R. Andrew Chesnut, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint
(Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2012)
★★★ Read of the Month! ★★★
I am very excited that next month Professor R. Andrew Chesnut, one of the world’s foremost experts on the Mexican “skeleton saint” Santa Muerte, will be visiting London (he’s at Treadwell’s Bookstore on July 1st and the London Society of Death on July 6th). In celebration of this, I thought I’d feature a review of his book Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.
I have been fascinated by Santa Muerte and her fast-growing cult (I use the word “cult” in its neutral definition of “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object“). A personification of Death venerated by people who identify as Catholic, yet whose worship is condemned by the Catholic church? A saint whose devotees, far from being righteous pillars of the community, include drug barons and prostitutes? As a Goth, Pagan, ex-Catholic and someone who has a broad interest in folk religion in general, I was intrigued and wanted to know more. I was therefore grateful to find Devoted to Death, a comprehensive examination of the veneration of Santa Muerte.
One of Chesnut’s primary aims in this work is to emphasise the multi-faceted nature of her worship, and to stress that her story is far more than simply that told by the sensationalist media who report solely on the criminals who worship her (although this aspect of her cult is explored too). Detailed and engaging, it succeeds in examining its subject in a personal way while retaining objectivity. Although something of an academic account, it is nevertheless very easy to read and avoids any sort of jargon. It’s clearly aimed at a broad general audience, including those with little to no prior knowledge of Santa Muerte, Catholicism or Mexican culture and politics. For readers interested not merely in learning about Santa Muerte, but are considering becoming a devotee themselves, Devoted to Death is a great starting point. It gives a full grounding into the basics of the cult, and includes detailed instructions of a number of different rituals and prayers that worshippers can use themselves, in addition to links to websites that would also be useful for reference.
With fascinating insights into Santa Muerte on every page, Devoted to Death is gripping. Chesnut’s obvious passion and enthusiasm for the saint is infectious – although I felt I learned a great deal about her and her followers after reading, the book had also sparked my hunger to find out more (there are as yet few other works written in English about her, but no doubt authorities like Chesnut will spark greater interest and we’ll see a lot more texts about her in the future).
Devoted to Death is a fantastic read, and there is much that Pagans, particularly those with an interest in the dark aspects of the Goddess and an open-minded attitude to syncretism and eclecticism, can gain from this book.