The worship of La Santa Muerte, Mexico’s iconic Lady of “Holy Death,” is blossoming throughout the Americas. Much like death itself, the hauntingly powerful skeletal figure of Santa Muerte is maligned and feared by the powerful, but loved and venerated by the desperate. Millions of faithful throughout Mexico, the southwest United States, and all of Latin America, most of whom identify as Roman Catholics, flock to her temples to venerate the Lady of Death who holds the entire world in her hands.
She gained television fame in English when Breaking Bad’s hardcore Cousins lowered themselves to crawl toward her temple to petition her favor in their quest to destroy Heisenberg.
She guides the everyday tortilla vendor, the vicious drug lord, and everyone in between. Here in the Los Angeles area, thousands flock to secretive nighttime masses in her honor. Her followers are passionate, her dissenters resolute, and more and more, the Pagan community has felt her call.
So who is Holy Death? I recently interviewed Tomás Prower, author of the new Llewellyn book La Santa Muerte. Prower is a devotee of the La Santa Muerte, and his book unveils many aspects of Her worship and details about working with her magickally that were previously difficult to find in the English speaking world. In our discussion, he offers background, ideas, and inspiration for Pagans and polytheists on bringing this powerful Lady from the Catholic world into our spiritual practice..Tell us about your personal and spiritual background.
PROWER: “My spiritual background, for most of my life, has been Roman Catholicism. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school, but I was fortunate to have a very liberal, “West Coast” Catholic high school. Part of the curriculum included classes on other world religions and on the fact that the Bible should not be taken literally and only be viewed through the lens of the cultural-political atmosphere of the times. So, I never came to hate the Catholic faith, but by college, I became bored from overexposure of it and began “trying out” other religions. It didn’t take too long to realize that, at their core, everyone is essentially saying the same thing, and so I became a sort of “eclectic spiritualist,” though if I had to label myself, I probably have more Taoist tendencies than anything.”
PROWER: “On a dare. I had just moved back to Los Angeles, and my best friend took me around town for some fun. On our journeys that day, we drove by a Santa Muerte temple near Downtown L.A., which sounds grandiose, but it really was just a small store in a strip mall. Anyway, he commented about how sometimes at night, he’d see through the storefront glass Death worshipers praying to a giant skeleton statue amid candlelight. Since we both came from a Mexican Catholic background, which is heavily steeped in magic and mysticism, we felt that this was some serious brujería (malevolent magic) stuff going on, and he dared me to go into that store/temple. I went in, and immediately felt an indescribable, dark presence akin to what you’d get at a funeral home except without the somberness.
Obviously looking like “outsiders,” no one would really talk to us, but the shopkeeper gave us the store’s self-published newspaper to read. In it, there were testimonials on La Santa Muerte’s magic, and I became fascinated by how these people, who by all accounts are so beaten by life, find hope and the will to go on vía their belief in Death. I wanted to understand, and from there, my intellectual curiosity led me to become a practicing devotee.”
La Santa Muerte is often associated with harmful people and sensationalist images, from gang members to drug lords. Her reputation in some circles is questionable. What more should people understand about her?
PROWER: “People, in general, seem to have a hard time comprehending moral ambiguities. They like to see the world in absolutes; this is good, that is bad, and so on. Which makes sense since that kind of outlook allows the world to “make sense” and gives them clear guidelines on how to live their lives.
However, La Santa Muerte is the epitome of moral ambiguity. She helps good people do good things, and she helps bad people do bad things, so people don’t know what to make of her. It’s far easier to write her off as “bad” since her more negative associations are much more scandalous and interesting to read, but really, she can be likened to the “Tao” since she is neither good nor bad, yet both. The simplest way I like to explain her is to think of death itself. Death comes to all regardless of gender, wealth, age, morality, etc. Death doesn’t judge, and as the embodiment of death, itself, neither does La Santa Muerte.”
La Santa Muerte has clear associations with the Catholic faith. What does she have to offer the polytheist, pagan, and witchcraft communities?
PROWER: “A comfortable bridge to understanding the Catholic faith. At its core, the cult of La Santa Muerte is really just Roman Catholicism except more openly magical and without all the dogma. Since traditional Catholicism tends to be too off-putting to many polytheist, pagan, and witchcraft communities, they don’t take the time to go past all the pompous B.S. and learn about Catholicism’s universal mystic practices. Such a divide prevents mutual understanding, which only maintains the status quo of mistrust and deep seeded tension. La Santa Muerte and her infamously liberal devotees are a good gateway into the more “accepting” roots of Catholicism and the revelation of just how much in common each side has with one another.
On a more practical level, she offers another ally and Latin American-flavored magical force to add to their pantheon and arsenal of spellwork.”
From Hades to the Morrigan, many Pagans work with deities who are associated with Death. How is La Santa Muerte different?
PROWER: “La Santa Muerte is different in the sense that she IS death. Most other deities have an association with death, whether it be the physical act of dying, the afterlife destination, or just the more macabre aspects of piercing through the veil and straddling the physical and spiritual worlds. La Santa Muerte has no dominion, she isn’t in charge of anything, and she isn’t concerned about human affairs. She is death, personified. Devotion to her is ultimately devotion to Death, both our own and its place in the natural order of things as a necessary force in the world.”
