The New Orleans Chapel of the Santisima Muerte

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Who Is La Santisima Muerte?

La Santisima Muerte: A Practitioner’s Overview

By Steven Bragg

La Flaka (the Skinny Lady), La Huesuda (the Boney Lady), La Niña (the Girl), La Madrina (the Godmother), Santa Muerte (“Saint? Death)...these are all names given to a very powerful and popular folk saint from Mexico, La Santisima Muerte (the Most Holy Death). Santisima Muerte is a very complex figure, having taken on Her most recent manifestation through the same Catholic land that provided the world with what is believed to be the mos twidely-venerated face of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Although She is denounced by the Mexican Catholic priests and bishops as a figure of Satanic worship, Santisima Muerte’s popularity over the last decade has exploded. From an estimated 500,000 devotees a roughly ten years ago to possibly over 12 million today, it seems that Lady Death is wasting no time in making known Her presence and power among the living. Her devotion has now bled across Mexico’s borders into many other Latin American countries, as well as into the U.S. Many chapels and a few churches have been established in several places where Mexican immigrants have settled, but these visible establishments are in no way indicative of the number of private altars and shrines most keep in their homes, secretly in many cases.

So, what lies behind this exponential growth of an enigmatic, borderline occult figure, bearing the stark image of the European Grim Reaper, complete with skeleton, cloak, and scythe? What is the appeal of a constant reminder of our own mortality and inevitable death? Despite being labeled a “Narco Saint,? whose tattoos give law enforcement officers reason to detain and discriminate, Santisima Muerte refuses to allow any establishment, including the Catholic Church, to slow the growth of Her devotion or sway the minds of those for whom She has performed miracles. In this article, I’d like to share my own personal beliefs about Santisima Muerte, stemming from the teaching I received from a person who lived in Mexico and studied under an hechicero (sorcerer), as well as my own experiences with La Milagrosa (the Miraculous One). My hope is to provide those interested with a bit of information about Santisima Muerte and to help dispel much of the misinformation, causing La Santisima to be feared and demonized by Her many detractors.

For those seeking more information in the form of books and media, I recommend the following: La Santisima Muerte – A Mexican Folk Saint, by E. Bryant Holman; Devoted to Death – Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, by Prof. R. Andrew Chestnut; and the 2008 DVD documentary, La Santa Muerte – Saint Death, directed by Eva Aridjis (with English subtitles).

In the Beginning, God Created...

Exactly from where the current figure of La Santisima Muerte originated is very hard to say. There are theories that She is the revival of the pre-Hispanic Mexican goddess of death, Mitchecacihuatl, that She may be a re-invention of the female Grim Reaper from Spain, La Parca, that She was once a Mexican Catholic nun, and that She came from Italy with roots going all the way back to the Fates of ancient Greece. Regardless of all this, Santisima Muerte now presents Herself as the embodiment of Death itself, with power over life unrivaled by any other saint, spirit, or deity. However, there is one catch. She chose to manifest through a Catholic culture, and Catholic is how She sees Herself. The Catholic/Christian creation story has been tweaked to include Her, for as Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden ofEden, Death entered the world as an active force. Santisima is also given credit for being the Angel of Death who reaped the first-born sons of Egypt in the Book of Exodus. However, Her most proud moment was when God ordered Santisima to reap His only Son, Jesus, and therefore Good Friday is Her most holy feast day, a close second being the Halloween/All Saints Day/All Souls Day celebrations.

La Muerte has usurped the position of a few traditiona lCatholic figures, such as St. Michael the Archangel in standing and power. She is considered to be “second in command? after God, for whatever God creates, Santisima takes away. However, She hasn’t given the pink slip to the well-known warrior saint like She has to a few others, such as St. Jude. Although Santisima requires Her own space, She does allow two figures of Catholic Mexico to remain close to Her. St. Michael guards and protects Her altars, statues, and devotees from dark forces, while Guadalupe is said to be Her sister or Her “light half.?

Although Death is present the world over, and many religions and spiritual traditions have their own images and names for it, when calling upon Death as La Santisima Muerte, it is through the Catholic prayers, always asking God’s permission to invoke Her, that She works the best and responds to prayers. Removing her from this paradigm is something I strongly advise against. For those who are uncomfortable with the Catholic aspects, think of it as being respectful to a very powerful force. You don’t have to be Catholic yourself to pray to or work with Her, although the vast majority of Her devotees in Mexico consider themselves Catholics. I also advise against placing Santisima into the hierarchy of other spiritual systems, such as Neo-Pagan traditions and the Afro-Caribbean traditions, i.e. Santeria, Vodou, and Palo. She is a very proud spiritual being who enjoys Her own services and altar spaces, and no matter how much a person believes he or she knows about different spiritual systems and how they work, Santisima will always know more.

...A Holy Trinity...

