Santa Muerte - Origins of The Faith

Origins of The Faith

The precise origins of the worship of Santa Muerte are a matter of debate, but it is most likely a syncretism between Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs. Mesoamerica had always maintained a certain reverence towards death, which manifested itself among the religious practices of ancient Mexico, including in the Aztec religion. Death became personified in Aztec and other cultures in the form of humans with half their flesh missing, symbolizing the duality of life and death. The Aztecs inherited from their ancestors the gods Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the lord and lady of Mictlan, the realm of the dead, who died of natural causes. In order for the deceased to be accepted into Mictlan, offerings to the lord and lady were necessary. Many of the offerings given then are the same as those offered to Santa Muerte today. In European Christian tradition, many paintings used skeletons to symbolize human mortality and the illusion associated with earthly life. According to INAH researcher Elsa Malvido Miranda, the worship of skeletal figures has precedent in Europe during times of epidemics. These skeletal figures would be dressed up as royalty with scepters and crowns, seated on thrones to symbolize the triumph of death. In Latin America, the skeleton was used to remind Catholics of the need for a "good death," (muerte santa) fully confessed of sins. Bones are also associated with certain saints, such as San Pascual Bailón in Chiapas.

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the worship of death diminished but was never eradicated. John Thompson of the University of Arizona's Southwest Center has found references dating to 18th century Mexico. According to one account, indigenous people tied up a skeletal figure and threatened it with lashings if it did not perform miracles or grant their wishes. Another syncretism between Pre-Columbian and Christian beliefs about death can be seen in Day of the Dead celebrations. During these celebrations, thousands flock to cemeteries to sing and pray for friends and family who have died. Children partake in the festivities by eating chocolate or candy in the shape of skulls.

In contrast to the Day of the Dead, overt worship of Santa Muerte remained hidden until the 19th century. When it surfaced, reaction was often harsh, requiring the burning of any image found. One that survived this initial persecution is a skeleton made of wood, located in Chiapas, which is believed to be a replica of the skeleton of San Pascualito, who comes to people after they die. In the late 19th century, José Guadalupe Posada created a non-religious, but similar, figure by the name of Catrina, a skeleton dressed in fancy clothing of the time.

However, the open worship of Santa Muerte today has become prominent only in the 20th century. The worship of Santa Muerte is said to have surged in the 1940s in lower-class neighborhoods in Mexico City. Other sources state that the revival has its origins around 1965 in the state of Hidalgo. It is most prevalent in Mexico State, Guerrero, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Campeche, Morelos, and Mexico City. Lately, it has spread to Nuevo León. Together, these regions make up most of the center and northeast of the country. However, Santa Muerte can be found throughout Mexico and now in parts of the United States. There are videos, web sites, and music composed in honor of this religious expression.

Other devotees consider Santa Muerte to be an eighth archangel. It is also believed by a minority of still some other followers that Santa Muerte is not a saint, since she has traits of jealousy and granting evil requests. These followers state that she is not Satanic either, however, but merely a fallen angel in purgatory trying to win back God's favor, and that is the reason she grants so many miracles.

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