Looking for a Patron Saint? You shouldn’t have much trouble finding one. The 1956 edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints contains 2,565 named saints. You can ﬁnd a patron saint for button makers, dairymaids, and pastry chefs; for gravediggers, grocers, and grandfathers; for fugitives, jugglers, and truck drivers – not to mention hundreds of other speciﬁc purposes. So it is passing strange that in Mexico, the world’s second-biggest Catholic country, the favorite saint for more than a few people is a ﬁgure known as La Santa Muerte or Saint Death.
We hasten to add that Saint Death is not one of your canonized saints. You won’t find this particular saint in Butler’s or on any official list. The Catholic Church not only doesn’t acknowledge his (or her, or its) existence but is downright opposed to the worship of this character. Indeed, Catholic Church officials consider Saint Death “an evil figure, a grisly embodiment of satanic purposes-”
About that gender problem? It’s all part of La Santa Muerte’s mystique. People personify the saint as either he or she without any apparent rationale except their own perception. Saint Death is sometimes shown as a man dressed as the Grim Reaper and sometimes as a woman in a long white satin gown and wearing a golden crown.
THE BROTHERS GRIM
ln a shop in Ojinaga, in Chihuahua, Mexico, figures of Saint Death come in three colors – white, black, and red – and which one you buy depends on what you’re praying for. The figures look exactly alike, except for their color. The statues are of a robed Grim Reaper on a pedestal, with a skull for a head, holding a set of balance scales. Sometimes, instead of scales, the statue may carry the more familiar scythe. You’d buy the white one if you’re looking for a cure or for luck. The black one is for protection and vengeance. The red one is for love spells.
The church’s disapproving attitude doesn’t seem to register on Saint Death’s petitioners. The saint is worshiped by thugs, criminals, and drug dealers, but also by everyday folk who invoke the saint for protection and for the recovery of health, stolen items, or even kidnapped family members.
Santa Muerte seems to appeal especially to the poor and downtrodden, perhaps because this saint is so tolerant. “When you go to church you get told off,” one man said as he stood before a shrine to Santa Muerte. “But she does not discriminate. Here nobody cares who you are or what you do.” At the shrine, offerings to Saint Death include roses, tequila, chocolates, colored candles, and cigarettes.
Some view Santa Muerte as a figure of black magic, yet others consider him/her as a Catholic saint worthy of worship. “In some parts of Mexico,” writes author Amy Welborn, who’s written several books on religion and Catholic saints, “she is becoming a rival in popular affection to the Virgin of Guadeloupe, the manifestation of the Virgin Mary that is the reigning symbol of Mexican national identity.”
DEAD FROM THE START
Where did Saint Death come from? Anthropologists date the origin of the cult to the Spanish conquest that brought Christianity into contact with Aztecs who worshipped death figures such as Mictlantecutli. In pre-Columbian times deities like Coatlicue and Xipe Totec were often portrayed in skeletal form. Others say that Saint Death’s origins are a mix of Roman Catholicism, voodoo, and Santeria, a religion in which African deities are identified with Catholic saints. It all seems to fit comfortably with the tradition of Mexico’s popular Day of the Dead holiday, in which people picnic on tombs, eat candy skulls and coffins, and decorate their homes with paper streamers depicting skeletons – embracing death as a part of life.