Santa Muerte, a skeleton saint, has attracted millions of devotees over the past decade. We spoke to R. Andrew Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death, about the history and origins of Santa Muerte, why she has gained popularity, and the process and challenges of his research on the “Bony Lady.”
For those who don’t know already, could you speak a little about the Santa Muerte cult? What are its origins, where is it most heavily practiced, what are some core beliefs?
Santa Muerte, or Saint Death in English, is a Mexican folk saint that personifies death in the form of a female skeleton. She is the product of syncretism between the Spanish Grim Reapress (la Parca) and Prehispanic beliefs in death deities among certain indigenous groups in Mexico. Spanish Catholic clergy brought the image of the Grim Reapress to the New World as a tool of evangelization of indigenous peoples. Both the Aztecs and Mayas had several death deities in their pantheon of gods and goddesses, so it was natural for many indigenous people to correlate the Spanish Grim Reapress with the Aztec death goddess, Mictecacihuatl, for example. Today, it’s the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas with an estimated 10 to 12 million devotees across the globe but especially concentrated in Mexico, Central America, and the US Devotees view her as a potent, multitasking miracle-worker who can deliver on petitions quicker than her religious rivals.
What changes in the field have occurred during the time between the first and second editions of Devoted to Death?
Most notably, Santa Muerte has transcended her Mexican roots and claimed devotees among diverse nationalities, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Here in the US she’s become especially popular among Euro-American LGBTQ individuals. One of the devotional leaders in the US is Steven Bragg, the preeminent Santa Muerte practitioner in New Orleans, who is a gay white man raised in a conservative Protestant denomination in Mississippi. Another major development is condemnation by the Catholic Church in Mexico, at the Vatican, and now even by a few American bishops. The Church views veneration of death as anathema to Christian belief in Jesus having vanquished death on the cross.
Why did you decide to pursue this particular field of study?
I was already two years into a book project on the Virgin of Guadalupe but wasn’t feeling very inspired. In the context of research malaise, the Bony Lady appeared on my laptop on March, 2009, and beckoned me to contemplate her. She appeared in the form of a news item reporting on the Mexican army’s destruction of some forty of her shrines on the Texas and California borders with Mexico. Having traveled in Mexico on a regular basis since the early 1980s I was familiar with the death saint but had no idea that she’d become religious enemy number one of the Felipe Calderón administration in its escalated war on the drug cartels. So after consulting with colleagues and family members, I decided to put the Guadalupe project on hold and plunge into a new one on the intriguing skeleton saint.
Before starting my research, I had no idea that Santa Muerte is considered a potent Love Doctor! In fact, from the 1940s to the 1980s, love magic was the sole type of supernatural service that Saint Death is reported engaging in by Mexican and American anthropologists who came across her throughout the Mexican republic. Her oldest known prayer, printed on the back of thousands of votive candles, is the love-binding petition to bring an errant husband or boyfriend back to the woman he’s cheating on, humbled at her feet and asking for forgiveness. The red votive candle of love and passion is still the top selling Santa Muerte jar candle in Mexico.
What was the most challenging part of your research?
Balancing safety concerns with my research agenda. With some 200,000 deaths over the past decade in the ongoing drug war, Mexico is surpassed only by Syria in absolute numbers of dead. My wife is from the state of Michoacán, which has been one of the epicenters of narco-violence, and I really wanted to do research there, which I did, without taking major risks.
What are you currently reading (personally or work related)?
The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead by Erik Seeman, which explores the common ground provided by the funerary practices of French colonists and the Huron-Wendat nation of Quebec.
What would be your top tips for an aspiring academic author?
While we academics shouldn’t let market forces dictate our research agendas, aspiring authors must consider the potential marketability of their research topics. Even at academic presses, decisions whether to publish are partly driven by sales potential. Within the relatively obscure field of Latin American religion, I have chosen research topics of broader interest, such as charismatic Christianity and Santa Muerte.
How do you see your field evolving in the future?
I operate in several fields, but I think Religious Studies will develop an even greater focus on lived religion and spirituality in the digital age.
What is your next project?
My new research project is on Catholic death culture in the West, particularly material expressions, such as memento mori, ossuaries and holy relics. I spent last summer in Portugal and Italy doing field work.
Featured image used with Permission of R. Andrew Chesnut.