The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on April 6, 2011
La Santa Muerte

In The Christian Century of March 22, 2011, there is an interesting column by Philip Jenkins, the historian who more than anyone else has drawn our attention to the demographic shift of Christianity to the developing countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Under the title “Mexico’s Crisis of Faith”, Jenkins suggests that the present battle between the government and the drug cartels raises the specter of a failed state at the southern border of the United States. This is very probably an exaggeration. However, it is accurate that Mexico is going through a difficult period, and it is plausible that this has implications for religion, especially for the Roman Catholic Church that is still the dominant faith in the country. Jenkins does not discuss the challenge of Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal form, which has importantly grown in the Maya-speaking regions in the south. But he discusses at some length the revival of an old tradition of Mexican folk religion, the cult of La Santa Muerte, “Holy Death” or “Saint Death”.
The cult has been around for a very long time, and it revives periodically in situations of crisis. Also known as the cult of “Our Lady of Shadows”, it is an illicit version of the cult of the Virgin Mar—a “shadow”, if you will, of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. It combines elements of Catholicism and of pre-Columbian religion, extending beyond Mexico into Central America and the Caribbean. It has a particular affinity with the practice of human sacrifice, indigenous throughout the region but with a certain climax in the Aztec culture. Octavio Paz, the great Mexican writer, suggested in his The Labyrinth of Solitude, that this culture still haunts the Mexican imagination. Be this as it may, the cult of La Santa Muerte strikes one as a parody of the official worship of the Virgin. She is invariably pictured as a skeleton, dressed in gaudy garments, surrounded by other symbols of death. The cult has always been condemned by the Catholic Church as devil worship, though it has survived despite this condemnation. In a sanitized form, such as in commemorations of the dead at All Souls (on November 2, popularly known as the Day of the Dead), it has been quietly tolerated by the Church. It has always been favored in the lower classes, especially by criminals and prostitutes. Its recent upsurge has been particularly noticeable among drug dealers—the sprawling culture of the narcotraficantes, which has become a state within the state in parts of Mexico.
We are obviously dealing here with a complex phenomenon. Our Lady of the Shadows is linked to two other sinister cults, which are flourishing in the same social environments. One involves the adoration of Jesus Malverde, a 19th-century bandit regarded by many as the special patron saint of drug dealers. The other involves a particularly repulsive figure, San Juan Soldado, who was executed in 1938 for raping and killing an eight-year old girl.
Worship of death is by no means limited to Mesoamerica. In Christian history there were cultic elements in the Dance of Death, which spread in Europe in the late Middle Ages. Kali Durga, usually depicted with a necklace of skulls, is a distant cousin of Our Lady of Shadows, still widely worshipped by Hindus. One must distinguish these ceremonies involving death from outright celebrations of evil—in the cult of Satan (the Black Mass being a deliberately blasphemous parody of the eucharist)—in the battle cry of the Tercio, the former Spanish foreign legion, “Viva la Muerte”—and most horrendously in the death head, Totenkopf, that was the emblem of the SS administering the extermination camps of the Third Reich. Clearly there are different psychological motifs in these different cultic phenomena. The most important distinction: An embrace of death is not the same as an embrace of evil.
If there are supernatural entities in charge of death, one may seek to propitiate them, to ask them to spare one from their dreadful powers. If you will, this is a religious analogue to the so-called Stockholm Syndrome—the masochistic identification of hostages with their captors. Related to but yet distinct from this, there is the magical project of appropriating some of the death-dealing power by special ceremonies. There is also the primal motif of assuaging fear by embracing it—as when a child carries around a picture of someone or something that it is afraid of, or when adults make jokes about their fears. None of these ritual appeasements of death—the ultimate fear—worship evil as such.

This last motif naturally appeals to individuals or groups who themselves practice evil such as mass murder and torture. Theirs is a very special psychology. I think that Jean-Paul Sartre came close to understanding it in his essay Anti-Semite and Jew (its English title), which interprets anti-Semitism as an escape from the vulnerability of the human condition—the anti-Semite victimizes the Jew and thus distances himself as much as possible from the possibility of being a victim himself. It is debatable whether this interpretation validly covers all versions of anti-Semitism. It plausibly covers the version represented by the Totenkopf-SS. It could be summarized by the assertion.“I kill, therefore I am”—or “I inflict death, therefore I am immortal”. Sartre, of course, would regard these statements as delusional (in his terminology, as expressions of “bad faith”). However, delusions can be very effective psychologically.
I would think that the cult of La Santa Muerte is based, with different individuals and groups, on all the above-mentioned psychological motifs, from morally harmless ones to the morally repugnant. The henchmen of the drug cartels, who habitually torture and murder innocent people, would instinctively gravitate toward the latter motifs.

  • Loren Mead

    Peter: Any comment on the increasingly visible fascination of our western culture in ‘vampirism’ — certainly a growth industry in the popular media.

    Loren Mead

  • http://www.has.vcu.edu/wld/catholicstudies/ Andrew Chesnut

    Beyond serving as the spiritual patroness of Mexican narcos and law enforcement agents, Santa Muerte is a versatile multi-tasker who performs love magic, heals illness, and produces prosperity. My forthcoming book (Oxford University Press, December 2011), Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, examines Saint Death in her complex totality.

  • Odins Acolyte

    If Death is an entity then so is Birth and Life. The appropriate worship for the living is to worship the Lord/Lady of Life. It is a temptation to worship the provider of what we fear but death is a gate we must all pass through. It is not apart from life but a part OF life. Any deity may take form if worshiped and called upon. There are some rituals for evil that will raise the hair on your neck and cause indisputable an unexplainable phenomena. There are people in the world who can call the wind and light fires across a room. There are people in the world who can speak in your mind. A strong faith is necessary when dealing with unknown powers. Faith in nothing still is a faith. It is simply an empty faith.

  • nana

    am looking for a bible of santa muerte in english