A Modern American Devotee's Perspective
The cult of Santisima Muerte, or the Lady of the Holy Death has grown and expanded from its underground roots and moved to a more public profile that we see today. These Cults have grown rapidly and organically over the years, creating a new religious experience for many lost and abandoned souls as well as those seeking more than what traditional religion offers.
As with all things American; the cult of Santisima Muerte is a strange animal with no analogues anywhere in the world. The combination of pop-culture exploitation, American irreverence, and the neo-Western attitudes surrounding death; have created a unique religio-magical tradition.
It is my opinion that the modern social climate in the U.S. is precisely the cauldron of potential needed to liberate Santisima Muerte from the dishonor of being seen as a forbidden or excommunicated Catholic Saint. In many of her cultic centers across the world, she is celebrated in secrecy for fear of possible excommunication or other reprisal from church clergy, probably under the accusation of witchcraft or trafficking with the Devil (There are of course noble exceptions, where Our Beautiful Lady of Death is venerated openly and with pride, this is however the exception.)
The Mysterious Origins of Santa Muerte
There is no one specific thing that can be pointed to as the origin of Santa Muerte, given the very organic nature of her worship and rise to secrecy-laden predominance. The modern incarnation of Lady Death has examples dating as far back as the 1940’s. The cultic line however extends back thousands of years, all the way to Mesoamerican paganism (In my opinion the cult has even more illustrious beginnings possibly within adversarial Gnosticism and the cult of Quayin (Cain, son of Adam), deified as the god of death or something equivalent. It’s possible that our Blessed Lady of the Shadows was seen as the hidden consort of Cain. The modern expression of these ideas can be found in the 218 current).
In 2001 Enriqueta Romero established a massive public shrine to Her; launching the worship of Santa Muerte into wider public view. The shrine was established in the Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito. This notoriously high-crime area attracts worshipers daily.
Santisima Muerte, often shortened to Santa Muerte, translates to “Saint Death”. As a divine figure, she has many names and titles such as the “The Bony Lady”, “The White Girl”, and “Pretty Girl”. These and other titles are often familiar and indicate a closeness or familial relationship with Santa Muerte that few if any other deities offer or are given.
This points to the cultural quirk that from a western, European, view seems odd, however to Central American cultures this makes much more sense. The tradition of the Day of the Dead has long been seen as a southern version of Halloween in America, however there is more to unpack here than most Westerners realize. While in the north Halloween has become a day for parties and scares, the Day of the Dead is more for communing with and celebrating family members and loved ones that have passed on. Thus, instead of a thing to be feared and avoided, for the cultures of Central America death has long been a natural thing that does not hold such a powerful place of disgust and avoidance. In short, these cultures do not keep the Grim Reaper in the closet. Understanding this it becomes easier to understand why the cult has managed to grow and spread so far. Death is one of the most feared elements of life, and personifying it and developing a relationship with it, it loses much of the fear associated with it.
Beyond this there are other, older, roots to this deification and comradery with a deity of death however going back much farther would go far outside the scope of this overview, with entire books being written on the cultural and historical background of Central American religious practices around death.
Instead, we will look to the western influences that can be seen in the modern images of Santa Muerte. The most obvious is how she is depicted, as essentially a female version of the Grim Reaper, this iconography has been borrowed from the west, much like the basic outline of how she is worshiped. Mexico in particular has historically also had a strong connection to the Virgin of Guadalupe, with the Virgin’s worship far outpacing any other saint. Owing to this it makes sense that the Saint of Death is female, and she is approached like any other Catholic Saint, despite the Church’s attempts to vilify Her.
Much like any other Catholic Saint, Santa Muerte is offered candles, prayers, and other offering such as candy, cigarettes, and alcohol like tequila. These various influences along with her accepting nature to take on anyone, regardless of class, sex, status, or other factors, has given her an abnormally long reach. Even across the cultural divides of both the United States and Mexico.
The Symbols and Offerings of Santa Muerte
There are a number of symbols that are frequently found on an altar devoted to Santa Muerte. The first is the skeletal figure draped in a black robe. However, this may be replaced by a white wedding dress or robes of other colors denoting that the idol is devoted to a specific domain or function that the worshiper wants to call on.
The scythe is another element that is on every Santa Muerte altar. This represents the control over death and growth that many western minds will already be familiar with.
