The Santa Muerte Mexican Goddess of death and the dead
The Santa Muerte also known as Santisima Muerte is the beloved goddess of death who's origins date to the Pre Hispanic period of Mexico. The Mexica knew her by another name MICTECACIHUATL "Lady of the Land of the Dead" another spelling may be MICTLANTECIHUATL, she was believed to be a protector of souls residing in the dark underworld. Mistress to MICTLANTECAHTLI Lord of Mictlan Land of the dead Lord of Darkness.
The Mexica depicted Mictecacihuatl as a woman in traditional Mexica female garb adorned or decorated with flags which were put upon corpses prepared for cremation, she wears a skull mask with a beak portruding from the nasal cavity of the skull mask, or perhaps it is a knife or blade thereof. I will try to focus on the Lady of the Land of the Dead, and in another essay I will cover more in depth the symbolism and special aspects of LORD MICTLANTECAHTLI with the exception of noting some of his icons and how they relate to Mictecacihuatl and her current form the Santa Muerte. Mictecacihuatl is the goddess that is connected to the sacred Day of the Dead in Mexico Dia de los Muertos, originally the holiday fell at the end of the month of July and the beginning of August, dedicated to the children and the dead.
The holiday was moved in post-conquest times by the Spanish Priests to coincide with All Hallows Eve, a vain attempt by the priests to convert this sacred day to a Christian holiday. Never the less the Day of the dead retains its ancient roots honoring the Lady of the Land of the Dead. It is said that the old Gods are not dead but sleeping and can awaken through faith and prayer. Both Mictecacihuatl and her lord Mictlantecahtli were given blood offerings by the Mexica asking in exchange for a favorable or peaceful death when the time came to die. Tradition states that for one to receieve a favorable fate when making an offering the one would have their right hand covered in blood to insure the favor of Lord Mictlantecahtli. Because blood offerings were considered of utmost importance the color red became intimately associated with the Lord of the Land of the Dead and as an extension the color is attributed to his mistress because of her connection with her Lord. Of importance is the fact that both Mictlantecahtli and his mistress Mictecacihuatl were believed to live in total darkness.
Although there exists no specific reason as to why the goddess of death gained so much popularity my theory is that she survived the post conquest times due to both her role as a protector and her very important role the dia de los muertos celebration.
A holiday dear to the heart and soul of every Mexican that has a love for our ancestors and a reverence for our ancient forefathers and the deities they once revered.
It is said that the old gods are not dead just forgotten but waiting to be awakened by the fire of the faithful, I believe this is true with Mictecacihuatl. The Lady of the Dead did not suffer the same fate as Virgen de Guadalupe who was originally a Mexica Goddess known as Tonantzin (Moon Goddess & milder aspect of Coatlicue) did not suffer the wrath of the missionaries whom tried to christianize Tonantzin stating that she was the Virgin Mary in their idigenous image come to lead the heathens to christ. Mictecacihutal retained her true guise albeit her image changed via syncretism as in her current form the Santa Muerte.
La Huesuda ( the Boney Lady) her various forms
It is believed that the reverence for the Santa Muerte in her current form really took hold in Hidalgo Mexico circa 1965 (there are references that show reverence during the 1950s mi Tia Tina if she were alive today would be 96 years old and she was known to revere the Santa Muerte in her teens), in her modern form Santa Muerte is a syncretic image retaining her powers and attributes as Mictecacihuatl the lady of the dead a protector of souls and children. She now wears an almost grim reaper image borrowed from the European Necromantic traditions that influenced Mexico. In addition she carries images or icons that denote or identify her as Mictecacihuatl such as the owl which is often depicted in statues of the Santa Muerte. The owl is one of the animals associated with Mictlantecahtli the Lord of the Dead to whom Mictecacihuatl was mistress a very strong image to this day in Mexican culture. Some statues depict the Santa Muerte as a reaper with the scythe holding scales and a crystal ball, others she carries the scales and a crystal ball only. Another interesting note is that she is sometimes depicted in art as holding a globe of the world representing her worldly power in other depictions she is holding a skull then of course there is the hour glass.
I personally have a statue of Santa Muerte that I use in my private rituals which although I can not share photos will describe. This statue was imported from Mexico which I purchased in Los Angeles County California several years ago, she is twelve inches tall all black made of a plastic resinous material which resembles black obsidian. When you look at her she appears to be composed of pure shadow matter except for the fact that it casts your reflection. She is wearing the hooded robe that is shaped like that of a Nun, in her right hand she holds an hour glass which is held by a skeletal hand, her left hand is touching her chest again the shape of the skeletal hand is clearly defined and over her left shoulder is the faint form of a scythe. Although the image is purely black her skull face and skeletal hands are clearly defined it is the most beautiful statue I have of her.
