A New Saint in town
I remember a Fall day in 1997 when two friends of mine showed me a candle they had just bought at the local Fry’s grocery store in Tucson, Arizona. They were intrigued by what was obviously a white novena candle with a picture of a Grim Reaper on it, or so they thought. The prayer on the back of the candle was all in Spanish so they asked me to translate. We had no idea what we were in for (and yes, this sounds exactly like the first scene of a horror film, doesn’t it?)
It turns out the prayer was a love spell, and a rather manipulative one at that. We were more confused than ever. Why pray to Death for luck in love? But today, nearly twenty years later, most people who have any knowledge of Mexican folklore or any regular contact with pop culture in the American Southwest know Santisima Muerte well.
She is a folk saint who is said to protect the downtrodden and outcast or those in difficult situations, including those engaged in dangerous occupations such as narco-trafficking. Scholars speculate she is a new manifestation of the Aztec underworld goddess Mictecacihuatl, but she only began to become mainstream in the late 1990’s.
Her real specialty, though, as me and my friends discovered in Tucson all those years ago, is to be a friend and confidante to women, especially in their relationships with men. Santisima Muerte’s back story according to legend is that she was once a mortal woman who committed suicide after her husband was unfaithful, which is why she’s so hell-bent on helping women manage their men. She’s what I call an Anti-Madonna.
The fertility goddess of the Near East, who became the Virgin Mary over time, has become too “nice” to be very useful outside of her role of protecting the weak and vulnerable, and children. The Madonna generally assists women to take care of their men, most especially their sons. But her death aspect, known as Mary Magdalene or the Black Madonna in Eastern Europe, is more learned, assertive, and competitive with men. In short, it’s the anti-Madonna most women need nowadays when they have a problem, especially problems with men who have historically had the upper hand.
Since I’m a Jungian, I believe every strong idea is around long before it shows overt manifestations. It stirs in the collective unconscious, guiding the thoughts and behaviors of people before they have full awareness that it is there.
So it is with Santisima Muerte. Her statues, shrines, prayer books, and stories may have begun to explode through Mexico and the American Southwest starting in the late 1990s, but she had begun to stir before then.
The the 1992 film Candyman, a folklorist in graduate school named Helen is doing research on an urban legend about the vengeful spirit of a murdered man called Candyman. She visits a run-down housing project in Chicago where she interviews locals, and soon afterwards has visions of Candyman, who murders people around her and causes Helen to lose conscious awareness of her actions and the passage of time. As the story unfolds, the viewer is left wondering if Helen is the reincarnation of Candyman’s lost love during his life as a historical person, as this is hinted at a few times in the film. Candyman seems determined to reclaim her, and kidnaps the baby of a resident of the housing project, threatening to kill the child if Helen does not agree to die and join Candyman as a folkloric spirit. Although the local residents believe Helen is responsible for the child’s disappearance, she dies saving the boy. After death, she merges with Candyman, becoming the new fearful figure of folklore, killing her estranged and cheating husband after he unwittingly invokes her in a mirror.
In standard slasher horror films, women are murdered by a male serial killer, with the implication that this is a result of sexual immorality or gender role transgressions by the female victims. Candyman turns this on its head, with a woman serial killer murdering her husband for sexual immorality, and then lingering as a neighborhood boogeyman .
Santisima Muerte is everywhere present in this film, only we never say her name. Yet this film was released nearly a decade before Santisima Muerte supposedly “came out.” Why do I say this?
1 – Helen, the protagonist folklorist of Candyman, is an anti-Madonna. (Her name, first of all, makes you think of Helen of Troy, who left her husband for another guy and started a huge war that destroyed an empire. Helen was believed to have been reincarnated at least twice in historical legend for nefarious purposes – once as the wife of the magician Simon Magus and again as the Satanic wife of Doctor Faust). Helen, in the movie, is very assertive, boldly stating to an established professor of the university that she will “bury him” with her superior research. She boldly ventures into a black housing project infested with drug gangs to collect data for her thesis, and playfully invokes the spirit of Candyman in a mirror, while her best friend is too nervous to do so.
2 – The relationship between Candyman and Helen resembles that of Inanna and Dumuzi, ancient Babylonian gods whose story is told in the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish. Inanna had descended to the underworld to seek wisdom (Helen visits the projects to collect data for her thesis). Inanna is killed by the goddess of the underworld, Erishkigal, and her body is hung on a meat hook (the meat hook is what Candyman has in place of a right hand, an it appears frequently in the film, sometimes as his hand, sometimes as an artifact). Inanna hangs dead in the underworld for an unknown period of time, but is finally rescued by the couriers of another god (Helen has bouts of unconsciousness and the viewer is uncertain how much time has passed or what has really happened and what Helen has only imagined or dreamt, but Candyman finally allows her to escape the mental hospital and return to her home).
When Inanna emerges from the underworld she is enraged to find her husband, the god Dumuzi, enjoying life without her (Helen escapes from a mental hospital and runs home, to find her husband, far from supporting her or trying to help her in her plight, now has one of his students as a lover and living in their home). Inanna in a jealous and self-righteous sends her minions to chase Dumuzi down and send him to the underworld (Helen as a spirit kills her husband in a similar frame of mind). Dumuzi then becomes an underworld god himself, just as Helen becomes a supernatural legend or underworld goddess, after her death. Inanna and Dumuzi, Helen and Candyman, Persephone and Hades, are the same supernatural couple as the Aztec death god and goddess, of whom Santisima Muerte is a new manifestation.
2 – After Helen’s death, she also becomes a vengeful spirit and a part of local folklore. She can also be invoked in a mirror by saying her name a certain number of times (just like Bloody Mary, a real world folkloric aspect of the Black Madonna). And like the anti-Madonna, she is considered a threat to children. Helen was under suspicion of killing a child, and not just any child, but the son of the Madonna character in the film, the young black woman Anne-Marie who lived in the projects.
The Dark Goddess is in fashion these days, and she even has her own websites, her own social media sites, and so on, which you can discover on your own. She has two publicly known shrines in California.