Popular veneration is the term usually used to denote home-grown cults of spirits that aren’t officially recognized by the organized religions of the area. For the largely-Christian West (here referring to Europe, North America, and South America), this usually comes in the form of either Catholic folk saints and/or elevated human spirits. While spirits such as these are incredibly varied, they have one very important thing in common that has allowed their cults to grow/persist without much need for assistance from major religions: they do good work. In fact, many of these spirits are, or have been, actively persecuted and slandered, but when it comes down to it people are going to continue venerating and asking favors of a spirit who works. Here I’ll explore just a few of these interesting spirits, with a quick discussion of the most well-known, but keep in mind that they each have their own practices and are usually strongly rooted to the culture their veneration originates from (meaning that an understanding of the culture will be needed if you should wish for a better understanding of the spirit). With respect and honor to the innumerable folk spirits who have served their locales over the years, many of whom are forgotten or may never spread beyond their home, let’s look now at some more famous folk spirits of modern times:
Coming to us from the Spiritualist Churches of the United States–a denomination that began in the mid-1800s and utilizes mediumship (focusing on communication with deceased human spirits)–is the cult of Black Hawk, a Native American war chief of the Sauk tribe. Already boasting his own hymns and services within the Church, his popularity as a spirit guide has spread beyond the Spiritualists and into many American folk practices, such as hoodoo. Some people venerate him as an accessible way to honor any Native heritage they have, though he seems open to respectful veneration from any who need his protection regardless of descent. There is a common household practice of “putting Black Hawk in a bucket”, a method of making a spirit bucket to house his power, and offering him fruits.
This spirit, and family of spirits, developed among North American folk practices. Believed to be the spirits of enslaved African conjurewomen, La Madama has become a patron of diviners and conjureworkers. In hoodoo, she has come to grace many a home and professional altar with old-fashioned memorabilia of a black worker dressed in red and white, with her tools nearby for her use (usually including items such as a broom, scissors, chalk, a cross, and a knife). In return for offerings of food and drink, she aids in and teaches conjure of all kinds, as well as assisting card readers and bone throwers in particular. For her devotees, she is a protector and trusted advisor; many devotees develop very personal relationships with their particular Madama.
The famous “Voodoo Queen” of New Orleans, Louisiana, Marie Laveau needs little introduction. This magical practitioner of mixed-race descent has, in death, become a spiritual ally for modern American voodoo and hoodoo practitioners, including those who visit her tomb to leave offerings and marks of “XXX” as a sign of petition. Other practitioners work with her on personal home altars, where she assists with practical magic and petitions.
St. Expedite/St. Expeditus/San Expedito
Possibly the most widely venerated saint of the Western world, St. Expedite actually is recognized in the Roman Catholic Church, but at the same time has developed his own unique folk practices and cult. He is the subject of multiple legends, both new and old, with a cult spanning many centuries and countries; Denise Alvarado has written both book and blog posts detailing his practices in the American South. For instance, St. Expedite is offered slices of Sara Lee pound cake with three pennies pushed into the cake–a practice that is unusual in that most official (and some folk) saints require no food offerings in exchange for petitions. However, his favored offering for completed work is the public sharing of his cult and invocations; plenty of testimony can be found from those who’ve received all manner of help from the “saint of speedy solutions”.
One can hardly discuss the veneration of non-sanctioned folk spirits without discussing the skeletal Catholic folk saints of Mexico and other Latin American countries below it–spirits such as Doña Sebastiana of Mexico, San La Muerte of South America, and San Pascualito of Guatemala and Chiapas. Though almost unheard of just two decades ago, the now-famous Santa Muerte (or Holy Death) has become likely the most recognizable folk saint in North America, and certainly the most well-known skeletal saint, with a cult that has grown astonishingly quickly. This is doubtless due to her responsiveness in assisting with any type of petition put forth, with no judgment being placed on the devotee; statues are now dressed in a variety of colors denoting the focus of the petition, such as green for legal matters. An all-purpose “rainbow”-robed Santa Muerte has even emerged, featuring seven colors, likely influenced by the Seven African Powers of Santeria as Caribbean practitioners mingle into Mexico. Some believe Santa Muerte to be a modern manifestation of Mictlancihuatl (the Aztec goddess of death), while others another side to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Regardless of her origins, and of official condemnation from the Roman Catholic Church, Santa Muerte’s adherents consider her a Catholic saint (made evident in much of her iconography) and find no contradiction in venerating her as part of their Catholic practice.
