Santa Muerte: Decolonizing Death, Her Origins And Today's Spiritual Practices

Santa Muerte: Decolonizing Death, Her Origins And Today's Spiritual Practices

Santa Muerte, or Our Lady of Holy Death, is a powerful and revered figure within Mexican folk spirituality. Understanding her roots, cultural significance, and modern spiritual practices requires a decolonial lens that respects and honors her indigenous origins and the ways marginalized communities have preserved and adapted her veneration.

Decolonial Origins and Cultural Histories

Santa Muerte's origins are deeply embedded in pre-Columbian "Mesoamerican", indigenous cultures, where death deities like Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death, were worshipped. The arrival of Spanish colonizers and the imposition of Catholicism forced indigenous beliefs to merge with Christian iconography, leading to the syncretic figure of Santa Muerte. This blending is not merely a historical footnote but a testament to indigenous resilience and the enduring power of their spiritual traditions despite colonial oppression.

Over centuries, Santa Muerte has become a prominent figure in Mexican folk spiritualities, particularly among marginalized and disenfranchised communities in the colonial "Americas" who find solace in her impartial and compassionate nature. Affectionately sometimes referred to as La Flaca, Santa Muerte remains a gracious deity free of colonial judgement, shame manipulation, persecution and other Catholic/Christian religious cult abuses. La Flaca's worship has expanded beyond the colonial borders of Mexico along with Mexico's people, defying settler's imaginary lines and resonating with diverse diasporic groups, including biracial Indigenous and Afro-descendant practitioners of Hoodoo, such as yours truly 😉.

Decolonial Spiritual Beliefs About Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte is seen as a protector, healer, and granter of favors. Many followers believe she is an impartial and powerful deity who accepts all petitions, regardless of one's background or moral standing. In this light, her veneration represents a form of Indigenous spiritual and social justice, offering support to those neglected by mainstream society and colonial religious institutions.

Image credit: Toni Francois

Colors, Herbs, and Botanicals Associated with Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte is often depicted in various colored (sometimes multi-colored) robes, each representing different aspects of her power. Here are some common colors and their associated meanings:

  • White: Purity, protection, peace, and healing.
  • Red: Love, passion, and romantic relationships.
  • Black: Protection, power, banishing negativity, and transformation.
  • Gold: Wealth, prosperity, and financial success.
  • Green: Justice, legal matters, and overcoming obstacles.
  • Purple: Wisdom, spirituality, and psychic abilities.

Herbs and botanicals commonly associated with Santa Muerte include:

  • Rose petals: Love and protection.
  • Marigold (cempasúchil): Death and remembrance.
  • Rue: Protection and purification.
  • Sage: Cleansing and removing negative energy.
  • Cinnamon: Love, protection, and success.
  • Bay leaves: Wisdom, protection, and prosperity.

Decolonial Practices with Santa Muerte

  1. Altars and Offerings: Devotees create altars adorned with statues or images of Santa Muerte, Santa Muerte prayer candles, flowers, incense, and offerings such as fruits, liquor, coins, and cigarettes. This practice honors the indigenous ancestral tradition of creating sacred spaces and making offerings to deities.
  2. Prayers and Rituals: Specific prayers and rituals invoke Santa Muerte's blessings, and may reflect a blend of pre-contact indigenous spirituality and Catholic forced "influences" adapted through centuries of colonial resistance.
  3. Spiritual Oils and Baths: Spiritual oils and ritual baths dedicated to Santa Muerte are used for protection, love, and prosperity, linking to indigenous healing limpia practices such as Curanderismo.
  4. Petitions and Spells: Practitioners write paper prayer petitions and perform spells asking Santa Muerte for assistance in various matters, from love and health to justice and protection, demonstrating the adaptive and resilient nature of her veneration.

 

Are Santa Muerte and La Catrina the Same?

In short, no. Santa Muerte and La Catrina are two distinct figures in Mexican culture, each with its unique origins, symbolism, and roles. Santa Muerte, also known as Holy Death, is typically depicted as a skeletal figure cloaked in a robe, often holding a scythe, hourglass, or globe, and is associated with themes of death, protection, healing, and justice. Devotees pray to her for assistance in various aspects of life, especially those related to health, love, and financial stability, and she is seen as a powerful, impartial figure who transcends traditional religious boundaries.

In contrast, La Catrina is a more recent cultural icon, created by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century and popularized by muralist Diego Rivera. La Catrina is a satirical representation of a wealthy, European-dressed skeleton woman, originally intended to critique the Mexican elite's obsession with European fashion and superficiality during the Porfirio Díaz regime. She has since become an emblematic figure of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, symbolizing the idea that death is the great equalizer, affecting all people regardless of social status. La Catrina is often depicted in elaborate, festive attire, adorned with flowers and hats, emphasizing the joyful and celebratory aspects of death in Mexican culture.

While both Santa Muerte and La Catrina are skeletal figures associated with death, Santa Muerte is a revered spiritual entity with a devoted following seeking her intervention in their lives, whereas La Catrina serves as a cultural and artistic symbol reminding people of the inevitability of death and the importance of embracing it with humor and acceptance.

