April 3, 2011

La Santa Muerte

a typical Santa Muerte statue

My creative juices just got all fired up yesterday while reading the May 2010 National Geographic.  One of the articles dealt with the rise of new saint cults in Mexico, particularly that of La Santa Muerte, Saint Death. 

La Santa Muerte, according to the article – apparently the cult has also been covered in Time – is a deity of death and personal protection currently venerated in the guise of a Catholic saint, with mostly Catholic rites.  (The Catholic Church itself condemns the cult).

In Mexico’s troubled society, the cult of La Santa Muerte is just one of several that have sprung up, or perhaps been revived, due to prolonged and serious social stress.  The cult seems to be specially popular among the poorest sectors and in the criminal underworld, to the extent that one of her labels now is ‘The Virgin of the Incarcerated,’ a riff off the many titles of the Virgin Mary.  In fact so closely does the criminal underworld identify with La Santa Muerte that gangsters actually pray to her for success in their capers, petitions that would be improper to address to any of the Church’s myriad other saints.

Cult beliefs seem to hark back to pre-Columbian practices, or perhaps more universally to a time when gods were considered to be much closer to man, readier to intervene and at the same time imperiously strict in requiring repayment.  Devotees claim that La Santa Muerte is more likely to listen to and grant petitions than other Catholic saints, but cheat her not of your promised repayment or you’ll be sorry! There are even rumors that veneration rites in some places have included blood sacrifice, possibly including human. 

Which leads me to some observations that could be used in a game:

  • New deities and cults  can spring from societies in crisis
  • Deities considered to have power over death and similar dark forces may gain popularity during troubled times
  • Deities considered to be ‘easy to talk to’ gain popularity during troubled times
  • Deities from older religions, specially religions that have been driven underground by the currently dominant religion, may resurface when worshippers begin to feel that the current faith isn’t working
  • The new religion or cult will usually be considered a problem by the authorities, both sacral and temporal
  • The new cults may co-opt existing rites from the current dominant religion, possibly altering them to suit the new beliefs, and possibly including practices that we would consider anti-social

Once again, Toynbee’s principle of Challenge and Response is very evident here (see my article on that in Roleplaying Tips).  I’ll definitely be taking these observations as a guide for designing new cults in Twilight Age.

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