Santa Muerte (literally Holy Death or Saint Death) tattoos are extremely popular among the Mexican people. Santa Muerte (also known as Santisima Muerte, Señora de las Sombras (Lady of the Shadows), Señora Blanca (White Lady), Señora Negra (Black Lady), Niña Santa (Holy Girl), La Flaca (The Skinny One), Santa Sebastienne, etc) is the beloved goddess of death who's origins date to the pre hispanic period of Mexico.
The origins of the myths of Santa Muerte aren't completely clear, but is quite obvious that the cult of Santa Muerte is a syncretism between Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs. Mexican culture since the pre-Columbian era has maintained a certain reverence towards death, which can be seen in the widespread Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. Death became personified in Aztec and other cultures in the form of humans with half their flesh missing, symbolizing the duality of life and death.
In the pre-Columbian Aztec religion, the realm of the souls of the people who died from natural causes (of old age, diseases, etc) was Mictlan, the lowest and northernmost section of the underworld. Mictlan was ruled by a king, Mictlantecuhtli (Lord of the Underworld) and his wife, Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Underworld).
Mictecacihuatl was not only the Queen of Mictlan, but was also the protector of the souls residing in the dark underworld (some legends claimed that she was the goddess in charge with the bones of the dead). She also presided over the ancient festivals of the dead, which evolved from Aztec traditions into the modern Day of the Dead (in spanish el Dia de los Muertos) - originally a holiday which fell at the end of the month of July and the beginning of August and was dedicated to the children and the dead.
The persons who died by natural causes were interred with grave goods, which they carried with them on the long and dangerous journey to the underworld. Upon arrival in Mictlan these goods were offered to Mictlantecuhtli and his wife, Mictecacihuatl. Many of the offerings given then are the same as those offered to Santa Muerte today.
After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the worship of death diminished but was never eradicated, and the Day of the Dead remained one of the most important mexican festivals. In contrast to the Day of the Dead, due to the fact that the Catholic Church has labeled Santa Muerta as a death cult, claiming it has ties to satanism, the worship of Santa Muerte remained hidden until the 19th century. When it surfaced, reaction was often harsh, requiring the burning of any image found.
The religion of Santa Muerte was born in the middle of the 20th century, and at the very beginning was clandestine and closely associated with crime. However, in the past decades, original Santa Muerte's followers (such as thieves, pickpockets and street drug dealers) have merged with thousands of ordinary Mexican Catholics who had become disillusioned with the rigid behaviour of the Catholic Church and its insufficient reflection of life in the modern Mexican society. The Santa Muerte veneration, offering a spiritual way out of hardship, has rapidly expanded. The number of believers has grown to approximately two million followers and the new religion has crossed the borders.
Although the Roman Catholic Church has denounced the worship of Saint Death, considering it as a black magic and the Santa Muerte's followers as devil worshippers, the devotees have never given up their Catholic faith. Santa Muerte figurines often stand near the statues of Jesus Christ or the Virgin of Guadalupe because the devotees to Santa Muerte do not see any contradiction between the Catholic faith and the worship of Santa Muerte. In many ways, a ritual dedicated to Santa Muerte is very similar to a Catholic rite, including procession and prayers for power healing, protection and favors.
Some worshippers make the last part of the pilgrimage to the shrine on their bloodied knees and many of them smoke marijuana that has a strong relation to Saint Death. Before the rosary is prayed collectively at the end of the day, they leave offerings (money, candies, tabacco, flowers and candles) and make petitions to ‘La Santísima Muerte’, who is reputedly a very powerful saint and can make life-saving miracles.
To be continued...