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Book Review – Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death by Tracey Rollin

February, 2019

Book Review
Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death
by Tracey Rollin

I
have always had a great attraction for the image of Death. When I
was eleven, I received a Dover coloring book of Medieval prints and a
box of watercolor paints. Many of the pictures I painted and used in
collages but the picture of “Death and the Maiden”, I put on my
wall after I painted it and it has been on one of my walls of
whatever house I have lived in ever since. Let this sink in –
I was eleven in 1971 and I am now fifty-eight years old.

In
my twenties, I followed the Grateful Dead. One of the highest points
of that era was being backstage at the Barton Hall concert at Cornell
University on May 16, 1981, just days before my twenty-first birthday
– I met the entire band, including of course, Jerry Garcia, who had
eyes that twinkled like Santa Claus. I bought this t-shirt at this
concert and I wore it until it was at a rag but I still have it
because – because of all the memories attached to it.

I
went to Mexico in the mid-1990’s and while I saw mostly images of
Our Lady of Guadalupe, I do remember seeing the garishly painted
skulls of what I now know were images of Santa Muerte in the markets
that surrounded the resort town in which we were staying. I thought
they were interesting but I was more attracted to the images of the
Lady of Guadalupe. I loved the mosaics of Her that were built into
the walls of the town. I took pictures of that and one of them I cut
down into a small devotional picture. Later, I attached it to a
magnet so I could put it on my fridge, where it is today.

And of course I know about El Dias De Los Muertos – the Day of the Dead. When I was young girl, I used to read Trixie Belden mysteries – they were competition to the better-known and more popular Nancy Drew mystery books. Originally written by Julie Campbell, the sixth book in the series, Mystery in Arizona – which was the last mystery Campbell wrote for the series – deals with the mystery of the Mexican workers leaving without a trace to eat “the dead” and “skeletons” and “skulls”. The one problem with this story is that it takes place over the Yule holiday and not during Samhain, which is when El Dias Los Muertos actually happens. But that was my first introduction to the term “the Day of the Dead” and the customs that surround it, even though there were many mistakes in the entire story.

I
also am a suicide survivor. I have tried at least six times. The
last time was April 6, 2004 and I celebrate that date every year now.
I joke that “Death doesn’t want me” but of course the fact is,
if it’s not your time, it’s not your time. And I know better
than to try to die, even though I often long for Death in a most
basic way. I know I just have to wait for my time.

I
realize now that I was looking for Santa Muerte. I realize that my
longing for Death is not an actual wish to die but is a longing for
Our Lady of the Holy Death.

When
I heard about Santa Muerte:
The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death

by Tracey Rollin, published in 2017 by Weiser Books, I jumped on the
chance to read it. Because I had so many other books to read first,
it sat untouched for nearly six months before I had the time to give
it the attention it deserved. But once I cracked it open, I couldn’t
set it down.

Of course I Googled Tracey Rollins. Her website is here: http://traceyrollin.com/ She looks to be about twenty or maybe thirty years younger than me – at any rate, she looks young enough to be my daughter. I mention this because on her website and in Santa Muerte, she talks about her Catholic childhood, and I too, was raised as a Catholic. But being older than Rollins, my Catholic childhood would have been a bit different – I remember the Latin Mass and when the “New” Mass was introduced – and we have a different background, since she was raised in New Mexico by a German immigrant mother and I was raised in Western New York in a predominantly German-Polish community; my personal ethnic background is German-Scots-Irish-French. But as I read, I could identify on so many levels that I felt that I was conversing with someone who had been down many of the same roads I had been. A soul sister, as they say on the streets.

I
think one of the things I liked best about this book is that it is so
well-grounded in history. Rollins talks extensively about all the
roots of Santa Muerte – the Aztec roots, the European Pagan roots,
the Catholic Sainthood roots, as well as the African Orisha roots.
Like her better-known counterpart, The Lady of Guadalupe, Santa
Muerte is definitely a New World goddess! There is so much to love
about Santa Muerte. She doesn’t care who you are or where you are
from. In fact, if you are poor, addicted, homeless, abused, on the
run, living on the streets or in the shadows, working in bars, or in
policework or EMT work, or doing construction work or any other kind
of dangerous work, Santa
Muerte is your guardian saint. How many times have you been in a
terrible place and that scary face turned into the most caring person
you ever met? That homeless person who shared her coffee with you or
helped you find your way home? That’s Santa Muerte. She’s in
the subways and the streets and the shelters. She’s the nurse who
seems so tough but is the softest touch on the floor. She’s the
old woman you never notice until you need her. She’s the face of
the ultimate mother – Death.

