Regnum Mortis

10 11 2008

Part IV – A Literary Excursion

On my Death-centered excursion to the Mission District, one of the only souvenirs I picked up was a magazine devoted to the cult of Santa Muerte. As I described before, it is a glossy publication full of advertisments from mainstream sources. Sort of like Good Housekeeping or Sports Illustrated with skeletons. Lots of skeletons. Instead of recipes for a low-fat lasagna, it has lots of recipes for casting spells to get more money, to get a love-interest to take notice of you, or even to get your kid to do better in school. (I will have to wait for the special edition where they show you how to use the skeleton spirit to put curses on people. Maybe it’s like the SI Swimsuit Issue.) For those of you wanting to look up this publication in the Library of Congress, the magazine in question is produced in Mexico City and is called, Devoción a la Santa Muerte. The issue I will be talking about is number 93, which I picked because it has an article on the historical background on the cult.

So I got comfortable on my bed one Saturday morning, put on some Handel’s Carmelite Vespers, and began to lazily thumb through the magazine. (Beats watching Saturday cartoons, I guess.) The first article was how to make and consecrate your own “Santa Muerte de la Salud” : Saint Death of Health. This article was a mixture of New Age, serious philosophy, and just bizarre superstition. It talks about how to make the statue, what things need to be present at its consecration, and other details of the ceremony. Basically, it looks like the remains of a feminist wanna-be shaman professor who spontaneously combusted: lots of feathers, beads, quartz, etc, along with the familiar Grim Reaper imagery. There is one astounding paragraph that shows quite a bit of philosophical sophistication:

The shell is recognized as the earthly representation of the macrocosm, that is to say the universe in all its immensity, with its power to regenerate itself from nothingness. Also, the shell has great significance since its sound has the capacity to harmonize the world and serves as the call to attract the grace of the gods.

Okay, maybe it sounds cooler in Spanish.

The next section has to do with various instructions on rituals to perform to get what you want from Santa Muerte. There are about five of them in this issue, ranging from remedies for love problems to how to get more success in business. In case you are wondering, for most you do need at least an image of Santa Muerte, if not a candle. Many other things that you need are quite common and are available at your local Walmart: a honey comb, some beeswax candles, a black plastic bag. For others, such as Santa Muerte powder, “Money Come” perfume, or “Open the Way” sticks, you may have to make a shopping trip to your friendly neighborhood botanica. Most are quite simple and are just like baking a cake, and the spells are laid out in the same format as a recipe. So if you ever want to try your hand at it, you can always just learn Spanish and give it a shot.

The next section on people’s dreams involving la Niña blanca was boring, so I won’t comment.

The meat of the magazine is an historical essay on the origins of the cult. As in tracing the origins of an urban legend, what was written was not very specific, and to be honest, not very helpful. Concretely, it seems that the first real mentions of “la Flaquita” only emerged in the early 1960’s. This of course serves my pet thesis that it was a result of the secularization of culture that emerges after the Second Vatican Council. Of course, there were the now mandatory allusions that the cult is very ancient and dates to pre-Columbian times, but I have never been convinced that anything now in Mexican culture is a “pagan survival of the past”. Indeed, such ideas are often the result of “educated” prejudices against people in Latin America in which these peoples have never really been Christian. It is the same stuff that the “white man’s burden” stupidity is made of and completely false. There is no direct tie between the modern devotees of Santa Muerte and indigenous belief, as there is no real kinship between the ancient Druids and the ex-hippies who covort around Stonehenge dressed in fancy robes.

In case you want their definition of who Santa Muerte is, I offer the following extended quote:

From the point of view of her devotees, Holy Death or Most Holy Death is an uncanonized miraculous figure who receives petitions of love, luck and protection. They affirm that God sent her to help people and she does not make pacts with persons, but with a promise that they can keep. Similiar to that idea, she has the purpose of preparing us for the last moment of our earthly existence so that our conscience is at peace, and in that way we obtain a true communion with God.

Well, that is vague and can go so many ways, so the reader for now can draw his own conclusions.

