Blessings to you! I realize it's been a while since my last post, but this one should certainly be long enough to make up for it (heheh). The subject, of course, is La Santa Muerte - the Holy Death, a figure who has inspired as much hatred and abject fear as she has love and peaceful devotion. Unfortunately, in recent times, she has been hijacked as a "patron" of the narcotraficantes, the drug lords who have so successfully managed to rape and pillage the people and countries on both sides of the border (and, sadly, beyond). She has also been thoroughly demonized by mainstream Christianity, denounced as an element of Satanism meant to mislead the desperate. To be fair, one can easily see why the patrician establishment would be nervous about her: Death encompasses all of Creation; from the smallest of microbes to the greatest of stars, everything in the universe dies...and Death is there to greet them. She is as old as, if not older than, Life itself; she almost certainly is older than God, and even if she isn't, He is still subject to meeting the same end as all other deities. Death does not serve God, nor Satan for that matter: she serves all of Creation, guiding all living things to the next plane of existence. It is therefore quite understandable that the ultimate symbol of the independent woman would be...distressing to a belief system that has long advocated for the control, repression, and domination of women. Therefore, she is demonized by most Christian and other Abrahamic traditions.
The truth, however, is that the reverence of La Santísima Muerte is much older and much more beautiful than the narcos or the Church could ever hope to understand. This entry is dedicated to explaining my culture's concept of, and my devotion to, La Santa Muerte, which stems from the Mexican and New Mexican traditions from which I come. There is already, of course, a large amount of literature out there on her origins and devotion throughout the Americas; my account, therefore, will be necessarily generalized. I will, of course, include as much of the research and fantastic scholastic knowledge on the subject as possible, but I will have to merely touch on it...the main focus of the article will be on how the Mexican people, New Mexican people, and I experience her. The theme you are most likely to notice, and the message I sincerely hope you take away from this admittedly lengthy presentation, is that of duality. La Santísima Muerte is, above all else, the patroness and symbol of the Sacred Duality that defines our world (and our universe, for that matter): Life and Death, Light and Dark, Positive and Negative, Night and Day, and so forth. Keep this in mind when meditating on her meaning in your life (if she has any in your life) and in the lives of others.
Death: an Introduction
Death has always been, and will always be, a touchy subject. With a few possible exceptions, as far as we know, human beings are the only creatures that recognize their own mortality; as a result, an incredible amount of fear, love, hope, despair, and other profound human emotions have been attached to the phenomenon of death. And why shouldn't they be? To this day, despite humanity's amazing technological advances, there is still no clear definition of what "death" is: according to Merriam-Webster, dictionary.com, and other reference works, "death" is merely listed as the "permanent cessation of all vital functions" in a living organism, referring primarily to brain and cardiac death. Certain medical definitions extend this all the way down to complete cellular death, which can happen days, weeks, or even months after a person has died. Of course, to be fair, there is still no solid definition of "life," so expecting a solid definition of "death" is somewhat pointless. ("Life" is usually defined as "the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally." Incidentally, all of these qualities apply directly to fire.)
At any rate, this open-ended definition of Death has led human beings to concoct a multitude of definitions, classifications, and personifications of the End of Life, not to mention what happens thereafter. As stated earlier, this blog entry is dedicated to and will focus on the traditional Mexican and New Mexican conception of Death: La Santísima Muerte, or The Most Holy Death.
Origins & History
The exact origins of the veneration of La Santa Muerte are unknown, though it is generally accepted (and obvious) that her image and following is a creolization of Spanish Catholic and Mesoamerican beliefs. The personification of Death goes back for millenia: in Hellenic tradition, Death was represented by a winged, sword-carrying deity named Thanatos; this image was easily adapted to the Abrahamic representation of Death as an Angel of the Lord. Other personifications often involved skeletons or an old man or woman, wearing a white, black, or gray cloak, and usually carrying some kind of tool related to purging or cleansing (i.e., a rake, a scythe, a broom, etc). The image of Death as the Grim Reaper, a skeleton carrying a scythe, became common in European art and iconography starting in the 1400s, and became especially common during times of epidemics (particularly the Black Plague). According to
researcher Elsa Malvido Miranda, of Mexico's INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia
), during these times of rampant disease and death, veneration of skeletons would occasionally surface in Europe. The skeletons would often be portrayed wearing royal vestments and seated on thrones, representing the seemingly-inevitable triumph of Death over Life in an attempt to placate Death into passing the worshipers over. Of course, the Catholic Church did not approve of these practices, but it continued nonetheless. Folk religion and magic has a way of persisting even in the face of great resistance. The Catholic Church throughout Europe did, however, observe All Saints Day and All Souls Day. These days, in which people usually took off work and remembered their departed loved ones, coincided with the pre-Christian celebrations of the Harvest (Samhain, for example); the tradition of Hallowe'en (All Hallows Eve), in fact, comes from the syncretization of pre-Christian Harvest festivities and Christian days of observance. At any rate, the worship or veneration of Death was already a prevalent, if hidden, practice in Spain long before contact was made with the Americas.
