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.
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.