From Thelema to Santa Muerte (and round one vs. the academic myth of the “Anglo-American occult audience”)


From World Religions and Spirituality Project, here’s an interview with Manon Hedenborg White, author of The Eloquent Blood: The Goddess Babalon and the Construction of Femininities in Western Esotericism (Oxford University Press, 2020) and co-author with Fredrik Gregorius of “The Scythe and the Pentagram: Santa Muerte from Folk Catholicism to Occultism” (Religions 8:1, 2017). I think a few different segments of folks who wander by here might find this worth a look.


I had originally inteded to stop this blog post at the above.

But the Santa Muerte article in the journal Religions is open-source, available in PDF format from MDPI under a Creative Commons Attribution (CCBY) license. I read it, and I have some problems with it. Fair warning: the rest of what I say here is going to presume you’ve read it. I don’t have time to summarize it right now.

I have read Conjureman Ali’s book on Santa Muerte and have recommended it to clients, remarking to a client recently that he and I appear to have been taught quite similarly and during roughly the same time period (which was 20 years ago now). And I’ve begun to address this issue of “the trappings of Catholicism” in Santa Muerte’s devotion elsewhere (though I still haven’t finished part 2 of that article). I don’t have time right now to fully engage all of Hedenborg White’s and Gregorius’s analysis, and I do get that this is an academic work and sets out to do a certain job within a certain framework and for a certain audience, so of course it’s not going to be as fully nuanced in every area as every reader in every potential audience would like – I’m not trying to review something according to criteria it never set out to meet in the first place.

But I do want to return to this – and I will when I finish part 2 of the article – to more fully contextualize the milieu here and why writers/workers like Conjureman Ali emphasize not throwing out the traditional. And this is going to involve complicating what I as a folk-Catholic hoodoo rootworker and educator perceive to be the authors’ oversimplistic operative categories, viz. “Anglo-American occultists.” This is far, far too broad a brush, and addressing it is going to involve addressing not just Christianity in Anglo-American occulture but specifically Catholicism in Anglo-American occulture — among other things, about which more below — which is something that most writers on these things have tended to get wrong at least some of the time (when they haven’t just tossed the whole thing out the window to begin with).

So there are *multiple* audiences, so to speak, within what they are calling Anglo-American occultists. There is not a single “mainstream culture” in the way that she’s framing it on p. 12, one that Conjureman Ali occupies alongside Sophia diGrigorio and Tomas Prower. And Conjureman Ali’s work (quite deftly, I think) manages to speak to a segment of it that hasn’t historically been spoken to directly all that often when we’re talking about the world of mass-market occult publishing, i.e. stuff that your average American can easily get their hands on.

Hadean Press is good about this, in fact, speaking more broadly beyond just this booklet, and I’m sorry I was late to the party finding out about them due to living under a rock for a few years. But the article’s authors collapse Ali’s motivations and subject positions as a hoodoo rootworker (an Afro-American tradition) and practitioner of Quimbanda (an Afro-Brazilian tradition) into a simple manifestation of the larger statement of intent by Hadean Press on their Guides to the Underworld series of pamphlets, which is honestly just a little sloppy in terms of scholarship. Part of what they’re missing is that people who have historically not had a voice in these arenas and who have had their religions and folkways misrepresented, even demonized, when they aren’t being yanked wholesale out of context and appropriated for a different kind of misrepresentation (one that pads Llewellyn’s pockets while infants in Haiti die of freakin’ dysentery, which nobody in the 21st century should have to die of) – some of these people are now finding platforms in some cases. Sometimes these platforms are even the same ones that have tended to contribute to the very misrepresentation that is so significant here, like mainstream publishers of occult works (though we are still a very long way away from perfection on that front – but any change in the right direction is noteworthy, even if it’s still very little and oh so late in coming). So we really need to complicate any underlying assumptions that everybody being published by a given publisher is toeing the same line.

