When godlessness reigns, it’s not surprising to see false gods rise in response to the human hunger for spiritual fulfillment. It is surprising, however, to see people turn to death to fulfill their lives. In recent decades, a cult has risen out of Mexico with an unholy rival to the Virgin of Guadalupe: Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte—Our Lady of Holy Death.
One of the fastest-growing religious sects, the Santa Muerte cult venerates a female Grim Reaper holding a scythe and a globe, whose image and power are honored by ever-increasing devotees. The devil, as Pope Francis once said, has never forgiven Mexico for loving Our Lady of Guadalupe, and is seizing control of the country’s spiritual void with a vengeance. Santa Muerte may well be one of his hiding-in-plain-sight snares to seduce people away from religion with something that looks unsettlingly like religion.
With a barren skull replacing Our Lady’s beautiful face, Santa Muerte is a mockery of Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe. Yet Mexicans, in varying degrees, love the skeleton “saint.” The more extreme devotees cherish her “miracles,” process with her statue, offer her sacrifices, and pray to her. Sometimes, their supplications are mysteriously answered with money, power, relief from their predicaments, or license to do as they please. She’s hailed as one who gives what heaven refuses. She has been proclaimed the protector of outcasts and the patron “saint” of homosexuals, transvestites, transgenders, prostitutes, and drug dealers. Death, after all, does not discriminate—but, then, neither do demons.
Death and demons have ruled in Mexico before. The Golden Legend provides a perspective on this with a tale that may not be true, but is certainly intriguing. After Christ commanded His apostles to baptize all nations, some were miraculously borne to the unknown corners of the world. Having converted the Indies and traveled beyond the Ganges, St. Thomas (called Didymus, “the twin”) was transported to the jungles of Mesoamerica, where he found a people awash in the blood of human sacrifice. St. Thomas abolished that infernal ritual and was hailed as one from God. Godly himself, he was a priest of extraordinary power—a great teacher of the one pure and true Sacrifice, which has sated the altars forever.
When St. Thomas was spirited from that land, his evangelization complete, he was remembered and immortalized in Aztec myth as Quetzalcoatl, “the Twin”—the feathered serpent, wearing hair upon his face, who had come on the wings of the wind to make them as wise as serpents and gentle as doves. The prophets said he would come again one day to their people at the time when the earth would be reunited with heaven.
But hell was destined to return before Quetzalcoatl. Over time, the demons regained their sway over the South American civilizations. The natives gradually returned to the embrace of the fire, turning the Christian life-giving ceremonies back into slaughter. Blood stained the Aztec altars once more. Their religion was perverted and putrefied, leaving only shadowy traces of the purity they had been given by God. The centuries crawled by and the people sank further and further back into benighted ways—remembering, however, and with some trepidation, the prophesied return of Quetzalcoatl, whom they had betrayed.
Shifting from lore to history, when Hernán Cortés beached at Mexico on Good Friday, 1519, the Aztecs, led by Emperor Moctezuma, believed the bearded man marching along their shore was Quetzalcoatl, come back from across the sea. As interactions increased, Spanish priests remarked on the mysterious Christian echoes in the native rituals, such as fasting, oblation, and the cruciform symbol. The sign of heaven was present, and Mexico would be washed clean of blood yet again. Demons pervert the pure, and this folklore strain illuminates the struggle between life and death.
In a cycle that is ever occurring and recurring, hell hammers into its own image what was fashioned in heaven’s. In 1531, Our Lady of Guadalupe put an end to the Aztec bloodshed with the conversion of ten million. Nearly five centuries later, the bony Lady of Death has supplanted the pregnant Lady of Life and drawn ten million back to the shadow.
The Catholic Church has denounced the Santa Muerte cult, calling it a religious degeneration—a syncretism of Mesoamerican death-worship and the proper Catholic veneration of saints. Santa Muerte infiltrated the pious and merry traditions of Mexico’s Día de Muertos—the Day of the Dead—lurking between the trick and the treat. Now it’s coming into the open, luring the desperate and destitute. Those who have grown disillusioned by a Church they perceive as haughty and abusive often embrace the cult. Despair prompts delusion; vulnerability tempts vice.
The Santa Muerte cult is a cult of crisis, with activity spiking during economic and social hardship. She’s a demon of human hopelessness, granting vindication to those whom despair drives beyond the laws of God and man. This “religion” reflects a reality that many underprivileged find themselves prey to—a reality of violence, distress, and marginalization. Santa Muerte smilingly promises power in return for their unholy devotion to Holy Death.
The cult is particularly prevalent among the drug cartels. Santa Muerte is a recruiting tool, a mesmerizing menace offering power and prestige to those who crawl to her. Many narcos are her “consecrated” killers, and their murders and crimes are often done in her honor. The blood is running, and there’s power in blood, for blood is life. Santa Muerte is giving a great deal of power in exchange for a great deal of blood, and thus the forces of evil are rampant through the human sacrifices of our age.
Despite Mexico’s illegal drug wars and legal abortions, life doesn’t achieve fulfillment in death. The cult of Santa Muerte is an indication that Catholicism in Mexico is under attack by a culture of death, and a stark warning of this lies in a village of Tlaxcala province. In 1631, one hundred years after the visions of Tepeyac Hill, St. Michael the Archangel appeared to Diego Lázaro and caused a miraculous spring to flow from a hill where people could be washed clean of devils. The waters of the well of San Miguel del Milagro, as local tradition has it, will run as long as Mexico is a Catholic country. Today, that well is running dry.
It’s a sign of the times when people pray to Holy Death instead of for a holy death—or when an entire nation is exorcized, as Mexico recently was at the Cathedral of San Luis Potosí by Juan Cardinal Sandoval Íñiguez, the Archbishop Emeritus of Guadalajara.
Death is the wage of sin and has rule over this world, which is yet another reason to look for the coming of another Kingdom—and another Ruler.
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