Is La Santisima Muerte an Aztec Goddess?
By Steven Bragg
Many people claim that la Santisima Muerte is Aztec in origin, and they point to the Aztec goddess of death and the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. Although it can't be denied that Mictecacihuatl and la Santisima Muerte share a few similarities, being represented as a skeleton or with a skull for a head and being a deity associated with death and the realm of the dead, these seem to be more superficial than at first glance. Recent evidence has come forward to question the common belief that la Santisima Muerte is the re-emergence of an Aztec goddess with a thin veneer of Catholic trappings.
In Andrew Chesnut's book, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte the Skeleton Saint, in the chapter exploring Santa Muerte’s history, he introduces us to La Parca, the Grim Reapress of Spain who, along with her male counterpart, the traditional European, bubonic plague-inspired Grim Reaper, carries the souls of the dead on to their next destination. The Black Death swept through Europe in the 14th century, leaving in its wake new manifestations of Death within the European mindsets, which may have still been fresh when Spain began its conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519. Add to this that la Santa Muerte has been discovered in the Philippines, another area colonized by Spain, where effigies date back to at least to the 1850s, according to Chesnut’s June 8, 2014, entry to the blog skeletonsaint.com. He further says, “This discovery, coupled with the existence of skeleton saints Rey Pascual in Guatemala and Chiapas and San La Muerte in Argentina and Paraguay, reinforces the indisputably strong Spanish influence in the origins of Santa Muerte in Mexico.” So, it would seem that in many of the places Spain went and colonized, Catholic death saints and figures manifested within the indigenous and folk populations.
Briefly looking below the surface at the Aztec claims, we can see that the Aztec Empire lasted less than two centuries before Spain arrived, and it only ruled a relatively small, southern portion of what is now Mexico. The better part of Mexico has been predominantly Catholic for over four centuries. In addition, Mictecacihuatl was only one goddess of several deities of death and the underworld. It’s highly unlikely that one, singular goddess, who wasn’t even honored for that long or by that many people, managed to survive underground and dodge the Inquisition in such a small area, and then later re-emerge throughout all of Mexico and parts of Central America. It is, however, more likely that the spiritual remnants of the Native underworld deities managed to latch onto the much larger personification of death brought over by the Spanish and survive, at least in the minds of the mestizo population.
Speaking of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico, Chesnut shows us that in the Inquisitional records of the 1700s there is mention of localized devotion to “la Santa Muerte,” specifically. Not Mictecacihuatl or any other pre-colonial name, but the Spanish name Santa Muerte. Although that’s not definitive evidence, it does show that the religious and linguistic rule of the Spanish colonists had already heavily affected folk practices as early as the 1700s.
In his book, The Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint, Bryant Holman recounts an interview with an informant who relays the story from Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, of the Santa Muerte of that region that rode “a cart creaking and straining as it was pulled down a cobblestone street.” He points out the similarity to Don Sebastian of New Mexico who is a “skeleton driving an oxcart, which hauls the bodies of the dead away.” Death driving a cart is an old tradition throughout European lore, and the squeaky axle reminds me specifically of L’Ankou of Brittany, who also drive a squeaky-axled cart to collect the souls of the dead.
Although I certainly do not discount the possible effects the native, pre-colonial deities had on the development of la Santisima Muerte, as we see her today, it’s becoming more and more clear to me, at least, that la Madrina has more European roots than was previously believed. As a European descendant, this makes a great deal of sense as to why la Muerte would have come to me so strongly, not that one has to be of European descent, of course, but everyone who can trace their blood back to Western Europe also traces their spiritual ancestry back to the Catholic Church and the veneration of the Saints, who in my opinion are elevated ancestors. The Church has always had a concept of the Angel of Death, through the Bible, and Europe is filled with older images and personifications of Death. It makes perfect sense that these images and forces came together with the native peoples in the New World (and the Philippines, it seems) to give rise to la Santisima Muerte.
I realize that what I’ve mention here is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and I look forward to Professor Chesnut’s next book on la Santa Muerte, where he says he will go even deeper into her history and possible origins.