by Mariposa Yetzirah and Kate Kingsbury
Santa Muerte tattoos are one of the most intimate forms of offering to la Santísima Muerte, they are Death in the flesh. For devotees, as Mariposa describes in the following article, they are deeply spiritual, and among other things, they proffer protection from danger, create a deeper psychic bond with Santa Muerte and serve to identify the body as a temple honouring the skeleton saint. Tattoos are for life, and Santa Muerte is in the skin of devoted until they are six feet under, in their grave, united once and for all with Death herself.
The following article is an amended transcript of an interview by Doctor of anthropology Kate Kingsbury with Mexican-American, Chichimeca & Karankawa, Santa Muerte devotee Mariposa Yetzirah, who is co-owner of Absolem’s Midtown Mojo Manufacturers located in Houston. The shop has a public altar to Santa Muerte where devotees come to pray in ever increasing number, and sells Santa Muerte statues and other magical items (see below).
In the following interview, Mariposa describes her 3 tattoos, one features Santa Muerte with butterfly wings. Butterflies have long been associated with Death. Even on Day of the Dead in Oaxaca when I pointed out a butterfly fluttering around a statue of Santa Muerte in the Chapel of Life and Death to a local friend, they were not shocked, simply stating: “oh that is normal at this time of year, it is probably the spirit of a difunto (dead person)”. In many parts of pre-Hispanic Mexico, among the Aztec, Purepecha and other Indigenous people butterflies have long been associated with the souls of the dead. For the Aztec, the spirits of dead warriors became butterflies that would suck the nectar of flowers. The insects remain a powerful cultural symbol of the connections between the living and the dead.
Mariposa’s second tattoo is linked to her mushroom-moon-magic Santa Muerte ceremonies which she holds in honour of her Indigenous roots. As described in the book Secrets of Santa Muerte, which Mariposa sells in her store, Indigenous peoples in Mexico have long worked with hallucinogens to channel and communicate with the divine and some connect with Santa Muerte through entheogens. Psilocybin mushrooms and sage of the diviner have long been the tools of the Mazatec and Zapotec shamans of Oaxaca for healing, cleansing, and divining for thousands of years.
“I have been a devotee for seven years. When I was 15 I had a baby, but my child passed away when he was only one year old. That was the first time I encountered death like that, so close to my heart. When my little baby died I went to stay with my brother. He had prayed to Santa Muerte for many years, but I had never paid it any mind. When I moved in with him I noticed the many beautiful statues he had of her. But still I did not pray to yet, I just paid my respects to her.
When I left my brother’s house, he gave me a gift, a Santa Muerte keychain which he told me to keep about my person all the time. But while I know now he gave her to me for protection, I still did not pray to her or engage with her in any way. Perhaps I had her with me in the back of my mind because fast forward to when I turned 18, I found myself in a very troubling incident with an ex-boyfriend. I no longer wanted to be with this man but when I tried to explain that it was over, he kidnapped my son and I. He pointed a gun at us and I was very afraid that we might die, and I suddenly remembered the keychain I had. I grabbed it and began praying to Santa Muerte. I remember telling her if she got me out of this situation, I would give my life to her and pray to her from that day on. The very next day the cops came to the house where my ex was holding us hostage and my son and I were freed from the frightening situation. Ever since then, I have prayed to Santa Muerte.
After that, I went to Mexico to visit my dad’s family in Guanajuato. One day, I went to a botanica and a beautiful seven-colored statue of la Santa Muerte called to me. I knew I had to buy her. That is when I set up my first altar and began praying to her with even more devotion. I didn’t know why I had chosen that statue, and there were so many other statues to choose from. Later I learnt that seven-coloured Santa Muerte is called la Siete Potencias and offers help in all aspects of life -love, money, justice, health, magic, peaceful home, business etc. She could not be more perfect, as I truly needed help in all areas of my life at that time. While I give her the usual offerings of flowers, water, apples and alcoholic libations, my favourite offering for her is my blood. I prick my fingers every month with a lancet and I feed it to her feet and her mouth. But sometimes, when I am really grateful and really want to show her my love, I get her tattooed on my skin.
I have fourteen tattoos and three of them I dedicated to la Santa Muerte. The first one I got was Santa Muerte with butterfly wings to symbolise my connection to her because they call me Mariposa (which means butterfly). I got that one during a time when mentally I was going through a lot. I never go to her when I need help with mental problems as I feel that I have to help myself not ask her. However, when I got that tattoo I asked her to guide me to ways that I could help myself and she did. After I got her tattooed in my skin my connection to her became deeper, I could hear her more clearly, feel when something was not right or when I was not supposed to do something or it would make me feel bad.
The second tattoo is a crescent moon with three skulls, those three skulls represent my children both living and dead. The moon represents both life and death for me. During my ceremonies for Santa Muerte, I go to the moon a lot, as you have described people in Oaxaca do when working with la Santa. We pray to the moon and I always feel her presence very strongly. Usually I build a fire, I bring my statues of Santa Muerte outside, I give her offerings of cigars and liquor then we dance, we pray, and we take mushrooms.
When I got the Santa Muerte moon tattoo I wrote this:
“I promised you skulls all over my body for you my dear Death. For you have been the force from which I pulled strength to keep living. Nine years ago death hit really close to my heart. Part of me died when I lost my baby. Pain. Pain inflicted in my flesh. This tattoo is a reminder of how painful yet beautiful this journey has been. Santisima Muerte, Queen of my Heart, I thank you for all you do. My body is the temple from which I chose to honor you.”
The third tattoo I recently got is a skull with a blade. I got that tattoo for protection from enemies and bad energy of all kinds, whether it is in the form of envy, or anything else. People can send you hate and bring bad vibes to you. The tattoo also protects me in our shop, which has been open since 2011.
While my husband’s shop initially focused on Vodou and Hoodoo as those are his beliefs, it was always open to all and shortly before we met he began selling Santa Muerte merchandise as people were always asking for it. Ever since he began selling Santa Muerte statues and other items, people started coming in to ask advice on how to work with her. After we met, I became involved in the shop and now many people come to me to ask questions about Holy Death.
I even started a public altar to Santa Muerte in the shop (see photo below), as there are many people who want to pray to her but do not have access to an altar. For example, they might live with a very Catholic family who do not accept Santa Muerte their house. Everyone is welcome to come and pray at our altar. Especially since I got her tattooed on my body, she has sent me devotees that need my help. Before I needed to sit a long time with people to help them but now I hear her messages much more clearly. Since I got my tattoos, Santa Muerte speaks to me more than ever in dreams, visions and she often gives me warnings about dangers to me to keep me safe. Santa Muerte is not evil, do not let people discourage you in your devotion to her nor bring judgment on your practices, Death walks with us always and now forever I have her in my skin.”
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SENORA DE LAS SOMBRAS…..FOREVER AND ALWAYS….MOMENTO MORI