Monday, August 6, 2007

Folk Heroes and the Cults of Death

Only a post or so ago Laws of Silence linked to a Washington Post article about Jesus Malverde, a folk saint of northern Mexico whose cult has made its way into the teeming capital city. Malverde was a dark and handsome man, or so it is said, who was either a construction worker or railway man. During the anarchy which preceded the Mexican Revolution in 1910, he is said to have become a bandit, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Then he was captured and again, reports differ, but he was either shot or hung. Some accounts give this martyrdom an especially New Testament spin by adding he was betrayed by a friend for a reward. Today he's treated as a full-fledged saint, his shrine attracts thousands yearly and healings have been attributed to him. The Vatican recognizes none of this but no matter, his cult is firmly entrenched anyway. The Post article describes a family shrine in a poor neighborhood of Mexico City, where Malverde is posed with "La Santísima Muerte", patroness of death. The scene described is macabre and the two make a sort of holy couple, he dressed in a stylish cowboy hat and sporting a thick mustache, she dressed as the blushing bride, her skeletal hand clutching a scythe!

Jump a few thousand kilometers south to Argentina. Gauchito Gil was a farmhand born in the 1840's in the region of Corrientes. A handsome young man, he fell in love with a wealthy widow. They may have had an affair. When a rival, who happened to be the local police chief, heard of this affair he conspired to have Gil arrested. Gil fled to the army, where he fought against neighboring Paraguay. He returned a hero and was temporarily shielded, but was pressed back into service in the Argentine Civil War.

By this time Gil was tired of the fighting and he deserted. When the police finally caught up with him he was tortured and strung up by his heels from a tree. As one of their number approached to kill Gil, Gil told him that he knew the man's son was dying, but if he prayed to him (Gil), his dying son would be spared. The cop then slit his throat.

The policeman, however, could not let the condemned man's words rest, and he prayed for Gil's intercession. The dying son recovered. The policeman, grateful, decided to give Gil a proper burial, build a shrine in his memory and spread the word of the miracle. (Alternate details of the legend can be found here.)

The story is strikingly similar to that of Malverde. A poor yet virile and honorable man lives outside the law, becoming a hero to the marginal and suffers death for it. Like Malverde, Gil's cult is fervent among the poor and thousands flock to his shrine near Mercedes (Corrientes) each year, especially on January 8th, the day of his "martyrdom." Also like Malverde, the Church has given no official recognition to this cult.

Corrientes is home to many beliefs which are not officially recognized by the Church. Another regional folk saint honors death. Again, like Malverde, one can also find Gil side by side with San La Muerte or the Señor de la Muerte.

The cult of Señor de la Muerte or San La Muerte is very widespread in Corrientes. Just as the cult of Jesus Malverde spread to the capital city from the north, Gauchito Gil and San La Muerte have ended up in Buenos Aires. This website, if you can read Spanish or not, is guaranteed to intrigue. All of it seems so exotic, but to the practitioners, there is no conflict with this cult and Catholicism. They are simply celebrating another saint, morbid though it may be. The Protestants are trying to chip away at these beliefs as they are everywhere else in Latin America; in the process, they've left some interesting photos and descriptions.

What is intriguing is that in Mexico and Argentina we find nearly identical stories of a common man, virile and mustachioed, struck down by the Man and resurrected as a folk saint. Their stories are essentially the same and both are found side by side with Holy Death.

San La Muerte, unfortunately, is not simply colorful regional charm to blog about blythely. While surely not representative of the cult in any wider sense, some authorities in Corrientes suspect it had a part to play in the gruesome ritual murder of a 12-year-old boy.

The following account of this gruesome story comes from a report by Argentina's Pagina 12.

Ramoncito was the child of a poor woman who became a prostitute to support her family. He himself was eventually drawn into the world of child prostitution, still managing to go to school. In fact he was last seen leaving his school, on October 6, 2006. He was found the following day, dressed only in shorts. His head had been placed by his left shoulder.

