Monday, October 31, 2011

Santa Muerte ~ Saint Death

Hopping by from the Coffin Hop? See Monday's giveaway post here.

Although worship of goddesses is becoming increasingly mainstream in the United States, the dominant religion in America has always been decidedly patriarchal. Mexico, dominated by Spanish culture and ruled for years by a strict form of Catholicism, may at first glance seem to be an even more patriarchal society. Yet the goddesses of the Aztecs and other indigenous Mexican peoples never really went away. Subsumed into Our Lady of Guadalupe and, more recently, Santa Muerte, goddess worship is making its way into Mexican and Mexican-American cultures. Similarly, Haitian immigrants to the United States are spreading the worship of Maman Brigitte, a cult figure similar to Santa Muerte.

Santa Muerte, whose name means “Sacred Death” or “Saint Death,” is a figure worshiped increasingly in Mexican and Mexican-American communities. Although references to her date back to about 1965, she’s gained popularity in the last 25 years or so. Sometimes depicted as a skeleton or a woman with a skull face, Santa Muerte often holds the traditional European symbols of mortality, such as the Grim Reaper’s scythe or an hourglass. These images were influenced by European art. Different aspects of Santa Muerte are invoked for different purposes: Black Santa Muerte for cursing enemies, White Santa Muerte for cleansing and blessing, and Red Santa Muerte for petitions of love, lust and passion. The red aspect of Santa Muerte is said to be the most popular.

In the indigenous Mexican religion, Santa Muerte’s antecedent is Mictlantecihautl or Mictecacihautl, “The Lady of the Land of Death.” She’s a sort of Mexican Persephone, mistress of the god of the dead and protector of souls in the underworld. The original Day of the Dead, observed at the end of July/beginning of August, was dedicated to her. The Spanish moved it to the Christian All Souls’ Day, November 2nd. Her color is red, and offerings of blood were made to ask her for a peaceful death.

In her red aspect, Santa Muerte resembles Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of love and sexuality. Called “the lady of filth,” Tlazolteotl presided over pleasure. Her priestesses were sacred prostitutes. Owls were sacred to her, and depictions of Santa Muerte with an owl perched on her shoulder reflect Tlazolteotl.

For many worshipers, Santa Muerte is more powerful than the traditional icon of Mexican Catholicism, The Virgin of Guadalupe. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have appeared to an Aztec man on the hill of Tepeyac on December 12, 1531. (The twelfth of December is the Catholic Church’s Feast of Immaculate Conception, honoring Mary.) of She told him to present himself to the Catholic, Spanish archbishop of Mexico City. When he did, his cloak was miraculously filled with blooming roses and the image of Mary standing on top of a crescent moon. A church was built in honor of the Virgin on that hill, and today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is Christianity’s most visited shrine. The Aztec man was baptized and renamed Juan Diego; his Nahuatl-language name is lost to history.

The name “Guadalupe,” which is also the name of a town in Spain, but which seems to have no direct connect to the saint’s appearance at Tepeyac, may be from the Nahuatl word “coatlaxopeuh.” The word sounds rather like “Guadalupe,” and translates as “she who crushes the serpent.” The serpent represented the native Mexican religion. Thus, the mother of Jesus was out to crush the indigenous religion. At the same time, she absorbed aspects of it.

The Virgin of Guadalupe’s indigenous antecedent is Tonatzin, the Moon Goddess, a milder aspect of Coaticue. Coaticue was the Lady of the Serpent Skirt, the creator-goddess who gave birth to all the deities and to earthly life as well. At death, she swallowed living things back into her body. She was also goddess of the moon and stars. She wore a necklace of skulls (like India’s Kali) and, as her name implies, a skirt of serpents. She is sometimes depicted as wearing a skirt made from the penises of her sacrificial victims.

