Saint Death, Queen of Witches — Exploring Popular Occultism and the Emergent Iconography of Santa Muerte
“Cowardly defamers, here I stand. I walk with the elf. Let their courage fall, their hairs stand on end, and let terror and fear reign them.”
- from the Invocation of Don Diego Duende
The Magical Powers of the Holy Death, published in English by Jaguar Books’ Cali Casa imprint, and available in Spanish from Ediciones S.M., has what at first glance seems to be a very odd addition — an invocation to Don Diego Elf. Mentioning an ‘elf’ in regard to Santa Muerte’s magical powers may appear out of place when so much of the news surrounding her presence relates to urban issues of criminality and drug trafficking. Yet this invocation speaks to her lingering lineage as a powerful figure associated with curanderismo, brujeria and other traditions of practical faith.
“Don Diego Duende” opens a vision for us to understand traditional practices where “elves” and other elemental spirits often intermix with the residual shades of the dead to heal, help, harm, protect and teach those who seek empowerment from and communion with the invisible realms of nature. As we investigate these ties we also discover a series of incredible correspondences related to la Nina Blanca, illuminating some of the hidden corners of her contemporary emergence.
Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary
Let’s take a slight detour as we begin our journey towards understanding Santa Muerte’s relationship with Don Diego Duende, and look at some insights gained from Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold, a scholar and practitioner, in his book Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary. Obeah is a Carribean folk practice whose core focus is on developing relationships with, and mastery over, spirits and psychic residues as a necessary step in spiritual work.
Frisvold mentions ‘duende’ in connection with the Anima Sola, a popular intermediary that aids the practitioner seeking to work with a specific class of wandering spirits. Standing within the fires of purgatory, wrapped in broken chains, we see an iconographic image suggesting her existence in the purging fires of Hell is one that she herself has chosen, and as such when called upon she has the ability to help mediate communication with wandering spirits who, for whatever reason, remain tied to the physical plane.
The details that Frisvold supplies are important to note if we are to understand the ties between Santa Muerte and the elves:
“Anima Sola is the leader of the Douen and the messenger-daughter of Papa Bones…Douen is derived from the Latin duende, synonymous with goblins and brownies in Northern Europe, whilst in Iberia and South America the category aslo encompasses fairies and any green short-grown spirit.
(…)Whe also find the icon of Anima Sola in Palo Mayombe where she is known, amongst many names, as Mayanet Viento Malo — a bitter hot wind of destruction. Anima Sola is also used to depict the Vodou myste Marinette Pie Cheche and Marienette Ge Rouge. Marienette is considered one of the more dangerous Lwa and is intimately connected to the woods, the domain of Papa Bois/Gran Bwa as is the nkisi Mayanet.”
Although Santa Muerte has become well known through her growing urban presence, and news reports and media deal with the developing religious aspects of her cult, most anthropological reports from the 20th century demonstrate her role as a powerful patron sought out in the practice of curanderismo and brujeria. The rural roots of these traditions provides one element to explain why. when discussed in connection with ‘magical powers’, she still holds associations with nature spirits even as her role expands most visibly in cities and urban areas across the Americas.
In looking at Obeah we are also reminded that in folk practices such as curanderismo and brujeria, familiar spirits often act as the means of accomplishing spiritual work and following the models set out in European grimoire rituals these spirits are often controlled by invoking the intercession of a higher or more powerful spirit — la Madrina being seen as one of the most powerful to work with in this regard as she is literally the spiritual embodiment of death itself.
Regarding Anima Sola, Frisvold goes on to say:
“From this we see a theme taking shape; Anima Sola is the Moon’s dead daughter that serves as a messenger between worlds. She is a spirit of torment, a hot bitter wind that can literally drag you to Hell. Hell must be understood as a metaphor for otherness, and the woods are where we find these gates and portals to otherness. Hence she is the messenger for the Lord of Darkness, the fire that cast a white shadow in the night and transforms in agonizing ways. Hence she is also the patron of the mystery of loup garou/werewolves. Sympathy with Santisima Muerte can also be seen.”
Fittingly, an Invocation to the Lone Soul appears later in The Magical Powers of the Holy Death, and as we explore these references we are drawn beyond religious devotion towards seeing Santa Muerte as a figure related not only with miraculous intercession, but with initiatory experiences as well. This provides a fascinating hint at a potential role that has been obscured by her popularization over the past decade.
