Monday, January 4, 2016

Steven Bragg

Steven Bragg, founder of the New Orleans Chapel of the Santisima Muerte. Photo by Allan Spiers, 2015.

On Being Multi-Traditional

At times I’m asked why I’ve gone through so many initiations and how do I handle so many different spiritual paths? Sometimes I’m accused of being a “Jack of all trades, master of none” and a title collector. The Biblical concept of not being able to serve two masters also comes up. So, today I’d like to take a moment and explain, from my point of view, why I believe it’s important for some people to go through the initiations and trainings of more than one spiritual path. Hopefully this will serve a good purpose in bringing about a better understanding for folks on both sides of the issue.

A foundational belief I hold is that all people are born with many spiritual beings around them, connected to them. There are the person’s blood ancestors, spirit guides, higher beings and their potentials, and then finally that person’s dominating spiritual force. But that’s just at birth. If a person becomes spiritually active then he or she may pick up more spirits the further down the spiritual road this person walks. However, if a person never becomes spiritually active, these forces tend to remain in the background, silently attempting to guide the person, sometimes coming through in dreams or as intuition.

If a person does become spiritually active, and they’re exposed to the right set of circumstances and influences, it may come to light that these different spirits require the person to go through different things in order to bring about healing or elevation or whatever to these spirits, or that they need to be “fed” or empowered in a certain way. Perhaps the person’s long-ago ancestors wish their descendant to be spiritually active in a certain way, but the ancient rites have been lost, so they lead the person to another path in order to be “made” in the way they want them to be and to pick up things similar to the older ways that these ancestors recognize. Sometimes a person has an ancestral debt to pay off, such as with slavery in the South, and the “sins of the fathers” must be dealt with in order to bring about healing for those spirits who were enslaved during life. There are many potential reasons for this to happen, depending on the spiritual make up of the person. Which brings me to my next point.

Today more than ever, and especially here in the U.S., many people are mixtures of different bloodlines, ancestries, cultures, and so on. It stands to reason that a person with varying ancestral backgrounds may, not always but may, need to undergo certain rites in order to lift up those ancestors in ways that they recognize and accept. Some spiritual practices can be universal, but not all them are, and at times it depends on the preferences of the person’s spirits which is the correct way for them. If someone feels pulled to different things, there may be a reason for that. I’d advise reaching out to priests/esses of these different paths, researching before jumping into anything, and taking one’s time. It’s not a race, nor is it a competition. It’s for you, your spirits, and your journey in this life.

I’ll use myself as an example for all the things above. When I first started on my personal spiritual journey I was solitary, eclectic Wiccan. I read lots of Llewelyn books. However, I got to a point where it simply wasn’t cutting it. I wasn’t connected to the spiritual world like I felt I should be. Sure, there was some connection, but I knew there was more to it and I knew I needed to seek it out. Why? I had no idea at the time, I just knew I had to. So, before I even had a real concept of working with my ancestors, I prayed to them to lead me to where I needed to go. Shortly after that, I was invited to my first Haitian Vodou ceremony. Of course it was the most impressive thing I’d ever experienced, and every fiber of my being said, “This is it!” Long story short, I ended up on a plane to Haiti to undergo the kanzo (initiation.) Only later did I come to realize the reasons why. It wasn’t because I was supposed to eventually become an Houngan and lead a house. It was because I was in part paying off an ancestral debt incurred by my Southern slave-owning ancestors, also in part so my own spirit could be re-molded in a way only Vodou could do. Once this was done, I found myself in a situation where I could properly (for me, that is) undergo the rites of British Traditional Wicca for many of my blood ancestors. Later I found out that 75% of my blood comes from the U.K., so it was important that I pick up something that was born on British soil.

After all this was when I was ready for the dominating spiritual force in my life to reveal herself. Enter La Santisima Muerte. After I received my training with her she came to me in a dream and showed me how she’d been around me my whole life. Then she opened the door for me to undergo certain Congo-based rites, under her protection, in order to heal some spirits around me and for me to learn more of how to work with those darker and more dangerous forces of earth and fire one finds in Palo Mayombe.

Have I picked up a great deal in the last two decades? Yes. Am I a master of all of them? No. But then, I don’t believe I need to be a so-called master of everything I’ve picked up, because I wasn’t meant to. I’ve gone through all this for my own spirits, my own ancestors…not to fulfill the expectations of others. But just because I’m not a master at all of them doesn’t mean I’m not damn good at them. I remember when I was in band in junior and high school. I played a different instrument every year, started out with brasswinds and ended up with woodwinds. However, every year I was always the first chair player of whatever section I was in, and I had music scholarships for the three years I played in college. So, maybe I’m not a master in all my spiritual traditions, but I’m still better than a lot of people in these same traditions. In all my journeys I’ve met very few masters. I’ve met a lot of people who think they’re masters, but really they can’t see beyond their own glass ceilings.

