Category Archives: Mexico

Santa Muerte

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.

Attributes

Animal: Owl

Color: Black, Red, White

Month: November

Patron of: Death, the Dead

Plant: Cempasúchil (Marigold)

Planet: Pluto

Sphere of Influence: Death, Healing, Justice, Love, Prosperity, Protection, Safety in the Afterlife, Resurrection

Symbols: Globe, Scale of Justice, Hourglass, Oil Lamp, Scythe

Depictions

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 alter 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 her 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 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, 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 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 as 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.

Worship

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, roadside just about anywhere.

Alters – 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 alter 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 Carina.

“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 socio-economic status and law enforcement are known to seek Santa Muerte’s blessings and protection as well.

We are talking extreme economic and social hardships, were those most likely to turn any entity or deity outside of the main, local religion. Where they are already likely to be overlooked, forgotten, 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, 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.

Modern Saint?

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.

Psychopomp

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.

Syno-Deities

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 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.

Rey Pascual – A similar male counterpart to Santa Muerte found in Guatemala.

San La Muerte – A similar male counterpart to Santa Muerte found in Paraguay.

Mictecacihuatl

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.

Attributes

Animal: Bat, Dog, Owl, Spider

Direction: North

Element: Earth

Month: Tititl (Aztec), November

Patron of: Death, the Dead

Plant: Cempasúchil (Marigold)

Planet: Pluto

Sphere of Influence: Death, Resurrection

Symbols: Bones, Skeletons

Aztec Depictions

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.

Family

Parents – Unknown, it is believed that when Mictlantecuhtli was born, that her parents sacrificed the infant.

SpouseMictlantecuhtli, the Lord of Mictlan.

Aztec Cosmology

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.

Cosmic Origins

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.

Deific Origins

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.

Mictlampa

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.

  1. 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.

Deific Offerings

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 alters, graveyards and decorations would be festooned with these flowers. The Mexican Marigold is a familiar wild flower that grows in many places of central Mexico.

Aztec Calendar

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.

Hueymiccaylhuitl

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.

Month-Long Celebration

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 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.