Magical Buffet Mythology: Santa Muerte

By Rebecca
Illustration by Will Hobbs

I stumbled across Santa Muerte on the internet, in a beautiful photo journalistic piece on the Global Post website. Santa Muerte, as most of you can guess translates to Saint Death. I wanted to learn more and found out there had been a documentary in 2007 about this very topic.

Who is Santa Muerte? In Eva S. Aridjis’ film “La Santa Muerte” she lays out the closest thing to a known origin of this saint. A statue was discovered in a church that was associated with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval French saint. Since the Saint was portrayed as a skeleton, the Mexican people viewed it as an image of death. They began to venerate it as a female instead of a male saint, since the pre-Columbian goddesses of death, Mictecacihuatl and Coatlicue, were feminine figures. When the priests realized that the people were worshipping the image as Saint Death, the image was moved to a private dwelling. The Catholic Church does not recognize Santa Muerte as a saint, so people must worship her at home or at public altars.

Santa Muerte is always portrayed as a skeleton, often times looking like the grim reaper, complete with scythe and scales. However, just a quick poke around the internet and you learn that she can take on many looks. Santa Muerte is always a skeleton, but sometimes she is dressed like a queen, or in robes, or as a bride, and just about any other thing you can imagine.

Who worships Santa Muerte? Anyone obviously, but primarily she is worshipped in Mexican communities, with Her stronghold being the most violent parts of Mexico and prisons. Places where people feel death pressing down on them take comfort in knowing that Saint Death is there for them. By showing devotion, in a ritual mix of Catholic worship and what I’m surmising is a throwback to ancient sacrificial offerings (it looked a lot like Voodoo to me), Santa Muerte protects them, provides for them, and when the worshipper’s time is over, She comes for them. Her followers bring Her gifts, such as cigarettes and tequila, burn candles, and say prayers to Her. In the documentary, some had conversations with Her, like you would a mother or confidant. Others would perform a mass.

The Catholic church may not like Her, and the Mexican government may call her followers a “cult”, but I like Santa Muerte. She’s an everyman’s kind of deity. Rich or poor, man or woman, good or evil, we all die. And if Santa Muerte brings comfort to people, especially those living closer to death than myself, more power to Her.