La Casa de la Santa Muerte in the tiny town of Santa Ana Chapitiro, just a 15-minute drive from Day of the Dead Mecca, Patzcuaro, is one of the most unique shrines to the Bony Lady in Mexico. I first visited it in the summer of 2009 when I was just starting my decade-long research on what is now the fastest growing new religious movement not only in Mexico but also throughout the Americas. Having visited score of shrines in Mexico and the U.S. since my initial appearance at Casa de la Santa Muerte, I am still struck by its uniqueness.
Hundreds of singular images, many of them handcrafted, of the skeleton saint make for a shrine that has been personalized like no other. In fact, the signature likeness, which graces the cover of the new edition of my book, “Devoted to Death,” is a rather androgynous depiction of the death saint, who in Mexico is almost universally represented as female.
What’s most unique here, however, is the representation of Santa Muerte as Purepecha. Headquartered in the nearby town of Tzintzuntzan, the Purepecha (aka Tarascans) were an impressive MesoAmerican civilization that ruled the present day state of Michoacan and part of Jalisco. Most Michoacanos are very proud of their Purepecha heritage, readily pointing out that the neighboring mighty Aztec empire was never able to subdue them.
One of the major new trends in Santa Muerte devotion among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is to view the Lady of the Shadows (Dama de las Sombras, one of her myriad monikers) as the most recent manifestation of Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, who reigns over the underworld, Mictlan, with her husband, Mictlantecutli. Mexican nationalism tends to exalt the Aztec and Mayan past while rejecting Spanish colonialism, so the skeleton saint is more appealing as Mictecacihuatl than as La Parca, the Spanish Grim Reapress, regardless of historical evidence or lack thereof.
So while the Skinny Lady (la Flaquita, another popular nickname) is also depicted as the Aztec death goddess at La Casa de la Santa Muerte (as evidenced in several photos below), she’s most impressive as an amalgam of two Purepecha goddesses. Xaratanga, associated with the moon, watches over humans and animals and is propitiated for matters of love, sex, and pulque (the fermented alcoholic drink made from the heart of the Maguey plant). So important is Santa Muerte’s role as Love Doctor that I devote an entire chapter to it in my book. While pulque offerings are rare today, its distilled relatives, tequila and mescal, figure among the death saint’s most popular tipples. Like Hindu goddess Kali, the Purepecha deity Cuerauaperi presides over both birth and death, the latter especially in relation to violence.
Below are my most recent photographs, shot at La Casa de la Santa Muerte with a smart phone in late December, 2017.