That’s one sinister saint.
Santa Muerte is all too real. And She’s coming to your neighborhood soon.
By the late twenty-teens, Santa Muerte was reportedly Mexico’s second-most popular saint after Saint Jude and now probably rivals the country’s national patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe, for sheer clout. Jude is the patron saint of desperation, lost causes and hopelessness, which are exactly the conditions the Bony Lady addresses. This sacred female saint of death’s colored manifestations, the prayers, the rosary — all real. It’s growing faster in the U.S. than Mexico, I’m told, but still largely confined to Mexican and Central American adherents. I’m also told you’ll see Her if you look hard enough on construction sites, in kitchens, in the closets where the cleaning supplies are kept, even on the bottom shelf of your supermarket.
Where on earth did She come from? The answer is, She was always there. The subcurrent of traditional MesoAmerican religious beliefs and practice never really vanished, maybe increased along with, some say because of, the Catholic Church and its encouragement of ever-new saints and miracles, ceremonies and prayer. (At last count there were more than 10,000 Catholic saints.) Add in the triple recessions of the 21st century, COVID, drug wars and corresponding massive drop in living standards, and you have devoted followers of the Pale Lady. Like the myriad Americans who’ve turned in disgust from politics, some Mexicans have realized the Church is just not relevant and may in fact be a negative influence. Pope Francis’ formal denunciation of Santa Muerte as a manifestation of Satanism and narco-culture his first day on a trip to Mexico in 2016 only added to her allure. What’s more attractive than the forbidden?
That’s not the way her devotees think of Her. She’s Life, She’s Death, She’s Salvation, She’s Protection. Her documented miracles are legion. The street vendors, unlicensed cabbies, street people, prostitutes, pickpockets, petty drug traffickers and gang members who revere Her are not Satanists, most aren’t in the drug trade, not practicing Catholics or Protestants either, but neither are they atheists. They’re just ordinary, mostly lower income people who feel everyone and everything has abandoned them. So they’ve created their own religion that reflects their gritty reality, one that resonates with deeply held folk beliefs while directly addressing the poverty, violence, disease and daily struggle of their lives. The police, military and narcotraficantes alike can be counted among the faithful who ask for the Pale Lady’s blessings and protection on their guns and ammo, sons and daughters, cars and scooters, houses and apartments, jobs and livelihood.
(She’s also, not surprisingly, been adopted as the protector of the LGBTQ community, since they are still largely outcast in Mexico. Her intercession is commonly invoked in same-sex marriages illegally performed in Mexico; la Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos, really the Church of Santa Muerte, performs religious wedding ceremonies for gay couples.)
Once banned, there are now public shrines, mass parades and ceremonies in Mexico City and elsewhere. She has priests, priestesses and bishops, mass-produced plastic figurines, votive candles, rosaries and a host of other sacred objects openly for sale in even the most affluent Mexico City neighborhoods and tourist enclaves, in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and New York, where declared Santa Muerte cults are not just legal but protected by our Constitution, too. Santa Muerte has been domesticated and commercialized, like all successful religions.
Odd? Bizarre? Morbid?
Not to Meso-Americans. Praying to a manifestation of death, even a feminine one, seems counterproductive to the death-averse Anglo mind. We do everything we possibly can to keep death at arm’s length. Our elders die in sterile hospitals and nursing homes and hospices attended by beeping machines and strangers dressed in scrubs. Death is the Other. We have no place for Her in a consumer society.
But that’s only because we focus on half the equation. After all, Jesus died so we may live. Right? His death ensures our life. Until the Enlightenment and probably well afterward, Europeans firmly believed in a literal manifestation of death, Christ or no Christ. Anyone who’s been to an art museum with Medieval art can testify to that. Jesus and saints and demons and skeletons crowd the canvas, the skeletons sometimes dressed as royalty with scepters and crowns, seated on thrones, even, to symbolize the triumph of death. Jesus just looks on. He doesn’t interfere.
