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Saints and Spirits: Santa Muerte

Updated on September 14, 2016
Edmund Standing profile image

Edmund Standing holds a BA in Theology & Religious Studies and an MA in Critical & Cultural Theory.

Santa Muerte devotional figurines
Santa Muerte devotional figurines | Source

In addition to venerating the Virgin Mary and the traditional saints of Roman Catholicism, large numbers of people in Latin America also devote themselves to a wide variety of folk saints (religious figures and icons arising within popular devotion and unofficially ‘canonised’ by the people). Often, these folk saints exist in a sphere outside that of the piety and moralism associated with ‘official’ Catholicism and its saints. They speak to the needs and desires of real people, and represent a more this-worldly, earthy type of religiosity. There is the cigarette-smoking and spirit-drinking Maximón (or San Simón); Juan Bautista Morillo, prayed to by gamblers; Sarita Colonia, patroness of prostitutes, transvestites, and gay people; and Gauchito Gil, an army deserter and outlaw who helped the needy.

Santa Muerte is a popular Mexican folk saint, whose devotees are increasingly found further afield. While there are lots of theories surrounding her origins and identity, it is safe to say she is the modern manifestation of a very old spirit. In her contemporary form, she appears as a folk saint of death and many of her devotees continue to practice Roman Catholicism. Indeed, Catholic iconography, liturgical elements, and elements of popular piety (such as the use of votive and vigil candles) have all been incorporated as elements of their devotion.

As an image of death, Santa Muerte has no fixed identity; no race or nationality, no socioeconomic status, and no specified sexuality. Devotees of Santa Muerte know her as an earthy, real character who, as with death itself, does not discriminate and comes to all. Unlike orthodox religion, which demands holiness and separateness, devotion to Santa Muerte demands only a love of La Huesuda and a willingness on the part of practitioner to engage in a friendship in which she helps them and they in turn show their appreciation by giving her gifts and offerings of things she likes, such as sweets, bread, tobacco, money, alcohol, flowers, and water. Eschewing the otherworldly, pious trappings of mainstream saints, Santa Muerte likes mariachi music, feathered boas, sequined gowns, flashy rings, chocolates, cigarettes, and whiskey.

All human beings share certain things in common and death is the ultimate leveler, in that it comes for us all and has no interest in background or social status. Just as death one day comes and takes us all, so devotees believe that Santa Muerte is a spirit who is open to all, and who will come to all who call on her. For this reason, increasing numbers of people of different nationalities, races, sexualities, and socio-economic backgrounds are being brought together by a figure who represents both death and a full immersion in life.

Some good sites and articles on Santa Muerte:

La Santa Muerte – Lots of prayers and other information

Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage

Most Holy Death

World Religions and Spirituality Project article

Brujo Negro Brujeria on Santa Muerte

Bronx Journal article

New York Times article

Washington Times article

Time Magazine photo slideshow

Faith in the Five Boroughs video report

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