Category Archives: Dia de Los Muertos
La Calavera Catrina
Also Known As: La Catrina, Catrina La Calavera Garbancera
Etymology: “Dapper Skeleton” or “Elegant Skull”
Images of La Calavera Catrina are common during the Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos. Elegant and beautiful skeletons adorn many murals, statues, sugar skulls, and other art. Images of La Calavera Catrina and her male counterparts show her being dressed in bright, colorful clothes during a time to honor, remember and revere one’s ancestors and loved ones who have passed on.
The La Calavera Catrina got her start as part of a 1910 to 1913 zinc etching by Mexican printmaker, cartoonist, and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. La Catrina’s popularity took off from 1946 to 1947 when the artist Diego Rivera completed his mural “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” (“Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda”) to commemorate 400 years of Mexican history. This work is also where La Catrina would get her name. Since then, La Catrina has become an iconic image for the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
La Calavera Catrina was first created by Posada as part of a series of satirical lithographs commenting on social and political issues.
The figure of La Catrina is dressed elegantly as a reference to high society’s obsession with European fashions, customs, and excessiveness. By extension, it was also a commentary on the then-ruling dictator Porfirio Diaz. While Diaz had modernized Mexico in the late 18th century and brought financial stability, 1910 would see the Mexican Rebellion removing Diaz from power a year later in 1911 due to government corruption. Images of La Catrina circulating around this time would help fuel that rebellion.
La Calavera Garbancera – This is the name of the leaflet that Posada’s La Calavera Catrina appeared in. This name and term of La Calavera Garbancera is a bit derogatory as it referred to a person ashamed of their indigenous origins who would dress in the French style of the times and wear a lot of makeup in order to make their skin look whiter.
La Calavera del Cólera Morbo – “the calavera of the morbid cholera.” 1910 was also a time of the cholera plague. This art piece by Posada depicted a fantastical humanoid figure with the body of a snake and surrounded by a dozen skulls all representing a variety of occupations such as jewelers, tailors, blacksmiths, clerks, and judges. This piece represented that regardless of one’s station, death comes for everyone.
Painted between the years 1946 and 1947, this mural helped to popularize the image of La Calavera Catrina and cement her place in festivals for Dia de los Muertos. It is the principal or prime work of art at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera next to the Alameda at the historic center in Mexico City. The mural even survived an earthquake in 1985, it would get moved across the street to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera for display.
Fun Fact – Diego Rivera considered Posada to be his artistic father. Rivera was also married to the famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Día de los Muertos
Now La Catrina is found in her more traditional form from hand-drawn art to sculptures, paper- mâché, and pottery. In some of these, La Catrina will be coupled with a male skeleton. Many people will also dress as La Catrina on Dia de los Muertos. Candy skulls will also be decorated in her likeness.
La Catrina has become a familiar part of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations as Mexicans gather with their families to remember their loved ones who have passed on and to leave offerings of food on the ofrendas for them.
In her modern form, La Catrina is a reminder to live life beautifully. Death does come for everyone, and it isn’t and shouldn’t be something to fear.
Syno-Deities & Entities
Grim Reaper – It’s easy to see a similarity between the Grim Reaper’s skeletal image and how close the two holidays of Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos are. Unlike the Grim Reaper, La Catrina wears bright, colorful clothing.
Mictecacihuatl – There are very noted, strong similarities between the imagery of the Aztec goddess of death and La Calavera Catrina. So much so, that there are many will say that La Calavera Catrina is a continuation of Mictecacihuatl’s worship and how she once presided over the festivals honoring the dead.
San La Muerte – A similar male skeletal figure worshiped as a folk saint found in Paraguay.
San Pascualito – A similar male skeletal figure worshiped as a folk saint.
Santa Muerte – A Mexican folk saint, the imagery of Santa Muerte has been compared to La Calavera Catrina.
