The Scythe and the Pentagram: Santa Muerte from Folk Catholicism to Occultism
2. What is Western Esotericism?
3. Santa Muerte in the Occult
3.1. Grimoire of Santa Muerte by Sophia DiGregorio
3.2. Santisima Muerte: How to Call and Work With Holy Death
3.3. La Santa Muerte: Unearthing the Magic and Mysticism of Death
He also contends:Essentially, we believe that the world is good. We believe that the divine energy (God, the universe, the Tao, etc.) is perfect, and since that divine energy is in everything, everything is perfect. (…) The problems of life result from a self-disassociation with everything else, the belief that you are separate from all other things. (…) By believing that we are all equally connected in the web of life, harming others becomes much less appealing since the destruction of a single strand ultimately affects the whole and threatens the stability of the entire web. A more philosophical concept of this belief is popularly known in dharmic religions as karma. Everything you do will eventually come back to you. (…) Thus, a devotee of La Santa Muerte and a practitioner of her magic would, at the very least on a selfish level, not want to cause harm to another because it would result in harm ultimately coming to themselves. Although not all devotees explicitly call it karma, this ethic of cosmic reciprocity is a main tenet of working with La Santa Muerte and understanding how to utilize her magic.(, p. 11)
The above quote demonstrates a very different attitude to Santa Muerte to that of Conjureman Ali, who includes rituals for harming and even killing enemies, and most likely also from many of the Skeleton Saint’s Mexican devotees on both sides of the Mexico-US border.14 While ethical prescriptions are also present in some of the Mexican literature, Prower’s notion of “cosmic reciprocity” is phrased in terms of westernized notions of karma that can be traced to the interest in Hinduism and Buddhism in fin-de-siècle occultism, rather than the Catholic doctrine of sin. His attitude to “cosmic reciprocity” as something akin to a natural law is similar to that found among many Wiccans (, p. 396). Prower also clearly draws on New Age discourses of universal interconnectedness, positive thinking, and westernized interpretations of Indian religion (, pp. 130, 132, 238–42, 286, 296, 374, 467, 488–90; , p. 110).An ancient Buddhist treatise says that holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone; you are the one who gets burned. The anger and hate we harbor within us affects us negatively. Even before releasing a hex and suffering the karmic consequences of doing so, anger and hate make us spiritually and physically sick.(, p. 215)
Prower also presents a gendered interpretation of the colors associated with Santa Muerte. Drawing on a Westernized version of Daoist doctrine, he relates her black and white robes to yin and yang, respectively. Prower connects the black (or “yin”) Santa Muerte to supposedly feminine characteristics, such as receptivity, while the white (or “yang”) Santa Muerte, seemingly a more masculine version of her, is more suitable for projecting energy:[I]n the eyes of outside traditions, La Santa Muerte is most often associated with the elements of earth and water. Deities of femininity and death tend to be associated with the earth because of its ability to create, sustain, and nurture life. Earth is also the element that experiences death most frequently through the changing of the seasons and the finite existence of organic matter. (…) With regard to water, La Santa Muerte’s femininity and dual existence in both the spiritual and physical worlds grant her this association. Water is symbolic of emotions and intuition—what is visible on the surface often masks the profundity of what lies below. While both men and women possess logic and intuition, in general, women are blessed with a stronger sense of intuitive wisdom, thus linking them with water.(, p. 95f)
The above excerpts dealing with Santa Muerte’s femininity and its supposed magical connotations are highly interesting, illustrating broader themes of gender construction in the occult and Pagan milieus.…femininity, intuition, night, soft, cold, wet, and yielding are all categorized under black yin energy. For these reasons, the black aspect of La Santa Muerte is used in protection magic, where the objective is not to project energy, but rather intuitively foresee negative energy and take away its harmful effects and neutralize it, or, if that’s not possible, to become invisible to the harmful energy and avoid it altogether. (…) When we purify something we expel and push all the toxins and negative energies away, just as all the colors in the visible spectrum are expelled and pushed away to make something appear white. In the Taoist symbol for yin-yang, the yang energy of the universe is symbolized by the white side of the circle, which is often misinterpreted as good, but is better understood as aggressiveness and projecting. Thus masculinity, logic, day, hard, warm, dry, and giving are all categorized under white yang energy.(, p. 84)
4. Santa Muerte and the Occult
4.1. A New Context
4.2. Negotiating Catholicism
4.3. Seeking Tradition
Conflicts of Interest
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- 2There is currently a lack of research on contemporary occultism, including quantitative data on average income and educational level. However, it is possible to draw some conclusions, partly due to the greater availability of such research on contemporary Paganism and witchcraft, which is demographically similar and often overlaps with occultism. See e.g., Berger, Leach, and Shaffer, Voices from the Pagan Census . However, while Berger et al. conclude that the broader milieu of Paganism and witchcraft appears to have a higher percentage of women than men (this is also supported by Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon (, p. 401f.), the opposite appears to be true of a number of initiatory occult fraternities, including the Ordo Templi Orientis and the Dragon Rouge. See Hedenborg-White, forthcoming doctoral dissertation , and Granholm, Dark Enlightenment (, pp. 91–92). Granholm also states that many members of the Dragon Rouge are university educated (, pp. 107, 197–98). Scholars have also attested that many occultists read and are influenced by scholarly publications on their religious field. Asprem and Granholm, “Constructing Esotericisms” ; Granholm, Dark Enlightenment (, p. 198). This also supports the conclusion that the contemporary occult milieu is, by and large, quite highly educated.
