Despite the best efforts of the conquistadores in the 15th century to wipe out Mesoamerican beliefs, and the attempts of the Constitutionalists in the early nineteen hundreds to abolish Catholicism, both remain alive and well in an intriguing syncretism that exists throughout Mexico. One only has to enter a church to find icons of the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the most revered figures in Mexico whose very depiction combines a cochophony of symbolism from both the Catholic and Mesoamerican traditions revealing a fusion between a Catholic virgin and the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. It is claimed that the sighting of Guadalupe by an indigenous farmer Juan Diego, now a saint in his own right, in 1531 prompted the mass conversion of a large number of indigenous Mexicans yet caused the Catholic archbishops to fear idolatry in the newly converted nation.
Today, all over Mexico, traditional healers call upon the Catholic saints whilst conducting rituals based on ancient beliefs in the curative powers of the earth and the reasons for sickness. Whilst being bathed in plants, flowers and herbs and having eggs passed over you, you will be undoubtedly be watched over by numerous depictions of Catholic saints cluttering the walls of the healer’s room. A syncretism and irony that does not seem to cause any concern.
Furthermore, one of the most interesting and rapidly increasing phenomenas in contemporary Mexico, is the cult of Santa Muerte or the goddess of Death. Her reverence is of little surprise, since Mexico is a country with an intimate relationship with death passed down from Mesoamerican belief in the duality of life and death. Social scientists argue that her popularity increases in times of difficulty and that her followers mainly reside on the margins of society or within criminal rings. This skeletal saint is popular with young gangs who make their devotion clear through tattoos and by hanging her icon around their necks, something that can be noticed with a keen eye, in even the most conservative of Mexican cities. The Catholic church, unsurprisingly regards the cult of Santa Muerte as devil worship and idolotry but despite their best efforts, the worship of Santa Muerte doesn’t look likely to decline anytime soon and belief in her incredible powers is spreading steadily outside of Mexico.
A intriguing and informative account of the work of a Mexican/ American Curandera: Woman who glows in the Dark
A short video about the Cult of Santa Muerte in Mexico: Mexican Death Saint
Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in BBC Travel, CNN Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, AFAR and The Independent among others . Check out her portfolio here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Instagram and Twitter.