Also Known As: Our Lady of the Holy Death, Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of Shadows”), Lady of Night, Señora Blanca (“White Lady”), la Dama Poderosa (“the Powerful Lady”), Señora Negra (“Black Lady”), la Niña Blanca (“the White Girl”), la Hermana Blanca (“the White Sister”), la Flaquita (“Skinny Lady”), La Flaca (“The Skinny Woman”), la Huesuda (“Bony Lady”), la Madrina (“the Godmother”), Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead), la Niña Bonita (“the Pretty Girl”), Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”), Santísima Muerte (“Most Holy Death” or “Most Saintly Death”), Santa Sebastiana (“Saint Sebastienne”), Doña Bella Sebastiana (“Beautiful Lady Sebastienne”), Virgin of the Incarcerated
Etymology: “Saint Death” or “Holy Death”
Santa Muerte is a folk Saint who is worshipped and venerated throughout much of Mexico and several places within the United States, most notably along the southern border. Many followers of Santa Muerte seek out her favor for love, prosperity, good health, healing, safe travels, and protection from several things such as assault, gun violence, violent death, and witchcraft.
Warning – As a result of Santa Muerte’s associations with the criminal element such as the drug cartels, the worship, and veneration of Santa Muerte is very controversial, especially by the Catholic Church and several Protestant dominations that don’t acknowledge or see her as cannon. There is a strong reaction of condemnation by the Catholic and other Christian sects to see her veneration as blasphemous and even satanic.
Color: Black, Red, White
Month: August, November
Patron of: Death, the Dead
Plant: Cempasúchil (Marigold)
Sphere of Influence: Death, Healing, Justice, Love, Prosperity, Protection, Safety in the Afterlife, Resurrection
Symbols: Globe, Scale of Justice, Hourglass, Oil Lamp, Scythe
Santa Muerta is often shown as a female skeleton dressed in robes carrying a scythe and a globe. Exactly how she will look and be dressed is up to the individual as the robe can end up being any color. Additionally, there are several other symbols and objects Santa Muerte can be shown with.
Some devotees of Santa Muerte also believe that her image should not be displayed alongside other Saints and Deities as she is jealous and there’s likely to be problems.
Though other devotees will have personal shrines and altars where Santa Muerte sits right alongside other Saints and images of Jesus.
Globe – The globe represents the earth and Santa Muerte’s, death’s dominion and power over the earth. For in death, everyone returns to the earth and with the resurrections and reincarnation, are likely to emerge from later.
Hourglass – This one simply represents our time upon this mortal coil before it’s time to shuffle off. It is also the belief that death is not the end with the ideas of reincarnation and being able to start over. When time is up, flip the hourglass over. It is also a symbol of patience and to wait along with Santa Muerte’s power over time and other worlds and realms.
Lamp – This symbolizes intelligence and spirit, the ability to light one’s way through the darkness, especially that of ignorance and doubt.
Owl – The owl represents Santa Muerte’s ability to navigate the dark places of life and the wisdom she can bestow. Like many bird symbols, the owl is also a messenger. The owl is also associated with Mesoamerican death gods like Mictlantecuhtli, serving as one more connection of Santa Muerte to Aztec roots with Mictecacihuatl as a continuation of her worship.
Robe – The color of the robe or garments that Santa Muerte is dressed often has symbolic meaning for what the worshiper and devotee is petitioning her for. Amber or Dark Yellow represents health or money, Black represents protection from black magic, negative magic, or power, Blue represents wisdom and knowledge, Brown is used for invoking spirits, Gold represents money, success, and prosperity, and Green represents justice and legal matters and unity with loved ones, Purple represents the need for opening paths, Red represents love and passion, and White represents loyalty, cleansing, and purity. Lastly, there is a Rainbow-Colored robe, wearing this, she is called the Santa Muerte of the Seven Powers. The colors of this robe are gold, silver, copper, blue, purple, red, and green. With this robe, Gold is for wealth, silver for luck, copper for lifting negative spirits, blue is for spirituality, purple for changing negative to positive, red is for love and passion and green is for justice.
Scales – These represent equity and balancing out for justice and equality. For all people are equal in death.
Scythe – The scythe symbolizes the cutting of negative energies and influences. In the role of a harvest tool, the scythe also represents hope and prosperity. This symbol also connects Santa Muerte most strongly with the Grim Reaper of Western culture. Much like the Fates in Greek mythology, the scythe can also cut the thread of one’s life for when it’s time to die. The long handle allows for her influence to be anywhere.
