What if…and “Santa Muerte”

WARNING: this post will discuss religious and spiritual matters. This can be a touchy subject for some. If you are curious, continue reading. If you fear you may swoon or fly into a fit of rage, please read another one of my posts instead. If you ignore my warning and want to comment out of disgust or anger, please note that I moderate all comments, and rude comments will be deleted. Please be polite and respectful.

Santa Muerte, summarized here and discussed here, is a figure largely worshiped in Mexico, and one that combines Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs. Mesoamerican cultures often had a god of death in their pantheon. It is thought that these traditional beliefs combined with Catholic beliefs with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic Church. Today, Santa Muerte is often represented as a robed skeleton carrying a scythe and a globe, appearing as a sort of mixture of the Grim Reaper and the Virgin Mary.

The cult of Santa Muerte was largely hidden in Mexico until mid 20th Century. Whereas altars were built, and ceremonies held, at private homes, now one can find public altars and various items bearing the image of Santa Muerte for sale in markets. This growth is probably linked to the increased number of Santa Muerte followers, which include criminals, various street vendors, taxi drivers, the homeless, prostitutes, pickpockets, and gang members. Members of the cult are those on the fringe of society–those who feel abandoned by the State and the Church. Some estimate that 40% of prisoners are adherents of Santa Muerte. Yet Santa Muerte is increasingly popular with the wealthier classes in Mexico, and the cult has followed immigrants to the United States, where evidence of Santa Muerte has been found in Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.

The Catholic Church in Mexico has condemned followers as “devil-worshiping cultists” and the practice as idol worship. Followers of Santa Muerte insist that they can remain members of the Catholic Church while also praying to Santa Muerte (the rites of Santa Muerte strongly echo those of the Catholic Church). It should also be noted that the persecution and private worship are similar to the early history of Christianity.

I think studying things like Santa Muerte is important for fiction writers who want to create well-rounded cultures. Remember, Santa Muerte is not unique. Louisiana Voodoo is another example of religious rites that were held by marginalized peoples and heavily influenced by the clash of cultures. In fiction, the DUNE series had religions that included Orange Catholic, Zensunni, and Third Islam.

What if military or religious missionaries were sent to another country or planet? How would the two cultures impact one another? Would each try to convert the other or would they co-exist?

What if a heretical, hybrid religion developed? Does change necessarily have to begin on the margins of society? What would be the reaction from the “parent” churches or from the government (including law enforcement)? How would the cult react? How does it survive persecution? Does the persecution drive its growth among the marginalized population? What new institutions develop when people feel let down by older institutions?

What do you think about Santa Muerte? What do you think of “hybrid religions”? What factors should one consider when developing a religion, history, and culture for a piece of fiction?