Widespread syncretic religion

Santa Muerte
Image from Naomi Naylor
A follower of the cult of Santa Muerte

A broad set of religious traditions originally derived from a form of Christianity as practiced on Old Earth in the Interplanetary and Nanotech Ages. Including elements of polytheism and derived forms of monotheism, monism and atheism, the Santist tradition is notably diverse, and has spun off a number of different major traditions of its own, aided by its decentralised and eclectic nature. Having achieved a great deal of popularity among many cultures during the years of the First Federation, it has declined since that time, although it has been regionally popular in various areas, in various forms, at various times.


Roman Catholicism was one of the most prominent and influential forms of Christianity during roughly the first two millennia of the religion’s history. It spread far beyond its origins in Southern Europe, especially during the colonisation of far-flung areas of the world such as Latin America and Southeast Asia.

In almost all Catholic-majority areas, folk practices were often a big part of the beliefs of the common people, and were often tolerated by the Catholic clerical leadership, if not encouraged. This became especially the case, however, in Latin America, where the veneration of saints (historical individuals who were declared by the Church to be very holy) common in Catholicism reached a higher level, often syncretising with indigenous traditions. Increasingly, during the 1st Century AT in particular, the Roman Catholic Church itself increasingly denounced these practices, in particular the worship of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) which emerged in Mexico and spread into much of Central America and western South America, as well as into the USA, via Latin American immigrants. More and more devotees of such figures as Santa Muerte and deities like Maximon and El Tio declared a break with the Roman Catholic Church altogether during the late 2nd and into the 3rd Century, as well as worshippers of the loa of some African diasporic-influenced cultures. Priests, priestesses and carers for the shrines in particular tended to declare themselves non-Catholic, and later devotees would follow. The many different deities and saints of the folk religion were venerated by different people, who would acknowledge the reality of all, but nevertheless maintain the centrality of one God. One particular factor which may have helped draw worshippers was the acceptance by many deities of cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking and a variety of other activities typically condemned or frowned upon by the Catholic Church, as well as of homosexuality, which was not fully accepted by the Roman Catholic Church until the 3rd Century, although certain traditions within the Church had been permitted to make their own stances on it since the late 1st Century. While the latter was more of an important social issue, the acceptance and indeed practice of smoking and drinking by sants helped devotees to empathise with them.

The Catholic Church was losing its once-universal influence in of much of the formerly-Catholic populace of Latin America, to other forms of Christianity (such as Pentecostalism, other forms of Protestantism, and later Living Christianity) to these saint- and local deity-worshipping practices which came to be known as Santism and to irreligion, as well as other smaller religious movements. This meant that many of the social institutions historically upheld by the church, and many of the functions it carried out, needed to be handed over to these new movements. For the Catholics, as they drifted into Santism and out from under the authority of the Church, this meant that the Santist priests, priestesses and other clergy of the Saints and Local Deities needed to take up these roles. Increasingly, churches dedicated to Santa Muerte, to the Virgin Mary, to Maria Esperanza and so on became the default place of worship for much of the populace and the venues for weddings, for funerals and other such rituals.

A small monastic tradition also developed, primarily from Franciscan monastics of the Catholic faith who switched over to Santism with a clearer identity developing. Monastics would tend to live permanently in shrines or churches, be they simply churches to God or dedicated also to a particular saint/deity. While the Bible was still thought of as a holy text, the Old Testament was largely abandoned in the 3rd Century, thought of as a collection of Jewish lore which was useful for contextualising the New Testament but not otherwise important. Devotion to Jesus Christ remained prominent, and so the New Testament remained core among many groups. Over time, the use of the New Testament became more as a charm or holy object, with the emphasis on its teachings being left behind. Increasingly, from the 4th Century onwards, it was abandoned altogether as Jesus Christ came to be seen as simply one more sant among many.