It also gives us a deeper understanding of why, as her public facing devotional tradition has grown, so many people have such direct encounters with her presence — including visionary dreams, apparitional appearances and prophetic messages. Unlike many popular saints she is not merely an intermediary, but a figure that has long been given a central place in the mysteries of folk magic — both as an agent of action and as a tutelary spirit.
The Great Book
In exploring references to the Caribbean practice of Obeah we are given a more nuanced look at how popular press books such as The Magical Powers of Most Holy Death can act as conduits for serious practice despite their facade of cheap print and mass production. What Frisvold explains regarding Anima Sola represents oral traditions that are encapsulated in The Magical Powers with a short prayer and a brief explanation of the potential dangers of working with her.
Obeah, curanderismo and brujeria all share a common relationship between urban and rural influences — drawing from grimoire practice, metaphysical structures from the New Thought/Mind Science movement, Kardecian spiritism, traditional plant lore and traditional teachings in order to form a loose knit system based on practical results rather than strict orthodoxy.
These practices do not exist in isolation, and with an eye towards any applicable elements that might be available they often accumulate influences from all levels of culture. These associations are tried, tested and passed on by practitioners whose integration of spiritual work with their daily lives brings a level of understanding that can’t be fully encompassed through information quickly accessed in a text. We must remember that historical accuracy, continuity and other such concerns are largely academic and unrelated to the living reality of these traditions.
Obeah is unique among the Afro-Caribbean traditions in that, for many practitioners, L.W. De Laurence’s early 20th century mail-order magic tome The Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and East Indian Occultism has become a central reference book. In advertising blurbs from the De Laurence Company it is described it as, “a most full and complete system of Occult Philosophy: Natural, Celestial and Ceremonial Magic: Conjurations of Spirits, etc.” A recent edition, published under the title The Obeah Bible, gives an adequate description of the actual contents of the book and its relation to Caribbean magic:
“The Obeah Bible was originally published as The Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and East Indian Occultism in 1898 by L.W. De Laurence. This text is taken from the 1915 edition.
Despite the title, the text has little to do with Hinduism — many of the “Hindu” words were fabricated and pasted into the text, of which much is an adapted version of Francis Barrett’s 1801 occult work, The Magus (which was itself a compilation of earlier European occult works, including those by Cornelius Agrippa and Pietro D’Abano.)
The Great Book became an influential text in the practice of certain African-derived magic systems including Hoodoo, Voodoo and Obeah. Some has even gone as far as to call Obeah “a form of magic based on a mail-order catalogue,” referring to De Laurence’s primary sales technique.
The Great Book, along with all other books published by the De Laurence Company,, remain banned in Jamaica due to strong associations with Obeah practice. This has earned The Great Book its nickname, The Obeah Bible.”
Although the book itself is an amalgam of plagiarized sections from Francis Barrett’s 19th century grimoire manual, The Magus, along with a hodge podge of psychical research, folklore, theosophical speculation, simplified yoga practices, dream work and other diverse offerings, this compendium of information, when accessed with intention and belief, becomes a powerful focus for practice.
Saint Death and the Occult Science
While it may not be cohesive in a scholarly sense, by giving access to such a broad spectrum of information, it is certainly practicable in terms of providing a wide base of material which a serious student of the ‘occult sciences’ can work from. The inclusion of instructions on visionary breath work and other physical practices also provides a basis for the practitioner to access the information on a more integral level that goes beyond intellectual speculation or conceptualization.
Books such as The Magical Powers of Holy Death brings the tradition of these potent pop grimoires into the 21st century, although it contains nowhere near the over 600 hundred pages of dense material found in The Great Book, this manual for practical work with Santa Muerte opens with lines reminiscent of de Laurence.
From The Magical Powers:
“If you do decide to initiate this cult, pray so that your feelings are always oriented towards a place that will allow you to develop your intelligence, spiritual growth, and find your mission to live according to the cosmic plans.
(…)never forget that you reap what you sow. Hence he who sows harm, reaps harm.”
From The Great Book:
“The writer will hereby inform the student that whatever the desires are which have prompted him in the pursuit of a knowledge of occultism and the invisible forces of nature, so he will reap, for ‘like always attracts like.’
In the English edition of The Magical Powers of Holy Death the last pages have advertisements for Lewis de Claremont’s Legends of Incense, Herb and Oil Magic and Godfrey Selig’s Secrets of the Psalms, books that fall within a category of popular works, such as De Laurence’s Great Book, that have been used throughout the 20th century in American folk magic.
