Questions You’ve Asked: Patron Saints Playing Favorites

A client is getting set up with some Law Keep Away work, some of which involves physical items being installed at the front entrance where a St. Michael paket has been living. She wonders if she needs to move/remove St. Michael, whom she petitions for physical and spiritual protection, since he’s “the patron saint of police and general law and order guy.”

What a great question!

Short answer, no. No need to remove St. Michael.

A fixed paket of the type I used to make for clients/customers, when I could still source those detentes for reasonable prices. I haven’t been able to do that since reopening, but I like them very much and I hope I can offer them again one of these days.

Longer answer explaining my rationale: for one, human beings declared him the patron saint of law enforcement – he didn’t proclaim himself that lol… and even if he has shown a propensity for watching out for law enforcement, he certainly hasn’t done so to the exclusion of anyone else. IOW, law enforcement doesn’t have the corner on St. Michael.

Now he is a “law and order guy,” and I would not necessarily expect him to have my back if I, as a devotee of his, were to go out, get fucked up as a rat, and start a fight in a situation that didn’t need a fight, thus causing unnecessary chaos. But a fight for a good cause? Might be a different story – and that might be so even if in the eyes of the law it made me guilty of assault and battery.

IOW, angels and saints are not and have never been especially known for being huge champions of human codifications of law, order, and morality. Or to put it another way, in a standoff, St. Michael would have Valjean’s back, not Javert’s.

But another consideration too: even if St. Michael tended to “take the side” of the person working in the name of human law over another person, working to stay off the radar of some authority doesn’t necessarily equate to being against that authority. I can think of a dozen good reasons off the top of my head to want to avoid being the person an agency or authority focused on that don’t have anything to do with me breaking any laws in my city, state, or country. And I can think of a dozen more off the top of my head that might technically involve some law-breaking but there’s something about the situation, or the system, or the local authority, or the law itself, where the morality of the situation does not match the letter of the law that’s on the books.

And in any case it’s totally possible for me to break the law regularly while still having respect for members of law enforcement and not wanting them to be hurt in the course of doing their job. And to have respect for them but not ever want to see them knocking on my front door 🙂

Now would I count on him to have my back if I wanted to injure a member of law enforcement in the course of doing whatever I’m doing? No. And I would not expect him to have the back of a member of law enforcement who wanted to injure me, either, like set out with that intent. IOW, I think intent matters here, as does general moral orientation. And you know, like Santa Muerte, St. Michael is commonly depicted holding a set of scales or balances in his hand. That’s a reminder in both cases of their roles in weighing the heart or soul of an individual at the personal judgment when that person dies and/or at the general judgment day at the end of time when eternal judgment is passed on everyone who ever lived. And while they might help out with the weighing ritual, only God gets to do that ultimate judging.

Visit Seraphin Station to get a custom-fixed scapular paket to wear, carry, or hang by your doorway.

So it doesn’t actually matter what we people think. We don’t have the final say, we humans, and we are flawed and imperfect and so are our systems and governments. And that is how it can be possible that Santa Muerte is called on to protect both members of law enforcement and those who regularly run afoul of the law in Mexico. It’s not because she just adores cops or she just adores criminals. It’s because she is a champion of those who find they have to live dangerous lives on the margins of society in one way or another, and her perspective is much larger than ours. So with any saint’s. So with St. Michael. We do not have the big picture, but certainly heaven and hell are not being run the same way as FCI Talladega or Folsom Prison 🙂

St. Michael Niner Chaplet Bracelet

This one of a kind chaplet bracelet is handmade with 5mm ruby red glass beads, an ornate crucifix with a bronze-toned antiqued patina imported from Italy, a chain extension and lobster clasp if you want to wear it or secure it around a statue or rearview mirror, and a holy medal of St. Michael handpainted in bright and durable enamels. 

The saintly protector par excellence, Michael is called on to defend against dangers both spiritual and physical and from enemies both known and unknown.

Unclasped, this chaplet’s length from end to end is 8.75″. Will fit a 7.5″ wrist, but I’m happy to customize it if you need it shorter or longer. (Just allow a few extra days handling, please!) Medal measures 1″.

This style of chaplet is called a “niner” and is a popular and very portable way of doing a novena for a saint, of keeping your prayer beads close to hand when you’re traveling or need to be more discreet than a full-size rosary might allow, or of having a set of prayer beads the perfect size for wearing as a bracelet or keeping on your car’s rearview mirror or the door knob of your room or home.

One way of praying with a niner chaplet is to call on the saint’s aid on the medal, pray the Our Father x3, the Hail Mary x3, and the Glory Be x3 on the beads, and then the Apostle’s Creed on the crucifix.

