Jul 27, 2015

What is Santa Muerte? A guide for 'True Detective' fans

Kevin Ferguson and Collin Campbell
Welcome to Vinci July 27 2015
Listen to this story 21 MIN 24 SEC

"True Detective" is a show that has defined itself with connections to evil spirits. In the second season, we've now heard "Santa Muerte" referenced more than once and seen an ominous skeleton in the house of Vinci city manager and kidnapping victim Ben Casper. So what's the deal?

Santa Muerte ("Saint Death" in English) has strong ties to Southern California. We have a temple devoted to Santa Muerte here. For this week's episode of "Welcome to Vinci," we met Robert Hemedes there. As part of the Atlas Obscura tours in L.A., he explains origins of the folk religion:

As Christianity spread and became popular, local customs and belief systems were integrated into the religion, modernizing holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Day of the Dead. In Mexico, Aztec worship post-Conquistador era continued, going underground to avoid persecution. Soon, these two religions collided and the hybridization being Santa Muerte.

Hemedes says followers of Santa Muerte believe her to be a saint created by God himself, and appears in the bible as the Angel of Death. Hemedes grew up Catholic, and he said that Mass at Templo Santa Muerte held a lot more in common with traditional Catholic Mass than he'd anticipated.

"You had the eucharist, the catechism, even the drinking the wine, the sermon. It's pretty much copied sermon by sermon and practice by practice," he said. "I did notice the major difference is that during the ceremonial session the priest would take out this dagger."

The dagger, Hemedes says, is a symbolic tool used to break the "spiritual veil between reality here and to access the death goddess, herself."

Santa Muerte attracts a diverse group of followers and observers. In Mexico, cartel members and narcotraficantes are alleged to worship the saint—which "True Detective" seems to be alluding to here—but Hemedes said it's more complex than that.

"There's pretty much a saint for everything," Hemedes said. "What do you do with the sinners, and the outcasts of society? Well, they have their own saint. And it's Santa Muerte. It's not just drug dealers that worship Santa Muerte, it's the dispossessed, the outcasts of society, I even found out that she's the patron saint for the LGBT community in Mexico."

KPCC attended mass at the temple and talked to the man who leads the congregation there:

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