Reverence of Death was extremely prevalent and important to the pre-Christian Mesoamerican peoples (the cultures of Mexico and Central America). The Mexica (Aztecs) inherited from their ancestors the god Mictlantecuhtli and his wife Mictlacacihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Mictlan (the Land of the Dead, the destination of those who died of natural causes). Whenever someone died naturally, these two beings had to be placated in order for the departed person's soul to be accepted into Mictlan. Most of the offerings given today to La Santa Muerte and during Día de los Muertos are the same offerings that were given to Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlacacihuatl. There was a host of other gods and goddesses associated with death, many of whom were portrayed either as skeletons or as corpses with half of their flesh missing, symbolizing the duality of Life and Death. Although this blog entry focuses primarily on the Mexica tradition, since it seems to be the main source of modern Mexican creolization, the veneration of Death as the eternal counterpart of Life was universally present in Mesoamerica.
Of course, with the Spanish invasion and conquest of Mexico, Christianity forcibly supplanted and attempted to destroy Native belief systems, with mixed success. The more common result, however, was that Native beliefs found a way to mix with and disguise themselves in the new Catholic framework. Mictlantecuhtli became San Pascualito, a folk saint known as "the king of the graveyard" who shares attributes with both the Catholic Saint Paschal Baylon and the Mexica Lord of Mictlan. He is most often shown as a skeleton wearing a regal cape, cloak, or crown...sound familiar? And Mictlacacihuatl, of course, became La Santa Muerte.
Overt worship did not become common until the 1800s. When it surfaced, reaction to the reverence of La Santa Muerte was harsh: all images of her were rounded up and burned, and followers faced great persecution at the hands of The Inquisition (which was still in operation until it was disbanded in 1834). In the late 1800s, the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada created a secular version of La Santa Muerte known as La Catrina, portrayed as a skeleton woman dressed in fancy clothes and jewelry. The non-religious Catrina, like her religious counterpart La Muerte, represented the equality of all people in Death: although she is dressed in magnificent clothing and has beautiful worldly possessions, the fact remains that she is dead and her lovely vestments hang loosely, even absurdly off her frame. She is a parody of those who hold themselves as greater than others; she is the great equalizer. The veneration of La Santa Muerte as it is known today, however, did not become prevalent until the 20th century. It surged in popularity beginning in the 1940s, and experienced rapid growth. Her veneration grew especially dramatically among the poor, marginalized portions of society; subject to incredible violence and social inequality, they turned to La Santa Muerte for help. A spirit who stood for equality and justice regardless of social status was extremely attractive to these people, and remains so today. Unfortunately, of course, many of these people became members of the drug trade, and as a result, she has become an unofficial patron of the narcos...one of the most tragic associations to ever tarnish her name.
Nombres y Caras
As you may have noticed by now, La Santa Muerte has more than one name or title. While the most common are La Santa Muerte, La Santísima Muerte, or simply La Muerte, she is also known as La Flaca ("The Skinny One"),
La Huesuda ("The Bony One"), La Niña Santa or La
Niña Blanca ("The Holy Child" or "The White Child"), La Señora Blanca or La Señora Negra ("The White Lady" or "The Black Lady"), and La Señora de las Sombras ("Lady of the Shadows"), among many other names. Each of these names are virtually interchangeable, though each one also represents a different aspect of hers. When she is referred to as "Niña Santa," for example, it is often an oblique reference or counterpoint to El Santo Niño, the baby Jesus; similarly, as Christ is considered the Lord of Light (Señor de la Luz), the Lady of the Shadows is His darker companion. This is not to say that she is the opposite of Jesus, or is evil; rather, she represents the equality and duality of the Sacred Feminine with the Sacred Masculine symbolized by the Abrahamic God. In fact, she is often syncretized (melded) with Our Lady of Guadalupe, portrayed wearing the familiar blue or blue-green, starry mantle, red or pink dress, and black sash of the childbearer. This is actually my favorite representation of La Santa Muerte, as it really drives home the idea that, just as La Guadalupana represents the Sacred Mother that brings us into this world, La Muerte represents the Sacred Mother that brings us out of this world and into the next. We are constantly born and reborn into different planes of existence, watched over by these benevolent Mother spirits.
