The New Orleans Chapel of the Santisima Muerte

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Origin of the Three Robes

Origin of the Three Robes, La Santisima Muerte the Holy Trinity

by Steven Bragg

I've gone back and forth over the last couple of years on whether or not to share the origin story I received of the three robes, white, red, and black, of La Santisima Muerte. I've seen versions of it here and there, some that seem to be from reputable sources, and others that are obviously made up by those who never received any direct teachings. I've decided to share what I was taught in an effort help others understand a little more about the three-robed systems that developed in parts of Mexico before the multi-colored systems became popular. As a reminder, these are teachings I received from Nick Arnoldi, who received them from Don Gilberto, south of Tijuana, Mexico, in 2001. Interestingly enough, also in 2001, Bryant Holman interviewed a curandera named Manuela Porres, who lived in a north-central border town and spoke of a three-robed system very similar to the one Nick received. Holman recorded this in his book, The Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint.

La Santisima Muerte manifested within a very Catholic culture. Of course, her roots go back to pre-colonial Mesoamerica and to Europe; however, after four centuries of being served and worked with by increasingly Catholic devotees, those roots have merged and taken on a new persona, the folk saint we see today. As it happens with many pre-Christian and unorthodox spiritual beliefs and practices, her devotion became integrated into the dominant religion and she gained her own origin story based within the scriptures of the Catholic Church. There are variations, of course, because her devotion evolved underground, so there are regional differences, however, the following is the story I received.

“When God created the world, the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve, Death was not an active part of this world. She stood outside the world, looking in, and she wore no robe. But when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the Garden, Death descended to enter the world and became an active force within God’s creation. As she descended from the heavens she entered wearing the white robe. When Adam caused the death of Eve’s virginity, the blood that came forth stained Death’s robe red. And when Cain slew Abel in the first act of murder, Death’s robe turned black as Abel’s blood soaked into the ground and darkened.”

From this we get that as La Blanca, the white, is a heavenly force concerned with the natural order of the world, post-Garden of Eden that is the way the world is now. La Roja, the red, is an earthly force concerned with the worldly affairs of humans. La Negra, the black, is a chthonic force concerned with acts of an infernal nature. And so it’s from this that we have the roles each of the robes of La Santisima Muerte play, and how a spiritual worker can decide which robe to pray to for different situations. La Blanca is for restoring the natural order, which includes healing, cleansing, peace, and living a long life. La Roja is for love, money, jobs, court, and all things that we deal with within the world as human beings. La Negra, while a source for the strongest protection, is for things that alter the natural flow of things based on human desire or need, the forces of witchcraft and sorcery, as well as those things that do not fall within society’s accepted rules and ethics. La Negra’s ability to alter the natural flow is one of the main reasons La Blanca must be covered with a white cloth when a person works with La Negra, in an effort not to offend La Blanca, to “protect her purity.”

La Santisima Muerte, within this particular system, is herself a Holy Trinity, which of course speaks directly to the minds and hearts of Catholics with the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each robe has a personality of its own, but they are all three still the Most Holy Death. Three persons in one.