Who gets to talk about this stuff, who gets to be read, who has a platform – this has been changing dramatically and rapidly. And if you’re talking about folk Catholicism, you have to engage the ways in which Catholics have been crowded out of that conversation in occult circles and how fundamental the misunderstandings are that that can produce. And then of course there’s hardly a single Catholic identity either, and folk Catholicism will certainly have different “flavors” or “textures” in different cultures, even Catholic cultures.

It’s true that Ali didn’t fully elucidate the ontology of modern Mexican Catholicism for an audience of non-Mexican non-Catholics – that would be a pretty tall order for what set out to be a slender pamphlet. But one thing to consider is that Santa Muerte isn’t a passive non-agent here. She might not be able to make a dent in the likes of the very dyed-in-the-wool “all gods are really one god” types who don’t see any problem with their entire spiritual life being a mix-and-match buffet, but that’s hardly every “consumer” of works like this, and she can and will effect changes in her devotees over time. And the *numerous* devotees and practitioners who are thrilled to see more available works on folk belief and religion written by actual practitioners from other-than-mainstream-pagan perspectives, who have been frustrated with what mainstream publishing has tended to make available — they often ultimately find that there’s more to the Catholicism as operative in her cult than just “trappings” or “window dressing.”

While it’s true that some people do rip her out of a Mexican and Catholic worldview, it’s also true that Santa Muerte invites many people *into* a Mexican and Catholic worldview – or at least opens those doors in productive ways that aren’t always about a thin veneer of political correctness or whatever. I mean, first-generation Mexican-Americans already have a different relationship to “Mexican Catholic culture” than their parents who were born in Mexico. None of this is monolithic or inflexible – it’s a lived religion, and it’s way more complex than just what’s officially on the website of the local archdiocese, or the Vatican, or whatever replaced the Baltimore Catechism. What’s out there, what’s published, doesn’t give you a well-rounded view of *who practitioners and devotees actually are.*

It also doesn’t elucidate the extent to which rootwork is so different to some strains of modern neopaganism insofar as *it really matters what dirt something grew in,* so it really matters that you come to understand that dirt when you work with the roots that grew in it, or how the spirits of the roots are also active agents in this whole energetic system, not just dead objects we move around that have power only insofar as we attribute it to them.

And it doesn’t account for the possibility that one can start out with a fairly nebulous vaguely witchy or vaguely occult-curious perspective and ultimately develop quite a different practice or even devotion over time. And when it comes to budding Anglo Muertistas, all roads do NOT lead to Llewellyn and paganism and armchair Goetic philosophy. Sometimes, some roads lead straight to the Catholic church. And of course there are all kinds of stops in between.

Basically, if we’re going to talk about Anglo-American occultism, we have to talk about Anglo-American occult publishing, which means we have to talk about representation and access to platforms and race and ethnicity and class and language and religion — ’cause for fuck’s sake, not everybody in the “Anglo-American occultist audience” is a pagan or flatly unreligious, and not every consumer of occultist works in North America is Anglo-American.

But this article fails to even imagine the complexity and diversity and thus motivations of some of the operative audiences, plural, here, and how some of them are part of a larger “speaking back” to what “mainstream culture” has tended to produce, both in terms of academic scholarship on magic and religion and in terms of mass-market works on “the occult” (yes, those are scarequotes). And such an understanding would provide a much more accurate and nuanced view of where Conjureman Ali is coming from and what he’s doing than the article exhibits.

Again, I know this article set out to address a fairly specific question and that what I’m raising would require a different article altogether to address, but given that it claims to examine “what these books reveal about the contemporary occult milieu” (4), I do think mine is a valid critique, or will be once I actually make the argument, because the article’s analysis really just fails to understand the contemporary occult milieu.

To be continued.


