Editorial Note: This is the transcript of a talk I gave at the 24th Annual Fellowship of Isis Chicago Goddess Convention, October 28, 2017, at the North Shore Holiday Inn in Skokie, Illinois.
Good morning and thank you all for coming to our 24th Annual FOI Chicago Goddess Convention! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Anna and I’ve been proudly serving as legally ordained FOI clergy since 2012, though I have been active in Chicago’s Pagan community for 18 years and counting. I’m the executive editor of Isis-Seshat, a quarterly publication of the Fellowship of Isis, and I’m the founder of the chartered Iseum of the Rekhet Akhu, whose mission is to highlight the interrelatedness of the communities of the living and the dead and to cultivate transfigured spirits (akhu in ancient Egyptian) in human form.
So why did I choose this topic? We’re in the season of Samhain, the Celtic reckoning of the end of summer and the liminal time between one year and the next, and during this time our thoughts often turn to ones of our own mortality, as well as to remembrances of those who have gone before us. More than any other time of year, the honoring of the Deities and Spirits of Death is top of mind for most of us.
As a show of hands, who here honors a Death God or Goddess in their personal devotional practices? (Pause.)
I’m a Polytheist devoted to such Holy Powers, and I’d like to spend some time with you discussing three in particular: the Norse Goddess Hel, Mexico’s La Santa Muerte (the Holy Death), and the Nigerian Orisha, Yewa—Who They are, Why They matter, and how you can cultivate a devotional relationship with Them if you feel Their bony hands laying claim on you. What’s striking about these Death Deities of various cultures—northern European, North American, and West African—that I’m going to talk about is that They’re gendered female and They’re regarded as virgins, so we have a lot of intersectionality to examine when we focus on what we know about each Goddess historically and what we know about Them in contemporary worship.
But before we start discussing each of these three Cosmic Femmes Fatales, I’ve got a few thoughts I’d like to share on what significance gender bears as well as historical notions of the concept of “virginity” and how these impact the mythologies and the cultic practices surrounding the worship of Hel, La Santa Muerte, and Yewa.
Gender and Virginity
If you think about why there are female Death Deities to begin with—especially in such disparate cultures as medieval Scandinavia and modern Nigeria—the answer may lie in the fact that throughout the world, dealing with death is women’s work. Women tend to the dying and women prepare the dead for burial or cremation—they wash the corpses, they sit in vigil, they perform elaborate mourning rites publicly and privately. In the archetypal, cross-cultural image of the Earth Mother Who gives us all life, She also takes life back into Her; the womb becomes the yawning grave. So female Death Deities very much make sense to us.
But why are these Goddesses “virgin” ones? In our current discourse in the Western world, the word “virgin” is usually a strict, almost clinically defined, term characterizing a person who has not had sexual intercourse (for women, the hymen has remained “unbroken”). In pop culture, such individuals are invariably made fun of—they’re socially awkward for missing out on sex; they’re seen as pitiable, their lack of experience to be remedied immediately. They’re seen, in other words, as fundamentally disempowered individuals.
But there is another side to this coin, and we have to turn to the remote past in Western culture, where the word “virgin” was itself was a gendered word—gendered as female—and it connoted empowerment. Why? In classical Greece, as feminist scholar Barbara Walker informs us, the word “virgin” meant “a woman who was whole unto herself.” In other words, she was an unmarried woman, meaning her identity—her station in the world—was not defined through her relationship to a man.
It was not a comment on lack of participation in sexual activity. We’ve all heard of the famous Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome; their cult was tremendously important to the spiritual health and well-being of the Roman state. They belonged to no man, but to all of Rome, and there are records of them as having been quite sexually active—with each other and with the chief state priest known as the Pontifex Maximus, who orchestrated public rituals done on behalf of the state. (As an aside, the Catholic Church stole, among other thefts from Paganism in antiquity, the title of Pontifex Maximus [“the ultimate bridge”—i.e., between mortals and the Gods] and applied it to the Pope!)
So these Virgin Goddesses are Whole Unto Themselves; thus, unlike other Goddesses you may revere, these Fierce Ladies are not defined in relationship to a male consort/partner/twin. They are powerful solo acts. To quote the Annie Lennox song from the 80s, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.”
There is an added element of purity to these Goddesses as well—meaning that They are free from spiritual pollution and They offer powers of purification to Their devotees. Some may demand a rigorous level of purity from Their followers; this is especially true in the case of Yewa, as we’ll see.
So let’s take a closer look at the histories and the living cults of the three Virgin Death Goddesses that are the focus of this workshop: Hel, La Santa Muerte, and Yewa.