The worship of the Santist deities and other elements of the Santist worldview would spread beyond Latin America during the 4th Century AT, in particular to areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, including formerly-Catholic countries in Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Philippines as well as other countries without much Catholic heritage like Senegal, Ghana and Indonesia.

Also during the 4th Century AT, pan-Santist organisations began to emerge, primarily for the mutual defence and affirmation of their worship and traditions. The Santist Support League had branches in many Old Earth polities, and also in the habitats and off-world settlements where Santism flourished, particularly those of Mexican, Central American, Brazilian, Peruvian, Indonesian etc. heritages.

With the Technocalypse, Santism actually spread more widely among many populations who felt a need to appeal for help to a greater entity, meaning that by the time of the Great Expulsion there was still a very substantial population of Santists on Earth, who outnumbered those Santists already in space, living primarily in Earth orbit and in Belt colonies. With the wave of Expulsion refugees, Santist worship became solidly established in many Solsys polities, including becoming very popular on Mars, as well as among Lunarian, Cislunar and Belter polities. What’s more, Santism became solidly established in many star systems and profoundly influenced some of their cultures. Due to the lack of a requirement for any initiation, declaration of identity/faith or beliefs for those wanting to worship Santist deities, it was very easy for newcomers to their worship to establish a relationship with them.

Over the course of the Sundering, while civilisation remained disjointed and disorganised, Santism continued to diversify in terms of practice in many different habs and polities across Solsys and beyond - the Bible was abandoned by almost all traditions, although a few Christian Santist groups did persist. More formalised forms of the faith began to develop, including more philosophical sophistication. By the time of the Federation’s emergence in the 10th Century, Santism was a strong faith, making up around 5% of Solsys’ populace.

While it was eroded substantially by the spread of Sophism, Solarism, Bioism and other new religions of the period, Santism remained one of the main religious traditions during the First Federation. However, the faith began to decline during the later years, especially with the emergence of the corporate religions, and so eventually became centred upon those few cultures where it had long been the majority, in outer Solsys and the Belt, and several scattered interstellar colonies, as well as upon the societies emerging in new settlements on the Periphery.

Since the First Federation’s dissolution, Santism has remained very much a minority religion, practiced in enclaves across Terragen space. Some forms have become popular on Sophist worlds, where in some cases the faith is protected for the purposes of the preservation of religious diversity. In other cases, it has flourished on frontier worlds, remaining popular to this day among some of the most pioneering ruderal clades. Notably, there are a few Faber-Tavi cultures which strongly feature worship of Santist deities, who are often thought of as co-workers in their development work. The resistance to homogenising faiths among the Faber predisposes them towards freer, more open faiths such as Santism. This means that many systems developed by these clades will have old shrines leftover from the early development days, no longer used by the secondary pioneers.

Aside from among a handful of preservationist societies, and among pseudo-revivalist traditions out in the Periphery, Santism as a distinct movement of any kind has subsided, having diversified out and merged with other traditions. However, rituals, mindsets and religious structures derived from Santism continue to be very widespread, in particular among certain Folk Neo-Sufi and Cyber-Sufi worlds of the Stellar Ummas and among Folk Solarists.


Within the majority of Santists, a belief in One High God is strongly held. This God is the Father of the Christian faith from which Santism originally sprang, and is generally perceived to be personal and separate from Creation. However, among some Santist groups, particularly those of the Sophic League, there can be found a belief in a nondualist/pantheist and impersonal God.

Some holders of the latter beliefs, as well as some more traditional monotheists, hold that the Sants are not separate from God, but are instead manifestations or conceptions of God more suited to helping with particular issues, either in a direct and literalist manner or as a conceptual spiritual aid. However, most Santists believe that the Sants are distinct beings, who are allied with God to varying extents, and who can hear and aid worshippers, especially if respected and given offerings. A list of widely-worshipped Sants is available further down this article.

A minority of Santists do not believe in One God at all, but are either atheist or absolute polytheist. The former see the Sants as useful concepts and symbols, or as ancient figures worthy of veneration, while absolute polytheists maintain their independent realities, but not that of God the Father.