Globes, often held in the hand, are another common element. These symbolize Her control over the whole world. As a figure of death, she is a great equalizer, taking the hand of everyone, of all creeds, classes, or origins. This universal element, combined with the common “member of the family” role that she takes on for her followers, lends much of an explanation as to why she has been able to grow the number of people that worship her, quickly and organically.
Another symbol that may be found with Santa Muerte is that of the owl. It is a dual symbol, representing both the wisdom that many in the west commonly associate the owl with. However, it also is an animal associated with death for many central American cultures. Making it a natural fit as an animal familiar for the Lady.
The main three colors that are associated with Santa Muerte are Red, White, and Black. However Green as well as Seven Colored versions of Santa Muerte are also common. I have even seen variations that depict her robes covered with images of U.S. currency.
For offerings they vary by what is being requested of her, however, Alcohol, Tobacco, candy, and flowers are the main offerings that may be given to her. Gifts of money are also common, as she is often called upon for help in trying times and to keep stable employment.
The Domains of Santa Muerte
As a “folk saint” Santa Muerte has many domains that she can influence and hold dominion over. One of the most common is in matters of love and is a common subject for her worshipers to as her help with. The use of prayers, candles, and other offerings like cigarettes. Many women will beseech Santa Muerte to help with a wayward lover, to bring a specific person to them, and to end a toxic or otherwise poor relationship. In this domain the use of red candles, red roses, flowers, and similar offerings are common.
Another common request for worshipers of Santa Muerte is with help with justice and the law. Many beseech her to intervene when it comes to legal matters, using her influence to see that favorable rulings are made by judges, and that the “law” is kept away.
General blessings are another of her domains, these can be wide and varied, but they will often make use of white candles and white robed images of Santa Muerte, along with the specific request that is being asked for.
Requests for protection from general or specific threats to the family and home are another area where worshipers of Santa Muerte will ask for her help. These kinds of requests will often utilize black robed figures of her along with black candles.
Santisima Muerte’s renown as a protector of certain criminal enterprises is another interesting area of activity for Her. Specifically, she is called upon to protect various organized criminal interests and members from law enforcement. Along with Jesus Malverde, she is seen by some as a divine champion of certain criminals. The moniker of Narco-Saint has even been offered by some journalists. The justification is of course a highly romanticized “Robin Hood” fantasy that many criminal traffickers have adopted.
Finally, retribution is another common request from her. By approaching Her in Her Black Robed Aspect, a worshipper can make these kinds of requests; asking for a wrongdoer to be punished or even killed.
Who Worships Santa Muerte?
Given that Santa Muerte has roots in Mexico it makes sense that most of her followers come from Mexico. However due to cross-culturalism and international families, a surprising number of people from the United States and other countries have begun to worship her. R. Andrew Chestnut, a researcher who has studied the worshipers of Santa Muerte, noted that she has roughly 10 million followers globally.
The Catholic Church has in the past denounced the worship of Santa Muerte, however this has only strengthened her bond with those at the fringes of society. Those who are disenfranchised or marginalized have found comfort and solace worshiping her in their daily lives. This has lead her to an association with many members of the LGBT community, as well as sex workers, and others who are ostracized from “normal” society.
As previously noted, Her association with drug cartels and gang related violence on the U.S. and Mexico border is increasingly common. Altars to her have become common enough that FBI and other agencies have taken notice and begun training their people in recognizing the symbolism and trappings of her worship. With this “training” apparently being incredibly stressful to the sensibilities of some federal officers, causing a few noted cases of fainting.
In some law enforcement organizations, the association between Santa Muerte and crime has become so strong that simply having a prayer card to her has been presented as evidence of a probable underlying criminal case.
Adam’s Note: This reminds me of certain features of the Satanic Panic in the 80’s, which spawned such groups as Cops for Christ, emboldening otherwise bored cops to become crusaders against evil, and resulting the harassment and violence against many innocent and law-abiding citizens on grounds of “Satanic Activity. Without exception such endeavors are of course illegal, and end very badly for all involved.
Despite this, most of her worshipers do not associate her with, nor apricate, the attempts to connect her worship with gang and cartel violence. Her worshipers are neither criminals, nor violent gang members. It is just a fact that for many worshippers, they find themselves unwelcome by more mainstream spiritual institutions. In seeking help from her they find that, in a world that rejects them, Santa Muerte is there for them, without judgement.
