muerte is a recent phenomenon, a modern-day folk saint: the patron saint of death.
For twenty years, the veneration of this folk saint has been the fastest-growing religious movement in the West. It’s rooted in Mexico, where millions of people now pray to Santa Muerte. Devotees are found in countries around the globe.
Death, even in this particular form, goes by many names: La Flaquita, La Niña Blanca, La Dama Poderosa. Her devoted followers often beseech her by the name Santísima Muerte: Most Holy Death.
The Origins of Santísima Muerte
Santa Muerte does not represent a particular person; she is the personification of death itself.
While Spaniards tried to subsume indigenous cultures and force locals to convert to Catholicism, traces of the old gods still remain. Like many aspects of Mexican culture, Santa Muerte carries both old European traditions and older indigenous beliefs.
The first recorded reference to Santa Muerte in Mexico can be found in a report on idolatrous practices by indigenous peoples written in 1797, during the Spanish Inquisition.
Death saints are an established concept throughout Latin America, but Santa Muerte is unique in that she is the only female death saint that has been widely popularized.
San La Muerte of South America and San Pascualito Muerte of Guatemala are traditionally male. These death saints are often incorporated into everyday Catholicism, a cross between established saints and otherworldly beings like archangels.
Death figures are present throughout most religions, and death personified as a skeletal figure was present in both Spanish and Aztec cultures even before they collided.
Santa Muerte is associated with the owl, both for her wisdom and her affinity for the dark of night. This connection can be traced back to the Mesoamerican god and goddess of death, who were also associated with the owl.
Sometimes, Santa Muerte is depicted similarly to the Grim Reaper (la parca in Spain); she wears a voluminous black shroud and carries a scythe. The depiction of death as a skeleton dates back to Medieval Europe, and the black shroud is most likely a callback to a riding cloak.
Followers of Santa Muerte say that she uses her scythe to cut away that which no longer serves them and carries a lantern to light the way ahead.
The Aztec Goddess of Death
The personification and even worship of death were common throughout history, and Pre-Columbian Aztec traditions are no exception. Among their pantheon was the skeleton god Mictlāntēcutli and his consort Mictēcacihuātl. Other deities were also often depicted as skulls.
Mictlāntēcutli and Mictēcacihuātl ruled over the deepest regions of the land of the dead. They were associated with other creatures of the dark: spiders, bats, and owls.
The name Mictēcacihuātl means Lady of the Dead. She was tasked with watching over the bones of the dead and also presided over feast days in their honor, the long-ago origins of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
Dia de Muertos
Pre-Columbian traditions survive in a variety of forms, perhaps none so popular as Mexico’s Dia de Muertos celebration.
All over the country, people gather in cemeteries to sing and pray for those who have passed on. It is not a day of mourning, but rather one of celebration and joyful reunion with departed loved ones who are there in spirit.
Calaveras, or decorative skulls, are everywhere on Dia de Muertos. Ofrendas, the altars that each family pieces together in their home, are filled with offerings of food and native marigolds, still called by their Nahuatl name of cempazúchitl.
Even devout Catholic families participate in the revelries, lining their altars with pictures of departed loved ones and painting skulls on the faces of their children.
Like many aspects of Mexican culture, Dia de Muertos incorporates both pre-Hispanic beliefs and European traditions. Some scholars argue that this holiday is not authentically indigenous, but neither is it Spanish.
It could be argued that the debate is unnecessary; the tradition is fully and uniquely Mexican, a culture created and defined by a melding of two disparate worlds and a wide range of cultures.
The precise origins of Santa Muerte are unclear. Many scholars maintain that they are not indigenous, while others remain convinced that, like Dia de Muertos, the worship of Santa Muerte is rooted in old indigenous beliefs and customs.
La Calavera Catrina
Well-dressed skeletons are now an intrinsic part of Dia de Muertos, but these catrinas have been a staple of Mexican culture for a relatively short time.
The political lithographer José Guadalupe Posada created the first etching of a wealthy skull shortly before his death in 1913. It was printed after he died, and the muralist Diego Rivera incorporated the figure in one of his frescos thirty years later.
What began as satire was elevated to a national symbol.
Well-dressed skeletons are common in Mexico, particularly on Dia de Muertos. Women and children dress up as catrinas, painting their faces and donning old-fashioned dresses.
The ubiquitous status of la catrina and national fondness for that cheerful skeleton meant that Mexico was fertile ground for a revival of the worship of Santa Muerte.
The Popularization of Santa Muerte
If Dia de Muertos is a young tradition, then the worship of Santa Muerte is still in its infancy.
Twenty years ago, virtually no one had heard of this new saint. Now, millions of people all around the world pray to the Lady of Shadows. Shrines have appeared in the United States, England, and even Poland. Of course, most of Santa Muerte’s devotees are in Mexico.
Followers ranging from police officers to sex workers, incarcerated men to prison guards pray to Santa Muerte for protection in the night. It is believed that she has the power to protect them against assault and other forms of violence.
