Category Archives: Mexico
Etymology: “Brilliant Flower” (Nahuatl)
Also Known As: Poinsettia, k’alul wits (“Ember Flower,” Mayan), Flor de Noche Buena, Christmas Eve Flower, Christmas Flower, Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, Mexican Flame Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Mexican Flame Tree, Painted Leaf, Euphoribia, Spurge Root, Snake Root, Asthma Plant, Flor de Pascua (Spain), Pascua (Spain), Easter flower, Lobster flower, Crown of the Andes (Chile & Peru), Stella di Natale (Italian), and Weihnachtsstern (German)
For those of Western, European descent and from a country like the United States, this familiar red and green Christmas Flower is going to be more recognized by the name of Poinsettia. While there are over 150 varieties of cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia, the red poinsettia is the most popular Christmas plant right next to the Christmas Tree. During the months of November and December, the sales of these plants are huge with some 70 million being sold during a six-week period and making over $250 million within the U.S. economy. People are likely to hear misleading warnings not to let their pets eat the plant as the milky white sap is toxic to them. Then when the leaves turn yellow, the plant dies and almost everyone who’s bought one tosses them out to the landfills. Causing some to decry this horrific waste.
So how did we get this lovely holiday flower?
A Xochime Native To Mexico!
This beautiful red and green xochime or flower comes to us from Mexico, specifically southwestern Mexico and Guatemala where it grows in rocky areas like canyons. The Aztec King Montezuma would have cuetlaxochitl brought to what is now Mexico City in caravans as this flower couldn’t be grown in high altitudes. To the ancient Aztecs, this is a sacred flower connected to their celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Spanish chroniclers wrote of the hundreds of men who would carry cuetlaxochitl up to the temples in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec imperial capital. Likewise, the Mayans were also known to make medicinal use of this plant.
What’s In A Name?
While I noted an etymology for “Brilliant Flower,” a more proper translation of the name cuetlaxochitl is “the Flower that withers, mortal flower that dies like all that is pure.” For the Aztecs, this flower was a gift from nature that one should admire, but never touch. The bright red leaves were seen as a symbolic reminder of the sacrificial offerings needed during the creation of the Fifth Sun. Said red color alluding to blood as what the Aztec gods required for their sacrifices.
There is debate as to what the word cuetlaxóchitl means. It has been noted that the translation of this name from Nahuatl means “leather flower” and references the red leaves used in dyes for animal skins and hides. Plus, the red leaves are as resistant as leather. There are several words in Nahuatl that all refer to leather in some way. Cuetlaxhuahuanqui for a tanner, cuetlaxtli for hide, cuetlaxtic for leathery, and cuetlaxmecatl for a leather strap to name a few. Another translation given is “cuitlatl” meaning residue or soil and “Xochitl” meaning flower so the whole word translates to “flower that grows in residue or soil.”
Aztec Winter Solstice – Rebirth of the Sun!
For the Aztecs, the cuetlaxochitl was used in ceremonies to celebrate the birth of their war god, Huitzilopochtli, the Left-Handed Hummingbird at the Winter Solstice. Wild cuetlaxochitl in Central America come to full bloom close to the time of the Winter Solstice as the nights get longer, allowing them to bloom. Temples would be decorated with these flowers as their blooming coincided with Huitzilopochtli’s birth. The red of these flowers symbolize the sacred life energy of blood. The same red color also symbolized the blood of warriors who died in battle and their return to the world as hummingbirds or huitzilin to release the honey and nectar from the cuetlaxochitl flowers to bring back the light of the sun and restore the mother earth from the winter months. The star pattern of the red leaves symbolizes the sun’s rays.
Purity – Cuetlaxochitl symbolized purity and was very sacred, especially the red bracts or leaves.
For a good number of Westerners, we tend only to hear of this lovely xochime being “discovered” by Joel Roberts Poinsett in the 1800s. That was fine at first, when we didn’t know. There’s more history though!
Franciscan priests first used the cuetlaxochitl plants as the red and green colors are easily the same colors used in Christmas celebrations. During the 17th century, the Franciscan priests used the plants when decorating their nativity scenes while in the New World of Central and South America. Seeing when the plant blooms, it wouldn’t take much for the Franciscan friars and Catholic Church to use it to convert the local people to Christianity. The botanist Juan Balme made note of cuetlaxochitl in his writings.