Of course at the base of this statue like other traditional statues of the sacred lady one finds the sacred amuletic filling seeds, legumes and other amulets depicting her worldly powers. Other depictions of her are really more basic in nature which are also older images of the goddess, such basic icons are none other than a human skull which is also a symbol for the lost souls in the Necromantic tradition of Mexico. Another basic symbol for the sacred lady is skull and crossbones usually a triad of skull and crossbone imagery. This is the classic symbolism that appears on the glass seven-day candle known by many as three skulls candle which reads in spanish La Santisima Muerte which means the holy or sacred death.
These candles come in several different colors black to hex enemies in times past I have found this candle labeled muerte contra mis enemigos death against my enemies , white for protection peace of spiritual cleansing and a red one for domination this is not just love domination but also domination in general; this particular color scheme applied to the three skull candle when petitioning la muerte as I was taught in my teen years when I was first learning about the sacred lady. In those days my altar set up for the lady was make shift due to keeping my practices hidden from my family(mom and pop didnt want me to practice brujeria in those days), in such times I used a skull to represent the sacred lady and would use the three skull candle to petition her to deal with the troublesome people in my life or for protection from being killed in the streets.
La Huesuda is what the people in the rancho used to call the Santa Muerte my Abuela (grandmother) Petra told me this when I would visit her as a child in Zacatecas Mexico alas my grandmother died in 2001 at the age of 91 years I thank her for having shared her stories of the sacred lady. Because of my abuela's stories I know that the sacred lady was already revered from older times prior to the modern reverence in 1965. It is uncertain as to when the reverence for the sacred lady really took hold as my grandmother was born in 1910 and she had heard stories of La Huesuda when she was a little girl. My abuela was part of the older culture in Mexico the syncretic mestizo way of life which incorporated many indigenous manerisms blended with the Catholic and spanish/moorish sayings and teachings. Another name people use for her is "La Catrina" which is her classic image in the Dia de los Muertos art of Jose Guadalupe Posada which represents her as a skeleton woman of high society. I used to think she resembled a charra of elegance but studying about the great artist Jose Guadalupe Posada and his calaveras has shown me that she is not the charra but a aristrocartic lady.
Because of this some of her stories of death include syncretic themes such as a link between the Devil and Death both are syncretic forms of old Mexica deities the Devil is the Black Tezcatlipoca and Death is Mictecacihuatl the Lady of the dead. Some of her stories she told me said that el diablo y la muerte son hermano y hermana, which means that the devil and death are brother and sister whom she said were always together watching us especially when at church on sunday. She used to say that la muerte was a very tall lady and she would look into the church on sundays to watch what kids were paying attention to the mass and that she would tell the devil who was good or bad. I think she told me this like she told all her grand kids to scare them into being "devout catholics". Well instead of scaring me all my abuela succeeded in doing was to kindle my interest in the sacred lady a fascination which grew untill the years when I started to study and practice brujeria.
Death is a very powerful symbol in traditional Mexican culture there are many old school sayings that testify to the impact of the death themes in Mexican culture. For example there is a saying used for those that are rich or in power such as politicians or wealthy caciques in Mexico it is said of such people que tienen huesos (they have bones) bones are believed to bring either good fortune or misfortune depending on their origin. I believe that this antiquated saying is derived from Mexica creation stories like the one in which Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent took sacred bones from Mictlan land of the dead home of Mictlantecahtli, Quetzalcoatl tricked the the lord of the dead to take the sacred bones. However as Quetzalcoatl fled the Lord of the Dead made a trap for him which he fell into; scattering all the bones which created humanity. I realize that I am shortening the story regarding these deities but I am only doing so to illustrate the point of origin to the bones saying in Mexican culture.
These are some of the many forms related to the Santa Muerte, there are others but the ones mentioned are the most noted. I would like to move on to next topic before concluding this essay which concerns the magical side of the sacred lady.
The Magic of the Goddess of Death
As in ancient times the Mexica made sacrifices to the Lord and Lady of the Dead in order to receive a peaceful demise so was this tradition carried down the generations and has been transformed into a myriad of requests. The basic request remains always asking for a peaceful death, however the Santa Muerte can be petitioned for just about every human need. There are rituals for prosperity, success in business, justice (court case), protection from harm, protection from enemies, spiritual cleansing/healing, attraction of a lover, the return of a lost love, domination, even curses against enemies, the reversal of curses to name a few. There are herbal baths made in her name for spiritual cleansing, spiritual healing, good fortune, baths to open ones paths to success. Amulets are made in her name for various needs and oils are made in her name as well. The Santa Muerte has a complete system of magic which is rare as many traditions ascribe special requests to various saints the Santa Muerte can grant them all. There are very few folk saints that have this power the sacred lady is one of those rare deities.
