The Santa Muerte—Saint Death or Holy Death—cult has its roots in the pre-Columbian indigenous cultures of Mexico. Widely venerated in Mexico and parts of the United States, despite the Roman Catholic Church’s sanctions in opposition to the cult, the folkloric figure of Santa Muerte is depicted as a shrouded female skeleton, generally shown holding a scythe in one hand and a globe in the other. 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.
But in the last few decades the cult has become much more popular and the number of its devotees has skyrocketed. 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.
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.” In fact, it was the criminal element in Mexico, especially the drug cartels that were largely responsible for the cult receiving public attention. Police officers discovered altars dedicated to Santa Muerte in some high-profile raids and it did not take long for those Santa Muerte statues and images to capture the imagination (and hopes) of the common people. Altars dedicated to Santa Muerte began to spring up in homes and businesses while makeshift chapels appeared in storefront windows, vacant lots and street corners.
Many, if not most, of Santa Muerte’s followers identify themselves as Catholics and so her 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 and in stalls and chapels dedicated exclusively to her worship, Santa Muerte may even occupy a place of honor in some Catholic churches.
People direct their prayers and offerings to Santa Muerte for a variety of reasons—romance, business success, money, loyalty, protection from the police, protection from competing criminals, health, fertility, and any number of material objects. Santa Muerte has become something of a super-saint and many place her above all the other saints and just below Jesus and Mary in the religious hierarchy. That is a lofty position for a folkloric saint unrecognized by the Catholic Church to occupy.
There are specific prayers and rituals to be performed for the various needs of the petitioners and several books are available that guide the devotee through them. One short but popular book is Mexican Spiritualism: Spells & Rituals by Carlos Antonio de Bourbon Galdiano Montenegro and published by the American Candomble Church.
For those who are interested in learning more about the Santa Muerte cult there is Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint by R. Andrew Chesnut. Published by Oxford University, Dr. Chesnut’s book is a comprehensive look at the history of Santa Muerte as well as the sociological and psychological aspects of the cult.
In addition to the Santa Muerte 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. If you would 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