Ready for a sneak peek into the Autumn issue of Isis-Seshat journal, which gets released on November 10? It’s a death-focused issue, so what better Deity to profile–in a book review, no less–than La Santa Muerte, to Whom I am fervently devoted. Tomás Prower’s just-released English-language tome that purports to cover theory and practice is the subject of my review. Make way for Virgo scrutiny! Read on…
La Santa Muerte: Unearthing the Magic & Mysticism of Death by Tomás Prower (Llewellyn Publications, 2015)
Released just prior to Halloween, this book was one I was certainly eager to get into my petite Priestess hands. I’ve been a Muertista, or devotee of the Mexican folk saint La Santa Muerte (The Most Holy Death) for two years now, ever since Daniel, now my fiancé, presented me with a gorgeous, Mexican-made resin statue of La Santa Muerte Roja (the Red version of The Most Holy Death, She Who presides over affairs of the heart) as soon as we’d started dating. La Santa Muerte’s fame and cult following have been steadily expanding North of the Border for decades now; glass candles in a variety of wax colors (the color correspondences are important, as you’ll find out) bearing Her image and featuring bilingual prayers in Spanish and English can now routinely be found in virtually every grocery store that features a Latino/Hispanic food section, shelved next to candles depicting familiar Roman Catholic saints venerated in the Americas like La Virgen de Guadalupe and San Miguel.
But She ain’t no Catholic saint. In fact, as Mexican/Scottish-American author Tomás Prower explains in Part I of his book, the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant churches actively campaigning/propagandizing in Mexico—with the full blessing of the right-wing Mexican government—have officially denounced the cult of La Santa Muerte as, you guessed it, “Satanic,” sensationalizing Her worship in true yellow journalism tradition and tarnishing Her legions of devotees as murderous drug traffickers engaged in lurid, immoral, and downright criminal rituals replete with (surprise, surprise) human sacrifice.
Sure, Her iconography, a commingling of medieval Spanish and indigenous Aztec influences, which is so reminiscent of the familiar (albeit male) Grim Reaper figure in Western culture, can seem intimidating to some, but so can the Indian Goddess Kali’s or even the Kemetic Taweret’s (note that both of those Goddesses have a penchant for sticking out Their tongues, a gesture noted for apotropaic ferocity). Virgin Death Goddesses certainly aren’t for everybody, whether we’re talking about the Norse Hel or the Yoruban Yewa, but neither is Jesus or Cernunnos or Demeter! If depictions of La Santa Muerte make people feel uncomfortable, it’s wholly because they haven’t yet made peace with their own inevitable mortality. But there is a freedom that can only be found in death, as devotees of La Flaquíta/The Skinny Girl know all too well.
Freedom—from judgment first and foremost (La Santa Muerte never frowns upon or denies any petitioner’s request from a moral high horse), from self-imposed limitations, from fear (of death)—is unquestionably La Santa Muerte’s greatest blessing to Her devotees. Running a close second, according to Prower, is Her ability to grant protection on the physical and astral planes (the reason why both criminals and members of law enforcement/the military in Mexico invoke Her for aid in their daily work). When La Santa Muerte Negra (the Lady in Black) casts Her cloak over you, you are blessed with being rendered invisible. Whether it means traveling undetected on foot in a notoriously unsafe barrio of Mexico City so you don’t wind up getting attacked or robbed, or because you’re shipping kilos of cocaine across the Mexico-Texas border and you don’t want the prying eyes of the law to see your precious cargo, La Negrita will conceal you underneath Her cloak of darkness and grant you safe passage. Again, as Prower stresses, La Santa Muerte doesn’t judge you for your desires (She is perhaps the Patron Goddess of the LGBTQ community, he says), behavior, or willingness or lack thereof to uphold the laws decreed in a civil society. “In a sense, she can be most likened to the Tao since she is neither good nor bad and yet both” (p. 14).
The third reason why people are drawn to what Prower calls “the mystery school of La Santa Muerte” is “the fact that she is the de facto saint of desperation” (p. 15). Many of Her current devotees, Prower goes on to explain, tried praying to the God of their upbringing or to various saints first for help in their dire situations, only to have those prayers unanswered. Feeling rebuffed, they subsequently turned their attention to the skeletal grin of La Santísima, and then they experienced profound epiphanies when it was clear She answered their prayers. She has found many champions from the ranks of the working poor, the marginalized, even the incarcerated—those who in some way or another would find themselves drowning in the mainstream without Her succor.