Although the legitimacy of these sources may seem doubtful from an academic standpoint, when it comes to actual folk practice oral tradition more than the written text itself acts as a key that unlocks the mysteries of these areas. The text merely form a touch point that can be sparked by anecdote, intention and personal instruction, and even the most unassuming written material can become a coercive channel for empowerment.
A passage from The Great Book serves to illustrate the divergence of intellectual speculation and practical ability, saying that:
“Those who in the true sense deserve the appellation of ‘Adepts’…are not the speculative philosophers or elaborations of cosmogonies. The real adepts are often remarkably deficient in philosophical and even general information.
The writer has found among them individuals who would be deemed exceedingly ignorant if judged by our Western standard of education; men, for instance, who had not the haziest knowledge of geography, and to whom even the history of their own country was in a great measure a sealed book.
Yet these men were the custodians of secrets for which many an intellectual giant would readily exchange twenty years of his life, secrets which so far have successfully baffled the researches of the best Western thinkers and experimenters, and which not only enabled the possessor to suspend or defy the ordinary ‘laws of nature,’ but to triumph over time and space with an ease and readiness which the Greeks hardly dared to attribute to their Olympian gods.”
Whatever spiritual agency sits behind Santa Muerte’s iconographic image has long been initiating solitary practitioners into the arts of magic. More than scholarship or historical accuracy — the transmission of active, working spiritual power is essential in traditions of practical faith, whether this power is passed from teacher to student, adept to apprentice or given by a spiritual agent whose domain is situated in the thin veil between reality and imagination.
The Queen of Elphame
What many have mistaken for ‘new age’ developments in Santa Muerte’s popular cult - such as color correspondences outside of the traditional white, red and black and other innovations along these lines - can actually be traced to common themes stretching back to late 19th century and early 20th century popular occultism which pre-dates the formalization of the New Age movement in the late 1970's. When we look at the historical setting of something like the Invocation to Don Diego Duende we are drawn even further back in time, where, to take just one example, we find figures similar to the Anima Sola and Santa Muerte, as Frisvold defines them, within Scottish and European witchcraft trials.
In his doctoral dissertation, The Meaning of Elf and Elves in Medieval England, Alaric Timothy Peter Hall says that:
“The evidence of the Scottish witchcraft trials consolidates the medieval comparisons. It shows the existence of narratives like those recorded in medieval texts widely in society, and how they could be part of dynamic interactions with people’s constructions of reality. The trials also suggest continuity in English-speaking culture of beliefs concerning ælfe. Despite the prominence of female elves and fairies in Middle English literature and its high medieval comparanda, and although a Queen of Elphen or a similar otherworldly female is prominent in the trial-evidence, the trials show clearly that male elvis existed in Scottish belief… The Scottish witchcraft trials also attest to the use of stories of elvis and fareis in cunning-folks’ constructions and presentations of their powers and processes of healing. These provide a context for understanding aspects of the meanings of ylfig — for seeing alfe not only as sources of harm in Anglo-Saxon culture, but also as sources of power. ”
Traditions of folk healing have long been associated with developing relationships with the ‘other’ realm of elemental and independent spirits. In his book Song of the Cosmos: An Introduction to Traditional Cosmology, scholar Arthur Versluis details how the spirits called ‘elves’ and ‘elementals’ are traditionally seen as participating in a ‘horizontal’ cosmological relationship rather than a vertical one. What this means in practice is that when one wants something done in the material realm, it is easier and more efficient to work with these spirits than it is to work with ‘angelic’ or ‘celestial’ spirits whose function is to draw the practitioner upwards beyond earthly concerns.
Here we should remember the often repeated statement that Santa Muerte will give what other saints will not. As Versluis points out:
“…we may speak of the following genera of subhuman and extrahuman realms: first, there are the extra-human beings like the asuras (fallen angels)…then there are the subhuman stations like the elementals, who are the forces inherent in Creation itself, the subtle beings of fire, air, earth and water, metal and wood, the naids, dryads, and so forth of whom Agrippa spoke. And there are the peripheral stations like those of the ghosts and pretas, the goblins and hags, the beings who bear a direct relation to the human realm, being an ‘outgrowth’ of it, a kind of ‘horizontalising’ of human aspirations toward the divine, often the result of violence, of revenge, of anything which creates a single-minded intentionality.”