The Catholic Church has expressed disapproval of the veneration of La Santa Muerte. Most of her worshipers identify as Catholic. How do they resolve this seeming paradox?
PROWER: “It is an odd paradox, isn’t it? But it totally makes sense why the Catholic Church would disapprove. On a practical level, devotion to La Santa Muerte is growing exponentially and gaining “converts” in Spanish-Speaking countries which are traditionally Catholic strongholds. So there is a threat there. And on a more fundamental level, it throws a wrench into the most holy and paramount event in all of Catholicism, the resurrection of Christ. You see, according to Catholic doctrine, when Jesus rose from the dead, he “conquered” death, thus proving his divinity and paving the way for the rest of us to also “conquer” death vía the everlasting paradise of Heaven. So, by venerating Death, one is venerating Jesus Christ’s ultimate foe.
Nevertheless, if you were to ask a devotee of La Santa Muerte what their religion is, 90% of them would say “Catholic” and do so with utmost sincerity.
The consensus among Santa Muerte devotees (not all, but a good many) is that when Christ died, God entrusted Death (aka: La Santa Muerte) with his only begotten son, and during this time, Jesus completed his Earthly/mortal education by learning all the he couldn’t while he was alive. It all makes sense if you consider that the Divine could never truly understand or relate to humanity if it did not experience death, the very thing that makes mortals mortal. And it shares similarities with the “Harrowing of Hell” stories that are found in religions the world over wherein the divine travels to the Underworld and returns stronger and/or wiser because of it: Hercules, Orpheus, Osiris, Inanna, Odin, Pwyll, Izanagi, Kuan Yin, etc.”
You write about the veneration of Death and about the Magic associated with Death. How is this magic different from other types of devotion and spellwork?
PROWER: “In regards to spellwork, it’s not very much different. Magic, essentially, is the manipulation of natural energies in correspondence with one’s will. The spellwork to do that varies based on one’s cultural outlook and the tools available to a particular culture during its history. But the mystery school of La Santa Muerte does have a uniqueness in the fact that many of its spells are designed to aid in morally ambiguous and even outright malevolent actions.
For example, prostitutes will pray to her to have a safe and profitable night since Death doesn’t judge. Is this good or bad? Well, it’s both, and it’s neither, all depending on how you want to look at it. And she’ll also help guide a bullet into the brain of an innocent man if the assassin so wishes. Again, death doesn’t judge. Of course, there are more nuances that make devotees think twice before petitioning anything, such as cosmic reciprocity and the Law of Equivalent Exchange, but the details of that are a bit more involved for this interview, though they can be found in detail in my book.”
What should the Pagan community know about La Santa Muerte?
PROWER: “Other than her supreme neutrality in regards to “right” and “wrong”, the Pagan community should know that she is already at work in their lives whether they acknowledge it or not. Sure, she might not be called “La Santa Muerte,” but death is all around you, both literally and figuratively. Our modern world is so sanitized; we live in crowded cities where people are dying every day, but we don’t actually see it. Mortuaries, hospitals, and too many state laws are so good at hiding death that not only does it not seem real, but when it does happen to someone close to us, it comes as such a shock, as if dying is somehow unnatural, when it is the most natural thing in the world.
This death denial cuts us off from reality. La Santa Muerte is an affront to all that. She’s ultra punk rock and transgressive in the sense that her very existence goes in the face of something that the establishment is trying to make us forget. The Pagan community should know that La Santa Muerte is a Latin American force that it actively trying to shock us out of our comfort zone and into the real world where death is actually a thing that happens.”
What would you suggest to a Pagan who would like to begin working with La Santa Muerte?
PROWER“I would say, “Start at home.” By this, I mean, before jumping into the devotion and magic of La Santa Muerte, make a strong connection with the deity of death from your own cultural pantheon, and if you do not subscribe to a particular cultural pantheon, take a more humanist approach and look at death’s role in the natural world, how destruction is the necessary precursor for all creation.
After that, start thinking of your own death, not in an existential or nihilistically depressive way, but in a way that allows your acceptance of it as a reality and an inevitability. After all, you can’t partner with Death if you spend your life ignoring it or pretending it either doesn’t exist or won’t happen to you. It’s strange how Pagans are so in tune with the natural world, yet many of them shy away from one of, if not THE most natural force in the world: death. And how can one become a complete, well-rounded worker of magic if they ignore or deny this essential energy? Nothing is to be feared, just understood. After gaining a familiarity with your own deity of death and coming to terms with death, then go ahead and make contact with La Santa Muerte.”
As Pagans and Witches, we talk a lot about honoring the dark just as much as the light. The cycles of the year remind us that all that grows will one day wither and die. We enjoy all the creepy fun of the Samhain season. Yet, how many of us are truly at home with Death Herself? How many of us are at peace with this natural process enough to venerate its power, make intentional contact with it, and call it Holy? We may all want to consider developing a healthy relationship with La Santa Muerte. After all, as Prower reminds us, “you’ll meet her one day anyway, so why not start making friends with her now?”