In Mexico, the name Santa Muerte holds more weight than that of any other diety in history. From cultural celebrations surrounding the figure to temples constructed in her name, Santa Muerte’s significance is long-lasting, widespread, and an essential part of Mexican folklore.

Although there are conflicts surrounding her status as a saint, Santa Muerte remains one of the most relevant cultural icons in Mexico, reminding everyone that death is something to be celebrated rather than feared.

Where exactly did Santa Muerte come from? Who are her followers? And how did she become one of the most beloved (and controversial) saints in Mexican history?

The roots of Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte’s popularity spiked in the late 20th century. However, the bony figure of death has been relevant for centuries.

The Aztecs, who occupied what is now present-day Mexico, had a unique relationship with death from the beginning. They worshipped a deathly figure called Mictecacihuatl, or “Lady of the Dead,” who served as a goddess of death and the underworld.

Once Europeans arrived (and with them, their images of the Grim Reaper), the figure of the bony saint transformed and evolved into the image of Santa Muerte.

The 21st-century figure (who is known as both a saint and a demon, depending on who you ask) is a bony woman with a skull instead of a head. She is typically wearing a cloak and carrying a scythe, though variations to her image aren’t uncommon.

“Santa Muerte goes underground for the next century and a half and only resurfaces in the form of field notes of American and Mexican anthropologists in the 1940s and 1950s. There is a whole period of a century and a half where it appears we don’t really have any written historical records detailing the presence of Santa Muerte.”

– Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut

Although Santa Muerte isn’t new, the widespread celebration of the saint of death took decades to catch on. For several centuries, Santa Muerte was hardly acknowledged in Latin America, with altars, memorials, statues, and texts dedicated to her falling into obscurity across the years.

However, in the late 90s and early 2000s, Santa Muerte came back onto the scene with a stronger presence than ever. Celebrations surrounding death and dying weren’t new in Mexico in the late 20th century, yet she became a significant figure in such events, with many purchasing statues of the saint, getting tattoos of her figure, producing art for her, and praising her on Day of the Dead.

She is now one of the most well-known deities in Mexican culture.

What brought her back from the brink of cultural extinction?

The resurgence of the saint

Believe it or not, the saint owes much of her current relevance to a spike in an unsettling factor: crime. The rise in deaths in Mexico due to drug-related activities has skyrocketed in the last two decades, and the presence of death has become a more significant threat within the lives of ordinary citizens.

Due to the increase of death in the lives of those impacted by areas of soaring crime, the presence of Santa Muerte has become both a relevant and necessary part of life for many people.

The saint is a reassuring presence for a great number of ordinary citizens, as death is inevitable, non-discriminatory, and an end-point that all people share.

“Death is not just the end and never was a human being, unlike the lwas (Vodou spirits). She takes orders from God and comes for souls when they’re ready to be collected, when she thinks the time is right.”

– Michael Caleigh, European Santa Muerta devotee

Saint Muerte has since risen to become one of the most significant religious symbols in Mexican culture. She has enjoyed some perks in her rise to popular relevance. Back in 2001, Mexico City constructed the first temple dedicated to Santa Muerte in the heart of the city, with other monuments to the saint popping up across the entire country.

Additionally, she is regarded as one of the most important religious figures in any current celebration of faith.

Rejection from the Catholic Church

Although Catholicism is the most dominant religion in Mexico, the Catholic Church isn’t as accepting of Santa Muerte as Mexican society. They don’t believe that she is the holy, regenerative woman that many praise her as. In fact, for decades, they have condemned her as a satanic symbol rather than a saint.

The Vatican has a deep-rooted hatred for Santa Muerte. While she is a figure of admiration for many Catholic citizens in Mexico, Catholic leaders in Europe feel that she directly contrasts the values and teachings of Jesus, God, and the Bible.

While she is celebrated as a saint by a variety of groups, the Catholic Church refuses to give her a status of saintliness.

Lady with Face Painted Celebrating Day of the Dead
Hek Gracida / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Why are they so pressed about Catholic citizens worshipping her? Considering that Jesus rose from the tomb and overcame death as one of his final acts on earth, they tend to view death as an enemy rather than a passage. For the Vatican, Santa Muerte is an insult to the Christian faith rather than an extension of it.

The Catholic Church is wary of glorifying the dead, and naming a literal saint of death pushes all of their buttons. Santa Muerte has become a notorious symbol of disaster, decay, and demonic affiliation at the Vatican. However, Santa Muerte is not so rejected amongst the everyday Mexican citizens.

Symbol of hope for the masses

While many spaces tend to avoid discussions of death, illness, and grief, Mexico is different. Although Santa Muerte may be death personified, she is not feared in Mexican society.

For centuries, Mexican culture has celebrated the passing from life to death. Events such as Dead of the Dead have helped turn death from a frightening phenomenon into a natural and embraced inevitability.

“I became fascinated by how these people, who by all accounts are so beaten by life, find hope and the will to go on vía their belief in Death. I wanted to understand, and from there, my intellectual curiosity led me to become a practicing devotee.”

– Tomás Prower, author of “La Santa Muerte”

For many, Santa Muerte is not a symbol of terror, but one of hope. Unlike other cultures that ignore dying, Mexican culture is as invested in death as in life, and they view it as a passage into another state of being, not as a lights-out.

In regards to these values, Santa Muerte is a figure that is rejoiced by many, and she is a tie to loved ones in the afterlife.

Additionally, Santa Muerte does not discriminate against minority groups and LGBTQ+ citizens in the way that certain churches may. Since death eventually comes for all people, Santa Muerte is viewed as an accepting symbol in what can often be a hateful world. The corpse-like saint may have a frightening appearance, yet she comforts those who have nowhere else to turn.

The rivaling opinions of Santa Muerte

A saint in the eyes of many, Santa Muerte has become a demon-like figure for others. Santa Muerte has become a central saint to many criminals, drug lords, and mobsters.

Why do these figures turn to Santa Muerte to pray for assistance in their crimes? Criminal activity can be risky, and praying to the saint of death herself can be a way for those engaging in illicit activities to feel reassured that they might enjoy safe travels.

Since Catholicism is at the root of Mexican culture, asking God for assistance in their crimes can be too uncomfortable for even the worst criminals. As a result, Santa Muerte is the perfect middle point between maintaining religious devotion and engaging in morally questionable activities.

Unfortunately, much of the good that Santa Muerte stands for is overshadowed by the fact that some of her most die-hard fans are involved in illegal activities.

Love for Our Lady of Holy Death

“There are a lot of awful things going on in the world today…The death of our fears and suffering in order to plant a new and brighter future is just what we want and is the power that Santa Muerte represents.”

Tracy Rollin, author of “Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death”

At the end of the day, efforts to denounce the saint have pushed the propaganda that she is only a figure for criminals and murderers. However, Santa Muerte is not defined by her worst worshippers. She has been a source of comfort, peace, and reassurance for those who have been persecuted, neglected, and ignored by other religious sources.

While not everyone is keen on the idea of Santa Muerte being named a saint, there is no doubt that she is one of the most important figures in Mexico in the last two decades. The celebrations surrounding Our Lady of Holy Death reinforce her cultural relevance, her wide following, and the importance of the expansive, plentiful afterlife in Mexican culture.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

Mexico isn’t the only place you can witness vibrant celebrations regarding death.

The U.S. is exploring a positive way to pass over in a peaceful place.