Secrets of Santa Muerte: A Guide to the Prayers, Spells, Rituals, and Hexes, by Cressida Stone
Weiser Books, 1578637724, 256 pages, August 2022

The inevitability of death haunts the living. Ancient Roman philosophers valued daily contemplation of their mortality as a source of inspiration, a motivation to live with integrity, and an incentive to prioritize what truly matters with the Latin motto memento mori: remember that you must die. Motivational speakers today still use this phrase to inspire their audiences to follow their dreams and lead authentic lives.

While mortality motivation honors death in a philosophical and abstract sense, there are those in the contemporary occult community who personify and worship death as a powerful spiritual ally who blesses them with love, prosperity, and good health. This vibrant and alluring modern day personification of death is Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk saint who takes the form of a female Grim Reaper. Her name means “Holy Death”1 in Spanish, and a vast underground cult is dedicated to her honor. She holds a scythe in her right hand and a globe or the scales of justice in her left, and an owl sits at her feet. Her iconography was no doubt derived from the saturnine skeletal figure of the more popular Grim Reaper, who emerged in fourteenth century Europe during the Black Death, and blended with the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld.

Secrets of Santa Muerte: A Guide to the Prayers, Spells, Rituals, and Hexes by Cressida Stone is a comprehensive guide to working with the skeleton saint. In lucid prose, with simple yet potent rituals and prayers, this work focuses on authentic Mexican praxis, and includes several orisons Stone collected from native practitioners while conducting research in Mexico. A doctor of religious studies and a devotee of Holy Death herself, Stone spent six years in Mexico studying with Santa Muerte curanderos and compiling this work.

Stone had a close encounter with death that initiated her into the mysteries of Santa Muerte:

“I was living in Mexico when one night, on a full moon, I had a near-death experience,” she writes in the preface. “I literally stared death in the face when my car crashed off a ridge. I survived miraculously with zero injuries. As I walked away from the wreck, I realized that my accident had taken place right by a shrine to Santa Muerte.”2 

When Stone entered the chapel, a bruja (witch) approached her, saying that she had been expecting her, as Santa Muerte had foretold her arrival in a dream. The bruja introduced Stone to an underground community of Holy Death devotees across the country. Stone’s informants wanted her to record and share their tradition for posterity and to spread true knowledge of the cult of Death beyond Mexico. Nine months later, on the night of a full moon, Santa Muerte herself visited Stone in a dream and gave her the task of writing a book devoted to her mysteries. Secrets of Santa Muerte is the fruition of Stone’s dedicated research and spiritual devotion.

I have felt drawn to Santa Muerte for years but resisted the call because I am not of Mexican descent, and I was also wary of her due to her reputation for being venerated by drug lords. However, Stone reveals that the cult of Santa Muerte is not a closed tradition, and people from all walks of life honor her.

“Death does not judge, as she comes to us all,”3 Stone writes. “It does not matter your color, your age, your origins, your class status, your sexuality, your lifestyle choices, or your nationality.”4

A few months ago, as I reflected upon my hesitation to work with her, Santa Muerte communicated a similar message to me in spirit, which inspired me to learn more about her by reading this book. I realized that my primary concern was that people might shame me for cultural appropriation if I followed my calling to work with her, and she made it clear to me that race and ethnicity do not matter to her. When her scythe rends our garments of flesh, we are all bare bones underneath. She will strip us clean of our illusions, and reveal the truth of who we really are. Since she was reaching out to me and communicating with me telepathically, I felt I was being given a direct invitation to begin building a relationship with her.

When this book came into my possession, I had a vision of a ghostly female figure floating in the air, dressed in white, and when I asked her who she was, she turned to face me and revealed she had a skull for a face beneath her long white veil. That’s when I realized that the white aspect of Santa Muerte was communicating with me. I picked up the book and flipped through the pages to the following passage: “In her white gown, Santa Muerte is caring and maternal, and she gifts great blessings of health, cleansing, and well-being.”5 In this guise, she “is known as la Niña Blanca (the White Girl).”6

Santa Muerte has three primary manifestations: white, black, and red. “This book instructs you on how to work with all three of these key attributes of Santa Muerte,” Stone says. “It also teaches you how to use other colors, such as amber, yellow, green, silver, gold, bone, brown, pink, and purple; to combine colors; and to use specific Mexican candles to reap financial, spiritual, and intellectual success.”7

Setting up a sacred devotional space dedicated to Santa Muerte is a crucial first step in working with her, and Stone offers detailed guidance on how to create an altar. She tells readers everything they need to know about selecting a statue, and details what all the different colors mean, as well as the symbolism and various postures of the statues. Ideally, the devotee will invest in a statue for Holy Death to embody, but a picture will suffice. For those who can’t afford anything more than a simple candle and a heartfelt prayer, Santa Muerte will understand and one can begin working with her anyway. 

“The folk saint needs to have items representing the four elements on her altar,”8 Stone says. One of the simplest and most important offerings is water, and “daily refreshment allows energies to flow through your shrine.”9 Fire will enliven the altar in the form of candle flames, air is represented by tobacco smoke or incense, and earth is symbolized by flowers, stones, and items made from wood or clay. “She advised me that wooden statues and those made of stone, such as obsidian, are among the most powerful, because although Saint Death is celestial, she also is deeply chthonic,”10 Stone writes.

Another reason I hesitated to work with Santa Muerte is because she enjoys offerings of tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol. I quit drinking and smoking a few years ago, and avoid being around it because of my addictive personality. However, Stone points out that, while Santa Muerte does not judge those who engage in these practices and will party right along with them, she also helps people overcome their bad habits if they so desire. For those who wish to break addictions to tobacco or alcohol, these may be offered up to her as something belonging only to her, and thus off limits to the devotee. By sacrificing your vices to her, she can alchemize them into positive energy.

