Human history contains countless examples of belief systems or spiritual movements rising and falling along with changing cultural forces. It’s easy to think of religious knowledge as fixed since new religions or belief systems rarely just appear overnight, but if you zoom out to a macro level, it’s clear that these areas of knowledge are indeed always undergoing evolution. Would Christians a few decades ago have ever thought that rock and roll, colored lights, and fog machines would ever make their way into church services? Before the internet, would a religion based on blockchain technology have even been a possibility? Belief systems are products and reflections of our cultures, so it’s natural they would evolve alongside of our ever-changing cultures.
Occasionally, that means some rather terrifying or eccentic religious or spiritual movements can pop up. Think about what kinds of kookiness the rise of science fiction and flying saucer mythos in the 1950s led to. More recently, the never-ending violence surrounding the Central American drug trade has led to an preoccupation with death for many Central Americans. This has led not only to such cultural movements as Mexico’s la nota roja (“red press”), an industry of bloody true crime tabloids, but also a terrifying-sounding spiritual movement literally worshiping death itself. Or herself.
The movement has no official name, but is generally referred to as the cult of Santa Muerte, named after Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, or “Our Lady of Holy Death.” Believers pray to Santa Muerte and leave offerings of flowers, cigarettes, or cocaine at her altars. Some even engage in rituals believed to harness Lady Death’s power in order to exterminate their enemies. It’s no wonder, then, that the cult is quite popular among Mexican and Central American narcos. In fact, it’s become popular among millions of devotees from all walks of life.
While there might be a never-ending torrent of violent acts carried out in Saint Death’s name and the media might characterize the movement as some type of narco-cult, some believers feel that the cult of Santa Muerte offers much more than death. Warren Robert Vine, a devotee from Texas, told The Daily Beast that despite the death imagery, there are wholesome ways to worship the Lady of Death:
I am embarrassed by the narco abuse of her imagery and power. But I sincerely believe there is a new branch growing within the faith that focuses on people, the family and community.
Perhaps because of this multifaceted nature of the Lady of Holy Death, the cult is quickly gaining popularity. Andrew Chestnut, professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says that the cult is growing faster than any other religious movement in the West, maybe even the world:
Get this, going back to 2001, Santa Muerte is essentially unknown to 99 percent of Mexicans. Today, a decade and a half later, I estimate that there is some 10 to 12 million devotees in Mexico, the U.S., and Central America.
Could this cult grow into a larger worldwide movement? Will Our Lady of Holy Death become a household name outside of Mexico? Is She the real reason many Americans want that border wall? It’ll take a lot more than a wall to keep Death herself away from your door whether you believe in her or not.