Go to Hel! (We All More Than Likely Will)
The Teutonic peoples of continental Europe and Scandinavia all knew Hel, and Her lore was widely popularized in the Viking era thanks to the 13th century writings of an Icelander named Snorri Sturluson, a learned statesman and poet who, although Christian, sought to preserve the older tradition from oral literature of the great deeds of the Old Norse Gods, the pantheons or tribes of the Aesir and the Vanir, the Giants (Rökknar) Who preceded Them, and even the lore surrounding how the end of Creation would come about—the Ragnarök. He compiled these bardic tales in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda so that he could teach future generations of Icelandic poets the proper way to relate these tales. And it’s from these texts that we learn about Hel and Her family.
The Goddess Hel is a Giant, one of the Rökknar. Her father is the so-called Trickster God, Loki, and Her mother the fierce Angrboda, the wolf-witch of the Iron Wood. Hel has two brothers: the world-encircling serpent, Jormungandr, and the wolf, Fenrir. The God Odin, Whose sight surveys all of the 9 Worlds in the Norse Cosmos, was so upset by the prophecies concerning these Wyrd children of Loki’s—and the role each would have in disturbing events to come, including the end of the world—that He sought to avert Fate by mitigating each child’s Power.
Here’s how Snurri Sturluson relates it in the Prose Edda (section XXXIV):
But when the gods learned that this kindred was nourished in Jötunheim, and when the gods perceived by prophecy that from this kindred great misfortune should befall them; and since it seemed to all that there was great prospect of ill–(first from the mother’s blood, and yet worse from the father’s)-then Allfather sent gods thither to take the children and bring them to him. When they came to him, straightway he cast the serpent into the deep sea, where he lies about all the land; and this serpent grew so greatly that he lies in the midst of the ocean encompassing all the land, and bites upon his own tail. Hel he cast into Niflheim, and gave to her power over nine worlds, to apportion all abodes among those that were sent to her: that is, men dead of sickness or of old age. She has great possessions there; her walls are exceeding high and her gates great. Her hall is called Sleet-Cold…
Odin was most creeped out by Hel, also called Hela, and had such an aversion to Her that He banished Her into the world farthest away from His own, a section of Niflheim—the Land Below of Fog, Mist, and Cold—located under the roots of the World Tree that She could rule over, and called it Helheim. To Hel would go all those who die of sickness and old age—deaths not heroic enough to merit Odin’s company in the Hereafter. Odin declared that Hela would never, ever be allowed to set foot in Asgard, the most “heavenly” of the Nine Worlds, and so, She never has.
What’s striking about Hel, as Snorri describes Her appearance, is how She’s divided into a living half and a dead half: “She is half blue-black and half flesh-color (by which she is easily recognized), and very lowering and fierce” (Poetic Edda, section XXXIV).
Northern Shaman Raven Kaldera likens Hel’s presence to that of a black hole. But She gives peace and rest and Her home of Helheim can be accessed—up to a point—in shamanic journeys and visions. According to Heathen gythia and founder of The Troth, Diana Paxson, “Hela guards the ancestors whose folkways we are trying to restore.”
Thus, having Hela in a place of prominence at your ancestor shrine is ideal. I find Her energies to be very kind to the dead and hospitable, as though She were a shepherd of the dead. It’s customary for me to do a Hel-blot on a Saturday; that’s the day of the week I also honor Her father, Loki.
I also find Hel extremely encouraging in the act of contemplating your own mortality as well as in honoring the cycle of decay—something our death-sanitizing culture is wildly uncomfortable with. “That’s the core of Hela’s mystery,” writes Raven Kaldera. “The things about her appearance that are the most grotesque are the holiest” (Jotunbok, Vol. 1, p.301).
Offerings to Hela typically include dark and bitter foods and kinds of alcohol, from rye bread, to hearty stews to stout, or dry red wines. Mead, of course, is traditional. Blood is an appropriate offering: your own or that of an animal that would have been recognized as a food source in Northern Europe. She also appreciates dried, well-preserved flowers—especially dried roses. Northern Tradition priest and spirit worker Galina Krasskova also suggests dark chocolate and even coffee beans. Any food offerings left on Her shrine have to remain until they’re good and rotten.