Followers and worshipers of Santa Muerta can be found throughout Mexico, Central America, and mainly the southwestern areas of the United States. Cults for Santa Muerte are one of the fastest-growing new religions growing in the Americas.
Most of Santa Muerte’s followers are neo-pagans and Catholics and former Catholics who venerate this folk saint and deity. This means a person doesn’t have to exclusively be one religion or another to seek her favor and protection.
Put bluntly, everyone, rich and poor alike is equal in death, and in this regard, Santa Muerte plays no favorites. Everyone eventually dies, it’s just part of life.
Many seeking Santa Muerte’s favor and miracles due to the strong Catholic influence, will offer up prayers and light votive candles, often of different colors depending on their need.
Side Note: This is also part of why the Catholic church sees blasphemy with Santa Muerte, catholic style prayers, votive candles, and rosaries are used in prayers and rites with this folk saint.
Votive Candles – black candles are lit for protection and vengeance, brown candles are for wisdom, gold candles are for financial matters, green candles are for crime and justice, purple candles are for healing, red candles for love and passion, and white candles for gratitude and consecration.
It should be noted that black votive candles are not often found in public shrines due to the strong association with “black magic” and the negative aspects of witchcraft. These votive candles are likely to be used in private. It doesn’t help that drug traffickers and criminals twist the worshiping of Santa Muerte around to hide and protect their activities. More benign uses for lighting the candle such as spell reversals, protection, and removing negative energies are uses for this votive.
Temples – The first or earliest known temple for Santa Muerte is the Shrine of Most Holy Death in Mexico City. It was founded by Enriqueta Romero.
Shrines dedicated to Santa Muerte can be found in several places: the home, stores, gas stations, and roadsides just about anywhere.
Altars – As more temples and shrines to Santa Muerte have sprung up, it’s not uncommon to see one or more images of her and to see offerings of cigarettes, flowers, fruit, incense, water, alcoholic beverages, coins, candies, and candles left there to try and gain her favor and protection.
Festivals – There is a festival day on August 15th for Santa Muerta. Though many have noted she can also be worshiped on November 1st & 2nd alongside La Dia de Los Muertos celebrations.
It should be noted that November 1st is the anniversary of when the altar to Santa Muerte was first constructed in Tepito where she is seen as the Patron Saint of that city.
Whereas Dia de Los Muertos is more associated with the skeletal figure of La Calavera Catrina.
“Cult Of Crisis” – Anthropologists studying the rapid rise and popularity of Santa Muerte have called it this as they note how a large number of followers, worshipers, and devotees are mainly of the urban working poor, those who are younger from teens to early ’30s, especially women who live in areas where crime rates and poverty are high. Though members of more influential socioeconomic status and law enforcement are known to seek Santa Muerte’s blessings and protection as well.
We are talking about extreme economic and social hardships, where those most likely to turn to any entity or deity outside of the main, local religion. Where they are already likely to be overlooked, forgotten, and where there appears to be no hope.
Controversy – Criminal Associations
Much of what makes Santa Muerte so controversial is that many of her devotees are often criminals, thieves, gang members, and cartels. She has even become a popular Saint to venerate even in prison. Many of them will pray to Santa Muerte for protection from gun violence and violent death.
It makes sense if the ordinary people trying to live their lives, run a business, and take care of families seem more whom Santa Muerte would protect.
This association came to be in 1998 when a notorious gangster by the name of Daniel Arizmendi López was arrested and a shrine to Santa Muerte was discovered in his home. March of 2009, the Mexican army went so far as to destroy some 40 roadside shrines to Santa Muerte. In March of 2012, the Sonora State Investigative Police arrested eight people for murder who had intended human sacrifices to Santa Muerte. The sensationalism from the news media is what firmly associated Santa Muerte with violence and crimes, notably in the Mexican popular consciousness.
It’s hard to say if life is imitating art or if art is imitating life. There are those who claim a connection back to Aztec beliefs with human sacrifices and connecting them to Santa Muerte. So, any gentler, benevolent side is harder to see or accept.
Authorities have linked prostitution, drug trafficking, kidnapping, smuggling, and homicides to the worship of Santa Muerte. There are just as many law enforcement and military personnel to pray to Santa Muerte as there are criminals.
