Mighty Mexican Mothers: Santa Muerte as Female Empowerment in Oaxaca

16 01 2019

On an old theme of this blog.

Most Holy Death

smkatecover1As the sole female folk saint of death in the Americas, Santa Muerte has a special appeal to women, especially disprivileged Mexican mothers . In the piece below anthropologist Dr. Kate Kingsbury* considers the contours of devotion among rural women in coastal Oaxaca.

-Rural Oaxaca, the outskirts of Pochutla, Mexico

When we got home one night two scorpions awaited us inside the house. One was in the knife holder, in the middle of 6 blades. The most lethal jackknife of all: a black, flailing malignant barb that looked eager to slash and envenom its victim. The handle of an umbrella was thwacked down on it by my other half, as I stood shocked, shaking, until its exoskeleton exploded, exuding a mephitic liquid that had ants frenzied as they supped on its guts.

The following day I saw sweet, unassuming sixty-seven year old Señora Angelica and invited her for a cup…

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Santa Muerte video

28 03 2010

Featuring some of my old haunts

San Miguel y Santa Muerte

15 07 2009

AG was listening to my CD of Crisotbal Morales’ Requiem (see video above), when it hit me that St. Michael is mentioned in the text of the old Requiem Mass, at the Offeretory:

sed signifer sanctus Michæl
repræsentet eas in lucem sanctam,
quam olim Abrahæ promisisti et semini ejus.

but may the sign-bearer, Saint Michael,
lead them into the holy light
which you promised to Abraham and his seed.

Of course, this image also came to mind:

Notice the ancient scales of Maat, signifying judgment over souls. I suppose that is why some people say that it is St. Michael that comes to retrieve souls at the point of death.

Like many traditions, however, this one seems to not have been passed down, except in the garbled, early morning prayers of a priest at Low Mass. So it is no wonder that in Mexico at least, the Angel of Death morphed into this:

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Santa Muerte Counterpoint

18 03 2009

Epidermal Macabre

Indelicate is he who loathes
The aspect of his fleshy clothes, —
The flying fabric stitched on bone,
The vesture of the skeleton,
The garment neither fur nor hair,
The cloak of evil and despair,
The veil long violated by
Caresses of the hand and eye.
Yet such is my unseemliness:
I hate my epidermal dress,
The savage blood’s obscenity,
The rags of my anatomy,
And willingly would I dispense
With false accouterments of sense,
To sleep immodestly, a most
Incarnadine and carnal ghost.

-Theodore Roethke

San La Muerte

23 02 2009


San La Muerte is the masculine equivalent of Santa Muerte in Mexico, this time having his origins in the northeast of Argentina. He probably has much more to do with indigenous belief than the cult of Santa Muerte. Speculations as to his origins range from his being the spirit of a Guaraní king who was given the task of being the Grim Reaper to a renegade Spanish friar who went native and was found dead in his cell after being imprisoned by ecclesiastical authorities. In any case, the cult to him is quite old and in places enjoyed unofficial sanction from some church officials. One man speaks of his grandfather’s devotion to the saint on this website (my translation):

There was a time, not more than thirty years ago now, when my grandfather would bring the little saint to church to have a Mass for him every 20th of the month. That would happen every month until one day they stopped it. I believe in all humility that it was a mistake for the Church to discriminate against us. We really don’t see the harm in believing in a saint who defends the poor… He would have to be accepted since he doesn’t do evil, on the contrary. And I’ll tell you more, before my grandfather found the saint, he didn’t even know how to make the Sign of the Cross, and towards the end of his life he prayed two hours when he got up and two hours before he went to bed for those who were praying for the intercession of San La Muerte.
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La Santísima Muerte – A Mexican Folk Saint

22 01 2009


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.
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Corrido de la Muerte

16 01 2009

“Ven, dame un beso, Pelona…”

Es muy padre este corrido.

Esto muestra que la Muerte es una figura muy personal en la conciencia mexicana.

(This shows that Death is a very personal figure in Mexican consciousness. Note: “Pelona” means “bald woman”, a title for Death in Mexican folklore.)


La Muerte

7 05 2008


—Soy la Muerte— me dijo. No sabía
que tan estrechamente me cercara,
al punto de volcarme por la cara
su turbadora vaharada fría.

Ya no intento eludir su compañía:
mis pasos sigue, transparente y clara
y desde entonces no me desampara
ni me deja de noche ni de día.

—¡Y pensar —confesé—, que de mil modos
quise disimularte con apodos,
entre miedos y errores confundida!

«Más tienes de caricia que de pena».
Eras alivio y te llamé cadena.
Eras la muerte y te llamé la vida.

Alfonso Reyes


“I am death,” she said. I did not behold

How closely she crept towards my guarded gate,

At the point of carrying to me my fate

With her breath so harsh and terribly cold.


I no longer labor to leave her side.

My steps she follows, transparent and clear,

And from then on I was without sorrow or fear;

She leaves me not by day nor at eventide.


“And to think,” I confessed, “that in a thousand ways,

I with false names tried to keep you at bay,

Confounded between fear and useless strife.”


“You have more of caress than you do of pain,

You were freedom and I called you ‘chain’,

You were death, and I called you life.”

-translated by Arturo Vasquez

Deus furens

21 04 2020


As is the case with many people, my forced exile from the world due to a medieval plague has been far less intellectually fertile than initially expected. I thought I would write all those brilliant thoughts down that came to me in the middle of going here or there or doing this or that. At most, my quarantine has been devoted to endlessly surfing the news and social media, and perhaps creating the “dank meme” or two. It turns out that not being able to go anywhere but the “essential places” darkens the brain as much as being too busy. As I say professionally, “more” doesn’t often seem like more, it just seems a wasteland, as when I would look out over the Argentine pampa and know it goes on for hundreds of miles without anything of significance impeding it. Read the rest of this entry »

Notes on Zizek’s Christianity

13 01 2011

When Christian commentators get excited about Slavoj Zizek’s dialogue with Christianity, it seems to be sort of like the biggest high school nerd getting excited because the head cheerleader casually said hi to him in the hallway. As one of my mentors told me some time ago, for anyone to get excited about intellectual developments in Christianity in the last fifty years is a little like becoming obsessed with the politics of a kindergarten sand box. It goes without saying that we are on the defensive. It should go without saying that even the most militant Christian ideologue doesn’t believe in half the words that come out of his mouth. As Zizek would point out, most fundamentalists say and do absurd things precisely because they don’t really believe, not because they do.
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