For the Love of La Dama Poderosa—”The Powerful Lady”: La Santa Muerte
And so we travel from the cold land of Hel to the warmth and the vibrancy of Mexico’s fastest-growing “folk saint”: La Santa Muerte, “The Holy Death.” Here we have the striking image of the skeleton, androgynous on its own, now gendered as female and seen as immensely powerful—La Dama Poderosa. But she inspires such affectionate devotion and is given epithets like La Niña Bonita (“the Pretty Girl”), and La Flaquita (“Skinny Girl”). She is Mexico’s “Skeleton Saint,” and 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.
Her popularity is meeting with fierce resistance in some circles. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant churches are actively campaigning/propagandizing in Mexico—with the full blessing of the right-wing Mexican government—to denounce 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.
Why the hate? Because La Santísima offers Freedom. 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 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 or crystal meth 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. La Santa Muerte doesn’t judge you for your desires (She is perhaps the Patron Goddess of the LGBTQ+ community in Mexico and elsewhere), behavior, or willingness or lack thereof to uphold the laws decreed in a civil society.
The third reason why Her cult is skyrocketing in popularity is that people, in desperation, tried praying to the Christian “God the Father” 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 is known, incidentally, for quick turn-around time in answering 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 help.
La Santa Muerte has various aspects based on color correspondences, but the three most popular are also, interestingly, the colors of the Goddess as taught in Traditional European Witchcraft circles: red, black, and white. La Santa Muerte Roja is Whom we turn to for the affairs of the heart, whether that means attracting a new lover, keeping the one you’ve got, or having a straying lover return to you. Again, She appeals to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
La Santa Muerte Negra is prayed to for protection and concealment, as well as magical offense and acts of vengeance.
La Santa Muerta Blanca affords magical defense and the safeguarding of purity—this is the Virgin in our modern sense of “purity” and being “untainted” by sexual energies.
One of my favorites is La Santa Muerte Verde—the Santísima of Justice. You appeal to Her for justice both personal and collective, from winning a court case or settling other legal disputes to upholding Cosmic Order. In that sense, She is very much on the same frequency as the Egyptian Ma’at.
No matter which La Santa Muerte you pray to, it’s universally agreed upon that She is demanding and She needs Her own shrine. Do NOT place Her adjacent to statues of other saints or Deities. She won’t like it!
Offerings to La Santa Muerte include candy, expensive chocolates, fresh flowers, fruit (red apples, oranges, papayas, bananas), sheaves of wheat (She’s a Reaper) or whole wheat bread or white bread rolls you can get in a Mexican bakery called bolillos. In addition to whichever kind of liquor you offer—ranging from beer to tequila to red wine—She also has to have a glass of water on Her shrine, one that is refreshed every day. It’s said that She gets very thirsty for water because of all the traveling She does around the world to answer peoples’ prayers.
No doubt about it: She is uncompromisingly powerful. But I also find a delightful childlike quality to Her; in my devotionals, I feel Her take great pleasure in Her offerings with a pure innocence like a child might express great delight at being given a favorite treat. I think it’s that very childlike quality to Her that inspires such affection on the part of devotees of all ages: Her images are lovingly carried about in public on Mexican streets. The scene is reminiscent of children holding aloft beloved, living dolls.
Have any of you seen this recent documentary about La Santa Muerte on CNN? It came out last year and the host, Reza Azlan, went to this famous outdoor market in Mexico City and bought a consecrated statue of La Santa Muerte Blanca, and said, holding the statue for the first time, that felt like he was holding his own living child. Even he was surprised by the level of affection he was feeling for his La Santa Muerte statue, which definitely had a living presence to it; he found his day of participation in an outdoor Mass to La Santa Muerte to be deeply moving. That’s the kind of effect She has on people. Viva La Santa Muerte!
In terms of book recommendations, there’s no better book on the market than Dr. Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death. He is an anthropologist who has been studying La Santa Muerte’s rapidly growing cult in Mexico for the past 30 years. He is also a devotee. However, this past Thursday night at Alchemy Arts I found this newly published book aimed at English-speaking Pagans and other magical folk who want to create devotional practices to La Santa Muerte: Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death by Tracey Rollin. I love this book; I’m devouring it and highly recommend it along with Dr. Chestnut’s Devoted to Death. If you’re a native Spanish speaker, lucky you, you’ve got a lot of books published in Mexico that provide all manner of details on ritual practices for the different aspects or “colors” of La Santísima, not the least of which is an actual Bible of La Santa Muerte: La Biblia de La Santa Muerte.
I don’t have that book but I do have a Spanish-language La Santa Muerte Tarot deck. My best friend moved back to his native Texas a few years ago and he bought this for me at a botanica in San Antonio. I absolutely love the artwork. Come see me afterwards if you want to take a look at it.