The Meaning of La Santa Muerte Today
The veneration of La Muerte has spread throughout Mexico, most of the United States, and beyond. Although she is not recognized by the Church as an official saint (and it is doubtful she ever will be), she is revered alongside the recognized saints, angels, and other spirits in Christian and creolized Native-Christian belief systems. San Pascualito, La Flaca's male counterpart (or husband, in some traditions) is also a popular folk saint, but for the most part La Muerte seems to resonate far more with people - especially those disillusioned with a rigid, severe, patrician religious system. As a result of the fairly secretive history of her following, most prayers, offerings, and rituals are offered to her in the privacy of the home (though public churches and shrines dedicated to her are becoming much more common throughout Mexico and the U.S.).
Patronage: La Santa Muerte is the patroness of all living things, as all living things go to her when they leave this world. She also is the patroness of protection in the night and from a violent death. Many say that she is the patroness against "untimely" death, but the truth is that when La Huesuda comes for you...it is exactly your time to go. This is a very difficult idea for a lot of people to accept - especially when dealing with the death of a child or young person - but it remains a fact: La Muerte comes exactly when she is meant to. As a result, she is also often viewed as a patroness of time itself, prompt meetings, and luck in business, prosperity, love, etc. (since all of these depend on time). She is considered by most to be a psychopomp, or spirit who guides the dead from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead and the other spiritual planes that lie beyond...though on occasion, she can accompany the dead to the realm of the living, and vice-versa. She is therefore a patron of naguales, Curanderos/as, Medicine People, shamans, and other healers/spiritual travelers in general. Death has knowledge of all Life, and therefore La Santa Muerte is considered the guardian of the Ancient Knowledge; hence, she is a patron of students, scholars, elders, and other people of wisdom and knowledge. In fact, one of her titles is El Trono de la Sabiduría Eterna: Throne of Eternal Wisdom. As shepherdess of the dead, she is also obviously a patron of the dead, the dying, the ancestors, cemeteries & other burial grounds, crossroads, and those who work with the dead or whose jobs carry the potential risk of death or mortal injury.
Feast Days: Because Death happens every day, every day can be considered a holy day for La Santa Muerte. In fact, specific prayers for each day of the week exist for her. However, like all Saints (officially recognized or not), she also has a day that is sacred to her - known commonly as either a Feast Day or Saint's Day. In New Mexico and most of Mexico, it is November 2nd (Día de Los Muertos), though some followers observe her Feast Day on August 15th.
Attributes: La Muerte's iconography can vary greatly from place to place; in fact, most images of her are personalized and individualistic, such that practically no two are exactly alike. Most images of La Santa Muerte use primarily European (Spanish) imagery - i.e., she resembles the classic Grim Reaper. However, elements from Mesoamerican culture inevitably creep in. Regardless, almost all portrayals of her contain all or most of these elements:
Cloak: La Santa Muerte is almost always depicted as a skeleton clothed in a long robe which covers everything but her hands, face, and sometimes her feet. It is said that this represents the idea that most people keep their true selves and intentions mostly hidden. It also represents the hidden nature of the spirit worlds: they are just under the surface of this reality, though usually we only get glimpses of them. The cloak, which hangs loosely from the skeleton's frame, also represents the fact that our bodies, too, are merely temporary clothing for our spirits and will eventually fall away. She can be depicted in the clothes of other saints or spirits (as demonstrated above with the clothing of Our Lady of Guadalupe), but she is sometimes also portrayed as a bride (especially by those seeking a spouse) or even as the member of an order of monks or nuns (I, for example, like to portray her in the robe of the Franciscans).