Later, on Christmas Eve 1826, a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett and first US Minister to Mexico would introduce (there are some who will say he stole) the cuetlaxochitl to the U.S. while in the city of Taxco during Christmas. He came upon this intriguing flower at the Nativity scene in the local church. Poinsett asked the Franciscan monks about this bright flame-colored plant, and they gave him the name of “Flor de Nochebuena” or the Christmas Eve flower. It should be noted that Poinsett was a slave owner in his South Carolina home state and responsible for the displacement of numerous Native Americans from their lands. He held a lot of anti-Black, anti-Native American views that by today’s standards would see him booted from an office position sooner than later. Poinsett is the one responsible for instigating the Chilean civil war in 1814 that the British quashed. Poinsett held a lot of racist views and a belief that a country like Mexico could only govern itself if whites were in charge.
By the time Poinsett learned of the plant, Europe had already learned of the flower too, and described it. Cuttings of the plant had been brought back to Europe during Alexander von Humboldt’s 1804 expedition. German botanist Wilenow gave cuetlaxochitl its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning “very beautiful.”
In 1825, Poinsett received an ambassadorship from then President Adams to Mexico in 1825. Because of what Poinsett’s mission and objectives were for: to acquire the territory of Texas from Mexico, keep Mexico from taking Cuba from Spain and reduce Britain’s influence in Mexico; those all worked to make Poinsett rather unpopular. Under President Jackson’s presidency, Poinsett was recalled back to the U.S. on December 25th, 1830. Poinsett would also later be a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution.
Poinsett’s interests in botany paved the way for his “discovery” of the cuetlaxochitl that he referred to as the “Mexican Flame Plant” and bring it back to the states where he would grow the plants and give them to friends in Greenville, South Carolina. It wouldn’t take much from there with the cuetlaxochitl blooming in December for people to quickly associate the green and reds with Christmas time. A florist, Robert Buist in Pennsylvania is the first to have sold cuetlaxochitl by its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima and in the ten years since the plant quickly became associated with American Christmas celebrations. The historian and horticulturist William Prescott who had just recently published the book “Conquest of Mexico,” came up with the name poinsettia as it became more popular during this time to honor Joel Poinsett’s “discovery” of the plant.
Poinsettismo – The meddling with Mexico’s policies, country, and relationships with another country (Britain for example, the first European country to recognize them) was so bad that Mexico and other Latin American countries came up with the term Poinsettismo to describe someone overly domineering, officious and intrusive in their behavior.
Moving forward to the early 1900’s, the Ecke family in southern California found a way to graft poinsettias so they would look bushier. They started with growing the plants outside for landscaping and as cut flowers. Paul Ecke Sr. began sending thousands of poinsettias out as gifts and donations to T.V. studios, including shows such as “The Tonight Show” and the Bob Hope Holiday Specials to promote the sale of poinsettia plants. Today, the Ecke family grows some 70% of poinsettias sold during the holiday season of Christmas which brings in some $250 million in sales.
Holiday Appropriation Or Appreciation?
Not all of history is going to be fun and enjoyable. If all we ever hear about are the good, comfortable, rosy parts to keep it all warm and fuzzy while sweeping the ugly bits under the rug; we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in the long run. Because of Poinsett’s history as a slave owner and his part in politics to destabilize a region over global, geopolitics that affected so many; we do have people, especially Hispanics, Native Americans, and other indigenous people who would like to reclaim the name Cuetlaxochitl instead of Poinsettia for this beautiful plant.
Knowing the full, if not more of the history of this flower does help to further enrich our understanding and how this flower connects to the Winter Solstice celebrations, not just Christmas. There are people who will go on about all the pagan traditions from Europe that have been rolled into Christmas. And yeah, we’re going to have those who will push to use the name Cuetlaxochitl and those who use the name Poinsettia either out of continued ignorance or it’s just easier to remember and default to.
In Mexico, with Franciscan monks seeking to convert the local peoples to the incoming religion of Christianity, the following legends and stories began to circulate as the cuetlaxochitl was adapted and given Christian symbolisms.
The star shape of the flowers are seen as similar to the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem when seeking the infant Jesus. The green leaves represent the promise of life even in the dead of winter or the eternal life of Jesus with red representing the blood that he shed. Two colors that are also seen with Holly, an evergreen plant with red berries that ripen during winter.
For the Franciscans, they decorated their Nativity for Christmas. When the night for the observations came with priests and churchgoers present, much to their delight, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl turned red overnight that the Franciscans called it a miracle.