I love this advice, as I was intuitively guided to do this in my own practice after I quit drinking. Once a few months had passed and my cravings had subsided, I made offerings of my favorite whiskey to the Devil for this very reason. I think this approach is effective because instead of repressing and denying the addiction, which was once used to escape life and avoid dealing with painful emotions, it is made sacred and set apart for Spirit. Substance abuse profanes entheogens that should be held sacred, and victims of soul loss are most likely to abuse them to escape their pain. I know in my case this was certainly the reason, and once I engaged in deep shadow work and addressed the underlying reasons for my substance abuse, I was able to release it. 

Daily devotion is essential when working with the skeleton saint. “Holy Death does not like to be ignored,” Stone says. “You must be willing to stop by and speak to her daily, as well as pray to her frequently, for her to take care of your petitions and miracles.”11 Stone also shares a few cautionary tales, in which devotees are punished for offending the Grim Reaperess. The moral of these tales is quite simple: don’t make a promise to Santa Muerte that you can’t keep. Finally, Stone shares an unbonding ritual to “break up with Death,”12 in the event that one decides this spiritual path is not right for them.

I believe that when we start thinking about a spirit and imagining what it will be like to work with them, we are already bonding with them by sending them that psychic energy. I realized that in my fear of initiating a working relationship with her, I was ignoring the fact that she was already reaching out to me and communicating with me in spirit, so I decided it was time to plunge right in and officially begin my Santa Muerte practice. While I had already acquired a framed picture of Holy Death a few months ago, I had decided to read this book first, and I was reluctant to begin working with her because I didn’t have any free space to devote an altar solely to her (the top of my chest of drawers is cluttered with statuary devoted to several other spirits already).

However, while I was reading, I felt guided to make space for her. My current altar is on a small night stand beside my bed that I cleared for her and it’s very simple, with a framed picture of the skeleton saint and four elemental representations, including a glass for water (and an occasional shot glass of tequila), a candle for fire, a tumbled piece of Mexican crazy lace agate for earth, and a stick of palo santo and copal resin incense for air. 

In the “Ritual to Awaken Your Statues and Cleansing Ritual,” Stone recommends using the “three sisters of cleansing: rosemary, rue, and basil,” which “can be boiled together for cleansing and awakening any statue and for cleansing yourself.”13 Garlic boiled in water is another potent cleanser. While Stone believes homemade herbal waters are the most powerful, devotees may also use store bought flower waters and colognes, such as rose water, orange blossom water, and Florida water. She also recommends bathing statues in moonlight because “Santa Muerte is deeply connected to the moon, which is her planet.”14

I always have fresh garlic cloves on hand, so to consecrate her image, I made a garlic wash and cleansed the black and white framed picture I have, which depicts Santa Muerte as a bride. Then I fumigated the image with white copal incense while reciting one of the prayers given in the book. As the silky veil of smoke wrapped around the frame, her skeletal face appeared to glow with an inner light. I visualized her inhaling the smoke through her nose cavity and being enlivened by it.

I appreciated the sections Stone wrote on divinatory practices with Santa Muerte, which include “Insect and Animal Omens,”15 the meaning of various candle flame movements during spell work, and ceromancy, which is the art of interpreting symbols formed by drippings of candle wax. This inspired me to incorporate Santa Muerte into my tarot practice, and I put a tarot deck called The Bones Arcana on her altar so I can channel messages from her using it. This particular deck has skeletal figures on each card and the color scheme is monochromatic with splashes of red, so it’s perfect because it honors her primary colors of black, white, and red.

The first message I received from her was the King of Wands. She was telling me to take the lead, be confident, have faith in my abilities, and trust my intuition. This message was quite fitting because I delayed beginning a relationship with her due to self-doubt and questioning my worthiness to approach her.

Before beginning spell work with Santa Muerte, Stone advises readers to light a candle and pray to the skeleton saint for nine consecutive days, which is a devotional practice called a novena. Over the course of my novena, I experienced moments of severe depression, and I realized that by asking her to “rid me of my sorrows,”16 as the daily prayer beseeches, she was bringing deep pain to the surface for me to release. One night, about midway through the novena, I couldn’t sleep and sat up in bed crying. I felt her holding me in her bony embrace as tears streamed down my face, as if she was urging me to let it all out. 

The nine days of devotion got me into the habit of reciting a prayer to her each day, and I think of my daily devotion to Holy Death as a form of memento mori: remember that you must die. Facing the inevitability of my death each time I look at her skeletal visage reminds me that I fear mediocrity. I want my life to be sacred and meaningful, and Holy Death’s ethereal presence is a daily reminder to stay aligned with my soul’s true purpose.

Secrets of Santa Muerte is an excellent guide for those who want to work with the skeleton saint, but don’t know where to start, and experienced devotees may learn something new as well. This book is filled with practical information that can be applied to spirit work in general. Even if the reader doesn’t feel called to devote themselves to the folk saint, all the advice Stone gives on providing regular offerings and keeping the altar clean are good practices to follow when working with any spirit. There are also spells and prayers for pretty much any need or desire you can imagine.

This book is so detailed that one could probably build their whole Santa Muerte practice around it without needing to read any other book. Stone has done a great service to Santa Muerte and her followers, and as a neophyte of Holy Death, I am grateful for all the hard work and dedication she invested in this guide. This is one book I will be keeping on Santa Muerte’s altar for daily reference.