There
are seven aspects to Santa Muerte – seven colors for seven aspects.
White is purity. Blue is daily living and relationships. Green is
ethics, justice and law. Gold is wealth. Red is sex and passion.
Purple is magic. Black is negation and dissolution. But Rollins
points out that:

“Even within the seven colors of Santa Muerte, there is some variation and substitution. One common variation is to replace the gold aspect of Santa Muerte with a yellow or amber aspect that is primarily dedicated to healing. Some practitioners use pink version of Santa Muerte instead of the red aspect for spells involving love and affection instead of lust. There exists a brown version of Sante Muerte, chosen specifically for invention in earthly matters and for the manifestation of the practitioner’s desires. Some claim she is the mistress of all practical business matters, splitting this away from the blue aspect and this isolation its knowledge and empathy-enhancing qualities.” (Rollins, 82).

Rollins
tells you how to choose a color for properly resolving your problems
but she also advises getting a Santa Muerte statue that displays all
her seven colors, at least for your first statue, especially when you
are setting up an altar to Her. Chapter Six is dedicated to the art
of creating a proper Santa Muerte altar. Anyone who has set up any
kind of altar will be familiar with many of the aspects of
altar-building; however, there are a few details to remember when you
are working with Santa Muerte. First of all, she likes Florida
Water. I always thought Florida Water was a brand of cologne that
you bought in Florida – my grandmother always brought back a bottle
when she went to Florida every winter – but it’s the name of a
scent formula that was first produced in 1808 and has always remained
popular (Rollins, 99). For some reason, the spirits of the death
love the scent of Florida Water. Rollins includes a recipe for
making your own Florida Water on page 100. Most of the ingredients
can be found in any major supermarket or pharmacy.

Of
course you need candles – it is possible, nowadays, to find Santa
Muerte novena candles in the Goya aisle of your supermarket with the
other novena candles – I thought they were just happy skull candles
for El Dias De Los Muertos, but now I know better. The next time I
go to the large Tops supermarket on the West Side of Buffalo, I am
going to get myself one. But if you can’t find a candle with the
image of Santa Muerte on it, you should be able to find one with the
seven colors. I’ve seen those for several years now and I just
didn’t know what they meant. I’m going to get one of those, too
– and do a seven-day novena, meditating each day on each aspect of
Santa Muerte.

Other
items commonly found on a Santa Muerte altar are apples, aloe,
butterflies, a black mirror, a bowl of dirt, a bowl of salt, a bowl
of water, and a censor for burning incense. Santa Muerte likes the
scent of rosemary incense, myrrh and sweet grass. And naturally she
wants candy – sugar skulls if you can get them

You will want a statue of Santa Muerte but if you can’t get one, a picture of her will do (Rollins, 104).

The
next two chapters are about two rituals that are commonly associated
with Catholics: praying the rosary and a novena. Within the Catholic
Church, these are specific kinds of prayers that produce powerful
results if done with the proper devotion and dedication; however,
these kinds of devotional prayers are not exclusive to Catholics, as
Rollins points out:

Meditation beads are actually a common spiritual accessory. They have been used for thousands of years by people following a variety of spiritual beliefs worldwide. For instance, many Buddhists, Hindus, and
Sikhs employ a long 108-bead strand of prayer beads referred to as mala beads. They are often used to count repetitions of short prayers called mantras, or the names of gods or saints…Muslims also use medi-
tation beads, called misba?ah. These beads are used to recite the ninety- nine names of Allah. Catholics use chaplets and are famous for their use of the rosary, but the use of meditation beads has spread to some
Protestants denominations as well. (Rollins, 137).

Like
most Catholics, I can’t remember actually learning to pray the
Rosary. It seems like I have always known how to do it, although
when I was very little, I used to pray the “Our Father” to start
it off instead of “The Apostle’s Creed”. By the time I made my
First Communion at the age of seven, I was praying it properly like a
good little Catholic girl. My mother instructed me to pray the
Rosary whenever I was angry or upset with one of my brothers or
sisters and that seemed to be most of the time. She also told me to
pray the Rosary when I was unable to sleep, since I have been an
insomniac since a young child. I was usually able to fall asleep
within chanting a few decades of “Hail Marys” but some nights, I
prayed through the entire circlet and stared into the darkness.