Christmas Flower – Mexican Legend
A young girl by the name of Pepita was on her way to church for the Christmas Eve observances. Being poor, Pepita realized she had forgotten to get a gift for the newborn Christ child, Jesus. Some versions insert that either her brother or a cousin comment that a humble gift will still work. Seeing some roadside weeds, Pepita gathered them up into a bouquet and brought them with her. When she arrived at the church, Pepita placed her bouquet at the base of the altar where the weeds transformed into the colorful blooms of the cuetlaxochitl. From that day forward, the cuetlaxochitl would become known as the la flor de Nochebuena or Christmas Flower.
Forbidden Love – Tlaxcala Legend
The Tlaxacalans are a people in central Mexico who were never conquered by the Aztecs.
Once, there was a beautiful princess who fell in love with a common man who treated her well and loved her as much as she loved him. However, the princess’ parents forbade her from seeing this common man. The princess’ heart ached such that from her longing, a beautiful red flower sprung forth from her chest as a reminder of forbidden love.
White Cuetlaxochitl – Aztec Legend
The Aztecs are known to have expanded their empire and territories, much like other cultures throughout history. One region is that of Taxco who also grew and cultivated cuetlaxochitl and that these flowers were white. When the Aztecs came through with their armies and annihilated the people around Taxco, leaving few survivors. When the following October came, the Aztecs were surprised to see the cuetlaxochitl turn red instead of white. For the locals, this was the gods of Taxco ensuring their people were remembered and that the conquering Aztecs would never forget.
This day falls on December 12th and is comparatively new. It’s a national day in the U.S. with the bill being signed in 2002 by the U.S. Congress. This particular date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of Poinsett’s death in 1851. The day is also to honor the Californian farmer, Paul Eckes who made a profitable market selling Poinsettias during Christmas time.
Most of the sites that I found discussing this day focus on a very American-centric history with Joel Poinsett’s “discovery,” how he found the plant at a nativity scene and sent cuttings home where eventually the plant finds its way as a seasonal, holiday flower.
December 12th is also the same day that Mexico celebrates the Virgin of Guadalupe, their title for the Virgin Mary and mother of Jesus.
Now, we go to Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, the day to honor the cuetlaxochitl flower falls on December 7th.
Dying – The red leaves or bracts and bark would be used as a reddish-purple dye for fabrics.
Facial Cream – The white sap was used as a depilatory or hair removal.
Gardening – The Mayans and even among the Teenek people living in southeastern Mexico grow and decorate with their gardens with k’alul wits not just for aesthetics but for medical uses as well.
The holidays are over, time to toss out the poinsettia!
Wait, you don’t have to, you can actually keep your poinsettia longer and with the right care, get it to bloom for you next year!
It’s not known exactly how cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia are pollinated. The plant has been able to successfully grow in the wilds in several countries outside of Central America where seeds have been blown by the wind. It is thought that hummingbirds are a key pollinator for cuetlaxochitl in its native ranges where they can grow up to 15 feet, a little over 4.5 meters in height.
For the record, the flowers of a cuetlaxochitl are small and yellow while it’s the bracts that are red.
Ideally you will want somewhere warm for your cuetlaxochitl to grow with temperatures between 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit much like the tropical regions it hails from. You will also want to keep your cuetlaxochitl out of direct light, placing it near a window for about six hours of sunlight. Too much direct sun can cause the leaves to fade.
During the lengthening nights of winter is when the plant will begin to bloom, and the familiar red leaves and yellow flowers appear. Starting in late September, the cuetlaxochitl will need 14-16 hours of darkness and reaches full bloom by December. You can help your indoor cuetlaxochitl by placing it in a box and covering it with a cloth to simulate this dark period if you have it indoors.
When it comes to watering your cuetlaxochitl, only do it when the soil is dry, and don’t let your plant sit in that water as that will cause root rot. There is also no need for any fertilizer when the plant is blooming.
Warning – Do seek out an accredited source or learn from a traditional teacher who has extensive knowledge about any medical uses for cuetlaxochitl as the online sources are very limited.
The information presented here is a rough overview of how and what medical uses the plant was used for and there’s a solid lack of proper preparations listed here. Most of the sources were hesitant to mention doses or say not at all without seeking out that accredited source.
Toxicity! – Too often it gets passed around the toxicity of this plant to pets and not to let your cat, dog or even children chew on or eat the leaves.
Cuetlaxochitl aren’t that type of poisonous, as members of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family of plants, they do have a milky white sap that can be a source of skin irritation if you’re allergic to latex as this is the substance latex is made of.
