Have you heard of Santa Muerte?
Read about who Santa Muerte is below, about her devotees, their traditions, stories and beliefs through the articles on this website, thanks to the fieldwork, research and writing of Oxford University trained anthropologist of religion Dr. Kate Kingsbury, Adjunct Professor at University of Alberta, the research and writing of historian Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, in collaboration with David Metcalfe, as we present a multi-faceted exploration of the sanctification of death in the popular faith traditions of the Americas.
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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 memento mori. 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).
Dr. Kate Kingsbury obtained her doctorate in Anthropology from Oxford University, where she also acquired my MPhil. She is the world’s leading expert on female followers of Santa Muerte and has made it her life’s goal to record their stories. Her main fieldwork took place in a Mexican village in Oaxaca where she spent all her days with a sabia, a wise woman who owns a large shrine, and the sabia’s family and curandero (shaman) friends, but she is also connected with Santa Muerte curanderas (shamans), brujas (witches) and devotees across Mexico. She has authored innumerable articles, both academic and non-academic on Santa Muerte and is frequently in the news, speaking in English and French, on the radio and podcasts where she is interviewed on Santa Muerte. Dr. Kingsbury is Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. She is also a pro bono board member of Uganda 4 Her uganda4her.org is a non profit organisation that aims to empower and educate girls in Africa. She is currently working on a book to be published by Oxford University Press on the Female Followers of Santa Muerte, help fund it here.
David Metcalfe is a researcher, writer and multimedia specialist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for a number of popular web magazines dealing with alternative culture.
WHO IS SANTA MUERTE?
By Dr. Kate Kingsbury and Dr. Andrew Chesnut
Santa Muerte, Saint Death and Holy Death in English, is now the fastest growing new religious movement in the West. There are no surveys of the number of devotees, but with 15 years of combined research experience, we estimate some 12 million followers, with 70% in Mexico, 15% in the U.S., 10% in Central America, and the remaining 5% mostly in South America. There are also small groups of devotees surfacing in Europe and other parts of the globe. Devotion to the skeleton saint only went public in 2001, so the great majority of adherents have become devoted to death only in the past decade and a half. In the U.S., devotees are concentrated in Texas, California and the Southwest, so it’s no coincidence that the first American bishops to condemn the Bony Lady (one of her common monikers) are from this region.
Saint Death is a skeletal folk saint whose cult has proliferated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border over the past decade and a half. She’s a female figure folk saint of death, that is to say a saint not recognised by the Catholic Church. She has rapidly become one of the most popular and powerful folk saints on both the Mexican and American religious landscapes. Although condemned as demonic by both Catholic and Protestant churches, she appeals to millions in the Americas and beyond on the basis of her reputedly awesome supernatural powers. Devotees believe the Bony Lady (la Huesuda as she is called in Spanish) to be the fastest and most efficacious miracle worker, and, as such, sales of her statuettes and votive candles now rival those of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the patron of lost causes, Saint Jude, the two other giants of the Mexican religious landscape. Santa Muerte brings miracles, it is said by devotees, of love, health, wealth, justice, and much more. Devotees work not only with prayer but with magic in their veneration of the Santa Muerte. Candles and statues are vital to working with her and as we will see these need to be the right colour for the specific needs of the devotee, or the many brujas (witches) and curanderos (shamans) that work with her and who Dr. Kate Kingsbury has worked with extensively to record traditions and practices.
Color symbology and iconography are central to devotion. Santa Muerte is usually depicted with a scythe, a globe, sometimes the scales of justice and invariably an owl. The scythe is an iconographic vestige of her partly European heritage. It harkens to the Grim Reapress (la Parca), a medieval figure of death which the Spanish missionaries brought with them as part of their attempt to convert the Indigenous of Mexico to Christianity. It is the syncretism of the Spanish Grim Reapress with Indigenous beliefs in death deities, such as the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, that gave birth to the Santa Muerte as we know her today.
The globe symbolizes Santa Muerte’s deathly dominion over the entire world and all those who inhabit it, for only she has the power to reap death. The scales of justice represent her ability to mete out justice for those who petition her to take their side in legal matters, disputes or any other similar concerns. Justice in this sense is a matter of perspective, typically associated with the devotee’s interpretation, and does not consist of a strict moral compass of right and wrong.The folk saint is essentially amoral, since it is believed if sufficiently supplicated she may take one’s side, even if one is requesting protection from the law or for her to use her scythe to wipe out one’s enemies in one fell swoop. The owl in Indigenous Mexican mythology is associated with death. Mexicans state that ‘when the owl screeches, the Indian dies’. As a syncretic symbol, the owl is also associated with knowledge, cognition and witchcraft in European folklore.
Color symbolism is also central to devotion and ritual. There are three main colors associated with Santa Muerte: red, white, and black. Interestingly, as an anthropologist, Dr. Kate Kingsbury notes that this color triad appears to be nearly universal across world religions for invoking the three main energies that humans seek to manipulate, white, red and black feature in Hinduism, ancient Egyptian spirituality and innumberable other devotions.
In Santa Muerte, the white statue or white votive candle in Santa Muerte devotion is used for blessing a venture, for cleansing, purification, and the removal of negative energy. Red, as has been already alluded to, is utilized for petitions related to love, passion, and lust. The black votive, or black statue, is infamous due to its nefarious associations.It is employed typically for black magic, vengeance, hexing and other such dark magical arts. For this reason it is rare to see it in a public shrine for most devotees seek to obfuscate their involvement in such activities. Nevertheless, la Niña Negra, as the folk saint is known in this form, may also be used for more benign activities such as reversing spellwork, all forms of protection and removing energetic blockages. But it’s the rainbow-colored Seven Powers candle that best captures her broad appeal as many are looking for miracles on several fronts and not just one.
Contact Dr. Kate Kingsbury for media inquiries at drkatekingsbury(at)gmail.com