Across Mexico, and increasingly the U.S, the poor, the down-trodden and the outcasts have been turning to a robed, scythe-bearing skeleton – a personification of death fond of cigars and tequila, able to work miracles, but always for a steep price.
Santa Muerte, Saint Death, emerged in the nineteenth century as a syncretism of Catholic and pre-Columbian beliefs. An exact date, or even a rough approximation, is impossible to come by – the saint’s worshipers meet in secret, in back-room shrines, and only in the last decade have ‘official’ places of worship opened their doors. It is possible that the cult began in Mexico’s southern provinces, where native identity is stronger, but nobody can be sure. A female skeleton who guards the underworld appears in Aztec beliefs as Mictecacihuatl, who, along with her husband Mictlantecuhtli, rules over Mictlan, the abode of the dead. Dead souls had to survive nine years of torment before they could pass into Mictlan, but offering to the Lord and Lady of the underworld helped, a tradition that survives into the present as the Day of the Dead.