The View of a Modern Believer
While I can not speak for anyone other than myself, it is my personal experience that Santa Muerte is incredibly responsive and caring to her followers. She does not require a clergy or other mediator or even a holy site to start a relationship with her. She accepts all and welcomes anyone willing to come to her.
Much of her approachability is because of her wiliness to embrace everyone, and the very personal nature of how she is worshiped. In private, at home, not requiring any formal structure, priestly class, or other traditional religious structure. She crosses cultural and national boarders, while still being a distinct figure that retains her Mexican roots.
A short talk about my Experience with Her
My personal experience with Santa Muerte, The Blessed Lady of The Shadows, comes almost as an accident.
I’m about as purely European as you can find in the U.S. so a “folk saint” from Mexico was the last thing that I ever thought that I’d form any kind of relationship with. However, through a friend I began to find out about this Blessed Lady of The Shadows as part of a larger relationship with so-called occult practices.
Observing my friend’s success with her, and his frequent interaction with her as a magical solution in his life, despite being a well-regarded and accomplished Adept of the Western Mystery Tradition, was intriguing.
I began reading, learning more, and after a few initial experiments, I slowly started to build an altar to her. Working with her and asking for her blessings in various matters. Her assistance was always prompt and impactful. As providence would have it a small local shop had much of what I needed to begin building her altar-shrine.
I can say in all seriousness, that when situations in my life were at their most difficult that She provided the most comfort to me, giving peace and manifesting remedy in some of the most difficult times that I have been though.
It may seem unusual for someone of European decent to form a connection with what is supposed to be a Mexican Saint, however for me and a growing number of others like me, she transcends cultural boundaries and offers much to those who follow her. To this day there is a small prayer card in my wallet for Her, it is carried with me always.
It is my personal view that she will continue to find more and more followers as the traditional religious structures continue to crumble. She already has a notable presence to those who follow alternative religious practices, and in time, her worship and following will become more mainstream.
For everyone Santa Muerte has something to offer, there is a reason why she continues to expand her reach and number of followers. She is not the villainous, nor gangland saint that those in power would paint her as. The Blessed Lady of the Shadows welcomes everyone.
LGBTQ+ and Santa Muerte
Santisima Muerte has a special relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, where she is seen as a protector.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer devotees call upon the Beautiful Lady of the Shadows for protection from violence, hatred, and discrimination. Additionally, her intercession is sought in the pursuit of love.
In same-sex marriage ceremonies performed in Mexico, Her blessings are commonly invoked.
Approaching Santa Muerte
For those looking to learn more about the history of Santa Muerte R. Andrew Chestnut has done some excellent scholarly research on her and her followers. For those looking to start working with her, this scholarly article, talks about some of the rituals that can be conducted to ask for her help, as well as some images of what an altar to her will look like.
If you want to experience Santa Muerte for yourself try this:
You will need an image of Santa Muerte (you can print this off from the Internet), a new white candle, a glass of water and white bandana or other white cloth.
Find a space on a shelf, a corner of a desk, etc. Somewhere off the ground where you can setup a small devotional area for Santa Muerte.
Lay down the white bandana, Atop it place the image of Santa Muerte, the candle, and the glass of water.
Find a time when you can address her without interruption. Light the candle and be seated in front of the image. Just breathe and relax. Progressive relaxation is recommended. When you are calm and focused, address the image with the statement below as if you were talking to Santa Muerte. As if She were standing in front of you and giving you her full attention.
Blessed and Beautiful Santisima Muerte, I have brought you this candle which I light in your honor, and a cool drink of water, which I offer in recognition of your divine and unending work. I ask that you be a part of my life, and that you show me the way into Your Sacred Mysteries of the Holy Death. Let me know your presence and your Sacred Blessings. Thank you for your Sacred Work in my life and the lives of all you embrace.
Now sit in quiet contemplation for a few minutes before her image. Pay attention to signs of her presence or even direct communications that will usually occur subjectively but unmistakably. When you are done, snuff the candle and go about your day/night.
Repeat this simple ritual for the next 8 days.
During this time pay very close attention to your dream, as communications will almost certainly take place there.
At the end of this 9-day devotional, if you feel called to her embrace; expand your knowledge of her Mysteries and the practices of her devotees. Bring what makes sense for you into your life as appropriate. As with all worthwhile American traditions, you will need to find your own way of working that makes sense for you.