The figure of Jesus Christ is also respected some Santists, as either God Himself or as God’s primary emissary. This puts these expressions of Santism on the borderline of Christianity.

As well as the Sants, many Santists, particularly those of more traditional forms of the faith, as found in a few preserved societies in the Utopia Sphere, are believers in angels, demons and an archdemon known as the Devil. The angels are beings under the direct control of God, the Devil is the embodiment of evil whose servants are the demons, and the Sants are the spirits of the intermediate world of people. Demons are thought of as enemies that might possess people, requiring appeal to God or to the Sants, often in the form of an exorcism. In some cases, there are complex beliefs regarding the relationships between certain Sants and angels. For example, some have historically believed that Santa Muerte is a fallen angel hoping to regain God’s favour.

Santists typically do not put much stock in afterlife concepts. A sizable proportion of Santists do believe that after death they will go to heaven, to be with God, or to hell, to be tormented by the Devil and his minions. Usually the latter is not thought to be a permanent state of affairs, but one which will go on for an appropriate amount of time before returning to this realm of existence again. However, there are many Santists who do not believe in any afterlife whatsoever. In either case, little emphasis is placed upon the concept, with the troubles of the current life considered to be enough to contend with.


Since its inception, Santism has been a variable and flexible faith, adapting to circumstances, and this has remained the case over the course of its long history. Certain rituals are, however, very common.

Typically, shrines to the Sants are located in the places where devotees live their lives, for example in the home, or in the workplace. At these shrines, devotees will stop, usually briefly, to make offerings of food, money, candles or some other commodity, depending on the culture. Intoxicating substances are almost universally thought to be favourable to offer to the Sants, and many priests and chaplains of the Sants will subsequently partake of these. This, however, depends on the local culture, and really any commodity which is important to the life of the devotees is thought to be important to the Sants.

There are also generally churches attended by the Santists. These usually contain effigies to numerous Sants. Typically, offerings are not made here, but attendees will come to worship God and the Sants, typically through exuberant singing and dancing. Intoxication is common, but not universal. In some cases, churches to individual Sants are found, and are universal among the absolute polytheist traditions.

The great diversity of figures worshipped by Santists, each often with their own associated rituals, means that it is difficult to make many generalisations about the vast tradition as a whole, especially given the accepting nature of the faith, which often openly cultivates heteropraxy.

New Zaire
Image from Steve Bowers
New Zaire, a world where Santism is particularly prevalent, especialy the cult of Santa Muerte

Prominent Sants

NB: It is important to note that the definitions of the Sant is highly distinct from the ideas of sainthood which preceded it within orthodox Roman Catholicism of the late BT and very early AT. Within Santism, a Sant is essentially any otherworldly/supernatural being who is venerated as such, rather than being a formally canonised historical figure (although many sants were in fact historical personages).

Santa Muerte: One of the most ancient and prominent of all the Sants, Santa Muerte (Interplanetary Spanish for Saint Death) is a deity appearing as a skeleton dressed in garish clothing, representing death itself. While usually a human skeleton, in some cultures she is represented by a less clear skull, or by the skeleton of some provolve/tweak/splice/rianth clade, or by broken down machine or computer parts. Unlike many Sants, she is not considered by worshippers to have once been a living human being herself, but as having always been a spirit. She is particularly called on by those wanting protection, as well as a safe passage to the afterlife for their departed. Some literalist devotees believe that Santa Muerte is an angel who transgressed, and is now hoping to regain God’s favour, making her easier to relate to and empathise with.

Blowing smoke over Santa Muerte is a common practice of devotion, derived from ancient habits of the smoking of tobacco, which was also blown over her. Devotees may blow the smoke from burning offerings or from their mouths, in part depending on clade.