The next section I would like to call, “Death brings people together”. The first part consists of happy drawings, apparently by children, of Santa Muerte in all sorts of poses. Aw, ain’t that cute! The next is a picture of someone’s home altar to the “saint”: again, not another saint, a crucifix, or even a Virgin of Guadalupe to be seen. Then, we have a whole article on the Santa Muerte celebration in a neighborhood in central Mexico. Once again, fun for the whole family! It had Aztec dancers, mariachis, and a beautiful altar set up to one Santa Muerte after another. (Like images of the Virgin Mary, there seem to be many “Santa Muertes” for various occasions and purposes, as seen above.) The next article is about a “rosary” offered to the Santa Muerte in one of Mexico City’s rougher neighborhoods. That is something I have never gotten clear: what does it mean to offer a “rosary” to Holy Death? Is it the same one I pray? I really don’t have an answer as of yet. Seems like Catholic forms stripped of their Catholic content.

What popular magazine would be complete without letters to the editor and a bit of Q and A? The letters often take the form of the old ex-votos thanking Santa Muerte for everything from finding work, to finding domestic tranquility, and even of being freed from alchoholism with the help of the skeletal spirit. The Q and A section was rather informative, as it seems that as with the case of any saint, Santa Muerte only works if you put your faith in her. One such question was from a reader who wanted a bigger statue of Santa Muerte and thus wanted to sell some smaller statues of her to be able to buy it. The response from the “expert” was rather harsh but expected:

Before anything , I have to say that what you are intending to do is disrespectful. I remind you that the size of the statues or altar is not important. What is important is the faith that you have in Holy Death, that her altar is always clean and full of offerings. That is more than enough.

Good to know. The facing page was an advertisment for a lucha libre magazine. Santa Muerte devotees like their sports too.

What I got out of this magazine is that what we have here is the left-over shell of folk Catholicism sprinkled heavily with New Age and Kardecist ideas ready for the consumption of the masses. Before, such tendencies had to negotiate the taboos of Catholic popular consciousness and could never be out in the open. Now with the Church being less enchanted with the enchanted world, the void that has been created has been filled with followers of Santa Muerte. By some estimates, there are about two million devotees of Santa Muerte in Mexico, more in the diaspora. Some still wear the mantle of being Catholic, others have cast it off altogether. The cult uses some of the forms of Catholicism, but very little of the content. I would put it more in the category of such syncretic faiths as Brazilian Umbanda: perhaps having some foreign elements, but still very much a faith of European origin peppered with images from Mexican popular consciousness.

I at least have one more installment to go, so stay tuned.



2 responses

11 11 2008

But is it really that easy to toss away the influence of the Enlightenment? Trying to import a pre-modern mindset would be pretty much impossible. Like it or not, we’re accustomed to being in a society where it is assumed that there are rationalistic answers to most problems. We also can’t just act like the the Protestant Reformation doesn’t influence us, because it does. The US is a very Protestant country, albeit in a post-Christian sort of way. Most of our famous national figures were not Catholic at best and anti-Catholic at worst and we can’t ignore that.

To get back to the issue of Santa Muerte, I wonder these kinds of secular or occultist mixings and matchings are inevitable. In the US, it’s pretty common to mix Christianity with some other form of belief, like Zen meditation, “A Book of Miracles,” or whatever New Age fad is popular at the moment. I don’t know if this is akin to the kind of folk religion that this blog focuses on, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that most people’s religious belief, regardless of what time period they live in, doesn’t resemble a play by play of the Catechism of the Council of Trent.

11 11 2008
Robert Thomas Llizo

Is the image of Santa Muerte in the reredos real, or is this photo shop? I must say, it does look a bit like a smiling skull.

“Now with the Church being less enchanted with the enchanted world, the void that has been created has been filled with followers of Santa Muerte.”

Yes! When we throw off any sense of mystery in favor of Enlightenment rationalism, we end up with little, if any, real faith. Those wanting a sense of myatery and enchantment must look for it elsewhere, even if it takes them into the very arms of death.

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