Read more about St. Michael (and other saints and angels) in the education section at Big Lucky Hoodoo. And if you’ve never been sure how St. Michael can be a saint and an angel at the same time – and he most certainly is – you can get a little crash course in Catholic ontology at Seraphin Station.

This St. Michael piece is available at Seraphin Station or Etsy.

When Angels Are Saints and Saints Are Angels (or a quick lesson in Catholic ontology)

I very frequently see folks online say things like this: “Though technically speaking Archangel Michael is not a Saint [sic], sometimes this entity is venerated as one.”

I’m not linking to the source for that because my goal is not to single anyone out for being wrong. Thing is, this is not an uncommon misperception. It’s pretty easy to find multiple websites and blogs that say something to this effect – even those of folks who are otherwise pretty well-versed in folk religion and/or folk magic. If this were just a couple of blogs and not a pretty widespread point of confusion and error, I wouldn’t be going to the trouble to write about it.

I get that not everybody comes from a Catholic background. But if you’re going to write about saints in the context of hoodoo and folk religion, you should do your research before you make assertions. And if you do your research, you’ll see that in a hoodoo context, when you’re talking about saints, you’re nearly always talking about the definition of saint as used by the Catholic Church.

Some Protestant branches define a saint as basically anyone who is a Christian, a member of the body of Christ by virtue of being a member of the church. Others use the term to designate someone who is “born again” and/or someone who has been baptized (at least into their particular branch of Christianity). Some reserve the term mostly to refer to widely recognized holy figures, such as the biblical patriarchs or those who were martyred for their adherence to the Christian faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints considers its members to be saints (but not the members of other churches).

But those are obviously not the operant definitions in traditional hoodoo. While the overwhelming majority of hoodoo practitioners historically have been Protestant Christians, there were always little geographical and cultural pockets of Catholicism (and folk Catholicism), and when rootworkers talk about working with saints, a quick survey of those saints and an understanding of the context in which they are petitioned make it clear that we’re talking about an understanding of sainthood from a Catholic perspective. We aren’t just talking about the biblical patriarchs and your very pious great aunt Emma, who is obviously a vibrant and committed member of the Body of Christ and brings the best potato salad in three states to the church picnic but is obviously not who you light a candle for on a few consecutive Tuesdays when you’re asking for her help.

Non-Catholic folks tend to think of saints as formerly living humans, maybe ones who led especially holy or exemplary lives, maybe performed a few miracles and now hang out in heaven doing various odd jobs for God and letting us bend their ears occasionally when we petition them. But that’s not how it works in Catholic ontology. According to the Roman Catholic Church, to put it as simply as possible, a saint is basically someone who’s in heaven, or to put it another way, if you’re in heaven, you’re a saint. But the actual fabric underlying all of this stuff is just a little more complicated. You can read more about it at the Catholic Encyclopedia, but it’s a concept called the communion of saints:

The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices. The participants in that solidarity are called saints by reason of their destination and of their partaking of the fruits of the Redemption

So you’re part of the communion of saints, the mystical body of Christ, even while you’re still living and even if you’re not quite living perfectly. This isn’t exactly the same thing as being an actual confirmed saint, but you have the potential, and as long as you can stay out of hell, you’ll keep that potential. After you undergo “purification” (or “remedial training” or “detention” or however you want to see Purgatory), then you’ll head to heaven to join the actual community of saints. In other words, as long as you don’t do something that goes down on the Big Permanent Record and lands you in hell, all roads lead to heaven eventually. So you are part of this spiritual economy and you can pray, receive blessings, ask forgiveness, ask a saint to intercede for you, say prayers for the souls of your ancestors, etc. More on this spiritual economy in a moment, but the key point now is that all of these spiritual actions have spiritual results, so things can always change. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

To paraphrase from later on that same linked webpage, then, saints are basically those who are in fellowship with God the Father and Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Scholastic philosopher and foremost theologian of the Catholic Church, who was known as the Angelic Doctor and the Angel of the Schools [1], writes in Summa Theologiae III:8:4:

Where there is one body we must allow that there is one head. Now a multitude ordained to one end, with distinct acts and duties, may be metaphorically called one body. But it is manifest that both men and angels are ordained to one end, which is the glory of the Divine fruition. Hence the mystical body of the Church consists not only of men but of angels. Now of all this multitude Christ is the Head, since He is nearer God, and shares His gifts more fully, not only than man, but even than angels; and of His influence not only men but even angels partake, since it is written (Ephesians 1:20-22): that God the Father set “Him,” namely Christ, “on His right hand in the heavenly places, above all Principality and Power and Virtue and Dominion and every name that is named not only in this world, but also in that which is to come. And He hath subjected all things under His feet.” Therefore Christ is not only the Head of men, but of angels. Hence we read (Matthew 4:11) that “angels came and ministered to Him.”

