Blog Archives

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.

Ankou

Pronunciation: ahn-koo

Etymology: From the Breton word anken for anguish or grief. Another word given is ankouatt, meaning “to forget.”

Also Known As: Ankow (Cornish), yr Angau (Welsh), L’Ankou, Death, the Grim Reaper, King of Dead, Angel of Death, Death’s Servant

In Breton mythology of Brittany, France, the Ankou is the local personification of death. They come at night either on foot or more often riding in a cart or carriage drawn by four black horses to collect the souls of the newly dead and take them to the Lands of the Dead.

Pre-History

With scant evidence, but the persistent belief in the Ankou prevailing, there are thoughts among scholars that the Ankou might be a surviving tradition of a local Celtic Death God or Goddess. It has been suggested by the 19th-century writer, Anatole le Braz that the belief of the Ankou goes back to the dolmen-builders of prehistoric Brittany.

Description

Imagery of the Ankou can be found throughout many of the old Celtic countries such as Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. One example is found on a baptismal font in La Martyre where the Ankou is shown holding a human head. The Ankou, like the depictions of the Green Man on many churches are a Pagan holdover and a defiance towards Church Authority.

The Ankou appears as a ghostly skeleton or sometimes as an old man who wears black robes and large, wide-brimmed hat that conceals its face. As a skeleton, the Ankou’s head is able to spin around so he can see in all directions. The Ankou is shown too carrying a scythe that has the sharpened blade upwards instead of downwards. Sometimes he only appears as a shadow carrying a scythe. He is said to drive a black cart or carriage drawn by two horses, one old and one young or there are four black horses. If there are several souls for the Ankou to collect, he will be assisted by two skeletons who help hurl them into the cart. A cold gust of wind is said to follow in the Ankou’s wake as he travels.

Aside from collecting souls, the Ankou when there is more than one, are guardians of cemeteries. And sometimes the Ankou of a cemetery is the first person to die in the year who is then tasked with collecting the souls of the dead and lead them to the afterlife.

Karrigell an Ankou – The Wheelbarrow of Ankou, he is heralded by the sound of squealing railways wheels outside a person’s home.

Labous an Ankou – The Death Bird, the cry of an owl heralds the arrival of the Ankou.

King Of The Dead – In some legends, the Ankou is the King of the Dead. Each of his subjects have their path that they follow their path through the Underworld or Afterlife.

Psycho-Pomp

Regardless of the description of the Ankou that you go by, their job is that of a psychopomp, an entity that guides and takes the souls of the deceased to the afterlife. The persistence of the Ankou has continued into the 21st century where it is recognized more as the Grim Reaper.

Though he is often shown carrying a scythe, the Ankou doesn’t have to kill anyone, just his presence and arrival signals that someone’s time has come. The Ankou’s role as psycho-pomp also sees him as something of a protector of the dead.

Death’s Henchman – In “The Legend of Death” by Anatole Le Braz, the Ankou is a henchman to Death, protecting the graveyard and souls around it, collecting them for the afterlife when it is their time. The last person to die in the year for their parish, becomes the Ankou for the following year. In any year where there have been more deaths than usual, the phrase: “War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk” is said. Translated, it means: “On my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou.”

New House – It is believed that the Ankou awaits in every new house to claim the life of the first living being to enter it. For that reason, a tradition began in the Breton Commune of Quimperlé to sacrifice a rooster and spread out its blood on the foundations of every house being built, that way the Ankou could collect the soul of the rooster.

Omen Of Death

To see, hear or approach the Ankou is an omen of death. However, it is with the understanding that to see the Ankou, is something of a blessing in disguise, as the individual is often given the time to be able to say their goodbyes and get affairs in order.

Your Soul Has Been Collected, Now What?

Well now, that really all depends on what you believe. For some, that’s it, no more, finis. For others, there’s going to be some sort of afterlife that the Ankou is going to take you for final judgment, whether that be a Heaven or Hell of some sort, or even just a Purgatory where the soul is in limbo forever.