The cloak can be virtually any color or colors. The most common are White (purification, the Divine Light, Life, the pallor of Death, the bleaching of bones, moonlight); Black (death, night, shadows, the rich black earth that nourishes new growth); Red (life, vitality, protection, the Medicine Path, love, strength); Yellow/Gold (warmth, spiritual & financial success, sunlight, royalty); Green (growth, fertility, rebirth, renewal, luck, money, success); Blue (peace, renewal, protection, happiness); Gray (initiation, the in-between times of dawn & dusk, the shadows, the guide from this life to the next); and Brown (the Earth, the Mexican and Latin people, the home, the hearth, and the color of the Franciscan and Carmelite orders in Catholicism). Interestingly, the first six colors mentioned (red, black, white, yellow, and green/blue) are the colors of the sacred directions (East, West, North, South, and Center, respectively) in Mesoamerican and many Native North American traditions. This is not a coincidence; La Muerte is strongly tied to Native beliefs and the Medicine Path. Also, it is quite fitting: because Death comes from all directions, why shouldn't she be dressed appropriately? It should be noted, however, that West is generally considered the direction of Death, because it is where the sun goes to die each night, to be reborn in the underworld and rise in the East again the next day. In Mesoamerican tradition, meanwhile, the North (whose color is white) is the direction in which souls travel in order to reach Mictlan.
Scythe: In European iconography, the scythe represents the harvest: the cutting of wheat or other crops in the Fall, when the season of Death (Winter) approaches. The metaphor, of course, is that a human life is like a stalk or head of wheat, and must be harvested when the proper time comes. According to common European folklore, drawn heavily from Greco-Roman mythology, each person's life is represented by a silver thread; when our time comes, Death severs this thread with the scythe. Because of its ties to agriculture, the scythe is a fertility symbol. In this way, even La Muerte's tools and attributes all point to the sacred duality of Life and Death. Although the people may have forgotten after hundreds or thousands of years of monotheistic persecution and propaganda, Europeans linked Death with the cycle of Life and rebirth...just like the Mesoamericans. The scythe is usually (but not always) held in her right hand. All blades are masculine symbols, and the right side is the side associated with the masculine energies. Once again, the duality of life and death, masculinity and femininity, etc. is called to mind.
Scales: Again drawn primarily from Greco-Roman mythology, the scales represent justice and the judgement of the soul. This actually goes all the way back to Ancient Egyptian tradition, in which the heart (representing the sum of one's words, thoughts, and actions) of the deceased was weighed on a scale against the sacred Feather of Truth. If the heart was equal to or lighter than the feather, the soul was granted passage to the afterlife. If the heart was heavy with sin, it was tossed to Ammut, the monstrous Soul-Eater, and subsequently excreted in the Western desert, spending eternity as a turd baking in the sun. With La Muerte, the scales represent the judgement that all peoples' souls face when their time comes, and therefore where their soul will go after they die. In the Catholic framework, this is Hell, Purgatory, Limbo, or Heaven (or the physical plane, if the soul is unwilling to move on); in the Mesoamerican system, this is the Aztec Mictlan or Mayan Xibalba (the underworld, which consists of multiple levels), though there were actually multiple destinations for the dead, depending on the circumstances of their death (more on this below).
Globe: Because Death is globally - indeed, universally - significant, La Santa Muerte is often shown holding the globe (or a sphere representing the globe). Some think this means that she has complete dominion over the Earth and her darkness envelopes the world, but another interpretation is that her love is all-encompassing. As the mother who births us into the next world, we are all Death's children...just as we are all Life's children. The globe represents that she truly is omnipresent, and therefore can give protection and guidance to anybody...no matter who they are, where they are, or what their situation is. The globe is usually (but not always) held in her left hand. The Earth is almost universally considered a female mother entity, so it makes sense that the globe would be held on the side associated with the feminine energies.
Candle, Lamp, or Torch: Drawn from European and Mesoamerican traditions, the flame carried by La Muerte represents many things. It can mean the light she uses to guide the dead to their next destination. It also represents the idea that even the smallest light beats back the darkness: darkness is defined by light, and vice versa - they are forever linked. It therefore represents duality and the ever-continuing cycle of Life and Death, Light and Dark, Day and Night, Male and Female, etc. Of course, the flame has always been a strong symbol of illumination and knowledge, hearkening back to her title as "Throne of Eternal Wisdom." For the Mexica, the Solar New Year was ushered in by lighting a sacred fire in the capital city of Tenochtitlán; it represented the rebirth of the sun for a new age. The fire that La Santa Muerte carries can also be viewed in this manner; she is, in her way, carrying the light of the ancestors forward to illuminate a new age. The flame is the symbol of La Santa Muerte as the Guide of the Dead - whether recent or ancient.