As to the leaves, those aren’t very appetizing, they can cause upset stomachs and vomiting if you eat the leaves. However, you’d have to eat more than a pound of leaves to have any adverse effects.
On the safe side, DON’T EAT THE LEAVES!
Conjunctivitis – The flowers apparently could be crushed into a paste to use for treating this ailment. Another source says an infusion of the flowers to make a wash and then applied as a poultice.
Fever – The Aztecs used the white sap to treat fevers by dabbing it on. This helped with respiratory diseases, mumps, and heart conditions. Poultices or teas? I don’t know.
Hemorrhaging – The Mayans and the Teenek people have a remedy of boiling the yellow inflorescence and red bracts for treating either a woman’s hemorrhaging or bleeding.
Lactation – The Aztecs used the white, milky sap by rubbing it on women’s breasts to promote their milk flow. There was also rubbing it on the woman’s back. Another medicinal use was making a tea of the leaves for a woman to drink.
Skin Infections & Irritations – A poultice from the leaves would be made using the milky sap for treating various skin diseases.
Snake Bites – Boiling and drinking the root can reduce the effects of a snake bite.
Stomach Aches – Crushed roots in a paste helped with these ailments. Not too large a dose or vomiting could happen.
Warts – The latex that can be created from the sap can be used to get rid of warts. Much like a folk remedy with Dandelions and using its milky white sap to get rid of warts…
Still, without any accredited sources, I wouldn’t use or I’d be very hesitant to use any of these remedies. But they are interesting to note.
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: Rey Pascual, El Rey San Pascual, King of the Graveyard, King of the Underworld, and San Pascualito Muerte
San Pascualito is a folk saint found in Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. Given the skeletal nature of his appearance, he is a figure that bears a strong resemblance to San La Muerte and Santa Muerte.
Warning – San Pascualito’s imagery causes him not to be acknowledged by the Catholic Church. Having a skeleton iconography puts San Pascualito in the same vein as Santa Muerte and San La Muerte and associations with death and crime. Due to not being as well known either outside of where he is venerated, there is still an air of unease among Catholic and other Christian sects.
Color: Black, Red, White
Month: May (17th Feast Day)
Patron of: Curing Diseases, Cures, Death, Healings, Love, Graveyards, Vengeance
Sphere of Influence: Death, Healing
Symbols: Skeleton, Cape, Crown, Wheeled Cart
San Pascualito is shown as a skeleton wearing a cape and crown.
Tradition holds that San Pascualito’s veneration very likely originates with a Pre-Columbian Death God. As a folk saint, he is strongly associated with Saint Paschal Baylon, a Spanish friar. Though traditions surrounding San Pascualito strongly lean towards a Pre-Columbian death god.
As the historian Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán relates, in 1650, an indigenous Guatemalan man in San Antonio Aguacaliente (now modern-day Ciudad Vieja) was dying of an epidemic fever known as cucumatz in the Kaqchikel language. As the man received his last rites, he had a vision of a tall skeleton dressed in glowing robes appear before him. This figure introduced themselves as “Saint Paschal Baylon.” At this time, Baylon would not be canonized by the Catholic church until 1690, though he had been beatified earlier in 1618.
The figure promised the dying man to intercede and end the cucumatz if he were to be adopted by the community as their patron saint and honor his image. For proof of his identity, the figure predicted that the man receiving the vision would die in nine days, at which time the epidemic would end.
When the appointed time came and the man died, the story of the vision began to spread, and people began putting up images of San Pascualito despite prohibition from the Spanish Inquisition.
San Pascualito’s major center of worship and veneration is in Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. There is a major shrine dedicated to him in Olintepeque, Guatemala. In the Church of San Pascualito in Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas, there is a version of San Pascualito as a seated skeleton in a cart. Devotees of San Pascualito will leave thank you notes, offerings of capes, or burn candles.
The color of the candle determines the intent of the request. Red is for love, Pink for health, Yellow for protection, Green for business, Blue for work, Light Blue for money, Purple for help overcoming vices or temptation, White for the protection of children, and Black for revenge.
King Of The Graveyard
One of San Pascualito’s epitaphs or names, King of the Graveyard does link him to being a potential death cult. Unlike other such cults, San Pascualito is more concerned with curing diseases, ya’ know, staving off death. Not yet.
As a Folk Saint, San Pascualito’s Feast Day is held on May 17th, the same feast day as Saint Paschal Baylon.
Ah Puch – The Mayan god or lord of death.
Grim Reaper – The imagery of the Grim Reaper and San Pascualito are remarkably similar.