Postscript: As unlikely as it seems, it’s happened before, so in case the authors do stumble upon this blog post, let me say this is absolutely not personal, and I recognize at least some of the constraints you’re facing and the challenges of doing scholarship like this at all – and I’m glad you’re doing it despite the challenges and the fact that somebody is always going to want you to have written a different article than the one you wrote. I’m engaging here because I think it’s important work and an important conversation, and I believe that some of the most exciting stuff to happen in “the occult world” in ages is happening in large part because the gap between theory and praxis, between scholar and practitioner, is being bridged in new ways, and we’re seeing the results of that both in the academic efforts towards open source scholarship that exist and in occult publishing, which I seem to see in a drastically different light than y’all do šŸ™‚

Modern trends in occult publishing may be packaging Mexican spirituality for the Anglo American occultist… but they might also be opening doors where the guy doing doctoral work on the Spanish grimoire tradition can have a Facebook conversation with a tech-savvy modern curandera, and holy cow, a native Spanish speaker not affiliated with a university can now publish an English-language work on Santa Muerte that is available in the mass market, and boy did we not have that 20 years ago! I love the gap-bridging and the conversations, and they don’t happen without goodwill – so please understand I have goodwill here.

Everything on this blog is copyrighted unless otherwise noted. Don’t be a thief or a moron.

Why Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde Are Not Just “Narco Saints”

I can’t count the number of references I’ve seen over the past 15 or so years to Santa Muerte being a “narco saint,” with the implication (or even the straight-up assertion) that she’s a saint for drug dealers, boom, like that’s the whole picture. This kind of statement is incredibly reductionist and oversimplified. It ignores nuance, never mind facts, and it betrays a lack of respect for the (sub)culture(s) from which she springs and a total lack of concern for understanding folk religion – in Mexico or in general.

Seriously, it’s insulting and dismissive even if you *are* a drug dealer. It would be reductionist even if it were true that only those associated with the drug trade in Mexico venerate this folk saint. That it’s not even true just makes all that rhetoric exhausting (and those who uncritically repeat it lazy).

Even though this interview in Vice is called “Narco-Saints Are Melding Catholicism with the Drug Trade in Mexico,” it’s not one of those pieces that just focuses on the narco saint argument. That might have been where the journalist (or the editors) started out, but it’s a little better than the title would suggest.

It’s a very readable interview with a professor of World Arts & Cultures at UCLA, and the occasion is an exhibit he curated in 2014 called Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners. The journalist might not start out sounding like all that much, but he makes a really astute observation in here towards the beginning:

When you say researcher, Iā€™m thinking not just people like you who are doing historical research but people who are, you know, researching their own lives through religion.

– Jules Suzdaltsev

They don’t pause and unpack that — “researching their own lives through religion” — but boy, I wish they had. I’ll have to file it away for now until I have time to expand on it, but it definitely ties into my ongoing attempts to articulate this stuff about narrative and personal mythology and why it’s so critical — not just for personal spiritual practice but for what I can only think to call “psychic wholeness” at this exact second. (If that doesn’t make sense yet, sorry – I’m working on it! Gradually!)

Anyway, this is not the first or the best piece to look at some of the nuances of vernacular religion or popular piety in Mexico or more generally, and in fact it doesn’t have a lot of depth at all, tbh. But if you don’t know what any of this stuff is even about, it might be worth a look as a very accessible, non-technical (albeit bite-sized) introduction. And even if you do already know what all of this is about, it features some really cool artwork so it still might be worth a look.

I’m especially a fan of Edgar Clement’s La Trinca. Let’s see if this embed feature will work.

Editing to add:

I didn’t go into Jesus Malverde at all here – I kinda ran out of time – so my title ended up being inadvertently misleading. Here’s a pretty decent news piece from 2019 at the Courier Journal on how Jesus Malverde figured in a couple’s drug trial. The piece directly tackles the question of who venerates Jesus Malverde, why, and whether the stereotypes are fair.

Hopefully this goes a tiny way towards fixing my “false advertising” with the post title – sorry about that!