In most traditions that believe in an afterlife, the dead require guidance in order to reach their next destination; Abrahamic and Mesoamerican traditions are no exception. In many Western conceptions of the afterlife, both Heaven and Hell have multiple levels and require a guide to get them in and out of each...or even to get there in the first place. Similarly, the Mesoamerican afterlives (I shall focus here on the Mexica and Maya) have multiple levels and required guidance: Mictlan, the underworld to the North to which people who died of natural causes go, has nine levels. Xolotl (the dog deity who guards the sun on its journey through the underworld so it can be reborn in the morning) guides the dead through the nine levels so that those who go to Mictlan may be reborn into the world. Once a year, during Víspera de Todos los Santos (Oct 31), Día de Todos los Santos (Nov 1), Día de los Muertos (Nov 2), and Día de los Angelitos (Nov 3), Mictlantecuhtli is said to blow his horn and open the gates to Mictlan so that the souls still there can visit their extant relatives. In more Christian conceptions, San Pedro (St. Peter) allows passage back into the living world. Either way, the dead need a guide to and from the afterlife, and La Santa Muerte is there with her candle, leading them to where they need to go.
Warriors or people who sacrifice their lives for others (or were sacrificed, in ancient times) go to the East and accompany the sun during its travels during the day. Women who die in childbirth go to the West and accompany the sun during its journey through the underworld at night. People who die from drowning, lightning, certain diseases, and other natural disasters, go to the paradise Tlalocan: the eternal garden governed by the rain god Tlaloc. The Mayan underworld, Xibalba ("Place of Fear"), has five (some say six) Houses through which one must pass before they can be purified & reborn. Throughout Mesoamerica, the afterlife is & was viewed as a series of great, terrible tests that preceded the spirit's cleansing and renewal. In certain modern conceptions, La Santa Muerte is the guide who shepherds the dead through these trials and tribulations so that they can reach their next stage in spiritual development. Warriors are reborn as butterflies and hummingbirds; Medicine People are reborn as jaguars or other big cats, birds of prey, or snakes; and everybody else can be reborn as humans again or a certain animal, depending on the circumstances of their death and the path they led in life.
Hourglass: Although this timepiece is a European invention and symbol, the hourglass has significance in both European and Mesoamerican belief systems. The classic interpretation of the hourglass is that it represents a life: when all the grains of sand have run out, your time is up. However, what many people seem to forget is that the hourglass is then flipped over and the cycle begins anew. Western concepts of time tend to be linear: there is a definite start and finish, and both are final. In most Native traditions, however, time is cyclical: when Life Ends, Death begins, and eventually Death ends and Life begins again, and so on and so forth. Once the hourglass is flipped, the next life begins, until the sand runs out and the cycle repeats itself. The hourglass, too, is a symbol of cyclical duality.
Wings: La Santísima Muerte is often equated with the Angel of Death (who is variously portrayed as Gabriel, Michael, Samael, Azrael, Abbadon, or an unnamed angel, depending on the Abrahamic tradition). As a result, she is sometimes depicted with a large set of wings - usually two, but sometimes four (a reference to the four directions and to the four wings traditionally considered to be an attribute of the Archangels). These wings are usually either black or white; see above for the symbolism of the colors. However, they can sometimes be the wings of specific bird species associated with death, such as the Owl, Vulture, Raven, and Condor; or those associated with life, such as the Dove, Eagle, Hawk, or Falcon.
Owl: The Owl is a near-universal symbol for Death and Magic, especially Feminine magic. In both Native and European traditions, it is either revered as the bird that guides the dead to the afterlife or feared as a companion of witches and sign of dark forces at work. (Sound familiar?) There is therefore perhaps no better spirit animal (nagual or tonal, in Spanish) for La Santa Muerte than the Owl. The Owls that are most often portrayed with La Muerte are the Great Horned Owl and the Barn Owl. The latter is my favorite, frankly, and I think the most appropriate: because of its white plumage and skull-like face, the Barn Owl is often also known as the Ghost Owl in most of the regions in which it is found throughout the world. The Owl is usually shown perched on La Muerte's left shoulder, as the left is the side generally associated with the Feminine energies.
