A Review of E. Bryant Holman’s book, with some reflections
(image above found on one of Mr. Holman’s sites)
E. Bryant Holman is a writer for whom I have immense esteem. I have spent many an hour perusing his Curanderismo mailing list, and everything he writes is insightful, eloquent, and well thought-out. Although not really a believer himself, he approaches popular Mexican Catholicism from a respectful and unbiased perspective. At no time does he patronize or express outright skepticism regarding the practices of folk healers, witches, and ordinary faithful, and only records their beliefs and practices with very little hint of editorial judgment. In a word, he is a true scholar: always humble, always searching, and never quick to impose his own categories in areas where he is admittedly an outsider.
Lay Catholicism in Mexico as perceived by the normal believer has almost always been slightly different from the Catholicism that the hierarchy preaches. For the average believer, there have always been many Christs and many Virgins, many images of saints and many animas or holy souls, all of whom vie for the devotion and prayers of the faithful. The Sacred Heart is not the same as the Holy Infant of Atocha, who is not the same as the Holy Face. If the Virgin of Guadalupe doesn’t answer your petition, you go to the Virgin of St. John of the Lakes, and then to the Virgin of Lourdes, etc. A lot of it can seem like witchcraft at times, and while the hierarchy is often distrustful of this attitude towards Catholicism, they have had to respect its understanding of the Christian mystery. They have also had to tolerate people taking the sacramental character of Catholicism upon themselves in the form of “white magic” or curanderismo, of which I written on this blog before.
E. Bryant Holman’s writings on this are probably the most lucid in the English language. He writes of a Christianity in its most practical form: if you have a court case, pray this prayer to this saint. If you want someone to fall in love with you, use this binding prayer. If you think someone put a hex on you, go see such and such a curandero. It is a system in which the divine names and figures still have the power to alter fate, where life’s ills can be resolved by a set of prayers, and cosmic symbolism can use lower things to move the things above them. In a word, it is a completely different world than the one modern Christians inhabit.
Mr. Holman’s magnum opus so far is a self-published work, La Santísima Muerte – A Mexican Folk Saint. In this book, not only does he describe the origins and practices around the personification of death in Mexico, but gives a thorough summary of the phenomenon known as curanderismo and the principles of Mexican folk Catholicism. Though only a little over a hundred pages, it is worth its weight in gold if one wants to pursue the question of what we have lost in the transition of Catholicism into modernity.
For Holman, the emergence of Santísima Muerte (Most Holy Death, which is interchangeable with Santa Muerte, or Holy Death) is the result of the convergence of various tendencies within traditional Mexican Catholicism. Far from being the revival of a pagan figure as the “experts” would have it, Holman traces the origin of the cult of Death to the tendency of Catholicism to make body parts or inanimate things into objects of veneration. Although one can conclude at first glance that Santa Muerte is a veiled form of satanism, closer examination will reveal other similar figures slightly more in the mainstream of popular Catholicism (the Powerful Hand, the Sacred Heart, the Lonely Soul, the Shadow of St. Peter, etc.) Holman further shows that a popular binding prayer (basically a love spell) to Santa Muerte is really just a re-worked version of the same prayer offered to St. Helen. Finally, he translates for the English speaker old prayers of curanderos to the aloe plant, which sort of seals the idea that such phenomena as the popular canonization of Death have been going on for some time in Mexico.
The other significant tie that Santa Muerte has with the past is her three traditional colors by which she is represented, as well as the traditional notion of the “black saint”. Santa Muerte is usually represented by three colors: white, red and black. Each represents a certain type of protection offered: white is for spiritual protection, red is for matters of love, and black is usually used to do some sort of harm. Holman writes that he has spoken to Italians who have seen these three colors represent the Italian version of Saint Death, and delves into the symbolism of these colors. Generally, Santa Muerte is used as a powerful protection against evil, especially curses. In the author’s experience, married women often go to a curandera who works with the Red Santa Muerte to bring back wayward husbands. Even when used for less than honorable purposes, however, Santa Muerte is still well within range of historical continuity. She is a modern version of a “black saint”, or a saint prayed to by criminals for evil intentions. Mr. Holman cites one example of a “Cristo Negro” or black Christ in Mexico City who has been historically venerated by assassins, whose shrine is built over the temple of the Aztec god of darkness, Tezcatlipoca.
In general, the crux of Mr. Holman’s work, to be so bold, is the idea that such phenomena as Santa Muerte in do not spontaneously emerge out of the blue as revivals of pre-Columbian paganism, but are mostly the result of a creative interpretation of the religion of the Old World by the Mexican people. While indigenous influences are always there, the veneration of a figure like Santa Muerte would not have been so far fetched in the world of European folk Catholicism a hundred years ago. Indeed, while there are aspects of the Santa Muerte cult that are becoming increasingly New Age and separate from Catholicism (and Mr. Holman decries all of this), in the end it is we Christians of the developed world who have changed the most when it comes to a Catholic imagination that could create such unorthodox figures as Santa Muerte. So when even the most well-intentioned Christian pundit looks on the cult to Santa Muerte and sees a form of paganism and even devil worship, he is forgetting much of his own past, or worse, he is horrified since he realizes that he is looking upon a present that could have been his own.
My own attitude to Santa Muerte continues to be ambivalent at best. Though I have some very strong familial ties to this cult, I myself could probably never bring myself to fully endorse it. As to her existence and essentially benevolent nature, I am a complete agnostic, though an open one. At the end of the day, I try to be a faithful son of the Church, and to say that this cult has been condemned by the Catholic hierarchy of Mexico would be a bit of an understatement. However you want to see this issue, I would still exhort you to get this book and read it. There are so few books out there regarding how “underground Catholicism” emerges and functions, and fewer still that are in print and as unbiased as Mr. Holman’s work. If you are a Catholic, a non-Catholic, or an agnostic, and want to get another perspective of a familiar religion becoming completely “foreign”, you must read this book.