Mictlantecutli – There are very noted, strong similarities between the imagery of the Aztec god of death and San La Muerte.
San La Muerte – A similar figure to San Pascualito found in South America, mainly Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Santa Muerte – A similar female counterpart found in Mexico and southern parts of the United States.
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.
Pronunciation: Mikt-eyk-as-see-wahl or Misk-tesk-ei-siev-alth
Alternate Spelling: Mictlantecihuatl
Also Known As: Lady of the Dead, Queen of Mictlan
Etymology: Lady of the Dead (Nahuatl)
Mictecacihuatl is the Aztec goddess of the dead and Mictlantecuhtli‘s wife. Together the two rule over the nine layers of the Aztec Underworld and it’s nine rivers. Compared to her husband, Mictecacihuatl doesn’t have much for stories and myths surrounding her. But that could be if we’re just seeing male and female half of the same divine concept with similar, overlapping functions and roles.
Animal: Bat, Dog, Owl, Spider
Month: Tititl (Aztec), November
Patron of: Death, the Dead
Plant: Cempasúchil (Marigold)
Sphere of Influence: Death, Resurrection
Symbols: Bones, Skeletons
Mictecacihuatl is described as wearing a skirt made of snakes, sagging breasts, skull face and clawed feet for digging her way through the earth. She is also shown as being flayed, having no flesh on her body and her mouth open to swallow the stars during the day so that they become invisible. Mictecacihuatl can also be shown as a beautiful woman wearing traditional Aztec clothing and the skull face being more ritualistically painted on.
What’s In A Name
As previously mentioned, Mictecacihuatl’s name translates to “Lady of the Dead” in the Nahuatl language.
Parents – Unknown, it is believed that when Mictlantecuhtli was born, that her parents sacrificed the infant.
Spouse – Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of Mictlan.
Suns – This is a big one in Aztec Cosmology, the Aztecs believed in a cycle of suns or periods of creation. The fourth sun ended with a great deluge or flood that drowned everyone and that the current age is the fifth sun.
There were a number of different paradises or afterlives in Aztec belief. The manner of a person’s death would determine which of these paradises they got to enter. Any person who failed to get into these paradises would find themselves destined for Mictlan.
Fairly common in many world beliefs, the Aztecs divided the cosmos into three parts. The Heavens or Ilhuicac at the top with the Earth or Tlalticpac, being the land of the living found in the middle. Mictlan, the Underworld would be found below.
Depending on the manner of one’s death, would depend on which after life a person to. Mictlan was pretty much seen as the place for all souls who couldn’t get into one of the paradises.
In the Aztec Creation story, there were Ometecuhtli and his wife Omecihuatl who bore four children Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli.
And…. Nothing really happens for about 600 years, so the four children decide that they will set about creating the universe. That of course includes creating the Sun, the first man and woman, maize, and calendar. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Death would be created last.
Mictecacihuatl’s origins are a bit gruesome. When Mictecacihuat was a baby, she was sacrificed and it is there in the Underworld of Mictlan, that she quickly grew to adulthood and married Mictlantecuhtli and from there, would rule over the Underworld with him.
Keeper Of Bones – Resurrection
One of Mictecacihuatl’s functions within Aztec religion is that she kept watch over the bones of the dead. For the Aztecs, skeletons and bones were symbols of abundance, fertility, and health. You couldn’t have one without the other.
Both Mictecacihuatl and Mictlantecuhtli collect bones so that the other Aztec gods might bring them back to life. The mixing up of all of these various bones is also what allows for the creation of new races.
Lord Of The Underworld – Mictlan
With the Christian mindset, the Underworld, any Underworld does not sound like a happy fun place to be or go.
Not quite in Aztec beliefs, most everyone who died went to Mictlan. When a person died, they would be buried with grave goods that they would carry with them on their travels to Mictlan. These goods would be offered up to Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl.
As the newly dead started their journey to Mictlan, they would be accompanied by a small dog who guided them. Mictlan was known to be located somewhere far to the North. Much like in other world myths and beliefs, the Realm of the Dead is pretty much just neutral, not necessarily evil. Mictlan is divided into nine different levels or layers that the dead must travel through and a series of tests they must do on a four-year journey down to Mictlan. We are talking having to run from various monsters, icy blasts known as the “winds of obsidian,” traverse a mountain range where the mountains crash into each other, and to cross the nine rivers of blood guarded by jaguars. Once the soul arrived, they would dissolve, vanishing forever.
