What happens when the villain becomes the hero? In chapter 24 of ORIGINS we explore the ORIGINS of a Death Saint of criminals, drug lords, and the Day of the Dead, abolished by the Vatican, known as Santa Muerte.
Story can be predictable. We are introduced to a character in a setting and watch them grow through beginning, middle, and end. We expect good to trump evil, and for everyone to live happily ever after. But that’s not always the case. A few years back, we had a string of stories that showed the world from the eyes of the villain. Maleficent. The Real Snow White Story. The True Story of Captain Hook. On the screen, classics like Scarface gave us reason to root for and fall in love with Tony Montano, a cocaine dealing immigrant from Cuba in 1980s Miami. The Godfather brought us into the intimate lives of a 1945 New York crime family, and although I’m Italian, I will admit I have only seen the first film. Again, Al Pacino (who played Montano in Scarface) brings humanity to the criminal world through the tormented life of Michael Corleone.
HBO graced us with two incredible drama series: The Sopranos and Oz. In The Sopranos, we follow the mob in present day New Jersey led by Tony Soprano, a man trying to balance his life of crime with his obligations as father and husband. Oz takes into the lives of hard criminals doing time in the Oswald State Correctional Facility. The show focuses on a particular group undergoing rehabilitation in a section of Oz known as Emerald City.
What do these stories have in common? Empathetic villains. They are painted in such a way that we cry when Tony Montano is shot, and when we share the final meal with Tony Soprano and his family. We are touched by the tenderness of raw emotion in one scene between inmates of Oz or gangsters in The Godfather followed by sociopathic violence we cannot comprehend. We overlook the fact that if these crimes were presented on the nightly news, we would be shocked in disgust, but when the story presents the families behind the crimes, we become lifetime fans.
In this vein, I present chapter twenty-four of ORIGINS on the Saint of Death, criminals, and those in prison: Santa Muerte.
Santa Muerte is by no means a true saint. Painted as a woman wearing a Mary-like veil, this skeletal figure is more reminiscent of Death or a Dementor than a god-fearing Saint. She is worshiped in Mexico and Central America, and is the fastest growing religious movement in America according to Andrew Chesnut, a Santa Muerte expert at Virginia Commonwealth University. Condemned in the Catholic church, she is the preferred saint of drug lords, criminals, and the incarcerated for her non-judgmental attitude. Prayers for protection from the law are offered up by those about to commit a crime in exchange for a promise to the saint, such as a lifetime of worship and service to this narco-satanic skeleton.
Mention of Santa Muerte has been found twice during the Inquisition and during the Spanish colonization of Mexico, when Catholics introduced a female Grim Reaper type to evangelize the natives. I guess that plan backfired. Aztec and Mayan cultures had deities of death already, so it was easy to accept this hybrid skeletal death saint along with Catholicism. The Saint ultimately disappeared for centuries, only to resurface in the 1940s and take a stronghold during the infamous drug wars. Her popularity grew exponentially. Today, many priests have referred to this creature as just a demon in female clothing. Many have experience with Santa Muerte worshippers or just those who have asked for protection, all of which have been haunted by demonic presence worthy in some cases of exorcism. As the formalities of Catholicism in Mexican culture—such as attending Mass, worship of saints, and rosary prayers—are so ingrained in even the minds of those who do not attend services at a church, the time and place were perfect for this perfect storm religion to take hold and grow with fervor.
Temples dedicated to the worship of Santa Muerte could be overlooked as regular Sunday Mass, if not for the skeletal woman and decorative skulls surrounding the priest and clergy. Those on the other side swear she is not satanic at all, but rather a wish-granter of those ostracized by the church who protects those in need until their death, when she reaps their soul as God intended. I don’t know about you, but this whole thing scares the crap out of me and sounds like a fan fiction episode for Supernatural that I might just have to write.
While this idea of a death saint feels so out of place among the thoughts of a good and gentle God, it does fit into other practices in South and Central Mexican culture. The Day of the Dead feels like the perfect companion to Santa Muerte, if you think about it. On the outside, this worship of death and dead loved ones coupled with the fantastic masks and makeup to shroud ones face into that of a skeleton is the image conjured when celebrating the Day of the Dead, even according to Disney. At its core, it is a day to honor and celebrate loved ones who have passed through the veil, and over time it has been combined with the Catholic celebrations of “All Souls and All Saint’s Day” that many of us just know as Halloween. If you don’t already know, Halloween is October 31st, the eve of All Saints’ Day on November 1st followed by All Souls Day celebrated on November 2nd. The Day of the Dead is a two-day celebration on November 1-2. It’s all morphed together in a way, yet separated still, and the commonality is Death, making the concept of the Santa Muerte seem more and more believable in a culture already obsessed with Death. The belief is that on Halloween night, the gates of Heaven open at midnight to allow the spirits of deceased children to reunite with family for 24 hours on November 1. On November 2, the dead adults trickle out of Heaven’s gates to do the same. What is interesting is that this holiday is celebrated by the Catholic world in many different countries where this religion is primarily practiced, yet the concept of a patron saint of death, in Santa Muerte, is considered satanic, abominable, and unforgivable.
While the Day of the Dead and the worship of Santa Muerte are comingling more frequently and with more acceptance among the people, the infringement upon Catholicism might be found in another ORIGIN possibility. In Aztec lore a goddess known as Mictecacihuatl (Mic-te-castle-waddle) presided over a festival of death each September. While the dates are off, the possibility that present day Santa Muerte is simply an incarnation of this Aztec goddess makes perfect sense, and explains the Saints denouncement by the Vatican and rejection by the Catholic Church. This goddess and her husband are said to rule over the land of Mictlan, which is where the Aztecs believed the dead were held, in the lowest level of the underworld. Mictecacihuatl’s job was the guard the bones of the dead and to oversee the festivals to the dead. It’s pretty easy to see her connection to the Day of the Dead, and as we continue, proof that she is who is actually being worshiped through practicing Santa Muerte.
The story begins with Mictecacihuatl’s birth. Immediately, she was sacrificed as an infant and reborn as Miclantecuhtl’s wife. Together, the power couple were in charge of three variants of souls in the underworld: those who died of natural deaths, heroic deaths, and non-heroic deaths, which sounds pretty much to me like everyone. In some cases, they have been known to collect the bones to send to the land of the living as a way of creating new races, and lore suggests that races exist because mixed bones were dropped and collected at random. The goddess is depicted as a skeleton devoid of flesh with her jaw wide opened and wearing flowing robes. Her open jaw enables her to swallow the stars so they can’t be seen during the day. Her skull face and connection to the festivals for the dead make her the poster child for the ORIGINS of Santa Muerte.
When death is accepted and even embraced, it loses its stronghold over us. The implication that we are not flesh and blood but encase something that lives on in the form of a spirit or soul that can leave this world makes the idea of death as something to fear obsolete. When death is the end, the end is permanent darkness. When death is the escape from our fleshly confines, death becomes the beginning of something new and beautiful and unknown. Which do you believe? Is death the end or the start of the next adventure? So many culture buried their dead with trinkets for payment to the guardians of the netherworlds. Were they so ignorant in their primitive beliefs? Or is the science in our universe correct: energy is neither created nor destroyed?
I’m Jaimie Engle, and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.
ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle. Please rate and subscribe to ORIGINS. It’s your greatest compliment. And if you really love it, support through Patreon.com/thewriteengle. Finally, stick around for a short story from my book The Toilet Papers titled “Forever Gray,” about a woman who evades the Reaper for centuries discovers that hiding has stained her soul gray, making her invisible to Death when she is finally ready to let go.
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