Limbourg brothers РSeraphim from the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, 14th century. Courtesy of the Biblioth̬que nationale de France. Public domain.

So the angels, at least the ones who didn’t rebel, are members of the communion of saints, which the Catholic Church characterizes in that linked article as “that reciprocal action of the saints, that corporate circulation of spiritual blessings through the members of the same family, that domesticity and saintly citizenship.” They are under Christ’s power and thus receive his grace, so they’re part of this same spiritual economy that the living and the dead are active participants in. Yes, the dead, which is another big difference between Catholicism and Protestantism and is probably another blog post… but yes, your prayers can help your dead reprobate uncle Joe who’s doing time in Purgatory. And your saintly Grandmother Bosworth, who worked her fingers to the bone and never deserved any of the grief that Joe brought her and who is hanging out in heaven with the other saintly grandmothers, well, she can help you, too, with *her* prayers.

And angels, some of whom Grandmother Bosworth is doubtless rubbing shoulders with at the right hand of God — or at least in a pastoral courtyard just cattycorner to the right arm of God’s comfy chair, but don’t nitpick Grandmother Bosworth! — can hear us and help us. They are part of this same system of reciprocity that extends beyond the borders of life and corporeality, the same spiritual economy in which we might petition a saint and promise a certain “payment” or offering in return, in which working with graveyard dirt or ancestors is not seen as “disturbing the rest of the departed” at all. That idea is totally alien to a Catholic worldview. The dead aren’t gone in the sense of being beyond our ability to interact with in any meaningful way. Grandmother Bosworth is still your grandmother and she’s listening. She made the transition to the afterlife with her personality intact, as it were — her memories and willpower and agency. She can choose to help you (or choose not to, if you’re taking after Uncle Joe).

A remix/reframing of an antique French image in the public domain. It was possibly associated with a chapel of St. Michael that was once in the Brogne Abbey from what I can piece together, but I could be wrong. The original card reads “Saint-Michel, protegez-nous! Tableau de l’Abbaye de Saint-Gerard, 1915.” This current version is the front of a prayer card designed by Karma Zain and licensed CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

And so with angels. They are our guardians on this earthly plane. Angels guide individuals (Genesis 28-29, Exodus 32-34, Tobias 4 ff), a chosen people (Exodus 12:13), even a specific geographical region (Deuteronomy 32). And they can serve as psychopomps when we’re leaving it, leading us past the snares of the devil and the gaping mouth of hell so we can make our way to heaven – assuming that’s where we’re headed. [2]

Now that’s not to say they’re all sweetness and light or they have the same tolerance for your bullshit that Grandmother Bosworth does. Don’t waste an angel’s time whining and don’t make the mistake of thinking they are all hanging around looking like Precious Moments figurines worrying about your love life or your chakras. There’s a reason angels who show up in the Bible often start off with “Don’t be afraid.”

But in the Catholic conception of the communion of saints, angels are 100% active participants and on the same team. And they are absolutely saints.

So yes, St. Michael IS a saint. And an angel. At the same time. The angels who did not rebel are all members of the mystical body of the Church and the communion of saints. People who say otherwise but claim to be talking about hoodoo just don’t have the slightest idea what they’re even talking about and didn’t bother to do their research before they opened their mouths. But the bottom line is that St. Michael can be both a saint and an angel because the Roman Catholic definition of a saint is not the same as the kinda vague concept of sainthood that is floating around in culture more broadly.

And so this in turn should help you see how folk saints fit into all of this – figures who have *not* been formally recognized or canonized by the Catholic church but who are nonetheless venerated by the faithful and seen to have an ability and willingness to respond to the petitions or prayers of the faithful.

That’s how there can be so many darned saints and the Catholic Church doesn’t even pretend that there’s a list anywhere of all of them — because the Church does not *make* saints or grant that status to people or entities. In beatification and canonization, the Church merely formally recognizes the status of sainthood that that person has already attained whether we knew about it or not, and outlines the proper observance of their veneration by the faithful. So there are tons of saints that aren’t formally recognized by the Church with their own feast day or series of statues or whatever. And among the forgotten virgin martyrs and the soldiers of Christ whose names we never knew, we also have figures of folkloric status, both human and not, who are also very active participants in their devotees’ lives: Santa Muerte, Jesus Malverde, Yevgeny Rodionov, Marie Laveau.