There’s plenty of speculation and evidence in surviving Celtic stories that they likely believed in reincarnation as other religions and cultures have. Ultimately, even with the arrival of Christianity, the soul continues on in some form and the Ankou is going to take it there.

The Bretons were no different than their other Celtic kin, death is a part of life. The soul continues somewhere, even if we aren’t in agreement of where that is.

Fairy

In Ireland, the Ankou is seen as a type of fairy versus a ghost or spirit of some sort. Which makes sense where distinctions between the three are easily hashed out. Yet also a bit confusing, as most people will think of the small Victorian Flower Fairies that are small and have wings like Tinkerbell of Peter Pan fame. In the more deeper studies of Celtic or Irish folklore, faeries are a type of spirit, not just another race of beings with numerous various types. Older linguistics and translations show that faeries are the spirits of the dead and the Realm of Fairy is the Land of the Dead. Which goes right back to making sense to refer to the Ankou as a type of fairy.

Kalan Goañv

A Breton festival that corresponds to October 31st with the celebrations of Halloween and Samhain. Similar to the tradition in the Mexican Dio Los Muertos, the Bretons would feed the Ankou with milk, cider and crepes. The tombstones in cemeteries across Brittany have small cup-like holders that offerings for the dead can be left at.

Night Of Wonders

The Bretons call Christmas Eve the “Night of Wonders.” During this time, the Ankou will pass through anonymously through the crowd attending Midnight Mass. Anyone that the Ankou brushes past will be those who die before the New Year.

French Nursery Rhyme

“O, Lakait ho Troadig” is the name of a nursery rhyme that dates back to the 16th century. The Ankou is mentioned where each time the rhyme progresses, a new word in introduced that then becomes the first word in the series.

Irish Proverb

“When Ankou comes, he will not go away empty.”

Storytime

There are a few stories involving the Ankou that I came across while researching this figure.

Story One – First Child

In some stories, the Ankou is said to the first child of Adam and Eve…. Which would make him Cain, if we go by most versions and translations of the Bible.

Right then…

Story Two – Drunken Friends

This story sees three friends who were drunk and of course, walking home late one night. The three came across an old man on a rickety cart. Two of the friends began to shout at the old man, not realizing that this it he Ankou. Then they began throwing stones that when the axle on the cart broke, the two ran off.

As for the third friend, he felt bad and went to help the old man. He found a branch and came back with that to replace the broken axle. Then he took the shoelaces off his shoes to give the Ankou to tie it in place.

The next morning, the two friends who had thrown stones were found dead. As for the third friend, who had stayed to help, his hair turned white. He never spoke in any detail about what happened that night.

If we have the story, the guy must have told someone or written it down.

Story Three – The Cruel Prince

In this story, there was once a cruel landowner that challenged Death. The landowner? A petty, spoiled and entitled Prince. This Prince was out hunting, chasing down a white stag, an animal given special status in Celtic lore. As the Prince and his companions chased the white stag, they encountered a dark figure sitting atop a white horse. Infuriated that this person dared to trespass on his lands, the Prince challenged the stranger. Whoever killed the stag could not only keep the hide and meat but could also determine the fate of the loser. The stranger agreed, speaking in a soft, eerie voice that unnerved those who heard him.

To the Prince’s horror, the hunt was over faster than he anticipated. No matter how hard he rode, how fast he drew his bow, the stranger was faster still and succeeded at bringing down the deer. Angry at his loss, the Prince had his men surround the stranger, declaring that he would bring back two trophies that night. The white stag and the stranger.

The stranger laughed, revealing himself then to be Death, telling the Prince that since he loved to hunt so much, he could have the stag and all the dead of the world. The Prince was then cursed to become an Ankou or a Ghoul, forever collecting the souls of the dead.

Story Four – The Blacksmith’s Story

In this story, there is a blacksmith by the name of Fanch ar Floc’h who was very engrossed with his work on Christmas Eve, that he missed the Midnight Mass. He worked late into the midnight hour, (held sacred in some European cultures, the witching hour when magic happens) when the Ankou arrived seeking to have his scythe repaired. Fanch knew full well who his midnight visitor was and he worked on the scythe tirelessly, dying at the dawn of Christmas Morning.

