Dr Andrew Chesnut's talk for the London Fortean Society, We're All Gonna Die:Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, was the best I'd attended for some time. The subject matter was fascinating in itself but Andrew's enthusiasm for the subject, willingness to interact with the audience, and keenness to learn as well as teach really came through. Props too must go to his wife Fabiella who helped out with Spanish translations and readings and gave Andrew a memory jog on the rare occasion he lost his thread.
Andrew is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA and he has authored the first and only academic book devoted to Santa Muerte, or the Bony Lady as she's sometimes known. Fabiella is Michoacana so her knowledge and experience of Mexican folk religions appears to have been invaluable in the course of research.
Santa Muerte only really appeared on the scene around about 2001 but now, just sixteen years later, she is estimated to have approximately 12,000,000 followers. There are said to be 14,000,000 practicing Jews in the world so you can see just how influential the Bony Lady has become. It's possible, likely even, that worship of her will overtake Judaism in the next few years.
Although Santa Muerte herself is a relative newcomer on the scene this kind of folk Catholicism has been prevalent in Latin America for a long time before. Traditional Catholic saints all looked very European and it's believed they didn't really speak to the poorer native American inhabitants of Mexico and Brazil in the same way they did to the rich white ruling class. So the locals made up their own Gods, their own deities.
In Guatemala I once visited a shrine to Maximon, an effigy surrounded by whisky bottles, cigars, and playing cards and flanked by some mean looking boucners. Our Lady of Guadelupe, in Mexico City, though nominally part of the official Catholic church, is the world's third most visited sacred site and many of those who visit may not hew to regular Catholic orthodoxy but have their own more personal take on her significance.
Other worshippers (or followers) of Santa Muerte have their own reasons for eschewing formal Catholicism and throwing in their lot with a more pliable belief system. Mexico has a terrifyingly high femicide rate, the second highest murder rate in the word (after Syria), and has been torn apart by narco wars and drug cartels. Season 3 of Breaking Bad opens with some narcos crawling on their knees towards Santa Muerte in supplication.
Because there is so much diversity within the cult some see Santa Muerte as an icon for criminals, drug dealers, and gang members. Others dispute this claim and see her as a force for good. When Pope Francis was asked how he felt about Santa Muerte he gave a very cagey response, making sure not to mention her name, that suggested he was uncomfortable being pushed either way on the subject.
Still Santa Muerte has spread across Central and South America and up in to the USA, particularly in the Latin communities now feeling disenfranchised under a Trump presidency. Where The Donald had hoped to build a wall between Mexico and the USA he has, inadvertently, built a bridge between the USA and Latin America. Mexico, and other countries, have long been chaotic and ruled by disruption. USA was once different. Now it's the same.
Andrew, controversially, claimed Canada now stood alone as a rational country in the new world. But Santa Muerte has even got followers as far afield as Australia and a few in the UK. There was one follower at the talk and a 'church' of sorts has started up in Brighton.
There were, and remain, so many unanswered questions about Santa Muerte (or, to give her one of her other names, La Dona Blanca). Why is she represented as a bride in a wedding dress? Why is she white when most of her early followers are not? What does she actually represent to the majority of her followers?
In the course of the talk I learnt about the rise of Pentecostalism in Brazil and Guatemala, the African folk religions that syncretically fused with existing forms of Christianity to form the popular folk religions of the Americas, and La Dona Blanca's use of an owl as her spirit animal.
But the more I learnt about Santa Muerte, La Dona Blanca, the Bony Lady, the Lady of the Shadows, the Lady of the Seven Powers, or Mictecacihuatl the more questions I had. The idea of people following, or worshipping, her may seem strange, confusing, mystical, mysterious or just plain wrong. In that respect Santa Muerte seems no different than any other religion. Perhaps the more scope for interpretation within the early days of a religion the quicker it can grow. I guess we'll find out.