Yewa, the Virgin Death Orisha of Ifá and Santería
So, moving right along: the Virgin Death Goddess Who has gotten the least amount of press that I’m aware of is the Orisha Yewa, the Maiden of the Cemetery. Her cult originated in the Yoruban religion of Ifá in Nigeria and has proliferated in the New World African diaspora religious offshoot of Santería. Yewa is regarded as a literal virgin, a maiden, and owing to the fact that Her personality is said to be severe and harsh, there are strict protocols for how to invoke and placate Her. It generally is something seen as an initiates-only level of experience—Ifá and Santería, if you didn’t know, are initiatory religions—and one has to abide by a world of taboos.
Some versions of the sacred stories told in Ifá and Santería relate that all of the Orisha were once human beings Who became Deified because of extraordinary acts that They performed while alive. In the case of Yewa, there’s an inversion because the lore is that She died an untimely death; therefore, She didn’t reach Goddesshood because She performed an extraordinary feat. Fittingly, She thus rules over the class of spirits known as abiku in Nigerian lore—abiku literally means “predestined to death.” These are restless spirits of dead children, restless because their life force potential remains unfulfilled. It would take an Orisha of great purity to serve as the leader of these spirits, so perhaps that’s why there’s such an emphasis on strict ritual protocol and the observance of taboos, such as not invoking Her when you’re having your period or if you’re pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant.
Unlike the other Death Goddesses we’ve discussed, Who bear skeletal or partially skeletal faces, Yewa has Her face covered, it is said, out of modesty due to her virginal purity. But it is also implied that Her mysteries are concealed, and, again, are not for the uninitiated. Hence the veil. In Santería, She is syncretized with St. Clare of Assisi, a saint who died young—obviously, a virgin—and was known for her humility, her piety, and her charity towards all living things, just like her good friend St. Francis of Assisi. St. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Clares. If you’re curious, St. Clare’s Feast Day is August 11.
Unlike St. Clare, Yewa is said to be unforgiving. If you offend Her by botching up ritual protocol, for example, She just might react in a vindictive manner. She cannot be “bribed” with offerings the way that some of the other Orisha might. And when it comes to offerings, a lot of Her offerings overlap with that of the Orisha Oyá—Oyá is the Warrior Orisha Who rules hurricanes, the winds of change, the marketplace, and the gates of the cemetery; She is not a Death Deity, however. Yewa rules inside the cemetery, so that’s the best place to leave offerings for Her.
Offerings are typically nine in number. Like a lot of preteen or adolescent girls the world over, Yewa loves the color pink—so pink flowers like pink roses would be ideal for Her. She also takes dark foods like plums, red pears, black grapes, eggplant—either nine eggplants or nine slices of a really large eggplant—red wine or dark rum (poured into the ground), pieces of roast pork (pigs are a chthonic animal, offered to Death and Underworld Deities across the world), heaping piles of black beans or black-eyed peas, dark chocolate, and black hens are also sacrificed to her.
It is said that Yewa loves to dance on graves—Her movements are very sharp and staccato—and She whips Her sacred implement of power, a fly whisk known as an irukere, around. When Her devotees get possessed at a bembé, a ritual to honor the Orisha or the dead that features live drumming, They twirl about in their many-layered skirts and whip the floor and other people with their fly whisks.
I’m going to play a little bit of a recording of a devotional song that is played in Her honor in Ifá. As you listen to it, what does it evoke for you? How does it help you discern Yewa’s energies?
Well, I thank you for joining me on this global tour of three Virgin Death Goddesses that I serve. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it and that if you have any questions, please come up and see me. I also invite everyone to contribute to the communal Ancestor Altar with an image of a Death Deity or a photo of a deceased loved one.
Thank you again, and I hope you all have a wonderful time at this 24th annual Fellowship of Isis Goddess Convention! Seneb-ti! / Blessings!
Works Cited and Recommended Reading
Chestnut, R. Andrew. Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Gonzalez-Wippler, Migene. Santería: The Religion. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1989.
Johnston, Sarah Iles. Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Kaldera, Raven. The Jotunbok: Working with the Giants of the Northern Tradition. Northern Tradition Shamanism, Book I. Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press, 2006.
Krasskova, Galina and Raven Kaldera. Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2009.
Neimark, Philip John Neimark. The Way of the Orisa. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Paxson, Diana. Essential Ásatrú: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism. New York: Citadel Press, 2006.
Sturlsuon, Snorri. The Poetic Edda. Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe
—–. The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18947/18947-h/18947-h.htm
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: HarperCollins, 1983.