Monday, May 18, 2009

The Most Holy Death

Most Americans would not be able to tell you what, or who, La Santisima Muerte is. Indeed, one of the few places people even hear these words are near the Mexican-American border, the area of contention, with racial tensions mounting, and the growing inward flux of drug related violence. Some have seen the skeleton face and the flowers which adorn the figure, but few dare stay in a place that displays the icon, let alone ask as to its meaning. La Santisima Muerte is an altogether mysterious divinity regarded as a saint in her worship. The saint is called La Santisima Muerte (The Most Holy Death), or simply La Santa Muerte (Saint Death). In what is perhaps her most affectionate epithet, she is La Nina.

Followers of La Santa Muerte most commonly identify as Catholic, a common syncretic attribute of Latin American divinities. The saint is unanimously agreed to be female and may in fact be the Aztec deity Mictecacihuatl in a new form. Mictecacihuatl is the Aztec Queen of the underworld and is said to watch over the bones of the dead. In her modern worship, if she is in fact the famed Santa Muerte, she is often beseeched almost in the form of a bribe, receiving gifts and in turn offering her blessings. It is interesting, and important, to note here that while this might seem odd in an age that stresses a Christianized view of worship, that this follows the ancient Indo-European custom of a gift for a gift, albeit in a distinctly Aztec/Mexican fashion.

There are numerous forms of her magic, offering everything from keeping away the law, curing disease, and maintaining fidelity in marriage, especially in the case of a straying husband. She is said to love and accept everyone, counting as her followers mothers with sick children, illegal immigrants, transvestites, and drug traffickers. As a result, her offerings fall in a wide range of materials, from roses, water, and candles, to tequila, marijuana, and even cocaine. Herein begins the trouble.

According the the U.S. Army Intelligence website, the worship of La Santisima Muerte is "The Death Cult of the Drug Lords." The term cult is an interesting one in American culture, and the site attempts to explain,

"The term’s use does not entail the pejorative meaning of a strictly controlled, fringe religious group, led by a charismatic leader. Although the Santa Muerte cult certainly appears to be fringe, it does not appear to be a formal or controlled group, at least yet. Instead, the term cult really applies to the series of rituals and practices associated with religious worship, i.e. the physical as opposed to cognitive and/or mystical dimension of worship."
The term cult is a very loaded word, and the site does seem take into account the more anthropological definition of the term which is, "an organization for the conduct of ritual, magical, or other religious observances" according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. What they seem to fail at realizing is the nature of how indigenous divinities are worshipped. The worship that forms around them may one day become rather formal and doctrinally controlled, but initial worship is almost always extremely unorganized.

What does this mean? It means that many followers of La Santisima Muerte are drug traffickers, prostitutes, and criminals of many varieties. Many more of them however, are also everyday people who consider themselves good Catholics, and are on the fringe for one reason or another, economic or otherwise. They all have one thing in common that I think was so aptly put on one blog commenting on the subject, The Unapologetic Mexican,

"They ask the Santa Muerte for protection and for favours, at least in part, because they have no faith in the institutions around them."

In short, this is a spirit very commonly called upon in times of desperation, and when her favors are granted, the people are just as desperately devoted to the only person who seems to be listening. Many people might see this as a devaluing of the devotion that many show her, but indeed, I think it is the point of that devotion. After all, the Gods most commonly sought out are the ones whose influence can not only be told about, but felt.

And so now we reach the trouble. Because of the association with the saint and criminal activities, many of the small shrines set up to her have been destroyed along roadsides and in many Mexican cities and towns. The Wikipedia page on the saint reports that on March 24, 2009 alone, 30 srhines were destroyed in Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana. The Catholic Church of course does not recognize the saint and refers to her following as "devil worship." It is very easy to point out here that many Christians commit crimes and churches everywhere are not seized and bulldozed, but it is even more sad to realize that such a point must be made. A researcher from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, thinking along these lines, is quoted in the Wikipedia article,

"Destroying these chapels is not going to do anything to diminish crime... someone who's going to commit a crime could just as easily go to a Catholic church as a Santa Muerte shrine, or go nowhere at all."
Gladly, I can report that her followers have not taken this lying down. There have been impromptu parades and rallies in her honor, where effigies are carried up and down streets in busy neighborhoods and towns, and the people make offerings and sing her songs. As a spirit who accepts those who are unaccepted by others, I suppose she expects all this trouble.

Aside from all of the struggle faced by her worshippers, it does bring to mind some important questions for the modern American Pagan. Some of the shrines to Santa Muerte are reputed to be criminal hideouts. Indeed, she may be granting favors to help people commit crimes of various sorts. Are we to then discard the worship of the spirit in favor of someone more virtuous? How can we honor Hermes, the God of messengers if he is also the God of thieves? At what point does the balance come between a deity or spirit who accepts everyone and who helps everyone? And finally, can we bring ourselves to stand at an altar with a criminal, or are we too busy trying to forget our own crimes?

An article on La Santisima Muerte from a local news source in the Rio Grande Valley can be found here.
An article from the same news source where a devotee is defending her faith can be found here.
U.S. Army Intelligence: The Death Cult of the Drug Lords Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed
The Wikipedia article on La Santa Muerte can be found here.
The Wikipedia article on Mictecacihuatl can be found here.
A page from The Lucky W Amulet Archive on magic with Santisima Muerte can be found here.
The commentary on the phenomenon of La Santisima Muerte from The Unapologetic Mexican can be found here.
The picture featured above can be found in a Mexican newspaper's article.

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I came to read what you had to say after your comment at Wildhunt. Thanks for this. I have not read all your references, but I will. I just wanted to let you know, since commenting over there is so full of emotional stuff and not much thinking. I used to say scratch a liberal christian and get a fundy christian, but it seems that happens with pagans too. Your blog looks interesting. I will read further. Blessings.