Throne: Death as the Queen of the World is a fairly common motif, as was mentioned earlier. Moreover, La Muerte is also known as the Throne of Eternal Wisdom...a throne is therefore a very appropriate symbol for her. Whether the throne symbolizes tyranny or a benevolent reign is entirely up to the individual and their community.
Keys: Also associated with St. Peter, St. Michael, and St. Uriel (all of whom are guardians of various important spiritual gateways), keys represent the passage between worlds and the fact that permission is needed in order to open the appropriate locks. As Guide of the Dead, it makes sense that La Huesuda is portrayed holding the keys to the crossroads.
Musical Instrument: This is a fairly rare symbol to find in La Muerte's repertoire, but one that occurs nonetheless. This is in large part due to the popular image of the angel playing a harp or lute, but it also has a deeper meaning. Life and Death are both like a song: it can be sweet or it can be bitter, it can be long or it can be short, but it must always inevitably come to an end. However, the end of one song always means that another will soon follow. When I paint or carve La Santa Muerte, I usually like to substitute the usual scythe with a musical instrument - generally a guitar. As a musician, the poetry of Death as the ultimate musician is irresistible for me.
Making Offerings to La Santa Muerte
Followers of La Santísima Muerte petition her for practically anything and everything they need help with - but especially when their needs concern help with finances, justice, success, and protection from enemies or evil in general. As with most folk saints and spirits with pre-Christian origins, following La Santa Muerte is a reciprocal relationship. When La Flaca does you a favor, you are expected to thank her with a gift or sacrifice of some sort (calm down - this doesn't necessarily mean you need to kill something for her; it can be something as simple as sacrificing your time...to pray the rosary, for example). Likewise, when La Muerte is given an offering, she is expected to respond and grant the follower's petition. If the offering is inadequate, she may refuse; if the action she bestows is inadequate to the follower, they may "punish" her by taking away offerings or otherwise chastising her. The same behavior can be seen in Catholic communities when petitioners of San Antonio (St. Anthony of Padua, almost always portrayed as holding the baby Jesus) will take the baby Jesus from him if he fails to help them with their request. It is a very familiar, informal relationship. At any rate, like practically all other saints and spirits in creolized traditions (like folk Catholicism, Curanderismo, Vodou, Santería, Candomblé, and others), La Santa Muerte has a number of specific things that she loves to receive as offerings:
Food: In Mexican and New Mexican belief, spirits, saints, angels, and other intangible beings feed on the essences (the vapors, aromas, and spirits) of foods, rather than the physical food itself. Each of the aforementioned entities have their favored foods, and La Santa Muerte is no exception.
•Fruit: She loves bananas, coconuts, mangoes, guanábanas (soursop), and pineapples (all of which are pre-conquest offerings), as well as apples and watermelon (which come from Eastern Europe and Africa, respectively). Each fruit has a different ritual use: apples are generally offered for help with business and financial issues, while the majority of the other fruits are the best for sweetening or refreshing the home and personal relationships. The color of the fruit changes the meaning, too: red apples are the best for business and the home, yellow apples are best for students, and green apples are best for help with growth, luck, fertility, and agriculture.
•Bread: Bread has been a symbol for the fruits of the harvest since the times of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and continues to be so today. Before wheat was introduced to the Americas, bread offerings consisted of corn tortillas; after European bread-making techniques arrived, offerings of loaves or rolls of Pan de Muerte (Death Bread, which contains anise, one of her favorite herbs/flavors) became extremely popular. Any type of bread can be offered to La Muerte, from sliced Wonderbread to baguettes, but her favorites are Pan de Muerte, pan dulce (sweet breads), and tortillas (whether corn or flour).
•Candy: In creolized Caribbean, Mexican, and Latin American traditions, spirits love candies - especially colored hard candies. They represent the sweetness of life: it can be tough, but is always worth the work. Candies also represent "sweetening the deal" when petitioning La Muerte for a favor.
•Chocolate: A purely Native offering, chocolate has been an incredibly holy sacrifice for thousands of years throughout Mesoamerica. Originally, it was made into a spicy drink and offered to the gods or spirits in a manner similar to the alcohol mentioned below, but the sweet treat we all know and love today is now the more common offering. The purer (darker) you can get it, the better: La Muerte loves dark, bitter chocolate.
