La Santa Muerte: Folk Saint


Santa Muerte, AKA Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte (Our Lady of Holy Death), La Huesuda (The Bony Lady), La Flaca (The Skinny Woman), and Santísima Muerte (Most Holy Death) is a Mexican deity, folk saint, and spiritual icon. Her origins are believed to be the product of Aztec and other Mesoamerican spiritual beliefs combined with informal Catholicism and neopaganistic worship. She is the personification of Death and is honored with no less than two feast days—August 15 and November 1—in Mexico and the American Southwest.

La Santa Muerte is famously known for her willingness to work for anybody on anything; she does not judge. In fact, she has a special understanding and affinity for those on the fringes/outside of society—the downtrodden and dispossessed—as well as the LGBTQIA+ community, the poor, the incarcerated and the released, migrants, sex workers, drug dealers, gang members, and other lawless, judged, shunned, misunderstood, or discriminated against persons. Due to these associations, the Catholic Church condemns Santa Muerte and her followers and view her worship as being satanic and blasphemous.

While some of her devotees may be controversial and her appearance perhaps disconcerting, she is nonetheless very popular. Her veneration has spread from Mexico to Central and South America, the United States, Canada, and even into the Caribbean. No doubt that this is because she accepts people from all walks of life, as they are. Not judging her followers, but instead providing a loving, protective, and powerful figure on whom they can count. Whatever the case, the number of her followers now reaches well over 11 million, at the time of this writing, and only just continues to surge. Her cult is the fastest growing religious phenomenon in the Americas.

How do you know if you are seeing la Santa Muerte vs. Someone or Something Else?

Pictures of la Santa are starting to pop up everywhere, but sometimes, it is not so easy to tell. As I mentioned, she is the personification of Death, so a skeleton in a robe will be your first clue. However, there are other spirits that look almost the same (including the more traditional image of Death), so look for something else that may indicate she is female, for example, a crown, flowers, or a bridal veil. However, sometimes none of those is present, so look for other clues, like her symbols. La Santa’s symbols are the scythe (death, endings and beginnings, harvest and rewards, cutting away unwanted things); the scale (justice, impartiality, and balance); the owl (wisdom, feminine power, clear sight, and death); the globe (symbolizes her power over the living and lack of boundaries); the crystal ball (divination and seeing the truth of a situation); the hourglass (the passing of time and the past, present, and future); the lamp (peace, hope, illumination, and guidance); and, as mentioned, the cloak/robe and a rope belt (symbolizes her enveloping protection of those who seek her help and her humble beginnings), among others.

La Santa’s iconography is also remarkable in its vast array of color variations; each color symbolizes an area of concern, patronage, type of working, or aspect of her personality. Some of her most common colors are:

BLACK—For stopping things, removal of blockages, breaking of bonds, removes jinxes/hexes/curses, stops witchcraft, protection from attack, revenge, spiritual attack, reversals

RED—For passionate love, sex/lust, fidelity, physical dominance, vitality, family relations, and blood ties.

WHITE—For purification, cleanings, blessings, consecration, and for any positive use.

7-COLORS—For addressing many areas of life at once, including love, money, peace, justice, healing, etc. Please note that the colors of the robe do not directly match the colors of the candle. In addition, you can get the 7-color robe label with either a white or a 7-color candle.

So, how do you approach la Santa Muerte and what kinds of things does she like?

I have worked with la Santa for a little over 15 years. I approached her as I do all other spirits—respectfully, at a time when I did not need anything from her, and with offerings of water and a candle. She was very receptive. I have always only worked with the white and red aspects, although, I feel I know her well enough NOW that I would be comfortable working with her black aspect, too. Although, honestly, that black aspect is always there, however hidden; it’s her default.

For those who work with her regularly, it is common that, over the years, an altar to Santa Muerte will grow. However, hers with me has always remained very simple. Perhaps that is because my requests have always been very simple? I don’t know. As is the case with other spirits, each person’s experience of her is unique.

Besides water, I do always offer her White Bacardi Rum in a shot glass that I purchased just for her. It is a hand-blown glass with a little saguaro cactus on it, symbolizing the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico. I keep this dedicated bottle of rum on her altar. She also gets red and white roses or carnations, Dove chocolates, and the occasional candle. Other things she likes are tequila or mezcal, tobacco, sweets, fruits and juices, cake, soda, cash money, incense (copal), perfume, Florida Water, jewelry, rosary beads, prayers, conversation, skulls and bones, statuary, physical manifestations of her symbols, and like anyone—love, praise, and attention.

Despite the rather modest altar, I have done other things to show her my appreciation. I have depicted her with my art, written about her, and magnified her name when given the opportunity. I love to go into shops where her statue is displayed, and with the shopkeeper’s okay, I will take pictures of her statuary for my collection. So, it isn’t always about these big, elaborate altars that seem to be so common. The worship of la Santa Muerte doesn’t have to be grandiose, just loving, respectful, and sincere.

Speaking of being respectful and sincere, whatever aspect you work with, she is not one with which to trifle. If you say you are going to do something for her, do it. If you make a deal with her, follow through with your end of it. Unless you have a very good reason to have her on an altar with others, keep her separate. She’s not so choosy about the size of altar, but she does like to be the only one on it. Know that she can be very aggressive about what she does and doesn’t like, so be prepared for the occasional outward manifestation of that. Also, don’t tease or mock her, even if that is one of the ways you connect with the people you love; save that for the others in your life. Be patient and know that she works in her own time. Do not try to push her because she will SHOVE back. Ask and then wait, carry on as normal; she heard you. Do not waste her time with petty things. Do not challenge her (I pity the fool) and do not ignore her. Get her what she wants. It’s okay to ask for clarification, but do not question her. Lastly, take your lumps and learn from them when she sees fit to teach you a lesson.

Heed this advice, hold up your end of things, and you will not find a more powerful and loving ally in your corner (save for God/Jesus). Now, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it?

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