In European Christendom, images of death do exist. However, they are somber affairs, often referred to as memento mori. Memento Mori is Latin for “remember you will die”, a saying made famous by Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 C.E.), an early Christian apologist from Carthage. He recounted the tale of a slave, walking behind the General who had captured him in battle. According to Tertuliian, the slave yelled at the General: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” – “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you’ll die!”.
Not exactly a cheerful sentiment.
This attitude towards death is present in Christian art, when it is present at all. One famous example from the world of painting is Caravaggio’s Saint Francis in Prayer, finished around 1606 C.E.:
Architecture, likewise, was occasionally the subject of Memento Mori; examples include the Capela dos Ossos (English: Chapel of Bones) in Évora, Portugal, the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, with its bone chandelier, and the Capuchin Crypt in Rome:
Simply put, there is nothing joyous about these reflections; they are meditations on mortality as loss.
Which is why you can imagine the horror of the first Catholic monks who accompanied the conquistadors as they “civilized” (meaning raped, murdered and pillaged) their way through Meso-America: here was a culture that not only celebrated death, but seemed to venerate it.
Worship it, even.
The stunned monks summed it up in a word:
And therefore, it only made sense to the drive the Devil out of these poor souls, which of course, meant eradicating every trace of their old, pagan ways.
It had worked successfully before, all across pagan Europe.
Of course, it really hadn’t been that successful in Europe. If it had been, we wouldn’t have Christmas day, let alone Christmas trees. Then there’s Easter. And let’s not forget about Halloween, or the fact that many of the local Gods and Goddesses became syncretized with the Roman Catholic Saints.
Even the Latin name days of the week remind us of the Pagan counter-influence;
Tuesday is for Tyr, God of War. Wednesday is for Odin, the All Father. Thursday is for Thor, the Storm God. And Friday is for Frigg, Odin’s wife, the Goddess of Wisdom, as well as Frejya, the Goddess of Love and Sex, War and Death.
Remember that: Love and Sex, War and Death, all in the same Goddess.
Never mind any of that: the Spanish were Hell bent on wiping every trace of what they saw as a savage, devil worshiping religion. And they nearly succeeded: the culture of the Aztecs was driven underground.
But not forever…
Enter Enriqueta Romero, and the re-emergence of Our Lady of Holy Death, Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, Santa Muerte for short.
The worship of Santa Muerte had been going on for generations, but it was done privately, outside of the prying eyes of the local Catholic Church. The Church had already made some concessions to the old ways; one of these is obvious in the Day of the Dead festivities, which had been syncretized with the Christian celebration of Allhallowtide: All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.
At the dawn of the 20th century, a Mexican political cartoonist named José Guadalupe Posada started hinting at Santa Muerte, in the form of his timeless Catrina.
Finally, in 2001, an elderly homemaker would end up spear-heading one of the fastest growing new religious movements in the world when she opened up here shrine to the public.
Now in her 70’s, Enriqueta Romero is still fearless. She set up the shrine outside her home in Tepito, a district of Mexico City known for being on the lawless side of things. At the heart of her shrine is a life sized effigy; it is adorned with fine jewelry, and intentional clothing that Enriqueta changes on a ritual basis.
The Mexican Catholic Church is not amused.
However, it’s currently estimated that a significant proportion of Mexico’s population venerate Santa Muerte – some as a Catholic Saint, others as Goddess in Her own right.
The Statue of Liberty made a promise: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
A promise which, of course, the Orange Emperor is intent on breaking.
So what is that Santa Muerte promises?
“Give me your street vendors, taxi drivers, counterfeiters, street people, prostitutes, pickpockets, petty drug dealers and gang members. Give me your imprisoned, your persecuted, your abandoned children. Give me your LGBTQ. Give me all that society would turn away. And I, in turn, will bless them all.”
Does She look fearsome?
Judge for yourself:
Looks aside, is She fearsome?
In appearance, perhaps.
But, She does nothing but offer blessings, protection, and sometimes, even the miraculous. She does take offerings; different Santa Muerte’s have different tastes, but these are never dark temptations; She does not demand blood sacrifices, human or animal.
A little liquor, a little cannabis, a little tobacco, some seven colored candles; one has to know their particular Santa Muerte.
But She is, all in all, entirely benevolent.
Which is why Her faith is growing. She has millions of followers world wide, and that’s a conservative estimate.
And chances are, as long as there are poor, tired, huddled masses, Her veneration will continue to grow and spread…