Friday, February 8, 2013

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

The Mexican saint who is rejected by the Catholic Church and feared as a goddess of drug lords and sex traffickers is, in all fairness, vastly misunderstood by those outside the circle of her devoted followers. Santa Muerte, or Santisima Muerte, is the figure of saintly or sacred Death, and her cult is on the rise not just in Mexico.

It probably doesn't help her image that Santa Muerte is generally depicted much like the European figure of Death. As an example, she shares the dark robes and reaping scythe of the Breton Ankou. Her skeleton face and hands usually feature in her statues, pictures and prayer cards. Besides the scythe, Santa Muerte is often depicted holding the scales of judgment and accompanied by an owl. Her shrines, many of them incredibly elaborate like the one pictured above, can be found all over Mexico and the Mexico/U.S. boarder. Most are not readily bumped into by tourists, though. They are in out of the way places where her devotees can pray to their saint in peace.

While some stories of where Santa Muerte came from hark to her especial protection of women and children, giving her a back story as a jilted wife who killed her cheating husband, Santa Muerte's origins are probably far older. She appears to be firmly rooted in the soil of Mexico as an amalgam of both European folklore and pre-Columbian religion. Santa Muerte is generally thought to be the direct descendant of Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld. In her book Goddesses and Heroines, Patricia Monaghan describes the goddess as one who:

...ruled the nine rivers of the afterlife to which evil souls were condemned. There, however, they did not suffer torments or pain; instead, they led afterlives of boredom and monotony, while better souls enjoyed the colorful existence of heaven.

The underworld of Mictecacihuatl and her consort Mictlantecahtli resembled the Greek and Hebrew afterlife. It was a gray forever with nothing changing millennium after millennium.

Other sources claim the Mictecacihuatl and her husband were considered gateways to the ancestors through whom - if these dark gods were propitiated with blood sacrifice - the living could communicate with the dead. Thus it is believed that this goddess was the primary benefactor of what has become known as the Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico. The modern Santa Muerte has the same connections as well, although her followers eschew any consideration of spilling blood in her name.

The devotion to Santa Muerte, which as I mentioned is on the rise, probably stems from the leveling nature of Death. We are all born to die. As more than one artist in more than one medium has reiterated: no one gets out of here alive. Thus it is thought that Santa Muerte hears the sincere prayer without prejudice. So she may bring back a wayward lover just as quickly as she might put up obstacles in the path of one of her devotee's enemies. Who is she to judge, after all? We will all come to her in time, prayers or no.

One of the most popular prayers to Santa Muerte links her to the Catholic Church, despite their desperate attempts to disown this other face of the Virgin Mary. The nine day novena to Santisima Muerte comes in many forms and one can adjust the wording to their needs. Find an excellent example of a novena to keep a man faithful here at Lucky Mojo as well as Cat Yronwode's amusing and fascinating tale of how she first met La Santisima.

Santa Muerte is not - necessarily - a particular guardian of those who do evil in our world. She is also not a spirit to be trifled with. Do your research before approaching La Santisima. That said, bonne chance ~

Header: Detail of an elaborate Santa Muerte shrine including a human skeleton from south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Excellent information and good advice, as always, Pauline.

Pauline said...

It never hurts to advise caution, I suppose...