“Soldier John” in English, Juan Soldado lived in the early 1900s by the name of Juan Castillo Morales. While little is known about his short life and accounts of his death vary, the general story is that, while an army private, he was convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl and executed via shooting. Many believe he was wrongly accused, framed by a superior officer who was the true perpetrator of the crime; this idea was likely only furthered when residents of the town in which he was buried reportedly began witnessing paranormal phenomenon at his gravesite. Buried at his place of death in Tijuana, his story of anonymous figure to framed martyr made him a relatable and approachable folk saint for the people of the large and often-turbulent border city. He has been credited with assisting devotees in petitions ranging from legal and emigration issues to family matters.
The syncretic cult of Maximón, found primarily in Guatemala, blends both Biblical and Mayan influence with considerable variation from one location to the next, with traditions that seem to go back farther than most Latin American folk “saints”. His devotees, primarily of Mayan descent, present his effigies with cigars and alcohol in exchange for his powerful protection and assistance in any area of life. He has a complex and dualistic personality, and is portrayed with many different appearances and legends.
Although her once-church on Ynys Llanddwyn, a tidal island named for her that lies off the coast of Anglesey in Wales, is now ruins and her cult had begun to fade into obscurity in recent history (with suppression of it having begun around the 16th century), this Welsh folk saint has made something of a comeback in the last century. Due largely to geological spread and isolation from official Catholic oversight, and developing in a time when the canonization process for official Catholic saints was essentially non-existent, St. Dwynwen’s cult was one of many Welsh folk saint cults that were never officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. The subject of a legend with many variations (involving herself, her lover Maelon whom she couldn’t marry, and an angel with a magic potion)–as well as smaller myths, including walking on water–which seem to have been originally passed down orally, are reminiscent of older Celtic myths in theme. Once a known saint as attested in poetry and literature, St. Dwynwen has returned as Wales’ primary patron of lovers with her feast day of January 25th now celebrated in a similar fashion as most other countries celebrate St. Valentine’s Day; today, Welsh lovers give each other cards wishing “Dydd Santes Dwynwen Hapus” or “Happy Saint Dwynwen Day”. This celebration has grown considerably in Wales in recent years, and was one of many aspects of concerted efforts to preserve Welsh culture. Modernization aside, St. Dwynwen’s church was an important pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, her holy well contained fish whose movements divined lovers’ futures, and she is mentioned in both a surviving Latin 16th century mass and some early genealogies.
During the 13th century, the local people of Lyons, France had developed a healing cult around the figure of St. Guinefort that focused on the protection and healing of infants in particular. Upon arrival to the area, a Dominican Order preacher was happy to begin the canonization process for this saint, until he found that St. Guinefort was not a deceased man but a deceased greyhound; despite threats and prohibition from the Roman Catholic Church ever since, this cult persisted into the early 1900s. While the story of St. Guinefort’s unjust death is a variation on the well-traveled tale of The Brahmin and the Mongoose, it is interesting to note that his cult was more than that; the area of his burial was made into a shrine with stones placed and trees planted, and the Dominican official who condemned the rites that had developed there (publicizing it in De Septem Donis Spiritus Sancti, of which an English translation of the portion pertaining to St. Guinefort can be found here) reported digging up the gravesite and indeed finding the bones of a dog. Also, while the report of an official who actively seeks to condemn the practice–as well as it being a man viewing what was apparently a woman’s rite–must be taken with a heavy grain of salt, it seems that the healing rites of this cult were in part influenced by the European belief that faeries could replace human babies with changelings.
These hard-working spirits developed and persisted in their own cults, even amid the power of major religions, and attest to the fact that we aren’t limited to working with the “big names”. Work with the spirits who work with you, even if you’re the only one working with them; any seemingly-small spirit could be a mutually beneficial spiritual relationship waiting for the right person to happen, or maybe even the beginning of another folk cult if a spirit’s hard work creates results worth sharing (even spirits have to start somewhere).
The Death and Beatification of St. Guinefort by Chris Musina