Forensics reports state that he was beheaded with a sharp knife from left to right. As the beheading began, the boy was alive. The boy had cigarette burns on his hips, arms and the palms of his hands. A deep cut under his left buttock was found. His blood had been drained and the third to seventh cervical vertebrae had been removed.

Early in the case, the authorities thought they had found the murderers, suspected practioners of kimbanda among them. They were released in June as there was insufficient reason to hold them further. Then, in mid-July two women were arrested after a search revealed traces of human blood on the walls in one of the women's houses, located in the slaughterhouse district of Mercedes. They were both practitioners of a mish-mash of Christianity, kimbanda, various Afro-Brazilian practices, spiritualism and especially devoted to the Corrientes version of Señor La Muerte.

The judicial hypothesis is that the boy was a sacrifice in the death cult. "....Finding the body at a crossroads of street and avenue, the trunk and the feet pointing northeast. The position of the skull, that had been removed by somebody with certain knowledge. And mainly the fact the blood had been used for something, that we did not find any blood in the body makes us think this is a ritual crime" said a source familiar with the case to Pagina 12.

The family's lawyer, though appreciative of police efforts, said that "we cannot think there is much more behind this." Sources at the prosecutor's office admit that another line to follow is the "drugs" theory, though there is nothing concrete beyond the idea that the participants may have used drugs when they participated in the "sacrifice."

Jose Humberto Miceli, an ethnographer studying new religious movements since 1985, believes that to find an explanation of the crime one must look to the cult of Señor de la Muerte. Formerly he is said to have consumed blood symbolically because if not he would dry up. The missing vertebrae are also important. "Normally they [his devotees] robbed these from cemeteries," said Miceli, "and made talismans from them or with the scrapings of these, made ointments. It is the magico-religious tradition of Corrientes."

If it does prove to be the case that a perverted devotion to San La Muerte is behind this sad story, there is no reason the tar the entire belief system. The murderers are exceptional not only in their cruelty but in murdering someone at all. In the last century, this would be the first muder directly linked to the worship of San La Muerte. It's not the cult which should be eradicated, but the grinding poverty and degradation that compelled a mother and her son into prostitution in order to survive, and led the child directly into the hands of a savage and unconscionable death.


  1. Quite a title you've given this post! These folk heroes of today reminded me of some folk heroes of the past as told from Wikipedia, The 14 Holy Helpers :

    On September 24, 1445 the Franciscan monastery’s young shepherd, Hermann Leicht, saw a crying child in a field—one that happened to belong to the nearby Cistercian monastery of Langheim. As he bent down to pick it up, it suddenly disappeared. A short time later, the child reappeared in the same spot and this time, two candles were burning next to it. In June 1446 the shepherd saw the child a third time, this time carrying a red cross on its chest and accompanied by thirteen children. The child said to the shepherd: ‘We are the 14 helpers and wish to erect a chapel here, where we can rest. If you will be our servant, we will be yours!’ Shortly after, the shepherd saw two burning candles descending to this spot. Soon, miraculous healings began, through the intervention of the fourteen helper saints.

    En Dios creo y en ti confío...

  2. One of the links in my previous post did not seem to work:

    en Dios creo y en ti confío

  3. Wow, great comments Gid; that 14 holy helpers story is a doozy....a bit creepy don't you think?


    From the Lucky Mojo link:
    Eventually I ran into the true story, as least as scholars of Mexican culture present it these days: La Santisima Muerte is a "banned saint," the Roman Catholic "cover" for an ancient Aztec goddess named Mictlantecuhtli, a death goddess and co-ruler, with her husband, of the underworld.
    This is a widespread theory but I wonder if there may be some other source to Santisima Muerte which is being ingnored. Skeletal figures are long-standing motif in European art and actual posed skeletons appear in more than one European chapel. If Santisima Muerte is a "cover story" for an Aztec goddess, why does she appear in Argentina (in both male and female guises)? I think the Aztec idea has some merit but I'm not sure if it's the exclusive source for La Santisima Muerte.


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