When
I decided that I had enough of patriarchal religions and really threw
myself into learning everything I could about Goddess religions,
Wicca and Paganism, one of the things I really missed was praying the
Rosary. I rewrote the prayers to reflect my new views. “The
Apostle’s Creed” became a recitation of the names of my favorite
goddesses. The “Our Father” became “Our Mother”. “Hail
Mary” remained pretty much the same, although I changed “the
Lord” to “the Lady” and left out the name of Jesus after
“blessed be the fruit of thy womb”. The “Glory Be” uses the
Maiden, Mother and the Crone, instead of the Father, Son and the Holy
Spirit. It took a while to get used to saying these prayers like
this but now I’m so used them like this that I can’t say them any
other way.

Rollins
has alternate prayers for the Santa Muerte Rosary as well. All
the prayers have been changed – not one is in any way, form or
shape like its original. They are all dedicated to Santa Muerte.
Here is an example of one, meant to take the place of the “Hail
Mary”:

I call upon Santa Muerte, the Holy Queen of Death,
Who commands all influence and authority.
Please grant me your power and your protection,
Blessing me and keeping me now and always.
Amen. (so mote it be, etc.) (Rollins, 149).

Rollins
recommends using rosaries that are dedicated to Santa Muerte. I
found them easily when I Googled “Santa Muerte Rosary”. There’s
a lot of them on Etsy. The most popular colors are red, white, and
black, or rosaries with all seven colors. They run anywhere from $10
to $40.

The
next part of the book concerns novenas. Novenas are a set of prayers
that are said over a certain amount of days – nine days, twenty-one
days, forty days, even fifty-four days. Rollins writes, “The
purpose may be something as simple as praying for the souls of the
dead or something more specific such as asking a particular saint for
help.” She continues, “Performing a novena is actually an
ancient, pre-Christian habit…Although the term originally (and
correctly) refers to prayers over nine days, it has also become more
generalized to mean a series of prayers said every day for an
extended period.” (Rollins, 151).

Novenas
to Santa Muerte are said over the course of seven days, instead of
nine days, focusing on each of her colored aspects each day as a gift
of Death. For instance, perhaps on day one you focus your prayers on
Niña Blanca, Sweet Sister Death, your prayers will help with
purification, illumination, initiation, cleansing and protection
(Rollins, 172). Rollins lists favorite offerings of Niña Blanca,
which are incidentally all white: white candle, flowers, and
candies. And then there are three whole pages of prayers for
Niña Blanca. Rollins repeats this for every aspect of Santa Muerte
– Niña Violeta, the Royal Queen, Niña Azul, the Gracious One,
Niña Dorada, Lucky Lady Death, Niña Roja, Queen of Passion, Niña
Verde, the Just Judge, and Niña Negra, the Mother of Tears.

I
would think that finishing a novena to Santa Muerte – reciting all
these prayers and meditating fully on the aspects of all these Queen
Mothers – would bring an enlightenment to the practitioner that is
quite powerful. Although I have never been a devotee of Santa
Muerte, I plan to start a devotion to Her. Her promises are
persuasive. There’s no “fluffy bunny” bullshit with Santa
Muerte. If you want it, you can get it with Her – no matter what
it is. The motive doesn’t matter. Rollins writes. “Santa
Muerte is notable because she is not concerned with the underlying
motivations driving the requests of the devotees.” (Rollins, 3).
While we should always be concerned with our own motives, it
is refreshing to discuss a deity who doesn’t care about human
motivation whatsoever and does whatever She wants to do because
that’s what She does. And when you think about it, when
does Death care about human motivation or about anything that
humans do anyway? Death laughs at humans.

In
closing, I have to say that I can’t recommend this book enough.
It’s wonderfully researched, beautifully written, and without a
doubt, a book I will be referencing and reading again and again in
the months and years to come. I am so glad that Santa
Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death

by Tracey Rollins was sent to me and I had the chance to read it and
write about it. I hope everyone reading this goes right out and
finds it in their local library, bookstore, or orders it online.

Brightest Blessings!

Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death on Amazon

***

About
the Author:

Polly
MacDavid
 lives
in Buffalo, New York at the moment but that could easily change,
since she is a gypsy at heart. Like a gypsy, she is attracted to the
divinatory arts, as well as camp fires and dancing barefoot. She has
three cats who all help her with her magic.

Her
philosophy about religion and magic is that it must be thoroughly
based in science and logic. She is Dianic Wiccan and she is solitary.

She
blogs at silverapplequeen.wordpress.com.
She writes about general life, politics and poetry. She is writing a
novel about sex, drugs and recovery.