Tonantzin, to whom the shrine at Tepeyac hill was originally dedicated before the basilica was built, was a gentler form of the Lady of the Serpent Skirt. She was worshiped at the Winter Solstice, when she walked among the people in a white gown covered with feathers and seashells. Her symbolic death mimicked the apparent “death” of the sun at the solstice, on the shortest day of the year. Tonantzin, like Mary, was called “Our Mother,” and she was revered as the giver of corn to the human race. She’s worshiped as goddess of the fertility of both the earth and of human beings. Tonantzin’s other name is Chicomecoatl, or “Seven Serpent,” seven being her sacred number. As Chicomecoatl she forms a holy trinity with Xilonen (“Young Corn Mother”) and Ilamatecuhtli (“Old Princess”).

Another Central American deity, Maman Brigitte, also has roots in the European religions. Maman Brigitte, a goddess of death in the Voodou religion, is a spiritual descendant of Brigid, the Irish Celtic mother goddess, or “Mary of the Gaels,” as she was known to Irish Christians. Brigid, or Bride (pronounced “Breed”) was also worshiped in parts of Spain and France. She may have come to Haiti via Scottish or Irish indentured servants.

Like Santa Muerte and Coaticue, Maman Brigitte is associated with death; she’s said to inhabit cemeteries. She drinks a mixture of rum and hot peppers; extremely hot peppers are used as test of validity on women claiming to be possessed by Maman Brigitte. Her dancing skills are legendary, and her dance is a sexually suggestive one.

According to Brigitte’s followers, after a person dies, her soul enters the waters, and she loses all consciousness. It’s from here that Brigitte retrieves her. Like Persephone in Greek mythology, she is goddess not only of death but also of resurrection. Like Mictlantecihautl, she protects the dead, especially if their graves are marked with a cross. Like Brigid in Celtic mythology, Maman Brigitte is also prayed to for healing.

Despite the strong influence of Catholicism and Christianity in modern American cultures, indigenous deities survive. In fact, ancient goddesses thrive and are becoming a more important part of mainstream religion by the day. Slowly but surely, matriarchy is making a comeback.


Gray, Steven. “Santa Muerte: The New God in Town.” October 16, 2007. Accessed March 15, 2010 from the Time Magazine website at,8599,1671984,00.html.

Leovy, Jill. “Santa Muerte in L.A.: a gentler vision of ‘Holy Death.’” December 7, 2009. Viewed March 16, 2010 on the Los Angeles Times website at

Negro, Brujo. (n. d.) Viewed March 16, 2010 from the Brujeria website at

“Our Lady of Guadalupe.” (n. d.) Viewed March 16, 2010 from the Sancta website at

Roibin. “South-American Realm.” (n. d.) Accessed March 16, 2010 from the Shrine of the Forgotten Goddesses website at

“The Ancestral Lwa - Baron, Maman Brigitte, and the Lwa Ghede.” September 24, 2009. Viewed March 16, 2010 at the Meta Religion website at

Wolf, Eric R. (n. d.) “The Virgin of Guadelupe: A Mexican National Symbol.” Viewed March 16, 2010 on the Mexica Uprising website at

“Virgin of Guadalupe, or Aztec Goddess?” (n. d.) Viewed March 16, 2010 at the Wilson’s Almanac website at

Photo credits:
Red Santa Muerte - public domain image
Virgin of Guadalupe - LaserLes, Creative Commons license
Kali - public domain image
St. Brigid of Ireland - public domain image

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shah wharton said...

I like the paring of the words Saint and Death. Its a spooky contradiction which perfectly describes humanity - well it does to me ;D Another fabulously informative article and one perfectly pertaining to Halloween ;) Let those ladies so revered walk tonight! (I'll be staying in with my hubs watching something spooky!) X

Sheila Deeth said...

Wow. That was fascinating. Thank you.

Nora B. Peevy said...

Great post. I have a lot of Santa M. art at home. And all the colors in small form. :) I do give them offerings sometimes too.

The goddess is mainly associated with criminals, which is often overlooked. It is a beautiful part of religion, but traditionally criminals are able to ask for what they reall want and not feel guilty, like they do with Christian saints. Interesting fact ... I lived in NM and learned a lot about Santa M. and Mexican folk art and Spanish witchcraft even while there. Fun and inspiriting and great art to own.

Thanks for letting me know about this post. Don't know how I missed this one.