“Death to everyone is gonna come, and it makes hosing much more fun”
Bonnie Prince Billy, Death to Everyone (1999)
Staring into those hollow empty sockets, deep and dark; what do you feel inside? Nothing – a disconnect? A revulsion at your impending doom, maybe? Perhaps, a trickle of enlightenment as you realise for the first time in your fragile life that one day, far or soon, you are indeed going to die no matter how many jogging miles you clock up?
La Niña Bonita first greeted me over 5 years ago, as I stumbled around the shadowy corners of the web in search of heretical delights, as is my want. Heresy prises open psyches with burning stakes while the flames of whichever current Inquisition laps at our ankles. It was the glint of truth in every myth and falsehood, and would eventually murder you with its knowledge.
That tobacco smoke morning’s particular site featured information on Latin American “folk saints“, homegrown funky figures of faith not welcomed by the brimstone bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, such as “the man in black“, known as Maximón, venerated in Guatemala as the “patron saint of gamblers and drunkards” and seen as the embodiment of male sexual energy.
How could I fail not to feel affection for such an earthy scoundrel?
Then, right underneath stood a striking photo of a skeletal figure in elaborate feminine garb surrounded by flowers and candlelight. Santa Muerte; Most Holy Death. The picture seared itself into my personal iconography and fascinated me in a way that only the truly sacred mystery of a thing so seemingly profane could. For as long as I could remember, I had admired the Mexican attitude to Día de Muertos and La Calavera Catrina, brought to life by the Mexican satirist José Guadalupe Posada. La Flaca had me hooked, line and sinker. And I endeavoured to understand as much as I could about Her.
As if to prove a point with a sharp harvesting object, over the next couple of years I found that La Niña Blanca began materializing in my stories quite effortlessly, and even on the self drawn front cover of my, now long out of print, short story compilation – The Wrong Mind (2009). Most Holy Death also features in my weird novella – And The Streets Screamed Blue Murder! (2011) and heavily in the acclaimed THE DEATH OF THREE COLOURS (2016) – both in statue form and, without giving too much away, literally. She seemed to insinuate and pursue me into my dreams on whichever crooked road my life had turned into.
Then a year or so later, a friend of mine who lives in superstitious, colourful and death-ridden Mexico decided to visit, passing on his way on to Libya to teach oil industry workers in the scorching centre of a desert and asked me if there was an object or piece of contraband I wanted from “Tierra del Encanto“.
Without hesitation and with the heaviness of suffocating inevitability, I replied, “Santa Muerte“.
So, She flew across the ocean to shake my hand. I shared my first drink and cigarette with Her (possibly the first Santa Muerte in France) that gentle late summer afternoon, and we have shared many glasses and smokes since then; offerings to the Grim Reapress tend to consist of tobacco, hard alcohol, marijuana and like a lot of ladies, the Most Holy of Death Grins has a sweet tooth and adores chocolate.
When one initially discovers Her, La Santa Muerte‘s disquieting image repels while it beguiles; She can appear as a mélange of influences from the European Grim Reaper, through the Spanish skeletal La Parca to various different South American transgressive Saints of demise. Her attire can consist of the simplicity of a monk’s cowl or a nun’s habit, to an ostentatious gown replete with wig to make Zsa Zsa Gabor jealous. Of course, like any icon she comes with her own symbols which include the Reapress‘ scythe, the owl of wisdom and, as my own statuette has, the world in her hands (speaks for itself) and scales of Justice.
I do not want to elaborate on the history and significance of The Skinny Lady as that work is for the academics of the world, however anyone, with five minutes in front of their computer, can uncover a slew of frightening news stories connecting The Bony Lady in her “black candle” aspect as an avenging angelic assassin to the psychotic and ultra-violent drug Cartels, as well as that brimstone whiff of the Catholic Church’s fear of Satanism. And, oh yes, she can be a cabrona (what woman can’t?), however what most articles and reports tend to leave out is that Our Lady of Last Resorts appears to the dispossessed, the outlaws, the misfits, and yes, even the security services (who, let’s be fucking frank here, face death every day of their working lives) primarily as a numinous protectress; watching over them as they go about their daily lives. A maternal figure under the protective colours of white and passionate red that they are able to find solace in even if the Church, in all its grandiose bureaucratic dogmatism, has rejected them as transgressors or heretics.
After all, death IS the Great Leveller, and the only true equality to hope for under the veil of a sorrowful reality that most seem to have fallen into. Hell, thinking like that, who wouldn’t want to share a glass or two (or perhaps a game of Chess) with Señora Negra to prepare oneself for the inevitable?
A lot of people confuse what Our Lady of Shadows actually means to her devotees. She is not as some Jungian Unicorn-flavoured Wiccan Goddess of Death. Nope, She IS death – the process. Pure and simple.
In a society so obsessed with youth, fitness and superficiality, surely its greatest unspoken and subversive taboo would manifest itself as the very real transformation of state that death implies; eventually unlocking the door to the next mystery. One may or may not believe in God, but when death comes a-knocking on your bones, believing don’t mean a spilt Tequila bottle over your favourite poncho. Our fate waits just around the corner, whether you have an existential tantrum or not. The Bony Lady reminds us of this and maybe this reason, above all, had led to both Her rise and condemnation.
Having come face to face with my own mortality a few times in a blessed life that has taken me over three continents, I may laugh at the Death Grin, but in my heart, I know the grin keeps on smiling: come peace or war, storm or shine.
The last laugh will be on me.
An excellent resource on La Santísima Muerte for those in any way interested : http://skeletonsaint.com/
Devoted To Death is the first academic study in the English language on La Niña Bonita by Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut.