Print Edition: November 2, 2011
Death cults. I know — It sounds creepy right off the bat, but, chums, I’m here to tell you to stop hating. Sure, the skulls and skeletons and offerings of candles and honey are creepy – but even death cults need love and acceptance.
The death cult I’m talking about in particular is that of Santa Muerte, which literally translates to Saint Death. As a cult, it’s based largely in Mexico and is a mix of Catholicism and ancient Aztec beliefs. Yes, Aztecs are the ones that died out because they kept ritualistically slaughtering each other. Don’t worry: Santa Muerte tends to shy away from the whole human sacrifice deal – the farthest they really go is to light candles in front of images of the grim reaper.
In fact, you’ve probably seen some Santa Muerte imagery around somewhere – It’s made recent appearances in both Breaking Bad and hipster jewelry. Tattoo art is another huge area where Santa Muerte imagery is popping up – you’ve probably seen the style of pinup girls with Aztec-esque facial tattoos and oddly-skeletal features. Especially in today’s zombie-friendly cultural climate, creepy is hardly a new thing. Yes, dressing a skeleton in a robe and lighting candles around it does seem kind of weird – but transforming crackers into the body of Christ and eating them is a pretty odd past-time as well.
People basically start hating on death cults when gangs get involved. Authorities have found shrines to Santa Meurtos in a lot of condemning spots – the house of a gang leader running a sex circle, for instance, or in houses where kidnapping victims have been held. A shrine was even found in the side branch of a 300-metre-long, well-constructed, well-lit, well-ventilated tunnel used by gangs to run narcotics under the US/Mexico border. The image of Saint Death in a robe is also known as “the Virgin of the Incarcerated,” and many Mexican criminals either carry charms or have images of Santa Muerte tattooed on them somewhere.
These are hardly encouraging connections, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Santa Muerte is bad as a whole. People corrupt religion like this all the time: priests abuse choir boys, Christian and Mormon extremists set up colonies and claim prophet status, Muslim extremists distort the Koran into something they believe justifies terrorism. This isn’t any different: A few give many a bad name.
The Mexican government, however, sees too much of a correlation between gang activity and Santa Muerte to believe they aren’t connected. Crackdowns on gatherings and shut-downs of shrines are fairly commonplace. No matter what, followers keep coming back. Many are housewives or youth, who leave offerings of candy, honey, candles or flowers in return for favours of love, healing or luck. It’s not scary. It’s not creepy. It is a perfectly normal religion that happens to revolve around a skeleton. The followers of Santa Muerte simply see death as an ultimate leveller, and think maybe by praying to it while they’re alive, they can get a little bit of that justice now.
Criminals appeal to Santa Muerte because she, theoretically, doesn’t see things in terms of right and wrong, but rather on more of a cosmic scale. In the ultimate scheme of things, do Roadie, Juan and Jorge deserve the profit this drug deal will give them, or should their 300-metre tunnel gig be crashed by the DEA? They can’t appeal to traditional gods or saints, because, as criminals, they know they’ll be automatically turned down. Santa Muerte is a little less interested in the details. Her followers know they’ll get what they deserve, if not what they pray for.
Besides, if you want to talk about a gang idol serving as a terrible example to the Mexican people, turn to Jesus Malverde, the Robin Hood of Mexican folk saints. Not only does he also merit a mention in Breaking Bad, but he has a pimping moustache. Not only is he is the patron saint of bandits, robbers and drug runners, but he looks like he can hold his own.
It comes down to the idea that people—especially desperate people—will pray to anyone they think will listen, and try anything they think will work. Even if it seems kind of odd to pray to a skeleton, some people seem to find comfort and solace in it, and sometimes they get the miracles they ask for. At the end of the day, hating on death cults is religious persecution – and when has that ever been okay?