Death is looked upon differently by many cultures. One of the stranger and more macabre (at least to look at) is the Mexican tradition of Santa Muerte – or Saint Death if you are an English speaker. She is also known as Dona Sebastiana and is a religious figure that is the result of a mish-mash of several cultures. Paganism and Catholicism come head to head to produce a remarkable hybrid of contemporary religiosity and supernaturalism.
The Catholic hierarchy – of course – disapproves of the whole Santa Muerte tradition. Their position is that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross defeated death and so the tradition of praying to a death-like figure is beyond the pale for many church leaders. However, a potent mix of native, Spanish and Austrian culture has produced this tradition which persists and widens among the population each year.
Saint Death is not worshiped as such. You will not find any churches devoted to the Saint (as much for the simple reason that she is not accepted by the official church) but she receives petitions for protection, luck and love. She is also petitioned for assistance in the retrieval of kidnapped family members – kidnapping is a huge problem in Mexico where it has become an endemic social ill. With the variety of people and cultures that hold her in esteem, it is unlikely that the cult of Saint Death will ‘die’ any time soon.
There is a real similarity between Saint Death and the Grim Reaper – as she is often seen to be carrying a scythe. Quite what Bill and Ted, embarking on one of their adventures, would say if they discovered that their long-time helper and collaborator had taken to wearing bright female clothing is anyone's guess. In some effigies of the saint she also appears with a set of scales. Some say that this indicates a correlation between Saint Death and Saint Michael. Saint Michael is one of the Archangels in Christian tradition and was made Patron Saint for chivalry in the middle ages.
As such, Saint Death is seen as a combination of an intercessionary force and one which is above any small-mindedness and is seen as dealing with people fairly. What is a little more troubling for the Catholic authorities is that as time goes on, so the ‘legend’ extends itself and deepens. Santa Muerte is now often seen, (when depicted in three dimensions) in a long dress and a crown of gold. Many of her devotees see her as a variation on a theme of the Virgin Mary. This of course is unacceptable to the Catholic Church as when it comes to the mother of Jesus, there is for them no room for variations on a theme to say the least.
The statues of this Saint of Death are often colored very specifically – in red, white, black and green. These are the traditional colors in Mexico to represent luck, love, money (and the acquisition of lots of it) and protection. Although candles are burnt in her (and occasionally his) honor, many people will leave gifts off red roses, tequila and cigars. Where or how Santa Muerte discovered a liking for flowers, booze and nicotine is anyone’s guess.
So where did Saint Death originate? Many point towards the Mexican State of Veracruz where ancient witch-craft rites are still occasionally performed. Others say that her origins are much older and have roots in Aztec death worship. The finger is pointed specifically at Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death.
More contemporary parts of her legend come in an unexpected form. There is a large Austrian community in Mexico and these people believe her to be the wife of Krampus – an incubus who accompanies Santa Claus on his yearly rounds. You can read more about Krampus on Kuriositas here.
As in many other countries that have adopted Christianity, there is a process of syncretization. This is when previous ‘pagan’ beliefs are re-interpreted to allow Catholicism (especially) to gain a hold in the local community. So it is likely that, at some point, Saint Death was at least tolerated by the Catholic hierarchy in its attempts to win the minds and hearts – and therefore souls – of the indigenous peoples of the area.
On a darker note, Santa Muerte seems to have been adopted recently by the criminal fraternities who traffic drugs in Mexico. Many of the recently deceased gang members caught up in internecine battles have been discovered, post mortem, to have tattoos of Saint Death on their bodies. Many believe that she is venerated within this particular section of society as a ‘virgin saint in the religion of crime’ and certainly it is easy to see how the image of this particular 'saint' could comfortably fit here.
So, is Saint Death a supernatural figure of black magic or a Catholic saint worthy of worship? Unlikely as it is that her veneration will be wiped out, ultimately it must be left to the individual to make of Santa Muerte what they will.