Santa Muerte is a sacred figure venerated primarily in Mexico and the United States, probably a syncretism between Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs. The name literally translates to “Holy Death” or “Saint Death.” Mexican culture since the pre-Columbian era has maintained a certain reverence towards deathwhich can be seen in the widespread Mexican celebration of the syncretic Day of the Dead. Catholic elements of that celebration include the use of skeletons to remind people of their mortality.
Santa Muerte generally appears as a skeletal figure, clad in a long robe and carrying one or more objects, usually a scythe and a globe. The robe is most often white, but images of the figure vary widely from person to person and according to the rite being performed or the petition of the devotee. As the worship of Santa Muerte was clandestine until recently, most prayers and other rites are done privately in the home. However, for the past ten years or so, worship has become more public, especially in Mexico City. The worship is mainly condemned by the Catholic Church in Mexico, but not by the Church world-wide under the aegis of the Pope, (or the Vatican of which he heads) and it is firmly entrenched among Mexico’s lower working classes and various levels of the criminal world. The number of believers in Santa Muerte has grown over the past ten to twenty years, to approximately two million followers at least and has crossed the border into Mexican American communities in the United States. Santa Muerte should not be confused to be identical with the Argentinian folk-saint San La Muerte, as the two are ascribed similar powers and are venerated with similar rituals.
Santa Muerte is referred to by a number of other names such as Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of the Shadows”), Señora Blanca (“White Lady”), Señora Negra (“Black Lady”), Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”), and La Flaca (“The Skinny One”). Sometimes the name is listed as Santa Sebastienne or St. Sebastienne, (“Our Beautiful Lady Sebastienne”), as St. Sebastian was an early Christian martyr and is, among other things, patron saint of a holy death. Images of Santa Muerte are generally individualistic and personal. No two are exactly the same. Sizes vary immensely from small images held in one hand to those requiring a pickup truck to move. Some people even have the image tattooed on their bodies. The appearance of the “Black Lady”, “White Lady”, etc. vary, but all are dressed either in long robes or (less commonly) long dresses, covered from head to feet with only the face and hands showing. This symbolizes how people hide their true selves from the rest of the world. The robe or dress covers the skeletal figure like flesh covers the bones of the living. Both are said eventually to fall away. The most common image is Santa Muerte in a robe, with a scythe in the right hand and the globe in the left. The robed image of Santa Muerte looks a bit like that of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. However, there are many variations of the robe’s color, and what Santa Muerte holds in her hands. Interpretations of the robe color and carried objects can vary as well.
The two most common objects that Santa Muerte carries are a scythe and a globe. The scythe can symbolize the cutting of negative energies or influences. Also, as a harvesting tool, it can symbolize hope and prosperity. It can represent the moment of death, when a scythe is said to cut a silver thread. The scythe has a long handle, indicating that it can reach anywhere. The globe represents Death’s dominion, and can be seen as a kind of a tomb to which we all return. Having the world in her hand also symbolizes vast power.