Death as separate from life didn’t change until the very end of the 19th century. People had pictures of their dead in coffins proudly hung in their living rooms. Check out Wisconsin Death Trip if you don’t believe me. This is a collection of late 19th century death photos from just one county in Wisconsin. Life expectancy was dismal, at best 40, infant mortality was sky-high and women died by the score in childbirth. Ever wonder why men had so many serial wives in the old days? They were replacements, is why. Even well-to-do lawyers and presidents with access to the very best healthcare had three of four children die. (That would be Abraham Lincoln’s children. And we wonder why he seemed so sad.) There are relics and bones of saints in American Catholic churches, monasteries and convents today. There’s an impressive collection in the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Convent in Clyde, Mo., along with its jewel-like chapel. What are these if not intermediaries from the other side?
And anyone with even the sketchiest exposure to Mexican culture knows about the Day of the Dead, dancing skeletons, skull candies and the like, directly descended from Aztec, Maya, Mixtec and other peoples’ death worship and deities. It’s a short step from the Virgin of Guadalupe to The Skinny Lady (la Flaquita), the Bony Lady (la Huesuda), the White Girl (la Niña Blanca), White Sister (Hermana Blanca), Powerful Lady (Dama Poderosa), Godmother (Madrina), Señora de las Sombras (Lady of Shadows), Señora Blanca (White Lady), Señora Negra (Black Lady), Niña Santa (Holy Girl) … you get the idea. She has many names. Both She and Mary are here to protect you now and at the hour of your death.
But unlike the Virgin Mary, Santa Muerte is also the path to healing, protection, love, financial wellbeing, not just comfort now and assurance of the afterlife. As Señora de la Noche, She protects those exposed to the dangers of the night, such as Uber drivers, bar and restaurant staff, police, soldiers, narcotraficantes, prostitutes and peddlers.
Like all saints, Santa Muerte has great power. She carries a scythe and stands on a globe. (Also not new; Saint Jude wields a club to smite the Lord’s enemies and Christ is often depicted standing on the world to represent power and dominion over the earth.) The scythe symbolizes death, of course, and a final severing of energy, but also harvesting hope and prosperity. The long handle indicates She can reach into even the coldest of cold U.S. states and most desperate causes.
Other objects associated with Santa Muerte include scales, an hourglass, an owl, oil lamp, a red heart, coins (equity and justice, dominion over time, wisdom, light in dark times, love and romance and wealth, respectively). I have a golden (money, finance) Santa Muerte on my dresser, bought in the huge, colorful and vastly entertaining market of Coyoacan, Frida Kahlo’s village-like neighborhood just south of the Mexico City center. So far, that hasn’t panned out. She also comes in white (purity, cleansing of negative influences), red (love, passion, romance), green (justice, legal matters, unity with loved ones), blue (wisdom), amber (health) and the ultimate, black. Black represents complete protection. Against anything. Bullets, recession, cancer, COVID, black magic, sorcery, faulty plumbing. Or conversely, protection stripped from rivals and enemies. We light candles in our religious ceremonies, which Santa Muerte likes, too, but She’s also partial to drugs, flowers, fruit especially apples, candles, toys, coins and bills, notes of thanks for prayers granted, cigarettes, alcoholic beverages of every stripe not just tequila. My Santa Muerte is surrounded by offerings of volcanic and ocean-smoothed rocks from my travels and a miniature bottle of Coca-Cola from the Mexico City airport. She deserves far better.
“Peter Pike and the Revenge of the Romanovs”
“Peter Pike and the Revenge of the Romanovs” is based on a supposedly true account of the 1887 Third Imperial egg of the doomed Romanovs (pictured), a fabulous Faberge.
This egg comes with an extraordinary backstory: Bought in the 2000s for £8,000 by a scrap metal dealer in the Midwest who kept it in his kitchen for years until a Google search revealed that he had a lost treasure on his hands.
But the story might be a fake!
“In a post on its website, the Baden-Baden museum dismissed the story, declaring: “There is simply nothing to say, except, ‘What nonsense!’ ”
“The museum claimed that the Vacheron Constantin pocket watch concealed within the egg was produced “much later than 1887,” and that “similar cheap eggs were produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
See, that’s why you hire Pike.
Peter Pike #1
Peter Pike and the Murderous Mormons
Explore the strange and wonderful place that is St. Baarlam, Ill.