This cultural phenomenon was started by a woman named Enriqueta Romero, who created a shrine to Santa Muerte in Mexico City in 2001. Over twenty years later, this remains a popular shrine. Thousands upon thousands of people visit it each year.
Romero has been privately praying to the saint since she was twelve years old, as did her aunt before her. Other people in her Tepito neighborhood have been praying to Santa Muerte since the 1940s, if not earlier.
The shrine that Romero created in her Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City still stands, and followers visit daily to leave offerings and pray to the saint. The majority of Santa Muerte devotees are young women, and nearly all believers are working-class Mexicans.
Shrines are most commonly found in poorer neighborhoods. There is also a temple – Templo Santa Muerte Internacional – on the outskirts of the city. A 72-foot statue of the saint towers out front.
Many people travel long distances to reach these shrines and statues, a pilgrimage to pay homage to La Santísima Muerte and be amongst other believers.
Throughout these neighborhoods, small shops sell candles, figurines, and cards depicting this Mexican Grim Reaper. Shops like this can be found in major U.S. cities as well.
There are glossy magazines that tell of miracles attributed to the saint, and even a popular English-language book called Secrets of Santa Muerte: A Guide to the Prayers, Spells, Rituals, and Hexes.
The Veneration of Santa Muerte
Throughout Mexico and among the Mexican diaspora, altars are constructed to honor Our Lady of Holy Death. People travel to these altars with offerings and prayers. Common offerings include candles, cigarettes, fruit, flowers, coins, alcohol, incense or marijuana, sweets, and notes of thanks.
Many devotees also have altars in their homes, where they can pray to Santa Muerte daily. Some call her madrina – godmother – out of affection and respect. Many people have her image tattooed on their body.
On the first day of every month at the Tepito shrine run by the Romero family, Enriqueta and her sons lead the community in prayer. They recite the Santa Muerte rosary, which includes common Catholic prayers such as the Our Father and Hail Mary. Many carry Santa Muerte rosary beads, adorned with the figure herself in place of a cross.
The color of Santa Muerte’s robes and the candles offered are a key part of the practice. Each color corresponds to a common theme of people’s prayers: gold for financial help, green for justice, red for love, amber for health, white for purity, or blue for wisdom and learning.
The significance of these colors is often layered and complex. The amber for health connection, for example, is common among devotees working to recover from addiction. Red might be used to attract a lover or end a bad relationship. Black candles – generally reserved for private altars – can offer either protection from one’s enemies or vengeance against them.
Many devotees offer seven-colored candles to Santa Maria, likely inspired by the seven-colored candles of Cuban Santeria. The colors used most often for these candles are blue, purple, red, green, gold, silver, and copper.
She is also given her own saint’s day.
In Mexico, saint’s days are huge celebrations. In the town of San Francisco, for example, the day of their patron saint is celebrated with a full week of festivities. Neighborhoods such as Tepito have informally adopted Santa Muerte as their patron saint.
The day dedicated to Santa Muerte varies from place to place, but most often it is the first of November, shared with Dia de Muertos.
Enriqueta Romero adheres to this date, and each day on the first of November she and her family dress the famous effigy of Santa Muerte as a bride with a white dress and hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry. Thousands of people visit on the first of November and join them in prayer.
For many, the veneration of Santa Muerte is a way of making peace with death so that they can be fully present in their lives.
Writers often refer to Santa Muerte as a religious cult, and some journalists have claimed that the practices surrounding this figure originate among inmates in Mexican prisons.
When Daniel Arizmendi López was arrested in 1998, police officers found a shrine to Santa Muerte in his home. Arizmendi López was a notorious criminal, a former police officer who kidnapped at least eighteen people and murdered others. His connection to Santa Muerte was the subject of national attention.
Due to this media coverage and similar stories, many people in Mexico still associate Santa Muerte with violence and crime.
The Mexican government destroyed dozens of Santa Muerte shrines in 2009, all of them near the country’s northern border, due to the saint’s association with cartels.
Ten years ago, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi condemned the worship of Santa Muerte as “a blasphemy against religion.” When Pope Francis visited Mexico a few years later, he spoke out against Santa Muerte and her connections to the drug trade.
Despite all of this, the movement continues to grow.
Santa Muerte is effectively the patron saint of the disenfranchised.
While the worship of Santa Muerte has spread beyond working-class neighborhoods to rich Mexicans and Latino communities abroad and even as far as Europe, a significant portion of followers live on the edges of society. Neither atheists nor practicing Catholics, these devotees are most often impoverished Mexicans, many of whom have been driven to petty crime by desperate circumstances.
Santa Muerte is also popular amongst lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities in Mexico, their informal patron saint and protector. She’s often a part of same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Death, her devotees often say, does not judge.
There in the rough neighborhoods of the capital, on the outskirts, and in those volatile border towns, Santa Muerte thrives. She’s popular among incarcerated men and trans women – outcasts of every kind.
Believers pray to Santa Muerte for protection, healing, and even for miracles.
To her followers, this folk saint is a beacon of hope.