The following contains light spoilers for Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 1.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels debuted on Showtime to add a fully new chapter to the dark mysteries of short stories for pulpy paper. It is called a spiritual descendant of the original Penny Dreadful series which brought classic literary figures like Dracula and Dorian Gray to life in Victorian London. The first incarnation was set when the Society for Psychical Research looked for truths among the shadows while The Theosophical Society brought lost wisdom to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
The new series opens with its patron, Santa Muerte, played by Lorenza Izzo, as she carries the souls of the newly dead to whatever comes next. She has no tears, she says, but also no judgment. She saved the life, but left her mark on the main protagonist, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto). Natalie Dormer plays Santa Muerte’s sister Magda. Dressed in Black, she probably represents La Santisima Negra. Over the course of the season, Santa Muerte will give protection to true believers, gang members and a dubious Jewish cop, played by Nathan Lane. So who exactly is La Santísima Muerte?
The Santa Muerte sect of Catholicism is one of the fastest growing in Mexico and South and Central America. Her mystical presence is quickly moving to a leading position in procession at the annual Day of the Dead festivities. Saint Death is called La Santísima Muerte, Doña Sebastiana, Niña Blanca, La Huesuda, La Dama Poderosa, La Flaquita, the Skinny Girl and the Bony Lady. She is a skeletal presence under a hooded robe who holds a scythe in one hand, making her look like a bejeweled Grim Reaper. In her other hand she holds a globe, which means she can appear anywhere.
“I was introduced to the Santisima Muerte 11 years ago through a friend who was a devotee,” says Muertero Yamil (a Muertero which is someone who works with the spirits of the dead). “He told me that she walked with me and that I had a mission with her.” Cuban-American Muertero Yamil was raised practicing Caribbean Style Spiritism, and Latin Folk Magic. “In Cuba she is not venerated as much. At first I was a bit overwhelmed by her but she became a big part of my life.” Growing up in Miami’s Little Havana, known as the Latin Quarter of the U.S., he “was exposed to lots of Latin American Spiritual systems like Espiritismo, Santeria, Palo Mayombe, Curanderismo and much more. I was exposed to her through the Mexican and Central American community.”
J. Blackthorn is part of a collective group of brujos, hechiceros, healers, and priests called “Old World Botanica.” He was brought up Southern Baptist in the hills of Tennessee. He is an ethnic mix of English, German, French, Spanish and Portuguese. He found La Muerte around the age of 16 while learning about Hoodoo and Conjure. “I went to the local Mexican grocery store and bought a candle for her,” Blackthorn tells Den of Geek. “When I got home, I lit it and asked her to show me which robe of hers would be my guide along my path in witchcraft. Later that night, I had a vivid dream. I was in my room asleep and she arrived forming herself from the shadows. She had flames licking out from the folds of her robes and burning coals in her eyes. There was the scent of tobacco in the air. She said she was ‘La Reina de Las Brujas’ and ‘La Reina de La Noche,’ she had chosen me when I was born, and she would be the robe that claimed me as her son.” Blackthorn says he felt gratitude when he woke up and noted his choice from birth made sense. “I died as a baby and then came back to life,” he says.
Santa Muerte’s origins are disputed. Some say the cult began in the 1960s, others trace it to European medieval carnivals. It is often claimed the belief goes back to the pre-colonial times, to the indigenous Aztecs who worshipped the Goddess of Death Mictecacihuatl, and her husband, Mictlantecuhtli. “One of my teachers, who is from Michiocan in Mexico, explained she is an ancient God that the ancestors would venerate,” Muertero Yamil says. “But she always adapts and changes with the times.”
Some pre-assumptions never change. “Santa Muerte is not Death itself, but the incarnation of your own personal death, the one that will claim you when you die,” Blackthorn says. “Therefore the death you receive may be of a more Native/Aztec or a more European nature. I have heard the theories of my friend Professor Andrew Chestnut saying she is La Parca of the Spaniards, and others saying she is the Goddess of Mictlan. I personally believe she is both, and every person has a personal Santa Muerte if they have the courage to seek her out.”
Certain practices associated with Santa Muerte became popular during isolated ceremonies which yielded visible results. A church in one town had an annual commemoration when they would dress a cadaver in a black tunic. “When they would pray to this cadaver they would see miracles happen very quick,” Muertero Yamil says. “The Catholic Church started to catch on to this and labeled it as Satanic. They ordered that skeleton to not be displayed anymore.”
Condemned as a heretical figure, Santa Muerte and has been labeled a saint and a demon. “I see her as a spirit of light,”Muertero Yamil says. “Something that is beyond form or labels, an energy that is of a higher level of intelligence. She is Death and she is also life.” Blackthorn sees her as “a saint and a powerful spirit. She has power over the infernal and is very respected by Lucifer and the other chiefs and kings,” he says. “She is the Queen of The Underworld, the one who carried Christ’s body down from Golgotha into Hell so his resurrection could occur. She is the mother of witches, the friend of Lucifer, the one whose protection is unrivaled. She is the only robe of La Santa who will go into Hell and return with demons to do powerful work with as well as send them away. She is Queen of the dead and it is she who I believe is the one closest connected with Mictecacihuatl. Lady of Mictlan.”
