Tuesday, December 2, 2014

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 skeletonsaint.com. 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.