Maybe even your pious great aunt Emma one day. Patron saint of the perfect picnic potato salad.


Read more about St. Michael in folklore and vernacular religion, from medieval Ireland through to 20th century Louisiana, at Big Lucky Hoodoo.


[1] Yeah, did you catch that? Among his several venerable titles, St. Thomas Aquinas is referred to as an angel. Here’s a quick tidbit excerpted from an old children’s schoolbook and here’s a student’s prayer to St. Thomas as the Angel of the Schools. This epithet would need a whole separate blog post to properly unpack, and we’d have to start with etymology, and I can feel some of your eyes glazing over already lol…

But please let all this serve for now just to demonstrate the extent to which God’s creation, and by extension the various available modes and categories of being, are much more complex and dynamic and perhaps even unruly from a Catholic perspective than a non-Catholic might be prepared to appreciate without dropping some highly problematic assumptions and doing some serious digging. So don’t listen to ignorant people talking about the saints, not even if they’re generally well-informed on other aspects of magic or mysticism or religion. There are a lot of folks out there holding forth about saints and angels and who’ve set themselves up as experts who don’t actually know what the hell they’re talking about, not to put too fine a point on it.

[2] This has always been one of St. Michael’s preeminent roles, in fact. Here’s an 11th century prayer to St. Michael that is fairly typical of its ilk:

I therefore beseech and entreat, archangel Saint Michael, that you [who know those of the accepted souls to be received] deign to take up my soul when it leaves my body and free it from the power of the enemy, so that it may bypass the gates of hell and the ways of darkness, and the lion or dragon who is accustomed to receive souls in hell and lead them to eternal torments may not obstruct it.

(Te ergo supplico et deprecer sancte michael archangele qui ad animas accepiendas accepisti postestatem ut animam meam suscipere digneris quando de corpere meo erit egressa et libera eam de potestate inimici ut pertransive possit portas infernorum et vias tenebrarum ut non se deponat leo vel draco qui conseutus est animas in inferno recipere et ad aeterna tormenta perducere.)

Quoted from Oxford Bodleian Library MS Douce 296, fol. 122v, cited in Kathleen Openshaw, “The Battle between Christ and Satan in the Tiberius Psalter,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 52 (1989):14-33. Translation is mostly Openshaw excepting the bracketed segment, which she did not translate, so if it’s messed up, it’s my fault.

Chaplet of St. Michael – Angelic Crown Rosary – SOLD

Call on the blessings and protection of St. Michael and the nine choirs of angels with this one-of-a-kind Angelic Crown chaplet, aka Chaplet of St. Michael.

  • Czech glass Pater beads in iridescent blues
  • crystal clear pressed glass Ave beads
  • cast bronze reproduction of an antique Latin American rosary center
  • cast bronze reproduction of an antique St. Michael holy medal

Recent reading roundup: St. Expedite, Hindu chromos in Haiti, iconography in retablos, domestic work in the segregated South


Did you know there was a very active St. Expedite Society in Independence, Louisiana up until very recently? I didn’t. Read more at Folklife in Louisiana: “St. Expedito’s Role in South Louisiana Catholicism, in New Orleans and in the Italian-American Community near Independence, Louisiana,” by Karen Williams.


Hindu deities on vodun altars: Rush, Dana. “Eternal Potential: Chromolithographs in Vodunland,”African Arts vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 60-75+94-96. Also helpful more broadly, imo, for any student of folklore/popular religion who’s ever encountered an argument about whether Abre Camino is “real hoodoo” or not, wondered what to think about the development of the seven-colors school of approach to Santisima Muerte, or pondered the relationships between figures like Legba vs. Ellegua.


Giffords, Gloria Fraser. The Iconography of Mexican Folk Retablos. Thesis. University of Arizona, 1969. I tend to assume everybody immediately sees why stuff like this is so interesting. I tend to be wrong. But basically the iconography had never been studied before this, so this was a big deal, this work. And if you like to understand what you’re looking at when you see a candle in a botanica or grocery store, you’ll encounter plenty of stuff that had its origins here whether you personally work with that imagery/tradition or not.


I read Telling Memories Among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South years ago, and even then, before I’d really started *studying* this stuff in any consistent and applied way, I felt like everybody I knew ought to read it. I knew they wouldn’t – people think this stuff doesn’t have anything to do with them if their families weren’t the ones being described in these stories – but they’d be wrong, ’cause this is part of how we got here. And the impact of it doesn’t just disappear suddenly when it’s no longer fashionable or feasible or *whatever* to have domestic employees. This is part of Southern culture, y’all, and it’s part of how your role in it, as whatever sex, race, class, gender, family role stratum you occupy, got constructed and defined.