Believers think she fulfills God’s orders, under the leadership of God, as one of his workers. The Catholic Church does not recognize Santa Muerte and has gone as far as to label the entire practice satanic. “They believe that Jesus defeated Death on the cross, without remembering that if Death had not come, he could not have resurrected,” Blackthorn says. “They are losing believers and people are waking up to religious brainwashing,” says Muertero Yamil. “Crazy thing is that the Santa Muerte does not teach us to speak ill against them.”
“The church calls it Satanic because her devotion is practiced by many witches all around the world,” Blackthorn says. “She is no Demon, but she is absolutely a powerful spirit of the Underworld. They refuse her because she is blatantly ‘Pagan’ but her sister, Tonantzin, a milder form of the Aztec snake goddess Coatlicue who is called ‘Mother of the Gods’ is worshiped as the Virgen de Guadalupe.”
While the worship of Santa Muerte is not Satanic, “there are certainly some workings with La Negra that could border on that if working with her and Lucifer side by side,” Blackthorn says. “A Satanist who worships La Santisima Muerte does not make all of her devotees Satanic. The vast majority of people who worship her consider themselves to be good Catholics.”
Because of sensational media reports, Santa Muerte has a reputation as a death cult which is popular with criminals, drug cartels, sex workers, and prison guards. “It is because Santa Muerte does not discriminate (against) anyone who comes to her,” Muertero Yamil says. “This did not start with drug cartels. This started with people who have continued the veneration of a spirit that has always been here.” Blackthorn thinks “the gangster, cartel, and ‘narco’ aspects have been focused on mostly because it is just good TV. She is served by both sides of the drug war and most people are devoted to her because of the miracles she can perform.”
Death does not discriminate, and the allure of Saint Death is she does not come with religious restrictions and holier-than-thou exclusions. “The promise of a saint or powerful ally who will not judge you, destroy your enemies, and completely change your life around, who wouldn’t want that,” Blackthorn asks. “Sex workers, homosexuals, trans people, poor people, outcasts of any kind all see in her a type of salvation. She will not turn them away like the church had. She is a reminder that for many of these outcast individuals, because of ignorance and bigotry they could be killed for living their lives or doing their work.”
But this is not to say she is merely the patron saint of sinners and desperate people at the end of their ropes. “Santa Muerte loves humanity, period,” says Muertero Yamil. “She helps everyone who comes to her with love and respect. Politicians, doctors and people of high positions in society come to her for help. She is here to guide us in this existence, teach us to become better versions of ourselves, and protect us, and for us to have a Santa Muerte (Holy Death).”
The sect has also had to deal with other rumors, like sacrifices. “Not as I was taught,” says Muertero Yamil. “It is not necessary. My teachers said that when you hear people saying they do this it is not the Santa Muerte.” Blackthorn agrees, saying “they are not always necessary, but I will not say sacrifice does not take place. Other sacrifices are those of time, periods of sorrow, or taboos she puts in the lives of her devotees. Like other spirits, she does sometimes desire blood in the form of chickens or tattoos on her devotees.” But it is not the worship in its purest form. “The vast majority of people giving these sacrifices are members of African Diasporic traditions and religions who already give animal offerings to their spirits and see it as no different from offering a chicken to Eleggua or a goat to Lucero.”
Santa Muerte is best known for the miracles attributed to her devotion, but not all adherents test the power of prayer. “I am going to be honest, I really don’t ask her anything,” says Muertero Yamil. “She knows what I need and she gives it to me without me asking.” But others have reported positive action. “When I was 18 my younger brother had to have emergency heart surgery,” Blackthorne says. “In a state of panic, I prayed to La Negra to save my brother, and promised a sacrifice of blood in the form of a flesh offering, or a tattoo of her. I later got a call from my mother saying that the surgery was a total success.”
But a normal day of worship is respectfully mundane. “I pray to her three times a day,” says Muertero Yamil. “In the morning I light her candles, incense, place offerings of food, drinks, and sweets. I sit and do many prayers. I usually pray to the 3 colors: White, Red, and Black. Each of those colors represents the day. Morning is white because of the first light, red because it’s when the sun is at its highest peak and it is the strongest, and black because of the night.”
“I give her Myrrh and Copal, light her candles, pray to her, and play music for her,” Blackthorn says. “Most days if I can’t get to her full altar every day I talk to her through the tattoo I have on my arm which acts as a kind of portal for her presence to come to me.”
Blackthorn works within what is called the three robe system, “but any of the robes can do anything,” he says. “White is her heavenly aspect: peace, tranquility, holiness, healing. The Red robe is her Earthly aspect, being that her white robe was colored red by the blood of the first murder, the sacrifice of Abel. Her realm is anything to do with material life on earth: sex, drugs, love, lust, money, jobs, relationships and friendships. The Black robe is her Underworld aspect, and her most misunderstood aspect.”
Muertero Yamil thinks one of the biggest misconceptions of the practice “is that if you don’t come through with your promise to her she will take a family member of yours. This is not true. People who say things like this are not dealing with her but with something else like a trickster spirit or a malevolent energy.” Blackthorn takes exception to “the idea we are all devil worshipers and violent people who want to hurt people and promote evil. Most of us are regular hard working people who know that we will all die one day, so why not make sure we meet on the terms of friends instead of strangers.”