In a country that has held a certain reverence and respect for death since pre-Columbian times, it comes as no surprise that Mexico has given rise to the Santa Muerte religious cult. Santa Meurte—Saint Death or Holy Death—is a folkloric figure depicted as a shrouded female skeleton widely venerated in Mexico and parts of the United States, despite the Roman Catholic Church’s sanctions in opposition to the cult.
The Mexican fascination with death is more commonly associated with that country’s lavish and colorful Day of the Dead festival, which represents a syncretism between indigenous Mesoamerican and Spanish Catholic beliefs and practices. A ubiquitous symbol of the festival is the skeleton, a graphic reminder of human mortality. But while the festival is confined to only the first few days of November, the worship of the skeletal figure of Santa Muerte is a daily occurrence.
Although the Santa Muerte cult transcends all levels of Mexican society, it is especially common in urban, blue-collar or impoverished areas and among those traditionally thought of as “outcasts.” Evidence of the worship of Santa Muerte goes back a few centuries but the cult was a clandestine one and little known by most people. Today, it has become much more popular and it is estimated that there are well over 5 million followers in Mexico and tens of thousands in the United States, primarily in areas with large Latino populations. The cult continues to grow in Mexico where it is beginning to eclipse veneration of the country’s national religious figure, the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the United States it has even spread to cities not traditionally associated with a Latinos, such as Cincinnati. The photo below shows Santa Muerte candles I purchased in an international food store in Cincinnati.
The color of Santa Muerte’s shroud will vary depending upon the purpose for which the candle or figure is being used by the petitioner. For instance, one seeking luck in love and romance may light a red votive candle or pray to a red-robed Santa Muerte statute. Looking for economic power, money, or success? Then gold would be the proper color. White symbolizes purity, gratitude, or the cleansing of negative influences, while black represents negative magic to be used against enemies; it also symbolizes the reverse, total protection against sorcery or black magic. Green represents justice and legal matters, as well as unity with loved ones. Yellow represents health and Santa Muerte images in that color are often found in rehabilitation centers for alcoholics or drug addicts. Blue is favored by students because it symbolizes wisdom. Brown is used to invoke spirits from beyond. The seven-colored image, which may have its roots in the seven powers candles of Santeria, is becoming the most popular representation of Santa Muerte.
No matter the color of her shroud—she may also be depicted wearing a bridal gown—Santa Muerte carries a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. The harvesting scythe is symbolic of cutting the thread of life, just as it is in the traditional “Grim Reaper” figure. The globe represents Santa Muerte’s vast powers over all. After all, none will escape her. Other items may be found with her image, such as scales which represent justice, equity, and divine will or an owl, which symbolizes wisdom and her ability to navigate through the darkness. An hourglass symbolizes the time of life on earth but, because it can be inverted also symbolizes a new beginning in the afterlife. A lamp represents intelligence and spirit and lighting the way through fear, ignorance, and doubt.
A personification of death, Santa Muerte herself is not a representation of a specific dead human being. Her devotees associate her with healing, granting favors by interceding with the saints, protection, and ensuring a path to the afterlife.
As there are many colors for the saint, she also has a variety of names: La Flaquita (Skinny Lady), La Huesuda (Bony Lady), la Niña Blanca (White Girl), La Hermana Blanca (White Sister), La Niña Bonita (Pretty Girl), and Señora de las Sombras (Lady of the Shadows) are just some of the many names devotees give to Santa Muerte.
Many, if not most, of Santa Muerte’s followers identify themselves as Catholics and so the Bony Lady’s rites are sometimes incorporated into traditional Catholic rituals, including processions and prayers with intentions of gaining favors. While her figure can be found in shops and business establishments, on street-corners and in stalls and chapels dedicated exclusively to her worship, Santa Muerte may even occupy a place of honor in some Catholic churches.
Check back here for more on Santa Muerte and if you’d like to experience the Day of the Dead in Mexico, see below.
DAY OF THE DEAD 2014 CULTURAL TOUR – OAXACA, MEXICO
I am excited to offer my first Day of the Dead Cultural Tour in Oaxaca, Mexico! Please join me for 6 days and 5 nights in beautiful Oaxaca, October 29 – November 3.
From our three-star hotel base in Oaxaca, we will explore the Day of the Dead traditions throughout the region. Some of the paranormal and metaphysical highlights of the trip will include:
- the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle where we will visit the whitewashed church of thirteen altars and stop in at local homes to see how families prepare their ofrendas (altars) for the ancestors.
- Oaxaca City and the villages of Ocotlán and Zagache where we will visit the most colorful church in Oaxaca, Santa Ana Zagache and see how the cleaning and decorating of graveyards in the villages is shaping up. We’ll be out late at night in Oaxaca City visiting cemeteries filled with glowing candles, orange flowers, and the voices of the living and the dead.
-the Etla Valley where we will go from village to village, joining in with their comparsas, which are masquerades reminiscent of Mardi Gras, complete with masked dancers, brass bands, fireworks, and colorful crowds. It will be another late night as we celebrate from village to village in this unique Oaxacan experience.
-San Marcos and its fabulous graveyards, filled with topsy-turvy tombs shaded by enormous cypress trees. We’ll also tour a little-known treasure, a creepy Zapotec cruciform tomb beneath the floor of a crumbing hacienda.
-Monte Albán, the spectacular ruins of the Zapotec spiritual, political, and cultural center in Oaxaca, dating back to 500 B.C., and noted for its famous painted tombs.
That is just a brief list of the tour’s offerings. In addition to the paranormal and metaphysical aspects of Oaxaca’s Day of the Dead celebration, our tour will also include visits to art and historical museums as well as culinary and arts and crafts traditions. The Foodie Sisters, Connie Kirker and Mary Newman (my wife) will guide us through Oaxacan markets and cuisine. We’ll even have the opportunity to make our own Oaxacan lunch with the help of a traditional Zapotec cook in her open-sided cocina (kitchen). We’ll also get the chance to visit with local weavers, potters, sculptors, and other artisans during our tour.
So, whether you are interested in the paranormal and metaphysical sides of Day of the Dead, or you favor the culinary and artistic sides, this tour has something for you!
Operated for us by Celestial Voyagers Travel, the Day of the Dead Cultural Tour is a great deal at $1495 per person. The price includes:
- 5 nights lodging double occupancy (single supplement – $200)
- All local transport in private van
- Entry fees, tips for meals, tips to presenters/artisans
- Local guides and transportation
- Airport transfers (Oaxaca airports)
- 5 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 3 dinners
- High quality, small group travel
If you’re interested in joining me in Oaxaca—and I hope you are!—please contact me with any questions and for a detailed itinerary and information about the tour. Contact me through www.johnkachuba.com or at email@example.com