Prower’s book shines when it comes to outlining the appeal of La Santa Muerte’s cult—in delivering theoria—but it fails miserably when it comes to praxis, or presenting the nuts-and-bolts of devotional rituals to La Santísima and spells to be performed under Her aegis. This failure is all the more pronounced given that the book touts itself as a how-to guide for “spells, magic, and prayers for practical results.”
What Prower gets right is the insistence that La Santa Muerte be given Her own individual shrine space—never try to cram Her onto an altar devoted to other Powers. And he does a great job in suggesting various correspondences (in herbs, gem stones, and food offerings) for the different colors in the La Santa Muerte spectrum: You pray to La Roja (Red) for affairs of the heart, to La Verde (Green) for justice/legal matters, to La Blanca (White) for magical defense and to safeguard purity, to La Negra (Black) for magical offense (yes, I mean hexing) and protection, to La Amarilla (Yellow) for wealth, to La Morada (Purple) for health, to La Azul (Blue) for gaining knowledge (She’s popular with students), to La Marróna (Brown) for necromancy(!), and there’s even a rainbow-colored La Santa Muerte to cover all your bases (Prower doesn’t provide the Spanish term for this multi-hued La Santísima).
But Prower’s suggestions for spells are deplorably devoid of substance and tediously predictable in their pattern of just closing your eyes and meditating in front of La Santa Muerte that you’re on your way to attaining what you want, whether that’s a new lover or victory in a court case or whatever. Ummm, no. Worse, in the two-page chapter ostensibly devoted to hexing, Prower refuses to disclose any of the spells that are widely available in Spanish-language texts dedicated to La Santa Muerte’s cult, saying that “we are all connected to one another in the web of life” and that when we cast hexes, “we place our own stability and the stability of the ones we love in jeopardy” (p. 216).
For someone who spent a good 200 pages describing how La Santa Muerte is so loved for being a Deity who doesn’t judge people based on their desires, Mr. Prower hypocritically inserts himself into the role of judge and moralizing bore with his ridiculous, misplaced didacticism! Hexing is a very vibrant part of La Santa Muerte’s cult, as Prower very well knows from his years of living amongst Latin America’s working poor in a variety of countries, so, el cabron, get over yourself! Pendejo!
In short, Parts I and II are acceptable for an anthropological overview of the popularity of La Santa Muerte’s cult in Mexico and elsewhere. (However, the gold standard in that department is R. Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death.) But if you’re looking for an English-language version of how to cultivate a devotional relationship with the Skeleton Saint or authentic spells practiced in Mexico today, you’d be better served by reading The Magical Powers of the Holy Death: Practical Spellbook, which I purchased on Amazon. I’ll share one of the prayers I learned from that slim little tome; it’s more impactful than all of Prower’s “spells” put together:
Powerful, strong, and indispensable,
In moments of anguish I invoke Your kindness
Plead to God Almighty
Concede what I am asking of You:
That whomever shall wish me harm shall repent for the rest of their lives
And let the harm or the envy of their evil eyes
Return to them immediately.
While at play or in business,
I declare You my advocate
And everyone who comes against me,
Let them lose.
Oh Lady Death,
My Unconquerable Angel.
You’ll notice that there’s a reference to the Judeo-Christian God there. That’s because the overwhelming majority of devotees are practicing Catholics, even though La Santa Muerte Herself will never be accepted as a legitimate folk saint. I have no qualms with such language—after all, when I refer to “God Almighty,” I’m talking about Set!—but you’ll have to decide for yourself how “authentically Mexican” you want your prayers to be and what verbiage is or is not compatible with your religious worldview and practices.
I’ll close with another prayer—one known as the short version of “The Prayer to the Holy Death.” This is said at the conclusion of a devotional ritual to La Santa Muerte, whatever Her aspect/color. Again, there are Christian trappings in the initial invocation to the Trinity:
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Immaculate Being of Light,
I implore that You grant me these favors that I ask of You!
Until the last day, hour, and second when
Your Divine Majesty orders me to appear before Your feet,
Dear Death of My Heart,
Do not ever leave me unprotected.
May the Lady with the Scythe ever be ready to spring at your defense! Aché, aché! (So be it!)