I still feel the same way in 2020. I think Southern folks should read this book — especially white folks. Especially white women.  Here’s a review with a useful summary at the Washington Post.

New listing: Vintage St. Dymphna

st dymphna medal (4)
Currently available at Etsy.

This delicate, lightweight necklace features a vintage aluminum holy medal with St. Gerebernus on one side and St. Dymphna on the other. I got the medal from Belgium but it was made in Germany. I can’t date it precisely, but my guess is between 1950 and 1990.

The St. Gerebernus side is in Latin and the St. Dymphna side in English, both saying “pray for us.” It’s one inch long and hangs from a dainty 18 inch silver-tone ball chain necklace, set off with a tiny beaded drop with frosted Czech glass beads in blue-green and bronze.

St. Dymphna is a very popular saint to call on against madness, anxiety, depression, and epilepsy. She’s also the patron saint of runaways and survivors of incest and sexual abuse. She is called on by those who suffer from mental illness and by those who treat the sufferers of mental illness.

Dymphna – whose  name would have been something like Damhnait or Davnet before it was Latinized – is thought to have lived some time between 500 and 720-ish A.D. in Ireland. (The sources and scholars don’t agree and there’s no historical record dating anywhere close to when she would have lived, if she’s even really a historical figure — there’s only oral tradition and legend until hundreds of years later). [*] She fled to Belgium as a young teenager from a very troubled home life. accompanied by her confessor, the elderly priest St. Gerebernus or Gereberne.

The martyrologies are chock full of murderous guys who like to kill totally peaceful Christians in very gruesome ways, but even with all the bloodshed and decapitation and suffering in these annals, St. Dymphna’s father still manages to stand out as one of the biggest ass-hats of them all.

He apparently went a little nuts after his beloved wife, who’d been a Christian, died. Pressed to remarry, he ultimately decided only his own teenage daughter, who so strongly resembled his dead wife, would fit the bill.

Well, incest is gross, but even beyond that, Dymphna had also become a Christian and dedicated her virginity to Christ, so this whole thing was a double helping of nope as far as she was concerned. She and Gerebernus took off for Belgium and hid out at the monastery of St. Martin for a while. But her father caught up with them, had his servants kill the priest, and cut off his own daughter’s head. So that’s why she’s invoked against madness, because she steadfastly faced the madness of her father, keeping her cool in the face of such onslaught, and was martyred in the preservation of her virginity.

Gerard_Seghers_-_Martyrdom_of_St_Dymphna_and_St_Gerebernus
Gerard Seghers – Martyrium des hl. Dymphna und des hl. Gerbert (Martyrdom of St Dymphna and St Gerebernus). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Held by Staatsgalerie im Neuen Schloss Schleißheim.

St. Gerebernus is the patron saint of Sonsbeck in what’s today North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

Epileptics, the insane, and the possessed have been said to receive miraculous cures at Dymphna’s tomb, and in older literature and art especially, she’s portrayed as vanquishing a demon at her feet and is given the title of Demon Slayer. You can’t tell it from modern holy cards these days, but Dymphna is kind of a badass. Just leaving aside for the moment the problems with personifying or even demonizing mental illness, the fact remains that practically speaking, she’s a great source of comfort and aid to many sufferers of mental disorders and anxiety as well as their loved ones who pray for them.

C. Christopher Smith at the Englewood Review of Books put her forward as a fitting patron saint for the #MeToo movement.

Saints Dymphna, Michael, and Benedict are a trio that’s hard to beat when it comes to protection / defense work. Between the three of them, they’re quite the spiritual army and they can anchor and defend the faithful in body, soul, and mind against chaotic onslaught and demonic siege.

For even more info and resources on saints and their lore in folk religious practice, visit The Chapel: Karma Zain and follow the tags.


[*] Sources

The Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae of John Colgan, reproduced at the Ordnance Survey, Dublin. Reflex facsimiles, Irish Manuscript Commission 5, 1947.

Kirsch, Johann Peter. St. Dymphna.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. Accessed 25 Apr. 2020.

O’Hanlon, John Canon. Lives of the Irish Saints, vol. 6. Dublin: James Duffy and Sons, 1873.

Smith, William and Henry Wace. A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines, vols. 1 and 2. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1877.

Resources

Novena in Honor of Saint Dymphna at CatholicSaints.info