Story Five – The Coach of the Dead

This story was first recorded by the Breton poet and folklorist Anatole Le Braz in 1890. The legend is much older, having been passed on through oral tradition.

A young man was curious one evening when he heard the sound of the Ankou’s axles as they creaked. The man ran out to a clump of hazel where he hid watched for the Ankou’s arrival. As the cart passed by, it suddenly stopped and one of the Ankou’s skeletal companions went to where the young man hid to cut a branch of hazel to repair the axle. The young believed had been spotted by the Ankou and was relieved when the cart soon left. However, when morning came, the young man was found dead.

Story Six – The Blocked Road

Three brothers are returning home after a night of partying and quiet drunk. The three decide they will pull a prank on the first carriage to pass through on a nearby road. They do so by blocking the path with a large, dead tree.

Later in the evening, the brothers were awoken by loud banging on their door and a voice yelling that they go and remove the tree blocking the path. The voice knows that it was the boys who pulled this stunt.

When the three opened the door to look, no one was there, but they could not close the door again no matter how hard they tried. The boys called out, asking who was there. Once more the voice boomed, ordering them to go to the road that they blocked.

Freaked, the brothers went out, finding that the stranger they thought to find was the Ankou. The Ankou explained that he had lost an hour of his time due to this stunt and as a result, they would all die one hour sooner. The Ankou then added, that the three were lucky, had they not come out when they did, they would have owed him a year of their lives for each minute that he lost.

Syno-Deities & Entities

Arawn – The Celtic god of the Dead, the Ankou is sometimes equated with him.

Bag an Noz – The Boat of Night, those who live along the sea-shore in Brittany tell of how the last person to drown in the year, will roam the seas at night to collect the souls of the drowned and guide them to the Afterlife, just as the Ankou does on land. It is a ghost ship that appears when ever something bad is about to happen and disappears when people come to close. The crew of this boat are said to call out soul-wrenching sounds.

Charon – The Greek ferryman of the dead has also been equated with the Ankou due to similar garb and taking souls to the Afterlife.

Church Grim – Or the Grim, in English and Scandinavian lore it is a black dog that has been killed and buried in the graveyard at either the beginning or end of the year in order to protect the church and graveyard. Other animals such as lambs, boars or horses.

Crom Dubh – This one is a bit of a stretch. Crom Dubh was an ancient Celtic fertility god who demanded human sacrifices every year, of which, the preferred method was decapitation. Eventually the god fell out of favor and somehow this god becomes a spirit seekings corpses and eventually becoming the Dullahan.

Death Coach – A general Northern European, especially in Ireland where it is called the Cóiste Bodhar. The Death Coach is known for arriving to collect the soul of a deceased person. Once it arrives on earth to collect a soul, it will not leave empty. It is a black coach or carriage that is driven or led by a headless horseman who is often identified with the Dullahan.

The Dullahan – also known as Dulachán meaning “dark man” or “without a head.” This being is a headless fairy often seen dressed in black and riding a black headless horse while carrying his head under an arm or inner thigh. The Dullahan is armed with a whip made from a human spine. Death occurs wherever the Dullahan ceases riding and when it calls out a name, the person called dies. Death can also come if the Dullahan tosses a bucket of blood at a person who has been watching it.

In other versions, the Dullahan rides a black carriage. Sometimes they are accompanied by a banshee. Nothing can stop the Dullahan from claiming a victim save the payment of gold.

Grim Reaper – Essentially, the Grim Reaper and Ankou are largely the same entity, both wear the black robes and carry a scythe. The Grim Reaper is very much so the modern Ankou, appearing in several various media and literature.

Santa Muerte The female version of the Grim Reaper. Her imagery is very similar in appearance to the Ankou and Grim Reaper with wearing robes and wielding a scythe. Santa Muerte is worshiped primarily among many Hispanics & Latinos, especially in places like Mexico.