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Santisima Muerte, pt. 1

religious appropriation santisima muerte

This will be in progress for a while, but I figured I could start organizing the stuff that’s already on the blog somewhere so folks can get to it from a single “directory” page instead of a list of scattered links.

Turns out I’m gonna have to do this in multiple sittings/sessions, though, and honestly that’s just as well, because that will give me a chance to solicit the input of some folks who *didn’t* just spend four years offline living under a rock like I did. So they are in a better position to comment on some of the more recently-available resources and recent evolutions/innovations within the cult. [*] So I’ll go ahead and do this as a short series of posts for now, and then I guess I’ll edit it down into a single page to list in the Rootwork Resources later.

[*] I’m using cult in the academic sense of the word to mean simply a system of beliefs and practices shared by a group of devotees. In this sense, it’s a neutral term and doesn’t imply anything about legitimacy or illegitimacy or make any judgment about devotees.

Santisima Muerte, or Most Holy Death, was not a mainstream figure at all when I started working with her just about 20 years ago now, and there was very little available in English about her. Devotees tended to keep her altars hidden and not honor her publicly, and while there were a few exceptions, there was still pretty widespread negativity and backlash around her cult. This was beginning to change when I began learning about and working with her, first slowly and then faster and faster as her reputation and devotion spread further and further.

Now people all over the globe honor her and petition her, and while the Catholic Church still objects and cautions the faithful about falling into idolatry and devil worship, it is easy to see evidence of her cult in broad daylight all over the place now. There are now multiple English publications and websites dedicated to her and it’s not difficult to find a worker versed in her cult.

I’m saying all this because it’s going to become apparent very quickly that I am a lot more old-fashioned and conservative about working with her than a lot of people are these days. You will find extensive resources online that essentially say “she’s wonderful and everyone should worship her!” and I am not going to agree with that at all lol, especially when the “everyone” we’re talking about is largely people who do not come from a Catholic background and are not from a culture that tends to treat the dead and ancestors as still-active and still-important members of spiritual society, as it were.

A quick example from an Etsy listing I saw the other day: a seller was offering an herbal mixture as a substitute for graveyard dirt and said in the listing that they thought it was disrespectful to disturb the rest of the dead to collect graveyard dirt.

That perspective is totally at odds with that of the culture from which graveyard dirt as materia magica sprang. I’ll pick just one unstated assumption that needs taking apart: the idea that the dead are asleep, peacefully resting when we don’t bother them, and that our interacting with them is bothersome. This is not even how the world works from a hoodoo perspective.

And a perspective like that would be totally at odds with that of Santisima Muerte’s culture of origin.  It’s totally at odds with the way Catholics conceive of the afterlife and the relationship between the living and the dead. (And not just Catholics, of course – there are plenty of cultures and religions in which ancestors play important roles or death is seen as just a different phase of existence, not a permanent “exit stage left and proceed to oblivion” stage direction. But I’m gonna stick to discussing it in terms of Catholicism for this blog post for obvious reasons).

Here’s the deal: Protestants by and large do not even conceive of the ontological categories — or the available modes of being, if you will — within creation the same way as Catholics. They do not see the universe the same way or understand the relationship between the living and the dead the same way. They don’t conceive of the afterlife the same way, and they don’t understand any nuances of obligation or reciprocity that are all tied up in those relationships. And they often aren’t even aware of the extent of these differences because they don’t actually know anything about Catholicism or know any Catholics to ask.

People who do not understand how death is conceived of in a Catholic culture cannot possibly understand Santisima Muerte. You can learn about it and come to understand it, sure! But an awful lot of “witchy”-type folks like to play “flea market bingo” or “all-you-can-appropriate buffet” and just collect whatever looks cool without bothering to really grok the underlying system or tradition or culture it came from.

That’s always shitty.

But when it comes to working with Santisima Muerte, it’s also flat-out dangerous.

And of course, as her cult spreads beyond Mexico, there will be plenty of people who don’t want to say all those traditional Catholic prayers and have all those Catholic things on the altar because they’re not Catholic and they don’t see the Catholic aspect as important. They don’t see Santisima Muerte as having anything really to do with Catholicism. Some, in fact, seem to be patting themselves on the back for “liberating” her from what they apparently see as dreary and unimportant nonsense. They see her veneration (and some even use the word “worship”) as a totally new and completely separate religion.

In my opinion, they’re dead wrong, and in my experience, they’re risking the wrath of the very being they claim to be worshiping. And in being so chipper with the “everybody worship her, she’s wonderful!” stuff and not spending any time discussing cultural and religious context, they are in my opinion giving out  bad and potentially dangerous advice to their readers who also don’t understand any of this and aren’t even aware of how much they’re missing and misunderstanding.

I’m going to quote from an exchange I was part of on an email discussion list a while back by way of illustration and discuss it in part 2. – it might have been more than 10 years ago now. I don’t have access to that email account anymore to be sure. But this discussion touches on some of these things I mean by “dangerous.”

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