An intimidating, scythe-wielding hooded skeleton might not immediately sound like the cornerstone symbol of a modern religion. Yet in contemporary Mexico, La Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”) is exactly that. This macabre figure stands at the crossroads of indigenous Mexican religious beliefs, folk Catholicism, and a very modern need for security. For historically marginalized followers of La Santa Muerte, death is the one constant in life. Its indiscriminatory nature offers a sense of comfort.
The movement’s explosion in popularity in the 21st century has put it at odds with Mexico’s major established institutions, most notably the Catholic Church. Controversial media coverage has largely painted “Saint Death” in a negative light. Yet the movement shows no signs of slowing down. What, then, is La Santa Muerte, and who follows this new religion?
The Complex Origins of La Santa Muerte
La Santa Muerte’s origins appear to lie at the meeting point of indigenous Mesoamerican and European Christian cultural practices. Mesoamerican religions prior to Spanish colonization had a diverse pantheon of gods, including death deities. This belief system stood in direct contrast to the uncompromising monotheism of Christianity.
The differences between Mesoamerican religions and European Christianity also extended to both cultures’ understanding of death. In the Christian tradition, death was far more feared than revered. Although the Church taught that all Christians possessed immortal souls, the death of the physical body was the ultimate end of one’s earthly existence. Christianity lacked a concept of reincarnation; unlike Jesus Christ, a devout Christian only had one life, without exception.
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In contrast to Christianity’s more negative image of death, Mesoamerican religions perceived death to be tied to rebirth. Mesoamericans still feared earthly demise, but they saw death as part of a vital cycle. Widespread belief in the power of ancestors blurred the line between life and death even further.
When the Spanish conquered Mexico in the 1500s, they brought over Roman Catholic and European notions of death. Early Franciscan and Dominican missionaries undertook aggressive efforts to wipe out indigenous Mesoamerican customs. They destroyed books and icons, replacing them with Catholic forms of devotion. Much information about pre-colonial Mesoamerican religion and history has thus been lost.
However, the friars never managed to completely obliterate the Mesoamerican reverence for death. Death was ever-present in colonial Mexico, whether from overwork, starvation, war, or disease. As late as the 1790s, Inquisition records describe Indigenous Catholic converts who faced punishment for making offerings to skeletal images. Cases like this were infrequent, but they do illustrate the persistence of native Mesoamerican religious ideas and their fusion with European Catholicism.
The 1990s and Beyond: Rise to Popular Attention
It was during the 1990s when La Santa Muerte really developed a cult following. The movement definitely had its devotees between Mexican independence and the end of the twentieth century, but they mostly worshipped in secret. In the 1990s, however, the situation fundamentally changed.
The end of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of the infamous Mexican drug trade. As cartels grew and armed themselves, some professed devotion to La Santa Muerte. The Mexican press frequently linked the religious movement to narcotics-related atrocities. American media outlets followed their Mexican counterparts’ lead. News reports and popular culture productions, such as the acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad, cast La Santa Muerte in terms of narcoterrorism. The Grim Reaper-like imagery associated with “Saint Death” only amplified English-speaking America’s fears.
Yet perceptions of La Santa Muerte as a drug-fueled, murderous cult are frustratingly incomplete. The religion’s following extends far beyond narcotics traffickers. Since 2001, devotees have created altars across Mexico, including in the capital of Mexico City. By looking at contemporary adherents’ backgrounds and identities, we can broaden our understanding of La Santa Muerte and its role in modern Mexican society.
Who Reveres La Santa Muerte?
Those who revere La Santa Muerte come from diverse backgrounds. R. Andrew Chesnut, the United States’ leading scholar on the movement, estimated in 2022 that twelve million Mexicans were devoted to Santa Muerte. Additionally, social media has allowed for the dissemination of the movement’s beliefs across the globe, from Latin America to Europe and the Philippines.
Although devotees of La Santa Muerte are multifaceted, they do tend to share a common denominator: an outsider social status. “Saint Death” has primarily attracted millions of Mexicans from marginalized backgrounds, including the poor and the LGBT community. Devotees do not necessarily hate Christianity or other organized religions; in fact, many adherents still call themselves Catholic. Instead, they have lost faith that existing institutions will speak to their everyday struggles. The abstract idea of death as the ultimate equalizer might seem comforting.
The popularity of La Santa Muerte has only exploded as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chesnut has gone so far as to call her the world’s “newest plague saint.” During the height of the pandemic, ordinary Mexicans lit special candles and gave offerings to La Santa Muerte, praying for protection from illness. As a being conceptualized at the intersection of life and death, the “Bony Lady” functions as a protector of health for her devotees.
What Does the “Bony Lady” Do?
Believers in La Santa Muerte hold that the saint can provide magical aid to those who offer their prayers. Traditionally, this has included assistance in finding love and defense against sickness. The Bony Lady’s miracle-working powers do not have defined limits, as her cult does not have a singular sacred text.
Although La Santa Muerte lacks a hierarchical structure, the movement does have critically important rituals. Adherents place statues of their beloved folk saint on altars, in a similar way to Roman Catholic practices. Often, they set up the altars in their own homes. Physical offerings supplement prayers. In addition to Christian rosary beads, popular offerings to “Saint Death” include flowers, chocolate, apples, water, and even cigarettes.
Votive candles are another crucial feature of devotion to La Santa Muerte. Believers have developed a complex system of candle symbolism based on color. For example, a devotee might light a red candle when praying for assistance in love. Purple and white candles symbolize health and healing, while a gold candle symbolizes a wish for prosperity. There is even a yellow candle which represents overcoming addiction. Candle colors can be either broadly encompassing or highly specific, depending on a devotee’s situation and wish.
What Does the Catholic Church Think of “Saint Death?”
The Catholic Church has wholeheartedly condemned La Santa Muerte as satanic. This is the opposite of its positions on more established Mexican traditions, like the Virgin of Guadalupe or Day of the Dead. In 2016, Pope Francis linked veneration of the Bony Lady to narcotics-related violence, citing incidents of atrocities in the folk saint’s name. Other leading Church representatives had already condemned the movement in prior years. The Vatican refuses to recognize La Santa Muerte as a legitimate saint.
It is important to note that Mexican Catholicism has slowly declined in influence in recent years. As the Church’s influence has receded, evangelical Protestant churches have gained followers. The Mexican Catholic Church has thus felt threatened on two sides, both from La Santa Muerte and growing evangelical denominations.
Like their Catholic rivals, the Protestant churches of Mexico revile the Bony Lady — sometimes even more intensely. Yet the skeleton saint’s followers don’t seem to care. If anything, their numbers have witnessed an ascent since the start of the century. Almost all of Mexico now seems to have at least a small level of familiarity with La Santa Muerte.
La Santa Muerte: Fighting for People on the Margins
Modern Mexico is a country plagued by political and social instability. Government corruption remains a huge problem, and the War on Drugs appears to have no end in sight. The nation’s religious landscape is also undergoing major changes, as Protestant preachers and other religions threaten the Catholic Church’s traditional monopoly on faith. In times of insecurity, human beings will often turn to whatever can most readily guarantee their safety.
It is precisely because of these conditions that La Santa Muerte has amassed such a huge following in the twenty-first century. Those already living on the margins of Mexican society may find solace in an abstract folk healer saint who doesn’t play favorites with believers. “Saint Death” is much more than simply a Grim Reaper; she is also a provider of health. As long as Mexicans believe she can provide for their needs, La Santa Muerte will have no shortage of devotees.