Part of my role in this life is to be a guide for other people, opening doors and roads, connecting people to the different paths in order for them to further themselves in their own spiritual journeys. This is reflected in the strong connections I have to the crossroads spirits in most of my traditions. If I didn’t have all these traditions I wouldn’t be able to fulfill this aspect of what I was meant to do.

As for not being able to “serve two masters” or “serve at two altars,” first of all that originates from a monotheistic, Abrahamic source. I’m not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, so that doesn’t apply to me. However, going beyond that and addressing the deeper meaning, I’ll say this. None of these spirits that I serve are the Divine Creative Force of the universe. They are spiritual beings, and they are not my masters. I work with these beings; I do not worship them. I give them thanks and appreciation and love, but I don’t see myself as their slave. I do have to juggle my time, resources, and energy, however, because I’ve gone throug the work of establishing relationships with all of them, they understand what it is I have to do in this life, and they know they share me with other beings. I only know of one jealous god.

One of the advantages I’ve found in being multi-traditional is when someone comes to me with an issue, I can usually pinpoint the nature of the problem more quickly and accurately than others, and I can either take care of the problem myself or refer the person to a reputable priest/worker, instead of sending them on a wild goose chase and them possibly spending lots of time, effort, and money finding someone who isn’t a fraud or out to milk them of as much money as they can.

So, I’ll close this with saying, everyone has their own reasons for what they do. It’s not my place to sit in judgment of why people may be doing this, that, or the other. That certainly doesn’t accomplish anything positive or helpful in any way. Some people may be collecting titles, and if so that’s their business. I really don’t care. The proof of all this lies in the pudding, and the vast majority of the time the best pudding is made behind closed doors, not out in the public for all to see. The nature of the occult is that it is occult, secret. Readings are done in private; workings are done in private. Public ceremonies are for the community and can provide some things, but the strongest witchcraft and workings are done in private, not really because it has to be super secret, but because this is when you’re affecting change in a person’s life. That is no one else’s business and doesn’t need to be proclaimed far and wide.

Not everyone can or should be multi-traditional, as not everyone can handle it. But for those of us who do, most of us anyway, we do it for our own spirits, our own life journeys, and for the people we help along the way.

Steven Bragg

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Origin of the Three Robes, La Santisima Muerte the Holy Trinity

Origin of the Three Robes, La Santisima Muerte the Holy Trinity
by Steven Bragg

I've gone back and forth over the last couple of years on whether or not to share the origin story I received of the three robes, white, red, and black, of La Santisima Muerte. I've seen versions of it here and there, some that seem to be from reputable sources, and others that are obviously made up by those who never received any direct teachings. I've decided to share what I was taught in an effort help others understand a little more about the three-robed systems that developed in parts of Mexico before the multi-colored systems became popular. As a reminder, these are teachings I received from Nick Arnoldi, who received them from Don Gilberto, south of Tijuana, Mexico, in 2001. Interestingly enough, also in 2001, Bryant Holman interviewed a curandera named Manuela Porres, who lived in a north-central border town and spoke of a three-robed system very similar to the one Nick received. Holman recorded this in his book, The Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint.

La Santisima Muerte manifested within a very Catholic culture. Of course, her roots go back to pre-colonial Mesoamerica and to Europe; however, after four centuries of being served and worked with by increasingly Catholic devotees, those roots have merged and taken on a new persona, the folk saint we see today. As it happens with many pre-Christian and unorthodox spiritual beliefs and practices, her devotion became integrated into the dominant religion and she gained her own origin story based within the scriptures of the Catholic Church. There are variations, of course, because her devotion evolved underground, so there are regional differences, however, the following is the story I received.

“When God created the world, the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve, Death was not an active part of this world. She stood outside the world, looking in, and she wore no robe. But when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the Garden, Death descended to enter the world and became an active force within God’s creation. As she descended from the heavens she entered wearing the white robe. When Adam caused the death of Eve’s virginity, the blood that came forth stained Death’s robe red. And when Cain slew Abel in the first act of murder, Death’s robe turned black as Abel’s blood soaked into the ground and darkened.”

From this we get that as La Blanca, the white, is a heavenly force concerned with the natural order of the world, post-Garden of Eden that is the way the world is now. La Roja, the red, is an earthly force concerned with the worldly affairs of humans. La Negra, the black, is a chthonic force concerned with acts of an infernal nature. And so it’s from this that we have the roles each of the robes of La Santisima Muerte play, and how a spiritual worker can decide which robe to pray to for different situations. La Blanca is for restoring the natural order, which includes healing, cleansing, peace, and living a long life. La Roja is for love, money, jobs, court, and all things that we deal with within the world as human beings. La Negra, while a source for the strongest protection, is for things that alter the natural flow of things based on human desire or need, the forces of witchcraft and sorcery, as well as those things that do not fall within society’s accepted rules and ethics. La Negra’s ability to alter the natural flow is one of the main reasons La Blanca must be covered with a white cloth when a person works with La Negra, in an effort not to offend La Blanca, to “protect her purity.”