- 3The important role of secrecy and initiation as a form of social capital in Western esotericism has been debated in a number of publications. See e.g., Pasi, “The Problems of Rejected Knowledge: Thoughts on Wouter Hanegraaff’s Esotericism and the Academy” ; Stuckrad, Locations of Knowledge, 2010 ; Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy, 2012 . While in actuality many of the beliefs and practices associated with various branches of occultism have actually been broadly available, many occult authors nonetheless emphasize a view of reality as many-layered and partly concealed.
- 4Needless to say, there are also important examples of how elements of Western esotericism have become integrated into the cult of Santa Muerte in Mexico, and vice versa. As the focus of this article is the reception of Santa Muerte among Anglo-American occultists, these processes exceed the scope of this study, and it is our hope that future research will attend to the interface between occultism and folk Catholicism in Mexico, as well as the trajectory of this crossover among Hispanophone devotees living in the US.
- 5For a brief review, see Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy, 2012 (, pp. 314–67).
- 6Cf. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture, 1996 . Although this is an extremely compact summary of the history and development of Western esotericism, a more detailed explication exceeds the aim and scope of this article and is not strictly relevant to our immediate purpose. For more insight into the history of Western esotericism, the reader is referred to e.g., Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy, 2012 ; Stuckrad, Locations of Knowledge, 2010 ; Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture, 1996 ; Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism .
- 7Our interpretation of the target audience of these works is based on the authors’ self-presentations; the fact that the publishing houses behind them are clearly oriented towards an occult, Pagan, or New Age market; and the discursive conventions they relate to. Our selection of books is not intended to reflect the occult milieu comprehensively, but rather to exemplify different approaches to introducing Santa Muerte to an occultist audience.
- 8“The Dangers of Wiccan Covens and Other Neo-Pagan Groups to Women and Children” .
- 9The publishing house has no website presenting a comprehensive listing of its publications. For an overview, see “Browse by Book Publisher: Winter Tempest Books.” 
- 10The association with Mictecacihuatl is not uncommon in Mexico. Chesnut, Devoted to Death (, p. 28).
- 12For this article we had the following titles available for comparison; Altares, Ofrendas, Oraciones y Rituales a la Santa Muerte (2007); Rey, Victoria (2012). Santa Muerte Magia Verde. Pita, Laila (2013). Testimonios de la Santísima, Relatos Verdaderos de Milagros Recibidos por los fieles seguidores de la Santa Muerte, jimenez, Beto (2015) La Biblia de La Santa Muerte as well as descriptions of rituals and spells included in e.g., Chesnut, Devoted to Death ; Kristensen, Postponing Death ; Fraser, Santa Muerte. 
- 16See e.g., Prower, La Santa Muerte (, p. 194).
- 18Cf. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture, 1996 (, pp. 88, 152–54); Urban, Magia Sexualis, 2006 (, pp. 55–80, 109–39, 162–222). Gender polarity is not uncontroversial in modern occultism, and has been challenged on the grounds of heteronormativity and gender essentialism by a number of important proponents and movements. See e.g., (, pp. 222–54); Effertz, Priest/ess ; Lupa, “The Female Kink Magician” ; Kaldera, Hermaphrodeities ; Faerywolf, “The Queer Craft: Rethinking Magickal Polarity.” .
- 19A notable exception is a booklet beginning with ten statements called “Los Diez Estados La Santa Muerte”, the first nine of which have been copied verbatim from Anton Lavey’s Satanic Bible, in which the Devil’s name is replaced with that of Santa Muerte. La Vey, The Satanic Bible, 25, Jimenez, La Biblia de La Santa Muerte.
- 20Notable examples of this trend include William Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron in Britain, and Anatole France and Jules Michelet in France.
- 22Three Hands press, scarlet imprint. “About.” 
- 23Interestingly, the books by diGregorio, Conjureman Ali, and Prower are solely available as inexpensive softcovers. However, as noted above, the cheap format can also be employed as a device for conveying authenticity, as in the case of Hadean Press, which also produces deluxe limited editions.
- 24N.A-A.218, Liber Falxifer. 
- 25Seminal Chaos Magickal works include Carroll, Liber Null & Psychonaut ; Hine, Condensed Chaos . The internet was also instrumental to the popularization of Chaos Magick. Duggan, “Perrenialism and Iconoclasm” ; Urban, Magia Sexualis, 2006 (, pp. 222–54). See e.g., Hine, Condensed Chaos ; Carroll, Liber Null & Psychonaut .
- 26As the authors’ Spanish reading skills are insufficient to engage in meaningful dialogue with the Hispanophone scholarship on the Skeleton Saint, we have been limited to English-language scholarship on her cult in Mexico.
© 2016 by the authors; licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
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Hedenborg-White, M.; Gregorius, F. The Scythe and the Pentagram: Santa Muerte from Folk Catholicism to Occultism. Religions 2017, 8, 1. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8010001
Hedenborg-White M, Gregorius F. The Scythe and the Pentagram: Santa Muerte from Folk Catholicism to Occultism. Religions. 2017; 8(1):1. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8010001Chicago/Turabian Style
Hedenborg-White, Manon, and Fredrik Gregorius. 2017. "The Scythe and the Pentagram: Santa Muerte from Folk Catholicism to Occultism" Religions 8, no. 1: 1. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8010001