The Day of the Dead is probably the most famous Mexican festival, but what many people outside Mexico don’t know is that it is actually officially two days: 1st and 2nd November, and often starts the night before when the souls of deceased children return to visit their families, with the souls of adults returning on the following day, and all the souls coming together on the 2nd. However, in many parts of Mexico it takes place over several more days, beginning on the 28th October.
In this version, each day is dedicated to the memory of those who died in different ways, with the exact correspondence of each day varying slightly from place to place within Mexico. October 28th is dedicated to the memory of those who died in accidents, and in some areas also to those who were murdered, whilst in other regions it commemorates those who drowned. October 29th is set aside for children who died unbaptised and so remain trapped in limbo, although in some regions these are remembered on the 30th or 31st, and the 29th is dedicated to those who drowned, or altenatively those who died in accidents.
The 30th commemorates either the children in limbo, or women who died in childbirth and people who died of old age, whilst the 31st may be dedicated to children in limbo or to murder victims or suicides, or to the souls of those who die of old age. Then on November 1st it is time to commemorate either those who died as adults, or all souls together. Usually November 2nd is the day to celebrate all the deceased together.
So, why such a strange and confused system? This is actually due to the continuation of an ancient tradition from Aztec mythology that has survived in somewhat garbled form. For the Aztecs there were several possible locations for the afterlife, and which one you went to depended not on your moral behaviour in life, but simply on how you died.
Tlalocan, the watery paradise full of trees and flowers, ruled by the Rain God Tlaloc, was the first paradise, and received those who drowned or were killed by lightning. Tonatiuhichan, or Ilhuicatl-Tonatiuh dwelling place of the Sun God Tonatiuh, was the highest paradise and welcomed warriors who died in battle, women who died in childbirth and the victims of ritual sacrifice. Chichihualcuauhco “Place of the Breast Tree” was where the souls of babies went, to drink milk from the breasts that grew like fruit on this tree, before being reincarnated on earth. Mictlan was the common underworld, ruled by Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancíhuatl, Lord and Lady of the Underworld.
There were in fact several more afterlife locations, but these seem to have been lost along the way. Nevertheless, all of Mexico celebrates the souls of dead children and dead adults on separate days, and pays their respects to Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl at this time of year.
Chris Pollardlives and works in Mexico. He gave me my Santa Muerte statue as a gift for which I am grateful.
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 Muertosand La Calavera Catrina, brought to life by the Mexican satiristJosé 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 Ladyin 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 Negrato 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.