La Santisima Muerte, within this particular system, is herself a Holy Trinity, which of course speaks directly to the minds and hearts of Catholics with the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each robe has a personality of its own, but they are all three still the Most Holy Death. Three persons in one.

More to come about the three robes and their roles in our lives in the future. Stay tuned!

Is La Santisima Muerte an Aztec Goddess?

Is La Santisima Muerte an Aztec Goddess?
By Steven Bragg

Many people claim that la Santisima Muerte is Aztec in origin, and they point to the Aztec goddess of death and the underworld, Mictecacihuatl. Although it can't be denied that Mictecacihuatl and la Santisima Muerte share a few similarities, being represented as a skeleton or with a skull for a head and being a deity associated with death and the realm of the dead, these seem to be more superficial than at first glance. Recent evidence has come forward to question the common belief that la Santisima Muerte is the re-emergence of an Aztec goddess with a thin veneer of Catholic trappings.

In Andrew Chesnut's book, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte the Skeleton Saint, in the chapter exploring Santa Muerte’s history, he introduces us to La Parca, the Grim Reapress of Spain who, along with her male counterpart, the traditional European, bubonic plague-inspired Grim Reaper, carries the souls of the dead on to their next destination. The Black Death swept through Europe in the 14th century, leaving in its wake new manifestations of Death within the European mindsets, which may have still been fresh when Spain began its conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519. Add to this that la Santa Muerte has been discovered in the Philippines, another area colonized by Spain, where effigies date back to at least to the 1850s, according to Chesnut’s June 8, 2014, entry to the blog He further says, "This discovery, coupled with the existence of skeleton saints Rey Pascual in Guatemala and Chiapas and San La Muerte in Argentina and Paraguay, reinforces the indisputably strong Spanish influence in the origins of Santa Muerte in Mexico." So, it would seem that in many of the places Spain went and colonized, Catholic death saints and figures manifested within the indigenous and folk populations.

Briefly looking below the surface at the Aztec claims, we can see that the Aztec Empire lasted less than two centuries before Spain arrived, and it only ruled a relatively small, southern portion of what is now Mexico. The better part of Mexico has been predominantly Catholic for over four centuries. In addition, Mictecacihuatl was only one goddess of several deities of death and the underworld. It’s highly unlikely that one, singular goddess, who wasn’t even honored for that long or by that many people, managed to survive underground and dodge the Inquisition in such a small area, and then later re-emerge throughout all of Mexico and parts of Central America. It is, however, more likely that the spiritual remnants of the Native underworld deities managed to latch onto the much larger personification of death brought over by the Spanish and survive, at least in the minds of the mestizo population.

Speaking of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico, Chesnut shows us that in the Inquisitional records of the 1700s there is mention of localized devotion to “la Santa Muerte,” specifically. Not Mictecacihuatl or any other pre-colonial name, but the Spanish name Santa Muerte. Although that’s not definitive evidence, it does show that the religious and linguistic rule of the Spanish colonists had already heavily affected folk practices as early as the 1700s.

In his book, The Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint, Bryant Holman recounts an interview with an informant who relays the story from Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, of the Santa Muerte of that region that rode “a cart creaking and straining as it was pulled down a cobblestone street.” He points out the similarity to Don Sebastian of New Mexico who is a “skeleton driving an oxcart, which hauls the bodies of the dead away.” Death driving a cart is an old tradition throughout European lore, and the squeaky axle reminds me specifically of L’Ankou of Brittany, who also drive a squeaky-axled cart to collect the souls of the dead.

Although I certainly do not discount the possible effects the native, pre-colonial deities had on the development of la Santisima Muerte, as we see her today, it’s becoming more and more clear to me, at least, that la Madrina has more European roots than was previously believed. As a European descendant, this makes a great deal of sense as to why la Muerte would have come to me so strongly, not that one has to be of European descent, of course, but everyone who can trace their blood back to Western Europe also traces their spiritual ancestry back to the Catholic Church and the veneration of the Saints, who in my opinion are elevated ancestors. The Church has always had a concept of the Angel of Death, through the Bible, and Europe is filled with older images and personifications of Death. It makes perfect sense that these images and forces came together with the native peoples in the New World (and the Philippines, it seems) to give rise to la Santisima Muerte.