Although I recognize that there are other ways of working with Santisima Muerte and see where many others in Mexico have her wearing different colored robes, the way She came to me, and the way in which I was taught, was through a tri-colored system. For me, Santisima wears only three robes: white, red, and black. When She wears the white robe, She is La Blanca (the White). She is called La Roja (the Red) while wearing her crimson cloak, and She is La Negra (the Black) when She wraps around Her the shadows of the night. Each cloak alters Her personality, and therefore, She is approached differently according to the color of Her robe. However, like Her masculine counterpart, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Santisima is three persons in one, a feminine Holy Trinity.

La Blanca is the eldest and purest of the three. She sits at the right hand of God, and She is the one most devotees begin with. Peace, healing, cleansing and purifying are all within Her domain. Her highest blessing is the death of old age and a content heart. Her purity is such that it must be protected by covering Her statue when one has any major dealings with La Negra.

La Roja is the robe associated with worldly matters. Money, love, sex, the courts, business, and justice all fall within Her domain. She is a most accomplished love sorceress, and is famous for bringing back wandering lovers and husbands, especially when there are children involved. However, She is equally skilled at manipulating court systems in favor of Her devotees. The type of death La Roja is associated with tends to involve a bodily fluid the same color as Her robe.

La Negra, though, is the hottest and most dangerous robe of La Santisima. She can protect against the darkest forces, spirits, and witchcraft; even the demons of Hell fear Her. But just as She can protect against them, She can also send them. This is where we are reminded that Death stands outside of our human systems of ethics and morality. Although it’s believed that Santisima only reaps at the order of God, I sometimes wonder if La Negra may sometimes use Her powers of persuasion to gain the consent of the Divine Almighty, or simply take matters into her own hands, in certain cases involving the wishes of Her most devout devotees. Diseases are considered to be among La Negra’s children, and these are the majority of the deaths given over to Her.

It is within this complete system of La Blanca, La Roja, and La Negra that a spiritual worker dedicated to Santisima Muerte can petition La Muerte for any problem a person may have. The media-driven reputation She has for only being honored by drug dealers and criminals is but a fraction of the services She has to offer. The majority of Her devotees  who know the three-colored path focus mainly on La Blanca and La Roja, leaving La Negra to the more experienced spiritual workers.

...To Help the People.

There are essentially two levels of dealing with La Huesuda. The first and most general is that of the devotee. Santisima will receive offerings and prayers from anyone. Using Her own system of justice, She will weigh each prayer in Her scales and decide for Herself if She will grant the request. For most people She will perform miracles from time to time, however She does expect life-long devotion after that. But Death gets everyone in the end, either way it goes, and it’s because of this that She does not discriminate and accepts everyone. Whereas the Catholic Church will turn its back on homosexuals, criminals, those on the fringes of society, La Madrina welcomes them all with open arms.

The other level is that of spiritual worker. In Mexico, there are three general areas of spiritual workers, but the lines between these blur quite a bit, so it’s difficult to categorize every individual and his or her practices. Curanderos (male) and curanderas (female) tend to focus on healing and doing what would be considered “right hand? spiritual work. Hechiceros(as) tend to draw more from Native practices and can, as they say, work with both hands. Brujos(as) are generally thought to be more adept with darker workings, those of the so-called left hand path. Any of these can and do incorporate Santisima Muerte into their workings, as She is thought to have knowledge of all magical and spiritual systems, though She tends to think more highly of some than of others.

Presently, there are many from outside of Mexico and its traditional systems who Santisima is calling upon to work with her. And rest assured, Santisima chooses the worker, not the other way around. A person can receive all the training associated with Her, but if She rejects the person there is nothing to be done about it. Among those She does choose I’ve noticed several similarities, such as an intimate knowledge of how to work with the dead and the dangers associated with venturing into her home, the cemetery. She very much loves and protects those within her home, and She appreciates it when Her workers honor their own ancestors. There also tends to be a working knowledge of a system similar to Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices, the hoodoo of the Southern U.S., and traditional folk magic in general. Also, She tends to work better and faster for those who treat Her like a Catholic saint and observe certain guidelines.

In the End, La Muerte

Far from being the Satanic symbol of cartels and criminal activity, Santisima Muerte came into my life with a force so powerful and beautiful that it completely redefined my previous spiritual beliefs. Being touched by this Heavenly Power brings with it a new understanding of Death, its place within the cycle of Life, and renews the appreciation I have for each day I’m given. She is a mother, a sister, a protector, a healer, and so much more. Her devotion continues to grow every day, as She turns no one away.

She’s done so much for me in my life that, like many others, I’ve built a public shrine to Her outside my home where anyone can come to pray to Her and leave offerings. Those people She’s brought to me to learn about Her gather twice a month to recite the Chaplet, pray to Her, and give Her offerings in my private indoor chapel.

Death, as La Santisima Muerte, is rising to a much higher place than it’s been in recent history. Why this is happening remains to beseen. Perhaps this is due to the current state of our Western societies. Perhaps it’s due to some larger phase in human existence for which we are on the threshold. Most likely, those of us alive today may not know until we are finally embraced by Her boney arms and given Her eternal kiss.

One of the oldest images for La Santa Muerte dating back to the 1940s.