•Other Foods: Depending on the region and the time of year, many other foods can be offered to La Muerte. They are always foods that are very rich, flavorful, and sweet and/or spicy. Tamales, mole, and chile (both red and green) are all common offerings in New Mexico and parts of Mexico, especially on Día de los Muertos.
An important thing to remember about offering food to La Santa Muerte is that you must never let the food spoil or rot while on her altar. She deals with death and decomposition enough; she likes her food to be in good condition. When the food offered to her begins to look like it may spoil soon, one of two things may be done: the food may be eaten by people in the household or it may be ritually buried. In this way, the food's essence is absorbed by the soil and can be used by the Earth Mother to create new life. Once again, the duality of life and death is called to mind.
Liquor: Almost all spirits LOVE alcohol; generally, the harder, the better. Some prefer beer or other gentler alcohols to the hard stuff, but La Muerte loves mescal, tequila, rum, and whiskey - preferably those made in Mexico, the Caribbean, or Latin America. She also loves red wine, sherry, and dark beers. As with the food, these offerings should be shared with La Muerte: when you offer alcohol, you have to partake. This creates a bond between you and her, and strengthens the offering. As with the foods, each type of alcohol has a specific ritual use.
Water: On all altars dedicated to La Santa Muerte, this is always a glass of water. It can be from virtually any source: the sea, rivers, lakes, streams, rain, the tap, or holy water all can be used. The water represents purification, change, rebirth, renewal, and refreshment, as well as the baptism of the dead into their new life.
Salt: Because it is purifying, preserving, and can be a fairly precious commodity, salt has been a protective substance for a myriad of cultures since ancient times. It repels evil spirits and protects the living from negative energies. Although salt is not always present on La Muerte's altars, it is an excellent offering: she can take it with her while guiding the dead to or from the afterlife and cast it at any malevolent spirits that try to attack her charges. Salt is one of the essential elements of Día de los Muertos altars.
Tobacco: Another purely Native offering, Tobacco is offered practically universally throughout the Americas to almost every single spirit, saint, angel, god, or other entity (unless they specifically dislike Tobacco, which is exceedingly rare). The smoke is highly sacred to them. La Muerte is certainly no exception: she loves Tobacco in any form, but especially in forms that can be burnt. In Mexico and New Mexico, Tobacco is usually offered in cigar or hand-rolled cigarette form. Other herbs that La Santa Muerte enjoys as offerings are Sage (for purification, cleansing, healing, & protection) and Juniper (for protection against evil, banishing evil spirits, & warding off evil eye).
Flowers: Flowers are a necessity on practically any New Mexican, Afro-Caribbean, Latin-, or Mexican-American altar. In particular, La Muerte loves Marigolds (Cempasuchil in Spanish or Cempoalxochitl in Nahuatl), which are the flowers of the dead and are a necessity for Día de los Muertos altars. Other flowers that she favors are Roses (especially white and red), Carnations (white and red), Tuberoses, Gardenias, and Tulips...though truthfully, any flowers that give off a strong, pleasant fragrance can be used. As with the food mentioned above, flowers should never be left to wilt and rot on La Muerte's altars; ritually dispose of the flowers by burying, burning, or composting them so that their remains can be used by the Earth Mother to regenerate and nurture new life.
Incense: This element is an essential part of practically all human religious or spiritual traditions. It is was (and remains) an important part of Spanish/European Catholicism in general and Mesoamerican/Native American spiritual practices. The Mesoamericans particularly valued (and continue to value) Copal, the hardened or semi-hardened resin from certain sacred tree species (the genus Bursera, in particular). White Copal is the holiest of incenses for any and all Mesoamerican spirits and gods, and is also offered to saints, angels, etc. Black Copal is generally reserved for priests & priestesses of Mesoamerican traditions or elder Curanderos/as and Medicine People, as it is extremely powerful. Regardless, both Black and White Copal are the preferred incenses used for offerings to La Santa Muerte (as she is both the Black and White Lady). Frankincense and Myrrh, plant incenses introduced to the Spanish by the North African Moors and Jews and later introduced to the Americas, are also good incenses to offer to La Muerte. The smoke of Sage and Juniper, whose properties are mentioned above, are additional incenses favored by her.