What we commonly know as ‘fairies’ or ‘elves’ present a complex group of spiritual beings that are said, in a Christianized magical context, to exist ‘between the gardens’ of Heaven and Hell or the material world and the transcendent. In some references the lines between ‘fairy’ and ‘spirit of the dead’ are hazy at best — and as related in Robert Kirk’s 17th century treatise, The Secret Common-Wealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, some traditional folklore held that certain of the spirits associated with fairies were in fact the spirits of those who died prior to and during the great flood mentioned in the Book of Genesis — including spirits of the mysterious nephilim, who were the fruit of the union between the ‘sons of god’ and the ‘daughters of men’.
It is interesting to see that Versluis highlights the marginality of these ‘extra-human’ species when describing their position in the natural order:
“…there is an indefinitude of other ‘stations’ which do not correspond exactly to the human median position, stations of being which are removed from the Axis in various degrees and which for the individual human-being represent sub-human or extra-human states: they lack the axiality, or the centrality which characterizes the human possibilities. Among these certainly we may count the ‘hungry ghosts’ or pretas of Buddhist tradition, the asuras of the Vedic and Buddhist tradition, the jinn of Islamic tradition and the faery of Celtic tradition, as well as the giants, dwarves, elves and other beings of various cultures, beings now supposed to be mythological.”
As queen of the boundaries and margins between life and death it only makes sense to find some hints of Santa Muerte’s relationship to ‘elves’ or duende carrying forward from her ties to traditional practices such as curanderismo and brujeria which still retain some working knowledge of ‘fairies’ as more than Victorian fantasy. Santa Muerte’s position as the keeper of the gates of death acts in like manner to the Lone Soul whose position within the fires of purgatory allows her to mediate between the practitioner and residual spirits bound to the material plane. If we continue to trace the textual hints we find that this median role goes deeper still.
Santa Muerte and the Witches Sabbath
Despite the temptation to seek ancient Meso-American roots for her tradition, as we look closely at the clues it becomes more and more evident that in addition to Aztec and Mayan sources, Santa Muerte has been able to centralize liminal practices from Europe, Africa and the Americas into a surprising and fluid system of practical faith. Unexpected continuities are abundant once we begin to analyze what we see of her today in light of European traditions associated with female initiatory spirits.
Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, provides us with a further explanation of the role of ‘elves’ as teachers of traditional magic in his article, The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath, from the Journal of Folklore. In it he mentions that:
“It is also worth emphasizing that in many parts of early modern Europe, cunning folk (under their various different names) claimed to have gained their magical knowledge from local land spirits (again under many names and in different forms), who were sometimes mixed with dead humans.”
It is important to pay close attention to the fact that when approaching Santa Muerte we are greeted with an amalgamation of beliefs and practices that serve to clothe miraculous occurrences and influences within the lives of those who approach her for her favors as a powerful healer, love magician and protectoress.
Saint Death has become a popular figure in the narrative of the miraculous in many people’s lives, and this intimate role allows her great latitude when it comes to embodying the needs of the moment. Although Santa Muerte’s iconography is specific to her, the particular role she plays as a potent female spirit bears striking similarities to female spirits associated with the dead across many different cultures.
When looking at similarities across cultures and across traditions it is important to remember we are fleshing out potentials rather than making any bold claims of historical continuity. These cross comparisons provide insights into how certain confluences of experience, symbolism and intention interact at an imaginal level.
Professor Hutton’s article weaves further threads to help us understand the connecting lines between Frisvold’s explanation of the Anima Sola as “the Moon’s dead daughter that serves as a messenger between worlds,” the ‘Queen of Elphen’ found in witchcraft trials, and Santa Muerte’s role as an initiatory spirit in Meso-American folk practice. Speaking of European legends of ‘the Wild Hunt,’ Hutton explains that:
“The modern concept of the Hunt is primarily a conflation of two different kinds of nocturnal procession or cavalcade. One was composed mainly of female spirits and traveled about, often visiting human homes to bless them if the inhabitants were clean and hospitable. Living people frequently claimed to have joined it, sometimes explicitly in spirit form while their bodies remained in their beds. In many areas it was believed to be led by a supernatural female, whom clerical writers tended to call Diana or Herodias, but who was also known as Holda, Abundia, Satia, Percht, and by other local names. The other sort of procession was mostly or wholly made up of dead human beings, and was rarely regarded as attractive or benevolent.”