Duality – That many criminal organizations and cartels claim religious authority around her and messianic prophesies have created two versions of Santa Muerte. “The Black Lady” who has the darker, negative aspects of black magic and human sacrifices is associated with her to cover and hide illicit activities.
Then “The White Lady” is the more the healer, nurturer, and protector from the violence that crimes bring that regular people call upon.
This duality of Santa Muerte’s means she will grant favors to anyone who asks and who prays to her regularly. Many people believe if you cut a deal with Santa Muerte and fail to uphold your end, she will take away a loved one even take your life.
Catholic Church – The Vatican has condemned any worship and veneration of Santa Muerte in Mexico. They see it as blasphemous and satanic. As long as there continue to be strong associations of Santa Muerte with criminals and drug running, any attempts to get people to see the lighter side of this entity will be an uphill battle.
It’s not just the Catholic Church, but other Protestant sects in Christianity have strong, adverse reactions to seeing satanism and devil-worshiping with Santa Muerte. Calling her an idol, that it’s all backward superstition, trickery, and black magic.
Which, from the Western, Christian mindset, seeing an entity that’s skeletal in appearance is very unsettling and scary. It’s an image far worse than that of the Grim Reaper for many. It just doesn’t sit well with many.
It’s a very strong “Nope!” from them.
It seems a bit odd at first, but that’s a Christian mindset and upbringing to see the worship of a deity or saint of death as odd, unusual, weird, and why!?!
For many though, it is obvious that Santa Muerte is merely the modern worship of the ancient Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. This provides an important understanding of why so many would venerate the modern image of Santa Muerte.
For some, the worship of Mictecacihuatl never went away. She just went underground, only to resurface later as Santa Muerte. The more modern image really does lean on that of the Grim Reaper when she’s shown holding a scythe and robes.
The primary thought is likely defiance to the Catholic Church, especially if many feel the church hasn’t protected them from the violence found in numerous places where gangs and cartels are found. It should be noted that a large number of the poor and destitute with a strong leaning towards women are the most likely to turn to Santa Muerte to worship her and seek her protection and favor.
That aside, the worshiping of Santa Muerte begins around the mid-20th century and peaks about the mid-1990s where many prayers and rites were done privately in one’s home. The earliest documentation for Santa Muerte’s worship is in the 1940s among the working class. Starting in 2001, with the introduction of Santa Muerte’s shrine in Mexico City, her worship has taken off in the 21st century with estimates of some 10-20 million worshipers throughout Mexico, Central America, and the United States.
Santa Muerte has become Mexico’s second most popular saint after Saint Jude and is close to rivaling Mexico’s national patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Goddess & Patron Saint Of Death
The majority of Santa Muerte’s devotees pray to her for protection, financial well-being, healing, and safe passage to the afterlife.
Goddess & Saint Of Protection
As I have previously mentioned, many people will seek out Santa Muerte’s favor for protection, especially from violence and violent death. This tends to include many people from marginalized groups, not just minorities, women, but those who are also LGBQT+. Protection from violence, hate disease, and surprisingly, even seeking love.
Saint Of Love
The Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos, also known as Church of Santa Muerte, are known for providing same-sex marriage ceremonies.
One source I came across said that Santa Muerte was originally a male figure. That makes sense as her image does look very similar to the Western figure of the Grim Reaper and Ankou with the robes and scythe.
When you’re praying to Santa Muerte for a safe delivery and passage to the afterlife, that’s a lot of what a psychopomp does. They deliver or escort the recently deceased to the afterlife, wherever it is that a soul will go.
As no one lives forever, Santa Muerte’s presence is a reminder that death should be greeted as a friend and not something to be feared.
Grim Reaper – In her role as a psychopomp, Santa Muerte easily has parallels to this entity and not just similar appearances of skeletal, scythe, and robes.
Mictecacihuatl – There are very noted, strong similarities between the imagery of the Aztec goddess of death and Santa Muerte. So much so, that there are many who will say that the two are merely one and the same goddess, that as Santa Muerte, this is Mictecacihuatl’s continued worship into the modern, present day.
San La Muerte – A similar male counterpart to Santa Muerte found in Paraguay.
San Pascualito – A similar male counterpart to Santa Muerte found in Guatemala.