Other Elements: Numerous other miscellaneous items are often common elements in altars or offerings to La Santa Muerte. For those who wish to attract financial success, money (in coins and small bills) is placed on the altar. A cross is almost universally present, too - not just as a symbol of Christianity, but also as a symbol of the pre-Christian concepts of the Four Directions, Four Elements, Four Seasons, etc. (the cross was present in the Americas long before the European conquest: for the Mesoamericans, it was a symbol not only of the aforementioned concepts, but also of Corn and the Tree of Life). Olive oil, a reference to Biblical tradition, can also be included - though a multitude of oils specifically made for La Santa Muerte also exist. Personal items related to the altar-builder's requests of La Santísima Muerte are also welcome - for example, those praying for protection for their children might include their child's baby shoes, those praying for help in their business might include a symbol of or object from their business, and so on.
A Final Word
First off, if you've managed to make it all the way through this blog post, you are to be commended for your patience! There are literally volumes of prayers, rituals, and petitions to La Santa Muerte...so many, in fact, that it would be counter-productive of me to record even a portion of them here. If you would like prayers for specific needs, you can always leave a comment or send me an email requesting them; if you'd like, I can also perform rituals dedicated to her on your behalf. However, as she is a deeply personal spirit, I have found that the veneration of La Santísima Muerte is best left to the intuition of the worshiper. Whatever calls to you is likely the best way to approach her (if you choose to do so at all). That being said, there do exist the Ten Commandments of La Santa Muerte, meant to be observed alongside the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and/or the Two Commandments of Jesus (for those who are Biblically-minded) or, for those who do not wish to follow the Abrahamic commandments, to be observed on their own. These commandments are meant to guide followers of La Santísima Muerte along the right path - one of honor, respect, peace, dignity, and honesty. To stray from any of these commandments while petitioning her is to invite great trouble, negativity, and even punishment into your life (remember, La Muerte is all about reciprocity: if you do not respect her, she will not suffer your disrespect). The traditional ten are as follows:
1. Venerás a La Santa Muerte con todo respeto.
(Thou shalt venerate La Santa Muerte with all due respect.)
2. No tomarás el nombre de ella en vano.
(Thou shalt not take her name in vain.)
3. La adorarás los dias de sus fiestas.
(Thou shalt observe her Feast Days.)
4. Honrarás a todos tus hermanos de la religión.
(Thou shalt honor all your brethren of the religion.)
5. No le harás daño a nadie.
(Thou shalt not do harm to anyone.)
6. No cometerás actos que perjudiquen nuestra religion de adorar a La Santa Muerte.
(Thou shalt not commit acts that endanger our religion of adoring La Santa Muerte.)
7. No abusarás de tus conocimientos espirituales.
(Thou shalt not abuse your spiritual knowledge.)
8. No dirás falsos testimonios relacionados con ella.
(Thou shalt not give false testimony about her.)
9. No tendrás pensamientos que te hagan lucrar con ella.
(Thou shalt not think to make a profit off of her.)
10. No desearás las riquezas de otras personas.
(Thou shalt not covet the wealth of others.)
To these traditional ten...or sometimes as an alternative to the traditional ten...I like to add two commandments:
11. Respetarás todo lo que vive y todo lo que está muerto.
(Thou shalt respect all that lives and all that is dead.)
12. Usarás tus conocimientos para servir a la familia, la comunidad, y toda la Creacíon.
(Thou shalt use your knowledge to serve the family, the community, and all of Creation)
Like my namesake, I believe that the original ten commandments can be summarized and exemplified in merely two mandates. For people who follow the Medicine Path, in particular, I believe these two are especially important: it is my belief, and the belief of my family, that one cannot truly claim to be a healer without respecting and serving all of Creation. Christ's message, when he summarized the original ten commandments, was a simple message of love: love thy neighbor and love thy God. I realize, however, that loving all other people can be an exceedingly difficult thing to do. Therefore, I propose two virtues that, while difficult, are slightly easier to achieve: respect and service. With these two tools, spreading love is a far easier goal to achieve.
At any rate - thank you, dear reader, for bearing with me and making it through this entry. I hope the information I've presented has been helpful or useful to you; if nothing else, I hope you have a better understanding of La Santa Muerte in the Mexican/Hispanic/Latin American/Afro-Caribbean cultures. If you have any further questions, by all means - feel free to leave a comment or send me an email!
Tu hermano en la Luz,
Jesús Cuauhtémoc Villa
(El Curandero Güero)
, Spirit People: Angels, Demons, Saints, Spirits, and Gods
, La Santa Muerte
, Mesoamerican Culture
, Mexican Culture
, New Mexican Culture