These powers are attributed to the Santa Muerte because death is the ultimate destiny of all living things and you can not take away life from death. All mortals must answer to death, this is well addressed in the prayers of the Novena de la Santisima Muerte that express death's supreme influence over our destinies as mortal beings. In essence this power is not limited to human life but ALL LIFE all things must die so death has great power over all life. So she has the power to bend the wills of us mortals
The following magical interpretations are my own observations into Necromantic Magic others may agree or disagree that is your choice but this experience comes from over fifteen years of Necromantic Magical Practice in my personal life.
On a metaphysical and alchemical level this is easily defined: death is transitional it brings transformation it regenerates and takes us back to an all encompasing whole. Seeds that germinate in the decaying soil will soon bring new life, so death on a metaphysical level has all the basic magical attributes stagnation, dying, decay, germination, regeneration, rebirth - resurrection. Think about how this translates on a practical magical level: Stagnation= rituals and spells to stop or a freeze this applies to various workings, example stopping gossip, stopping an enemy from harming you, confusing an enemy or a judge or jury that is against you. This can even apply to binding a lover or marriage stagnation is a state nothing is moving therefore will remain as it is.
Dying: this can apply to many levels: rituals to end bad habbits, addictions to drugs or alcohol and others, rituals to end a bad relationship or break-up type works, rituals to put an end to conflicts in the home or otherwise.
Decay: In the process of decay which is not always slow it is sometimes rapid there are works for the tearing down of barriers or obstacles road opender wall breaker types of workings. The tearing down of energies such as the aura of an enemy or their good fortune, the removal or tearing down of negative thought forms just to name a few examples.
Germination: This is pretty simplistic germination is the start of a new life form and that means rituals for prosperity, money drawing , good luck, business prosperity. Very handy at the start of a new business venture or enterprise. Of course this also applies to agriculture, and apiculture the successful growth of the season's crops and in the case of apiculture the success of the hive a good strong healthy bee hive or hives.
Regeneration: This aspect is where healing is concerned to help someone be rid of a long illness or help someone regain strength after a long time illness. This is also true of ones crops that they may recover from a draught or nasty storm to name a few examples.
Rebirth and Resurrection: Both terms are related, rituals to renew a dying relationship bring back a lost love/r. Resurrect a dying business to name a few or to heal someone that is terminal or pray for their healing as they are in Death's caring hands all we can do is ask. Keeping in mind that these are my own personal observations regarding working with the Death Essence. For many devout followers of the sacred lady of Death it is enough to have faith in her infinite powers and that to me is enough.
Faith is the cornerstone of true prayer and that in itself can work miracles.
Rituals Myths and Misconceptions regarding the Sacred Lady.
The rituals regarding the Santa Muerte range from a basic peitition with a properly dressed candle and offerings to the Lady to the most powerful of rituals which is the Novena (nine day/night prayer ritual) that is prayed to the sacred lady for very serious matters. Sometimes the novena is repeated as often as one month with one day rest in between novenas actualy it is three novenas which is 27 days plus the three rest days spaced in the month. The novena includes a soneto or sonnet an invocational poem and a jaculatoria which means short or fervent prayer not ejaculatory as someone erroneously posted on their website. There exists a controversy regarding the colors of the statue of the sacred lady and their attributes in contemporary times there exist more than four colors. The classic statue colors are black, white, red and bone each color has special attributes for ritual use.
However, it should be noted that many poor people have worked with the Santa Muerte using a framed picture of her or prayer stamp that has her prayer and picture. Then of course there is the traditional human skull that is used to represent the Santa Muerte of which all requests are made. For those that can afford her sacred statues there are certain colors which are favored for specific ritual requests.
Black Santa Muerte statue: Used in rituals against enemies (cursing rituals), to neutralize the negative thought forms created by the envious and the ill wishing of others. Also rituals to reverse the effects of the evil eye. Rituals to reverse psychic attacks and harmful witchcraft that is sent against you, reversal and protection from enviacion this is when a negative or malevolent spirit is sent to cause you harm. Rituals for protection from physical harm, and related rituals. These are the kinds of rituals performed with the black statue but the colors of the candles are another matter all together.
White Santa Muerte statue: Is used in rituals for spiritual cleansing, peace in the home, healing rituals, good luck, blessings and related works.
