Despite being adamantly condemned by the Catholic Church, devotion to the Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte (or Saint Death), has become the most rapidly growing religious movement in the Americas today. Associated with healing, protection, and performing miracles, the controversial female saint was once only worshiped in secretive rituals performed in private homes. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, veneration of Santa Muerte has exploded into mainstream culture and the number of her followers has swelled into the millions.
The widely revered deity is known by many different monikers, such as Senora de las Sombras (Lady of the Shadows), Senora Blanca (White Lady), and La Flaca (The Skinny Lady), but during rituals, she is most often referred to as Santisma Muerte, or “Most Holy Death”. Unlike other folk saints, Santa Muerte is not seen as a deceased human, but instead a personification of death. Her appearance has been known to vary greatly from one depiction to the next, however, she is generally pictured as a skeletal figure wearing a long robe (of any color) and holding a globe in one hand and a scythe in the other. Additional symbolic objects that are associated with the saint also include an hourglass, an oil lamp, scales, and an owl.
Although the exact origin of the cult is often debated, it is likely that the adulation of Santa Muerte stems from the fusion of Spanish Catholic and indigenous Mesoamerican belief systems. Though many of the cult’s rituals and practices may mirror those of Catholicism, presently the Roman Catholic Church has taken an unyielding stance against Santa Muerte and openly criticizes worship of the saint as “blasphemous”. However, this doesn’t seem to be affecting the enormous expansion of the sect. In fact, many members of the cult of Santa Muerte are self-professed Catholics who claim to have lost faith in traditional saints, such as Saint Jude (Patron Saint of Lost Causes).
Others who have become disillusioned with the church or those who have been shunned by other religions are welcomed by the Santa Muerte cult. Just as death does not discriminate, Santa Muerte has a policy of listening to everyone’s prayers equally. This has endeared the saint to many subcultures that are sometimes ostracized by traditional religious organizations, such as the LGBT community.
While this rapidly growing new faith seems to be a welcomed alternative to conventional religious ideology in most cases, it is not without its dark side. It has been expressed by some believers that the powerful Santa Muerte will grant favors to devotees, but only for a price. If the price is not paid, the deathly deity will take the life of a loved one instead. She is also said to be prone to jealousy, and placing her image next to those of Catholic saints could result in unpleasant consequences, as well. It should be noted, however, that these ominous beliefs are typically rare.
Even though Santa Muerte has become one of the most celebrated saints in Mexico, the Mexican government has hastily chosen to side with the Catholic Church and continues to treat the Santa Muerte movement as a civil threat. They have even gone as far as bringing in the military to tear down roadside shrines erected in her honor throughout the city. Despite the resistance, however, the Santa Muerte cult has accumulated around 10-12 million devotees spread across Mexico, Central America, and the United States, and continues to develop with each passing day.