My friend Tony Kail sent me a review copy of his latest book, Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Mysterious Saint of Death, to review here.
Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, is a sinister yet sometimes kindly figure in Mexican folk belief whose propitiation has increased substantially in the last decade. This skeletal figure is not a legitimate saint, as one might guess, but it has nonetheless attracted widespread devotion in numerous shrines in both rural and urban areas throughout Mexico and reaching into the United States. Though sometimes associated with criminal activity, Santa Muerte has attracted a considerable following among the poor and distressed.
Tony’s book deals in considerable detail with Santa Muerte, beginning with its possible origins (as these remain uncertain) to the present day. We learn about the Santa Muerte cult, its devotees, its rituals, its tenets of belief, and its reception outside the community of believers. Tony also places the cult in the context of broader beliefs in Mexico’s culture regarding the spiritual significance of death and such practices as curandismo. Incidents connecting Santa Muerte with narcotics traffic and organized crime are given prominence in one chapter, and the whole is rounded out with a description of the foreboding figure’s appearances in popular media.
I should also note the multitude of photographs that occur throughout the book, depicting the images and paraphernalia associated with Santa Muerte in full color. They chronicle the many shapes in which Santa Muerte might manifest to her followers, and, as such, are valuable cultural data that forms one of the strongest points of the book.
Tony’s book is pitched to an audience with less developed reading skills than visitors to Papers, and this is the origin of some of the elements I dislike about the book: short fictionalized anecdotes (I’d prefer actual life stories), a tendency to list incidents and phenomena rather than analyze them (of which I have to plead guilty myself), and a too-hasty survey of beliefs of death in many different cultures. None of these, however, takes up enough space in the book to seriously impact it, and no one can look at the book’s extensive bibliography and doubt that considerable research didn’t go into the data as presented. Overall, this is a strong and well-balanced work on a fascinating and emerging phenomenon on the modern religious scene.