Red Santa Muerte statue: This statue is mainly used in rituals concerning love both romantic and passionate. Sexual desire and of course the fame of the goddess returning a love or lover that has abandoned you. This is the most popular aspect of the sacred lady I suppose the old cliche applies here love makes the world go round.
Bone Santa Muerte: This statue really has many of the meanings attributed to the white statue so I will not go into this further.
There are many other colored statues used in contemporary times and each has special meanings such as amber color statues of the sacred lady, green statues, seven colored statue, gold statues. I digress, since this article is an introduction to the sacred lady and not a how to manual we will move on to the next topic.
Common myth: It is said that the Santa Muerte will grant your request but in exchange she will take one of your loved ones. This is just a myth and nothing more she will help and protect those that seek shelter in her loving embrace.
Misconceptions regarding Santa Muerte: There is a book written by unscrupulous author who claims to be a Tata of Palo Mayombe that wrote in his book that the Santisima Muerte is a spirit in the practice of Palo Mayombe and that she is a jealous spirit that does not allow her children to have a mate or ever be married. He also claims that she has her own firma or ritual design similar to a veve. This is all self created nonsense to which the author proudly admits to those in his inner circle of friends. Those in the Palo community know who this author is and what book I speak of and the negative publicity it has brought the Palo community. He also claims that she has an initiation ceremony performed in the cemetery more lies nor has this author ever practiced rituals with this essence.
To cast aside this farce I will state this about the Santa Muerte she is the spirit of death itself albeit a feminine aspect of the death essence. She is also neutral in her judgment of how she is petitioned be it for reasons of hate or love remeber death plays no favorites and reaps all both young and old, rich or poor, beautiful and ugly alike. So once again that author is making terribly inaccurate assumptions which in my eyes is a terrible crime.
It is said that the Santa Muerte is neither black or white magic rather she is the force of the magic which is colored by the soul of the witch or petitioner. One need not be a witch to seek solace with the sacred lady, however many chamanes, curanderos/as and brujos like myself work with this powerful goddess.
Very often followers of Santeria equate the Santa Muerte with a goddess in their own pantheon of deities this is Oya the goddess of winds and thunder whom also happens to be a guardian of the cemetery gates. She is believed to work with the dead and receive the souls of those dead. She is different from the Santa Muerte because Oya is an elemental force that includes attributes of the cemetery and death. The Santa Muerte is the spirit of death itself the feminine essence of death itself and her origins are Mexican whereas Oya's origins are African.
Oya has initiation ceremonies for those that would be priests/ess of her mysteries, with the Santa Muerte being death itself you are an initiate by being born because life is inseperable from death. Animal sacrificial rites are performed for Oya and contemporary Santa Muerte is not apropriated with blood sacrifices as she was when she was Mictecacihuatl. In perhispanic Mexico the Mexica made human sacrifices and animal sacrifices for their deities.
The Santa Muerte is now a Mestiza in her blend of ancient Mexica lineage and her Euro necromantic imagery because of this the customs changed and now she is offered food, candles, tobacco, prayers and an unwavering faith. This is suffice for the sacred lady and many of her followers will concur for they and myself included have experienced her miracles and feel comfort in her loving embrace. In closing this essay on the Santa Muerte I wish to state the following: There seems to be an emphasis towards identifying the Sacred Lady of Death as being mostly revered by drug dealers, smugglers, prostitutes and gangsters. This image is largely emphasized by Catholic officials in Mexico that want to give her a bad image, although it is true that such people do revere her such people do not make the majority. Remember that the faithful come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life.
Aztec Religion: Aztec Student Research guide (C) 1997-2005 Thomas H. Frederikson all rights reserved. Relevant sections of the study guide were sections on the Minor deities with descriptions of Mictlantecahtli and his wife Mictecacihuatl and the creation stories in the Major deities section Quetzalcoatl's descention to Mictlan and the Mexica view of death. Information from notes on the codices that speak of the Death gods.
Prehistoric Mesoamerica: by Richard E.W. Adams, Revised edition copyright 1991 by the University of Oklahoma press ISBN 0-8061-2304-4 First edition copyright 1977 by Little, Brown and company, Inc Boston
El Culto a la Santa Muerte, Cuidado de la edicion: Angeles Cuevas Santillan Diseno de portada: Marco Antonio Almazan Espinoza de los Monteros. Ilustraciones: Miguel Angel Diaz Consuelo. Formacion: Elvira Peniche De Icaza. Primera edicion 2003, Mexico Ediciones MonteMayor S.A. DE CV
El Secreto de la Santisima Muerte, serie del Colibri: Copyright Calli Casa Editorial 1996 ISBN 068-6463-00-3