Different traditions have different ideas about the symbology of Santa Muerte, and about the significance of offering different items to her. Many followers will have her form tattooed on them, or have themselves overlaid with skeletal patterns either via tattooing or genetic therapy for bionts or by aesthetic changes in vecs. Her followers in a few worlds in the Carina Rush have a tendency to transfer themselves into skeleton-shaped vec bodies in her honour.

Perhaps the most famous Santa Muerte Church is the vast Church to the Sacredness of Death on New Zaire, in the Sophic League, which can accommodate 500,000 worshippers. However, some churches existing in virches can accommodate many more. The priests of the Church to the Sacredness of Death vow upon initiation to never take anti-senescence treatment, and to remove all mechanisms to artificially prolong their life already in their bodies, seeing them as an act of disrespect to Santa Muerte. Therefore the majority of her priests are vecs and ai, despite the vast majority of initiates being bionts.

The Virgin: The predominant mother figure of Santism, worshipped in a wide variety of forms. New systems will often develop new forms of the Virgin, such as the Virgin of Pacifica. Alternately, cultures or subclades may follow their own form of the Virgin, who is carried with them across multiple systems. While there are notable exceptions, the Virgin’s forms tend to not be seen as so lenient towards intoxication, and so her worshippers are often less inclined to such activities, in particular during worship towards her. More often, she is sung to, while in a number of traditions dominated by humans and derivatives and/or mammalian provolves worshippers drink from a symbolic breast to symbolise being cared for by their mother.

Peron: A deity strongly associated with caring for the downtrodden classes in society. She seems to have originally been associated with those living in poverty, and with women living in misogynistic societies. Over time, she became respected by sophonts of a variety of different downtrodden classes, and her followers have always been staunch supporters of sophont rights movements of all forms. At certain times her followers have been centred upon provolves (especially Neo-Pigs during the first few centuries of the clade’s existence), upon splices, upon vecs, and later upon the refugees of the Great Expulsion, the poorest underclasses within the neofeudal system of the late Federation, upon the downtrodden within the societies of the Periphery. She is often worshipped through very intense devotion, including ecstatic singing, dancing, crying and even self-mutilation. Traditional offerings to her include fruit, flowers and effigies of the dead.

Nehesha: This deity is always depicted with the head of an elephant, and is commonly thought of as a guide, who will help his followers towards prosperity and happiness in life. While his worship is very ancient, he became a very minor deity until the 9000s AT when his worship blossomed among Tavi and Faber clades on the Periphery, who identified closely with his nature as a deity who can help followers begin new projects and to bring them to fruition safely. His worship is typically rather low key, consisting of giving gifts of food and intoxicants. He is said to be exceptionally partial to tobacco.

Shashango: While records are hazy, it seems Shashango is based upon the sanctification of an individual who died during the Technocalypse. Shashango is usually depicted as a low-slung millipede-like vec, as common among certain Belt mining communities at the time, and is thought to protect worshippers from the dangers of technology, in particular self-replicating technology. Eir worship waxes and wanes a great deal, tending to decline for long periods before ballooning up again following a technological scare or disaster. For example, Shashango has come to be worshipped widely among Tavi and Fabers following the Kedric Incident. Shashango is typically worshipped through offers of technological artefacts and through various choreographed ritual songs and dances, although this tradition is made more variable by the sporadic nation of eir worship.

High Flyer: The worshippers of this sant typically do not describe themselves as Santist, but are often thought of as being derived from the tradition by scholars. High Flyer is a sant of ambiguous gender, usually depicted by a block of stone or an old computronium casing. High Flyer is thought of as a formless disembodied sophonce (sometimes as a sanctified ai) who is blessed with great business acumen, and can confer this upon devotees who open their hearts and have true devotion. High Flyer is generally venerated among the lower classes of many NoCoZo worlds, as well as in areas of other polities which are strongly capitalist. High Flyer is generally worshipped simply through personal prayer, although sometimes offering of money are made as well.

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Development Notes
Text by Kirran Lochhead Strang
Initially published on 12 October 2015.

Image of Santa Muerte from Naomi Naylor's SFX facebook site