Our European ancestors brought the Grim Reaper to the New World a few centuries ago, and now devotees of Saint Death in the Americas have returned the favor by exporting Santa Muerte back across the Atlantic. Over the past five years I’ve observed a number of surprising new trends in the astronomical growth of the cult of the skeleton saint. And none of them is more intriguing than the rapid spread of devotion to Saint Death to Europe and beyond. My interview with the first European devotee I’ve come across reveals some of the main reasons for Bony Lady’s universal appeal.
In addition to the field work of visiting shrines and conducting face to face interviews in Latin America and the U.S., I have found social media to be an invaluable research tool for studying devotion to Santa Muerte. So in the spirit of the times, I met Michael Caleigh in a Santa Muerte Facebook group that comprises mostly Euro-American and European devotees. Born and raised in Dusseldorf, forty-something Michael left Germany for good at age 18 and has lived in Spain, the US, and for the past few years has made his home in the English coastal city of Brighton.
Note: The slideshow above features a series of images from Michael’s Santa Muerte altars.
Andrew: Michael, were you raised in any particular religious tradition in Germany?
Michael: I was baptized as a Catholic but really never went to church and felt uncomfortable with institutional religion, but as a teenager I had a morbid fascination for the occult, like witchcraft and those things.
Andrew: Did you join an occult group?
Michael: No, I was basically dabbling in different things on my own
Andrew: So how did you become a Santa Muerte devotee?
Michael: At age 18 I moved to the UK, and a few years ago I got involved in the secret society of the Ordo Templi Orientis, but quickly became disenchanted with them. Around that time I met an owner of a botanica in Glastonbury who invited me to a conference on Mexican Day of the Dead traditions, which I found fascinating. Shortly after the conference a British friend of mine bought three Santa Muerte statues and set up an altar in his home. I was intrigued by the Mexican death figures so went online and found out everything I could about her.
Andrew: What year was this?
Michael: 2011, I’m fluent in Spanish so I was able to access news reports and blogs from Mexico also.
Andrew: So where did your research take you?
Michael: In an unexpected direction! I came across Jesus Malverde (another popular Mexican folk saint) and liked his Robin Hood aspect, plus I haven’t always been a good boy, know what I mean? So I thought, that’s the way I want to work and decided to set up a shrine to him at home.
Andrew: Tell me more about the Robin Hood aspect.
Michael: Yeah, according to legend, Malverde stole from the rich in Mexico and then gave the booty to poor campesinos. That inspired me to do my own charity work so I used to give free haircuts to AIDs patients at a local hospice center. But even though I had set up the shrine to Malverde last year, I always had Santa Muerte in my head. So one day I told my husband that I wanted a statue of her, but a British friend warned me not to, saying “she’s dangerous, she could kill you.” Then I was really surprised last Christmas when my husband gave me a big Santa Muerte statue he had bought in the U.S.. Considering he’s an atheist, it was a really special present.
Andrew: Is your husband British?
Michael: No, he’s Spanish, an immigrant here in the UK, like me. So at first I wasn’t sure what to do with her (the statue) because I didn’t know if I was committed enough to work with her. I talked it over with Rafa (my husband) and decided to plunge in. I knew that she needed a room of her own so I put Malverde in another room and set up her shrine in the living room. She told me she wanted a cigar, so I went out and got her one, and that way my first offering to her. Since then her shrine keeps growing and now we’re looking for another larger apartment so she can have more space.
Andrew: Who or what is Santa Muerte?
Michael: Death is not just the end and never was a human being, unlike the lwas (Vodou spirits). She takes orders from God and comes for souls when they’re ready to be collected, when she thinks the time is right.
Andrew: So do you see Santa Muerte in a Christian light?
Michael: I wouldn’t put her in Catholic environment, but I do believe in God, only one God, and see her fitting in with Christian cosmology.
Andrew: Any particular favors you’ve asked her for?
Michael: I tend to give thanks to her for things more than ask for stuff, but yes, I did ask her to heal my mother-in-law back in Spain. I promised Santa Muerte that I’d give her a bigger room in a new apartment if she facilitated successful eye surgery for her. She’s recovering nicely now so I intend to keep my promise to her (Santa Muerte).
Andrew: Do you view Santa Muerte as Mexican?
Michael: Very Mexican! In fact I speak to her only in Spanish and call her madrina or godmother.
Andrew: Can you describe your shrine?
Michael: The stature Rafa gave me usually has roses, carnations, apples, tequila, water, candles that I make myself, Spanish sweets like, polverones and turron, and Mexican tortillas. She really likes copal and frankincense so I burn that for her everyday.
Andrew: You’re able to find tortillas in Brighton?
Michael: Yeah, not like in the U.S., but yes there’s a shop in town that has them.
Andrew: You know that Santa Muerte has a strong following among those who identify as LGBT. Is this the case for you, as a gay man?
Michael: No, my devotion to la madrina has nothing to do with my sexual orientation!
Andrew: Do you think devotion to the Bony Lady has much of a future in the UK and Europe?
Michael: Perhaps, but the strong presence of Wiccan circles and a lack of printed literature on her could be an obstacle.
For more on Michael go to http://seasideconjure.weebly.com/
R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., holds the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is currently conducting research on the new religious economy of Latin America and the cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death).
A specialist in Latin American religion, he is the author of “Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy” (Oxford University Press, 2003), “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” (Oxford University Press, December 2012), and of “Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty” (Rutgers University Press, 1997).. He also blogs for the Huffington Post.