Understanding Santa Muerte's Iconic Symbols

Santa Muerte, also known as Holy Death, is often depicted with various symbolic items that hold significant meanings in her spiritual practice. Here is a list of the most common items and their symbolic meanings:

  1. Scythe: Symbolizes the harvesting of souls, the end of life, and the cutting of negative energies or obstacles. It also represents transformation and the cycles of life and death.

  2. Hourglass: Represents the passage of time, the inevitability of death, and the importance of living life fully. It is a reminder that life is temporary and that time should be valued.

  3. Globe: Symbolizes Santa Muerte's dominion over the entire world, indicating that death is a universal force that transcends boundaries. It also signifies her power and reach across the globe.

  4. Scales: Represent justice, balance, and impartiality. Santa Muerte is seen as a fair judge of human actions, weighing the deeds of the living and the dead without bias.

  5. Owl: Symbolizes wisdom, foresight, and the ability to navigate the darkness. The owl is also a messenger between the living and the dead, guiding souls in the afterlife.

  6. Lantern: Represents enlightenment, guidance, and the light that Santa Muerte provides to her devotees. It is a symbol of hope and clarity in times of darkness.

  7. Rosary: Indicates the syncretism with Catholic traditions and the blending of Indigenous and Christian beliefs. The rosary emphasizes faith, devotion, and the power of prayer.

  8. Book: Symbolizes knowledge, secrets, and the mysteries of life and death that Santa Muerte holds. It can also represent the records of one's actions and life journey.

  9. Coins: Represent wealth, prosperity, and financial stability. They symbolize Santa Muerte’s ability to provide for the material needs of her followers.

  10. Candles: Symbolize the light of hope, protection, and spiritual guidance. The colors of the candles can also have specific meanings, such as red for love and passion, white for purity and healing, and black for protection and justice.

Each of these items contributes to the rich symbolism of Santa Muerte, reflecting her role as a powerful and multifaceted spiritual figure who oversees life, death, and the balance between them.

 

 

Santa Muerte Devotion and Decolonizing Death

The evolution of the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl into Santa Muerte is a poignant testament to the resilience and adaptability of Indigenous spiritual practices amidst the forces of colonialism.

The story of Santa Muerte can also be seen as a cultural marker in the evolution of our relationship to death due to colonization.

Mictecacihuatl, revered as the Queen of the Underworld, symbolized an Indigenous death-positive worldview where death was seen as a natural, integral part of life's cycle, celebrated with rituals and deep reverence. This perspective fostered a healthy relationship with death, viewing it not as an end but as a transformation.

However, with the advent of colonialism, Indigenous beliefs were and still are systematically suppressed and replaced by "Western" or more accurately called, Eurocentric ideologies that viewed death with fear, disgust, disrespect and taboo.

Colonial forces promoted and today still perpetuate -a sanitized, capitalist approach to death, characterized by the exploitative corruption within commercialization of funerary practices and the relegation of death to hidden, sterile environments.

Even the advent of modern embalming also somehow reflects the colonial suppression and denial of natural forces and decaying matter. And in today's colonial funerary industry, the cultural individualist attitude overlook the environmental toxicity and lack of sustainability in the practices of embalming today, to make a quick buck. Ironically, inching us closer and closer to midnight on the Doomsday clock. I find it poetic and liberating that in the end, death wins all, knocking colonialism off it's false, self-anointed throne.

Spiritually, the colonial relationship to death reads much like how colonialism's relation to everything natural, factual, whole and interconnected does: dissonant at best, destructive at worst. Fragmenting, severing and discarding reality to serve it's supremacy, eventually to it's own detriment.

Santa Muerte emerged from this cultural collision as a syncretic figure, embodying the enduring reverence for death in Indigenous spirituality while adapting to the clandestine worship necessitated by colonial oppression.

Today, Santa Muerte stands as a symbol of resistance, reminding us of the need to reclaim a respectful and balanced relationship with death, challenging the Westernized societal norms that seek to obscure and commodify this fundamental aspect of human existence.

 

Cultural Sensitivities and Appropriation

Approaching Santa Muerte with a decolonial perspective requires respect and understanding of her cultural origins. Avoid cultural appropriation by learning from knowledgeable practitioners and purchasing items from reputable sources. Recognize the spiritual and cultural significance of Santa Muerte, and approach your practice with genuine respect and humility.

Working With Our Lady Holy Death

Santa Muerte embodies the resilience and adaptability of indigenous and marginalized communities. By understanding her origins, colors, herbs, and modern practices through a decolonial lens, you can respectfully incorporate her into your spiritual journey. Approach her and her people with respect, honor cultural traditions, and seek guidance and spiritual tools from reputable authentic Indigenous sources.

Embracing the teachings of Santa Muerte can guide you towards protection, love, prosperity, and justice in your spiritual practices. And sharing her wisdom can guide us all to a death-positive, post-colonial future.

This article is dedicated to Holy Death and my fellow devotees. 

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