Santa Muerte
Santa Muerte is venerated by millions in Mexico and the USWikimedia Commons

A female skeletal saint known in Mexico as Santa Muerte (Spanish for Saint Death) or Bony Lady is already beloved by millions in South America, and now she is gaining devotees in Europe too.

Santa Muerte is associated with healing, protection, love and safe delivery to the afterlife by her followers. She was first mentioned in the Mexican historical record in 1793, when the Inquisition received a report of indigenous people in central Mexico venerating a skeletal figure they called Saint Death.

According to Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of a book on Santa Muerte, the cult originated in colonial Mexico when "the Catholic Church from Spain brought the figure of the Grim Reaper (called La Parca in Spain) with them as a tool of evangelisation of the indigenous people."

Chesnut, speaking to IBTimes UK, also discussed the increasing traction of Santa Muerte in Europe, saying that while the cult "is unmistakeably Mexican, death itself is universal and thus knows no borders or boundaries.

"German devotee, Michael Caleigh, who lives in Brighton, UK, told me he never really felt comfortable in the Catholic Church or in any organized religion for that matter. Santa Muerte, he says, offers him spiritual comfort and strength without the judgmentalism of many churches."

Santa Muerte veneration
Raising of Santa Muerte images during a service to the deity on Alfareria Street Tepito Mexico CityWikimedia Commons

The Vatican and both the Catholic and Protestant churches in Mexico have condemned the cult of Santa Muerte as satanic and anti-religious.

"Denunciations have increased in frequency and intensity since the president of the Pontifical Council of Culture, Cardinal Giancarlo Ravassi condemned [Santa Muerte] on three separate occasions on Mexican soil during a four day visit there last May. Last October the archbishop of Oaxaca even threatened excommunication of Catholics who venerate the skeleton saint," Chesnut said.

Santa Muerte
German devotee Michael Caleigh has built an altar to venerate Santa MuerteMichael Caleigh

Many devotees of Santa Muerte's, often defined the "narco-saint", have been linked to prostitution, drugs, kidnappings and homicides.

"Former Mexican president Felipe Calderon viewed her as a narco-saint venerated by many cartel members so he launched a military assault against some 40 of her shrines on the US-Mexico border in March 2009," Chesnut explained.

"Some high-level cartel members have been discovered to be devotees, which has received ample press in Mexico, the US and increasingly in the UK and Europe. Her appeal to narcos can be understood as an overarching attraction to those who feel like death might be imminent, which in Mexico with more than 70K dead in the past 7 years, is a lot of people.

"Who better to ask for a few more grains of sand in the hourglass of life than death herself? Moreover, since she is not a canonised saint, devotees are free to ask her for things that wouldn't be acceptable within a Christian context, such as protecting a load of methamphetamines on its way from Michoacan, Mexico, to Chicago."