Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Santa Muerte: Encountering Death


By M.G.
"Popular in Mexico, and sometimes linked to the illicit drug trade, the skeleton saint known as La Santa Muerte in recent years has found a robust and diverse following north of the border: immigrant small business owners, artists, gay activists and the poor, among others - many of them  non-Latinos and not all involved with organized religion... The saint is especially popular among Mexican-American Catholics, rivaling that of St. Jude and La Virgen de Guadalupe as a favorite for miracle requests, even as the Catholic Church in Mexico denounces Santa Muerte as satanic, experts say." - ‘La Santa Muerte gaining in popularity in the U.S.’, Associated Press
A friend of mine, (of dubious character but capable of remarkable scholarship), once told me that the more marginalized a people, the more powerful their magicks will be. If true, few figures must be more powerful than Santisma Muerte, the death saint of Mexico.

A grim but widely revered figure, the cult of Holy Death is increasingly popular in this impoverished land whose very notions of law and community are daily threatened by underworld gangs and entrenched government corruption. Slightly resembling the Hindu Goddess Kali in her attributes, the affectionately nicknamed 'bony lady' is alternately described as either a nun who committed suicide after being abandoned by her lover, the Virgin Mary’s shadow aspect, or an Aztec underworld goddess returned to the modern age.

Whatever her origin, this Grim Reapress is always depicted using European imagery of the skeletal and undead. Her chief icons, the owl and the human skull, underscore her nocturnal, necromantic nature, yet she manifests in peaceful white-robed forms as well as terrible aspects clothed in a darker hue. Her devotees claim that just as death comes to all humans rich and poor alike, so to will Santisima Muerte accept devotees from all walks of life, including persons whose lifestyles fall outside the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church's approval, including gays, sex workers, and those in criminal trades as well as those who fight them.

Although woefully gringo in my ethnic background, I have had the opportunity to visit some of the better known botanicas in Brooklyn and my native Philadelphia. Latin Folk Catholicism is a colorful, incredible stew of African, European and indigenous spiritual influences, with saints and powers reputed to provide help with any worldy (or not-so-worldly) problem.


Devoted to death (another gringo analyzing this topic).


I didn’t need overtly gothic sensibilities to be struck by Santisma Muerte’s morbid attributes. Deadly, scythe-wielding, yet motherly, her image impressed upon me with undeniable forcefulness the reality of my temporally imminent demise. In hopes of learning a bit more about this particular manifestation of divinity I had recently purchased the rare English-language grimoire written by both a scholar and devotee,
"Before working with Santisma Muerte it is important to discuss the essential element of the amparo. This is a protective pact made with a guardian saint to help mediate and ameilorate the influence of Holy Death... [b]eing the force of death embodied she can be overwhelming and so the amparo not only offers protection from death, but allows you to work with her without being overwhelmed." - Santisma Muerte, Conjureman Ali.

Contrary to Hollywood depictions, I have never gotten much use out of musty tomes and leather-bound guides to occult forces. For me, the most powerful grimoires have been small. modern, and cheap - a recipe for odd oils picked up here, the rare effective ritual there. I was therefore delighted to have come upon an inexpensive pamphlet which fit my needs. Having received my order through the mail a few days prior, I was taking a rare unhurried moment alone on a very late Saturday evening to read through my new purchase. Although already acquainted with the basics of Santa Muerte’s cult, I was intrigued to learn that her fearsome power and prowess at quickly granting boons of all kinds was so valued that many Mexican curanderos had simply abandoned devotions to other saints to work with Death exclusively.

And it was then that Death decided to visit.
"Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths" - Joseph Campbell
Have you ever seen an image in your imagination? Really seen it, seen it as clearly as the computer screen before you? That was how it started; the Holy Death’s image occupying my imaginal space. Then the tactile sensations; felt with my mind and not my physical body; a mix of space being sundered and utter funereal stillness, tinged by deep, cold fear.

Before me and within me, the deity. And tucked away within that, my ego-self, little magus, caught without shields and candles and guards.

What do you say, or not say, to Death? Does anything not sound like a Monty Python routine at that point?

"Your white form, please?", was all I could muster.

Images unfolded in my mind: great bone feet trampling my head, a sense of soil or earth, and finally flowers growing from the ground. Then, nothing. Truly nothing, just another Saturday night at home not far from my laptop and endless Youtube follies.


[Where is the fucking counterculture? Mythos Media.]

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