Those familiar with Charles Leland’s 19th century book Aradia: A Gospel of Witches, which purports to be based on traditional Italian folk practices, will recognize the figures of Diana and Herodias, as these names are central in the ‘witch cult’ that he outlines in his book. Yet such a tie merely brings us back to the fact that as a folklorist Leland played fast and loose with his influences, intermixing traditional Afro-American beliefs, European folk magic, New Thought/Mind Science, and various other strands to make up for what he felt was a degeneration of the source material he gained from traditional practitioners (For more on Leland, see: Alchemical Invocation of the Vox Populi — Charles Leland’s Aradia and the Creation of Witchcraft.)
This intermixing, however, follows the way in which traditional practical spirituality has always been passed on outside of orthodox controls. As we can see with the amalgamation of beliefs associated with Santa Muerte, diversity of this sort only serves the continuing growth of her appeal as a miracle worker and in no way challenges the efficacy of the practices associated with her.
It is also pertinent to look more closely at what Leland was doing with Aradia in order to discover additional intriguing connections. Outlining the book in an article for the Correspondences Journal titled, An Elusive Roebuck, Luciferianism and Paganism in Robert Cochrane’s Witchcraft, Ethan Doyle White mentions that Leland:
“…had been collecting folk tales and traditions in Tuscany for several years when his informant, Magdalena, allegedly brought him this text, the gospel of a secretive cult of witches, before promptly disappearing. Scholars have debated whether the text represents the genuine teachings of a religious group or a fictitious creation of either Magdalena or Leland; it seeems most likely that it contains some genuinely folkloric components but is nonetheless a late nineteenth-century creation.
Certainly, no other trace of this Tuscan witch religion has ever been found. The theology contained within Aradia mixes the figure of Lucifer, here described as ‘the god of the Sun and the Moon, the god of Light, who was so proud of his beauty, and who for his pride was driven from Paradise,’ the the Classical pagan deity of Diana, asserting that they had a child, the titular Aradia, who is sent to Earth to combat the Roman Catholic Church and aristocracy, teaching the peasants magic in order to do so.”
What a strange thing to find that Leland’s admittedly artificial arrangement of folklore would lead to a figure such as Aradia who provides those on the social margins with miraculous patronage, teaches the art of magic, combats the Roman Catholic Church and leads those struggling against the social elite. What White doesn’t mention is that Leland was active in the revolutionary movements within Europe and was an active propagandist for social equality during the Civil War in the United States — even as a folklorist he used his work to espouse the social ideals that he felt were important for the progress of society.
In a parallel light, it should be noted that the reason for the legal censure in Jamaica of De Laurence Company books associated with Obeah is that Obeah has long been tied to revolutionary activity and pan-African traditionalism throughout the history of the country, whether it was under colonial rule or socialist regimes. By carrying the potential for a radical reassessment of personal power and reconnecting the people with their traditional roots Obeah became seen by authorities as a seed of social unrest best left infertile.
Santa Muerte’s growing role as a centralizing figure among society’s dispossessed takes on a different light when seen in relation to the similarities she shares with these parallel traditions. Her role as a figurehead providing a neutral territory for the unification of a diverse array of socially marginal groups, including neutral ground between devotees among law enforcement and so-called ‘criminals’, certainly adds fuel to the fires of mistrust that has religious and government officials nervous when monitoring her growing faith base throughout the Americas.
She Remains in the Shadows
Folk Catholicism is quite capable of accounting for many aspects of her devotional tradition without turning to Aztec or Mayan history, so too apparent innovations such as the Invocation of Don Diego Duende find their roots within the realms of traditional practice that are not tied, as some might claim, to ‘new age’ inventions or commodification. With Leland’s Aradia or De Laurence’s Great Book, we see how the effective quality of these sources exists beyond their questionable providence, just as Santa Muerte’s efficacy exists even when her tradition is presented in the form of mass market books and her iconography is drawn from popular imagery.
In briefly tracing these correspondences it becomes clear that the mysteries surrounding Santa Muerte are not easily codified or contained within a simplistic schema of narco-cult, mass market commodity or folk saint, and despite her fast growing popularity she remains as hidden in the shadows of contemporary spirituality.
While we have focused on The Magical Powers of Holy Death as a source text, no assumption should be made that this represents the ‘true’ nature of Santa Muerte’s cult practices, merely a series of hints and allusions that give further evidence for something that remains outside the realm of conceptual speculation.
Following the subtle trail of Don Diego Duende into the realms of the Witch-Queen as far as we have, we still find ourselves far from understanding la Santisima’s most esoteric secrets, secrets she jealously reserves for her most beloved devotees.
For more on Santa Muerte and the sanctification of death in the Americas visit — SKELETONSAINT.COM