SANTA MUERTE IS NOT SATAN, AND THAT’S GREAT FOR HER
In 2017, Texas bishops and archbishops denounced the veneration of Santa Muerte by Mexican and American Catholics, calling the folk saint figure “Satanic” and thus ensuring that outsiders would become as suddenly and intensely curious about her as possible.
This was just one of many loud Vatican harangues about the skeletal icon in the past decade, whom they are constantly likening to the devil because, again, they somehow don’t understand that marrying bitchin’ medieval skeleton imagery to Satanism is NEVER going to make it less appealing.
Having no relationship with Mexican Catholicism, I hold no particular interest in Santa Muerte and never thought of her as Satanic imagery. I just assumed the bishops were saying that because that’s the kind of thing they say about everything, it probably fills in a lot of conversation gaps at parties.
However, taking a closer look at the subject now, I would say the church has a much bigger problem on their hands. Namely: Santa Muerte is not Satan; Santa Muerte is god–or better.
Last week was the Day of the Dead in Mexico and related US communities. This is not a holiday I’ve ever observed, but I do know many Satanists who take it as an occasion to celebrate the dead and, in some cases, liberate mourning and remembrance from ancient imperialist religions.
Similarly, I have seen Santa Muerte images on some Satanists’ altars, and the Satanic doo-wop group Twin Temple recorded a song about her.
However, the truth is that no matter what the Wrong Bishops tell you, the market for Santa Muerte imagery has always been Catholics rather than Satanists. (There was, in hindsight, a small clue in her name…)
“The cult of Santa Muerte is generally very similar to other saint worship in Mexican folk Catholicism,” journalist Livia Gershon writes in JStor Daily. “Devotees of Santa Muerte pray with rosaries, go on pilgrimages, and place offerings like apples, cigars, and candles on her altars,” just like any other saint.
“The cult also uses magical ritual derived from indigenous practices,” as well as some New Age and Afro-Carribean vibes too, she adds.
But, ah, how to put this delicately? That shit ain’t new: People do it for all the kinds of saints. Catholic religion is a lot like Catholic marriage: Only as exclusive as it takes to get the job done.
When Spanish colonizers came to Mexico in the 16th century, they brought their religious iconography with them, including familiar images of death as a skeletal figure bearing trappings such as robes, crowns, and a scythe or other implements.
“It was not long till the skeletal figures depicted in churches and placed among Catholic saints during festive processions and dances became venerated,” Polish researcher Piotr Grzegorz Michalik writes in a 2011 paper.
Inquisitors complained of skeletal idols in Mexico as far back as the 17th century, which is pretty rich considering they themselves imported the imagery, forcibly converted the population, and then, oh yes, waged constant campaigns of violence. But why would any of that provoke people to seek catharsis in death imagery? Mystery wrapped in an enigma, that one.
Devoted To Death, a book by religions scholar Andrew Chestnut, testifies that while modern Santa Muerte veneration is decades or maybe even centuries old, it’s just in the last 20 years that the skeletons have come out of the closet and into pronounced public practice.
Santa Muerte is not a saint in the conventional sense of the word, although she does bear an uncanny resemblance to what 100 percent of other Catholic saints look like these days.
Rather, she’s an allegorical figure who represents not just death but also “healing, wisdom, prosperity, protection, love sorcery, justice, and even vengeance,” according to student researcher Kailey Muñoz’s honor’s thesis earlier this year.
“She has an estimated 10 to 12 million devotees around the world, yet remains officially unrecognized by the Catholic church,” Muñoz writes. “Santa Muerte’s identity exists outside of the traditional Catholic conceptualizations of saints,” and yet devotion to her persists thanks to the widespread belief that she answers prayers reliably and proficiently.
You may wonder: Aren’t Catholics supposed to say those kinds of prayers to–what’s his name, I can never remember? Oh yes: god?
Well, that’s the rub: Andrew Mark Henry of the YouTube channel Religion For Breakfast says that Santa Muerte is popular in large part because people feel they can come to her with wishes and prayers that traditional religious figures wouldn’t brook.
Death is fair, impartial, and free from the baggage of orthodox religion. “Most adherents are just people struggling to get by,” Henry says, and Santa Muerte “has a huge following among the most marginalized.”
For example, Manolo Morales highlights the example of Arely Gonzalez, a trans woman who holds monthly prayer meets to Holy Death in her Queens apartment, ever since recovering from cancer more than a decade ago.
Santa Muerte may be particularly popular among sick people or those who work with them, those with dangerous jobs, migrants and immigrants, or the dispossessed; USF Professor Lois Ann Lorentzen calls her the “saint of the dispossessed, enemy of church and state.”
I’m not in the habit of doing favors of Catholic bishops–mostly because I’ve just never been all that good at handjobs–but I’ve got news for them: This is a much bigger problem for them than Satanism.
As a Satanist, I can tell you that the popular appeal of Satan as a religious figure is actually very narrow; if Santa Muerte was Satan, they wouldn’t have much to worry about.
Instead, it seems to my lay-gringo’s perspective that actually she’s a substitute for god and his various hangers-on: A better, more approachable, more populist kind of god figure, who is fulfilling the needs of worshipers in a way that their conventional religion clearly isn’t.
To a degree, this is true also of Satanism: Lots of our Bay Area Satanists are people who were at some point jilted out of mainstream religions, and a big part of the appeal of Modern Satanism is that it caters to people normally ostracized by other religious communities.
But of course, while Santa Muerte seems to be popular amongst neopagans and, yes, certain Satanists, she is, seemingly, mostly the alternative not for people outside of major religion but rather for those still on the inside.
And that’s what really scares churchy types: Not the devil, but instead the glaring evidence that in this day and age, they’re not getting the job done for anybody.
While I am down with all things Satan, Santa Muerte is close to my heart as a Xicano Atheist. The fact that she’s always been ostracized by the Catholic Church only strengthens my resolve. She’s always been a symbol loved by the poor and wretched.
Viva la hermosa Santa Muerte!