Home Sweet Home – While Mictlan is divided into nine different levels, Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live in the last few levels. One legend holds that there is a place of white flowers that was forever dark and served as home to the gods of death.
The actual house or dwelling place that Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live at in the Mictlan is reputed to have no windows.
Vaticanus Codex – In this Colonial codex, Mictlantecutli is identified and labelled by the Spanish as “the Lord of the Underworld, Tzitzimitl” and equated with the Christian Lucifer.
This is the name the Aztecs used for the northern direction associated with Mictlanteculhtli. The northern direction is where the Aztecs believed the land of the dead to be. This would be a region of the earth that was a dark, barren and cold place that was eternally still and quiet. Which makes sense for the Artic. Sometimes, Mictlanteculhtli could be associated with the south, just as equally likely if one were to make it to Antarctica, that’s pretty cold and lifeless the further inland you get.
Souls Of The Dead
The Aztecs recognized three types of souls and Mictlantecutli governed over all of them.
- People who died of normal deaths as in old age and disease
- People who died heroic deaths such as in battle, sacrifices and childbirth
- People who died non-heroic deaths, accidents and suicides
While this sounds like every soul ends up in Mictlan, a soul could end up in another place. For example, if someone died violently drowning or lighting, they would end up in Tlalocan (a realm in the Heavens), for the Tlaloc, the water god.
Like many cultures, the Aztecs buried their dead with offerings for the afterlife, namely for Mictlantecuhtl and Mictlantecutli. These items would be offerings of food and various ceremonial or precious items.
Cempasúchil – Also called Flor de Muertos and Marigold, specifically Mexican Marigold in English, these flowers are held sacred to Mictlantecuhtl. These orange & yellow blossom’s scent is thought to be able to wake the souls of the dead and bring them back for a Dia De los Muertos in autumn. Many altars, graveyards, and decorations would be festooned with these flowers. The Mexican Marigold is a familiar wildflower that grows in many places of central Mexico.
In the Aztec Calendar, Mictecacihuatl was honored and celebrated throughout the ninth month, a 20-day period that roughly corresponds to the Gregorian calendar of late July and early August. When Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1519, Mictecacihuatl’s corresponding holiday of Hueymiccaylhuitl was moved forward to October 31st to November 2nd to correspond with the Catholic observance of All Saint’s Day.
An Aztec holiday, the “Great Feast of the Dead” was celebrated for the recently deceased and to help them on their journey to Mictlan. Hueymiccaylhuitl would be celebrated in the Aztec month of Tititl where an impersonator or stand-in for the god Mictlantecuhtli would be sacrificed.
When someone died, the Aztecs would cremate the remains. It was believed that the soul would than undertake a four-year journey to Mictlan through the various levels of the Underworld and needing to pass a series of trials. Those who succeeded would make it to the lowest levels of Mictlan.
Hueymiccaylhuitl was also celebrated as an annual celebration as it was believed the dead could return to the lands of the living and visit. Plus, it was a way for the living to help those on their journey as the living could communicate with the deceased souls.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, bringing Catholicism with them, the traditions of Hueymiccaylhuitl transformed, becoming known as Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Families still leave offerings of food and goods for the dead to take with them on their journey.
Under more modern and current celebrations and influence from the Catholic church, Día de los Muertos coincides with All Saints’ Day or Feast of All Saints on November 1st. It is a celebration that combines imagery from Aztec beliefs with an air of carnival and festivities with families gathering at cemeteries to share a picnic meal with deceased loved ones and sugar skulls in the image of Mictlantecuhtli.
Mictecacihuatl had a month-long celebration for her. However, not much is known about it and all Archaeologists and historians know for certain is that there was song and dancing, incense burnt and very likely blood sacrifices.
Dia de Los Muertes
Mictecacihuatl not only has presided over the older Aztec celebrations for the dead but continues to watch over the contemporary festivals of Día de Los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. Celebrations and observances for this holiday start on the evening of October 31st, coinciding with the holidays of Halloween and Samhain. In Mexican tradition, families will hold graveside vigils with deceased loved ones. Then on November 1st and 2nd, the dead are said to awaken and celebrate with their living family and friends.
Santa Muerte – Mexico
A female deity, early images of her started off as male. Santa Muerte is a folk saint whose worship and popularity have been increasing since the start of the 21st century in Mexico and has been spreading. Devotees of Santa Muerte may or may not be disenfranchised with the Catholic Religion and many turn to her for healing, protection, and a safe passage to the afterlife.