Santa Muerte Explained: History, Traditions, & More

Updated

Santa Muerte is a figure many have seen depictions of without realizing it. Although the figure’s origins date back centuries, only recently has Santa Muerte begun to appear in gift shops, celebrations, some Mexican funerals, and even popular TV shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter.

Jump ahead to these sections:

Unfortunately, while interest in Santa Muerte is growing, so are misunderstandings about what the figure represents. While no single article could cover everything there is to know about Santa Muerte, this basic guide will explain who she is, where she comes from, and how her adherents worship her.

Who Is Santa Muerte?

The full name of Santa Muerte is actually Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, which translates to Our Lady of the Holy Death. Researchers consider Santa Muerte to be a “folk saint” whose qualities and origins derive from a range of religious and spiritual traditions. The worship of Santa Muerte typically blends Catholicism and Mexican neo-paganism.

Depictions of Santa Muerte usually involve a robe-clad female skeleton. Santa Muerte also tends to carry a scythe or similar item with her. Thus, many compare the figure to the Grim Reaper.

In many ways, the two are very similar. Like the Grim Reaper, people generally don’t think of Santa Muerte as a dead human being, but rather as an overall personification of death.

However, Santa Muerte isn’t necessarily a sinister or evil figure, as some might assume based on her appearance. Many followers of Santa Muerte associate her with healing and protection. They also see her as a figure who can facilitate a safe journey to the afterlife.

ยป MORE: Honor a loved one with an online memorial. Get 10% off at Keeper with promo code JOINCAKE.

 

History of Santa Muerte

The history of Santa Muerte offers the opportunity to learn about cultural shifts throughout Mexico’s history in general. Although scholars have written entire books on the subject of Santa Muerte, this general overview should help you get a basic sense of how the figure has grown in popularity over the course of centuries.

Origins

It’s worth noting that scholars have not reached a consensus on the origins of Santa Muerte. The information here is just a sampling of some of the more prominent theories.

Some believe that Santa Muerte is a holdover from indigenous spiritual practices that the Spanish colonizers largely eradicated. Supporting this theory is the first known reference to Santa Muerte. It appears in a 1797 Inquisition report citing various idolatrous beliefs and practices amongst the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the surrounding regions.

Specifically, some researchers now theorize that the original inspiration for Santa Muerte was Mictecacihuatl, an Aztec goddess involved in death rites. In fact, some Santa Muerte followers consider her to be the reincarnation of Mictecacihuatl.

However, others believe that Santa Muerte represents a combination of Catholic and traditional beliefs. They point out that death figures have long played a significant role in Catholicism. Thus, they argue that Catholic beliefs the Spanish brought with them may have at least influenced the development of Santa Muerte as a folk saint.

Others suggest that European depictions of the Grim Reaper also contributed to Santa Muerte’s origins. This would naturally explain the similarities between the two figures’ appearances. Along with the Grim Reaper, depictions of death figures in tarot cards may have also shaped Santa Muerte’s appearance somewhat.

Flash forward

There’s a gap of nearly two centuries between the first historical references to Santa Muerte and the next. The next references researchers have identified are from a period spanning between the 1940s and 1960s. At that time, scholars found that most Santa Muerte worshippers implored her to perform love miracles, such as restoring broken relationships after affairs.

Drug wars

Researchers generally agree that widespread awareness of Santa Muerte seemed to dip for some time after the 1960s. They believe many continued to worship her but likely did so privately.

Knowledge of Santa Muerte among average citizens grew again when members of drug cartels reportedly began worshipping her. Some suggest that drug cartel members might ask Santa Muerte for protection when they prepare to do something illegal or dangerous.

Growing popularity

Santa Muerte’s association with drug cartels makes her a controversial figure for some. Additionally, the Catholic Church continues to warn its members that Santa Muerte isn’t a real saint and they shouldn’t worship her.

However, in recent years, Santa Muerte’s popularity has continued to grow. She now plays a role in many Day of the Dead rituals and celebrations. Santa Muerte has also become particularly popular among members of marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community. One researcher even claims that, if belief in or worship of Santa Muerte qualifies as a religion, it’s the fastest-growing religion in the Americas.

Today’s Santa Muerte worshippers often make a point of arguing that those who see Santa Muerte worship as “Satanic” or otherwise evil in some way don’t understand the true nature of the figure and the beliefs surrounding her. They point out that Santa Muerte worship is typically positive in nature and in fact shares many similarities with traditional Catholic practices. The next section, below, will cover some of those similarities in greater detail.

