Elements of an altar to La Santa Muerte
Our presentation at BookWoman inspired us to build a mini altar to the Santa Muerte as demonstration. We got most of our information from Andrew Chesnut's book, "Devoted to Death," and from a documentary by Mexican filmmaker Eva Aridjis.
Here's a list of items that are typically seen in a Santa Muerte altar, and pictures of our version at BookWoman, all taken by owner Susan Post. Of course, my version of the altar is a little alternative... not exactly a traditional altar, but it gives a good idea.
- Santa Muerte figure - the most important element, for obvious reasons. In Mexico versions of clay are still available, some complete with herbs and amulets on the bottom. However, owner of Green & White Grocery hieberia in Austin, John Casares, laments the fact that most versions now are made of plastic in China. Mine is precisely that, a plastic version that Chesnut generously bought for me in a stand outside of Fiesta Supermarket, from eastern Asian owners. Mine is gold for money and abundance.
- Veladoras (votive candles) - always plentiful in any altar, candles are key and different colors have different meanings: red, the color most sold, is for love; white is for thanksgiving; green for legal problems; purple for health; gold for money; black for vengance or for protection. If you need help on many fronts in your life you can get a multi-colored candle; some even come with special herbs already included, although those will cost you a little more - $7.99 at Fiesta. The one-colored candles wtih Santa Muerte were only $1.49, and they come with a prayer in the back.
- Saints and other characters - Santa Muerte always has an entouroge of saints, official and non-official like St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, or Jesus Malverde, another folk narco saint from Sinaloa. Very frequently you'll find different avatars of the Virgin Mary, particularly the Virgen de Guadalupe, but also the Virgen de San Juan and others. Lastly, you may also find other characters like the laughing Buddha, a Native American chief figure, or sometimes even Kali or other Hindu goddesses.
- Owl - an ancient symbol of wisdom and of feminine spiritual power, an owl is often sitting at Santa Muerte's feet
- Water - they say that "La Parca" is always parched and thirsty, so fresh water is crucial to keeping her happy at her altar.
- Sweets - as a good Mexican, Santa Muerte also loves Coca Cola and other soft drinks, plus candy of all types. An apple is a frequent offering.
- Booze and cigarretts - again, as a good Mexican Santa Muerte is said to like tequila, which is often found on her altars, as well as cigarretts (devotees blow smoke on her), including marijuana. (I didn't have tequila when I constructed this altar so I offered whiskey instead)
- Cash - always a popular offering. I heard from a friend in a Texas prison that he has seen Santa Muerte altars all over the state, some of which included huge wads of cash. Devotees, no matter how intoxicated or high they may be on drugs, will never touch any of that cash.
- Flowers - it is important to keep Santa Muerte's altar fresh and tidy, so fresh flowers are always near her.
Santa Muerte devotees take much pride in caring for her altar, often spending considerable time and resources. They say it is important to keep the altar fresh and tidy, and that it is important for promises to be followed through. Home or store altars have become public sacred spaces for devotees where they can go find a container to place their struggles and hopes. As an example I'll sign off with this video produced by CityLore.