I realize that what I’ve mention here is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and I look forward to Professor Chesnut’s next book on la Santa Muerte, where he says he will go even deeper into her history and possible origins.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Origin of the New Orleans Chapel of the Santisima Muerte

The New Orleans Chapel of the Santisima Muerte owes its existence to the teachings of Nick Arnoldi, aka Hechicero Nick. A New Jersey native, Nick spent a year in Mexico in 2001 and met an hechicero (native sorcerer) who was known as Don Gilberto within his community. When someone was born with a special gift to work within the spiritual realm for the benefit of the community he was said to have the "don." Don Gilberto passed Nick the system of working with La Muerte which consisted of the three robes of white, red, and black. Nick returned to NJ and maintained his personal connection to la Flaka, working for clients over the years. Nick and I met in MA in 2008, but it wasn't until after I returned to New Orleans that the subject of the Santa Muerte came up. Before returning she had approached me in a dream and offered a solution to a problem I was having. At that point, not having any experience with her, I was hesitant, but I accepted. She fulfilled her end of the bargain, and I repaid her as best I could. She remained content with this until about a year later when she made it known she wanted me to work with her more. I set the condition that she needed to bring me a teacher before I'd go further with her, and right after is when Nick brought his devotion and workings with her. A couple of days later Nick contacted me saying La Muerte came to him in a dream and instructed him to teach me and pass along Don Gilberto's system. 

La Muerte wasted no time in responding to my prayers through this system, and she quickly became the dominant spiritual force in my life and practices. Once I got to a comfortable point with her I asked for a major, personal favor. Within a couple of weeks she delivered what I asked for, and I knew then that this relationship was the one I'd been preparing for most of my life. So, in payment I built an outdoor shrine as my way of spreading her devotion. Around the same time, the indoor space I had set up for her grew exponentially, and she eventually took over an entire room in my home. This became the indoor, private chapel. Before I could even put on the finishing touches, Santisima began to bring other people to attend the chaplet services I hold for her, and in two and a half years there is now a very close-knit family of devotees and beginning workers who live in New Orleans and other places. We've been honored to have as guests other traditional workers of La Muerte, as well as Prof. Andrew Chesnut, the leading academic of Santa Muerte in the English-speaking world.

Tragically, Nick's life ended soon after my training in his system was completed. It seemed Santisima Muerte wanted him to pass along his teachings before she came for him. He has an altar in the chapel, and I make certain to keep his memory alive and spirit honored. Without him, none of this would have been possible. I've been blessed to have some of his friends in New Jersey contact me and send me many of his statues and devotional items to continue their service in the New Orleans Chapel. His best friend, Lorraine, who knew Nick since high school and remembers when he was in Mexico has visited, and we've exchanged stories of Nick's personal and spiritual life.

What to Call Devotees and Workers of La Santa Muerte

Although there are no universally recognized "titles" for those who devote themselves to la santisima muerte, there are a couple of them that I've seen used. It should be noted, however, that these personal descriptors are not in any way a sign of an established priesthood or organization and can be used by anyone who has developed a strong connection to la muerte. 

Quick Spanish lesson for all of us Anglophones. "La Muerte" is the Spanish word for Death. Although is doesn't have the traditional "a" ending, it is a feminine word, denoted by "la". This may be a contributing factor as to why "Saint Death" has manifested in Mexico/Central America as female. One of many. Maybe, maybe not.

"Santa Muertero" for men, "Muertera" for women. Muertero/a is a Spanish word for someone who works very heavily with the dead, the muertos. (When you add "-ero/a" to the end of a word in Spanish, it's kinda like adding "-er/-ess" to the end of an English word, making it "someone who does this.") Now, add "Santa" to Muertero, and you have "someone who is devoted to/works with Holy Death. "Sta" is the abbreviation for "Santa," which I personally like because everyone in the English speaking world thinks of Santa Claus when you write out Santa. Lol.

Another descriptor you'll see is "Santa Muertista" which usually only has the "a" ending. Personally, this seems like a borrowing from the term Espiritista as a general Spanish word for a person who works with spirits. Espiritista is used throughout the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands (but is also found in Mexico, possibly due to the Cuban diaspora, which is also why you see Lukumi and Palo there) as one who is accomplished within the realm of Espiritismo, their version of Allan Kardec spiritism (which is a whole other ball of wax!)

So, Santa Muertero/a or Santa Muertista. Take your pick. And I'm sure there are probably others out there I've yet to encounter. La Santisima Muerte is very quickly growing, changing, expanding, and one never knows exactly what to expect from her.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The New Orleans Chapel has a new website! Currently most of the information here has been transferred over to get the site up and  going. Whether I continue to post here or not remains to be seen, but be sure to visit for the latest updates.