She is portrayed as a female Grim Reaper, that is to say, she is a skeleton dressed in a shroud and carrying a large scythe. At her feet may be seen an owl, a symbol of wisdom in western iconography, and of death in ancient Aztec symbolism. She is the object of devotion in one of the fastest growing cults in the world—the cult of Santa Muerte, Holy Death.
Santa Muerte is a folk saint revered by Hispanics throughout Mesoamerica and the United States. She is considered an all-powerful saint, who dominates the world and gives immediate results to petitions made to her. Being the spirit of death, it is noted that her scythe cuts down the life of all men equally, rich or poor, righteous or wicked. Therefore, she is reckoned to be a saint for all peoples. One of the most popular sayings about her is that Santa Muerte “does not discriminate.” She accepts your worship and answers your prayers no matter who you are. That is why her followers include pious Catholics, drug traffickers, prisoners, prostitutes, policemen, blue collar workers, and members of the LGBT community. There is also a growing constituency among neo-pagans and Wiccans.
The origins of Santa Muerte can be traced back to pre-Spanish religion in Mexico. The Aztecs worshipped a god and goddess of death, who together ruled over the underworld. The name of the goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl. Devotion to the death goddess was suppressed by the conquering Spanish. However, her worship never was eradicated. It simply went underground. There are occasional references to Santa Muerte in 18th century Spanish writings. But her followers usually kept things secret and very quiet. In the 1930’s and 40’s she began to reappear as a saint who was called upon for romance and love interests. Then in 2001 the Holy Death came to the public’s attention. A devoted follower of Santa Muerte was a woman named Enriqueta Romero. Romero lived in Tepito, one of the most notorious neighborhoods of Mexico City. Romero has a cottage business of selling quesadillas out of her home. For years she had had a statue of the Bony Lady in her house. She noticed that customers would often leave offerings at the foot of the saint. On All Saint’s Day she moved the statue outside her home, and for the first time in centuries Santa Muerte became a very public figure. This single action by Enriqueta Romero was the beginning of a popular movement honoring this folk saint. Romero is now affectionately called Doña Queta, and her house has become a place of pilgrimage. Thousands visit her home each month to worship at the altar of Santa Muerte.
Santa Muerte goes by a number of names. She is called Holy Death, the Bony Lady, the Skinny One, the Bald Lady, the White Girl, the Godmother, the Grandmother, and the Sacred Lady. She is often called Santisima Muerte, the Most Holy Death. She is considered a saint who answers prayers almost immediately. Indeed, it is her rapid, indiscriminate answering of anyone’s prayers that has contributed to her popularity. Santa Muerte is believed to be bound by no moral restrictions. Being all-powerful, she can do as she pleases. She equally blesses or curses. So you can ask her for things you wouldn’t ask of any other saint, or from God. She will heal your child, or kill your enemy. It doesn’t really matter to her. Remember, she does not discriminate. Her statues reflect the varied backgrounds of her worshippers. She may be shown wearing a wedding dress, a nun’s habit, a queen’s robes, or even a mini-skirt.
Worship of Santa Muerte is modelled after Catholic devotional practices. This includes ritual prayers, including a form of the rosary. There are prayer services for her, such as Santa Muerte novenas. There are even masses in her honor. The most common veneration is offered through burning votive candles. With this folk saint the appropriate color of the candle used is determined by the nature of the petition. Two of the most popular colors are purple—for requests for health and healing, and gold—for requests for wealth and prosperity. Her devotional objects are sold in stores called botanicas, although some Wal-Mart stores actually carry Santa Muerte candles. Sacrifices are also commonly offered to her. These usually consists of food, drink, flowers, candy or cigarettes. Since she is a rather dehydrated figure, she especially is pleased with offerings of water, beer or liquor. Some honor her by blowing marijuana smoke on her altar, much as a priest might use incense. She is also an occult figure, with magic and divination part of her worship and devotional practice. The Bony Lady also can be a vengeful and angry goddess, who must be appeased to avoid her fury.
The moral ambivalence of this figure has caused her to become a favorite of criminals. This is especially true among the drug cartels and narco-traffickers. This is one of the reasons her devotion is of such concern to government agencies. There are also some devotees who actually engage in human sacrifice to honor her. However, most followers of Santa Muerte consider this an aberration of her true worship. Still there have been quite a number of news stories about people being executed by her devotees to honor this saint of death.
The devotion to Santa Muerte has been condemned by both the Mexican Government and the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic officials have declared her worship a cult, and stated that it is “Satanic” in nature and a form of “devil worship.” But followers of the “Lady of the Night” often consider themselves good Catholics. They view Santa Muerte as another one of the many saints in the heavenly hierarchy. However, they usually view her as the highest spiritual figure, even more exalted than the Virgin Mary. Some say she was created by God to be the intermediary with humanity. Thus she essentially replaces Christ in His mediatorial role. The Bony Lady is said to derive her powers directly from God Himself. That is why she is able to answer any prayer very quickly. She is perceived as a figure of action. She is available, and she gets things done. Many miracles are attributed to the “Sacred Lady.” As one follower stated, “I believe in God but I trust in her.”
In 2003 a follower of La Flaca (the Skinny One) announced that he was forming a new church devoted to her worship. It was called the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. He named himself as the “Archbishop” of this Church. However, the church was officially shut down by the Mexican government in 2005. Such measures have not slowed the growth of devotion to Santa Muerte. It is estimated that there are between 10 and 12 million followers of her cult in Mexico, Central America and the United States.
Identifying the Cult
Symbols and Images: Statues of Santa Muerte, sometimes with a scythe, sometimes with scales; she also is shown riding a horse; roses—especially white; colored votive candles; folded dollar bills often adorn her statues; an owl; a crystal ball; an hour glass; a skull or skull-and-crossbones; a globe; an oil lamp.
Buzzwords: Holy Death, Bony Lady, White Child, Skinny One, the Godmother, Lady of the Night, Most Holy Death, etc.
God: There is usually belief in God; however, the true focus of worship is on Santa Muerte.
Christ: Lip service may be given to Christ, but He is basically ignored.
Salvation: Concern is for blessings, prosperity and health in this life.
Source of Authority: There is no one source of authority for faith or practice. Folk tradition is the origin of most of what is practiced.
The Afterlife: Santa Muerte takes all to the realm of the dead. However, her ambivalent posture probably means there is no form of judgment.