Santa Muerte Saint of Death Mexican Beliefs
PUERTO ANGEL, Mexico- “Santa Muerte?” a young Mexican guy asked me as I was sitting on Panteon beach drinking a beer.
I looked at him puzzled. He pointed to the tattoo of the skull and crossbones that had made a home for itself on my shoulder a long time ago.
“That is Santa Muerte,” he spoke with finality.
“It’s just a skull,” I told him. “That is Santa Muerte,” I added jokingly as I pointed to the half sleeve of tattooed Mexican sugar skulls that cover her upper arm.
The guy looked politely at where I was pointing and then repeated, “That is Santa Muerte,” while again pointing at my tattoo.
“What is Santa Muerte?” I finally asked.
“All Mexicans believe in Santa Muerte,” he told me, “we pray to Santa Muerte for money and for luck.”
I nodded my head, the irony seemed to make sense in this culture — why wouldn’t a Mexican pray to the saint of death for money and worldly benefits?
Santa Muerte, or the Saint of Death or Holy Death, is a spiritual figure that was syncretically taken from pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican beliefs and wrapped up in a Catholic context.
Though officially condemned by the Catholic church in Mexico, belief in Santa Muerte — which is often portrayed as a skeleton holding a scythe and a globe and covered in a the same gown like clothing and crowns and jewelry as other Mexican saints — is very widespread throughout Mexico. This is especially true during Semana Santa. But over the past decade the forces which kept belief in this saint clandestine have been diluted and the number of visible followers have been on the increase in both Mexico and Hispanic communities in the USA. It is estimated that there are now over two million active followers of Santa Muerte, and, as I was told, many more Mexicans believe in and pray to this saint.
The rites used to invoke Santa Muerte are similar to those of any other Catholic saint, and follow the same guidelines. Alters are often set up bearing Santa Muerte’s image, the styling of which depends on what the worshiper is asking for. If requesting a husband, the effigy of Santa Muerte will be a skeleton dressed as a bride; if looking for loyalty or purity from negative influences, white robes are used; if success or money is wanted, then Santa Muerte will be dressed in gold robes; for love, red; for justice, green robes; dark yellow signifies that the asker is looking for health or money; dark blue indicates a search for wisdom that is often done by students; and there is even a rainbow colored robe for Santa Muerte which is said to evoke the Seven powers: wealth, love, positivity, luck, justice, high spirits, and spirituality — apparently, this is a sort of all in one style of robe. In addition to a robe, each worshiper will decorate Santa Muerte in their own way, often with money, coins, jewelery, and various other items.
Belief is one of the most difficult thing to stomp out of a culture, and it is my impression that the Catholic church has been so successfully spread to many parts of the world precisely because of its condolence of saints. It seems to have only taken much smaller leaps of faith for pagan cultures to redress their gods and goddesses as saints of the Catholic faith and to continue praying to them under different auspices than to take on a completely new religion all together. Incidences of Catholic syncreticism abound throughout many cultures of the world. In this case, Santa Muerte, an ancient deity of Mesoamerica continues to be worshiped en masse in modern Mexico as a Catholic saint.