Rituals and Traditions Associated with Santa Muerte

Those who don’t worship Santa Muerte but are somewhat aware of the figure often misunderstand the nature of Santa Muerte worship. In reality, it’s fairly traditional, consisting of rituals such as these. 

Blessings

Santa Muerte worship and Catholic rituals have much more in common than many people realize. For example, many Santa Muerte worshippers attend Masses, complete with priests.

They may ask priests to bless them or their loved ones in the name of Santa Muerte. For instance, one Santa Muerte worshipper claims that after struggling with complications during pregnancy, Santa Muerte healed her via a priest’s blessing.

Offerings

Altars or shrines to Santa Muerte play a significant role in Santa Muerte worship. Often, worshippers will leave offerings to the figure at these shrines. Offerings may consist of food, cigars, candles, and other such items. Worshippers may leave offerings when asking Santa Muerte to intervene in their lives in some way.

Prayer

It’s not uncommon for Santa Muerte worshippers to pray to the figure with rosaries. This is another way in which Santa Muerte worship practices overlap with Catholic practices.

Symbols Associated with Santa Muerte

Many symbols associated with Santa Muerte typically appear on Santa Muerte altars or shrines. Examples include the following.

Owls

A traditional Santa Muerte altar may depict an owl sitting at Santa Muerte’s feet. This may be because owls have long symbolized wisdom and feminine power in various cultural and spiritual traditions.

(If bird symbolism interests you, check out our guide on death birds. We also have a guide on popular symbols of mourning.)

Candles

Votive candles are also frequently part of Santa Muerte altars. They come in different colors, with each color having its own unique meaning.

For example, a red candle symbolizes love. Someone may place such a candle on a Santa Muerte altar if they wish for the figure to assist them in their romantic life.

Green candles symbolize legal issues, white candles represent thanksgiving and gratitude, gold candles symbolize money and finances, black candles are for protection, and purple candles are for health. Sometimes, a person who wishes to ask Santa Muerte for help in several areas of their life will place a multicolored candle at her altar.

Saints

Another common element of a Santa Muerte altar is a saint figure. Some Santa Muerte altars feature depictions of multiple saints.

Some of these saints may be official Catholic figures, such as St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. However, Santa Muerte altars also tend to include figures of other traditional folk saints that the Catholic Church may not recognize.

Other altar symbols

Other features of typical Santa Muerte altars shed more light on beliefs and practices surrounding the figure. Shrines may feature cups of water to satisfy Santa Muerte’s thirst, money, sweets, alcohol, and cigars or cigarettes. According to one account, when money has been placed on a Santa Muerte altar, worshippers will make a point of not touching it, even if they’re intoxicated.

La Llorona

La Llorona isn’t just a character from the film The Curse of La Llorona (a spinoff in the popular Conjuring franchise). La Llorona is a ghostly figure in Mexican folklore who supposedly wanders the streets wailing for her lost children who she doesn’t realize she has murdered.

In one story involving La Llorona, men approach the woman to offer help, not realizing she’s a ghost until they see her face is nothing but a skull. This resemblance to Santa Muerte has given some researchers the idea that La Llorona and Santa Muerte may have the same cultural and historical roots. Thus, although La Llorona is not an official symbol of Santa Muerte, some consider the two to be part of the same tradition.

Santa Muerte: A Misunderstood Figure

Again, if statistics are any indication, worship of Santa Muerte throughout the Americas is growing at an extremely fast rate. Although she may be a misunderstood figure now, that could change as awareness of Santa Muerte spreads more widely.


Sources: 
  1. Farrow, Mary. “Have you heard of Saint Death? Don’t pray to her.” Catholic News Agency, Catholic News Agency, 4 November 2017, catholicnewsagency.com.
  2. Gerson, Livia. “Who is Santa Muerte?” JStor Daily, ITHAKA, 5 October 2020, daily.jstor.org.
  3. “Growing Devotion To Santa Muerte In U.S. And Abroad.” NBC News, National Broadcasting Company, 29 December 2014, nbcnews.com.
  4. “Santa Muerte Altar.” Texas Folklife, Texas Folklife, 31 October 2013, texasfolklife.org.
  5. Tucker, Duncan. “Santa Muerte: The rise of Mexico’s death 'saint'.” BBC News, BBC, 1 November 2017, bbc.com.
  6. Quantz, Allison. “Digging Into The History Of Mexico’s Grim Santa Muerte.” WAMU 88.5 American University Radio, American University Radio, amu.org.
  7. Whittington, Christine. “La Santa Muerte: Origin and Significance of a Mexican Death Saint.” Wake Forest University, May 2011, wakespace.lib.wfu.edu.

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.