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The Cult of Maria Lionza: Summoning the Spirit of Venezuela

Cigar smoke clogs the hazy air, only the steady drums break through, as a crowd gathers, clapping their hands and chanting “fuerza” in a rhythmic frenzy. The mountainside teems with bare-chested young men and jostling women and children; a man in the middle of the group lies on the ground, writhing and contorting his body to the rippling vibrations.

Clarence Ramirez welcomes a new born infant into the world (photo/Zoe Getzels)

He has been possessed by María Lionza. The blood that drips down his face is now a powerful talisman; babies are brought in from the crowd, and he kisses them one by one, leaving a bloody stamp on their foreheads that will welcome them into the world.

Afterwards, 19-year-old spirit medium, who appears unscathed by the blood that spurted from his mouth minutes before tells me that he doesn’t remember a thing. Only that the force of María Lionza had invaded his body and captured his soul.

The Cult of Maria Lionza

‘Queen María Lionza’ was the daughter of an Indian slave and a Spanish Conquistador, who fled to the wilds of the Venezuelan mountains to escape the turmoil of her conflicted identity. Today, she is Venezuela’s most prominent folk hero, ruling a colourful pantheon of historical deities that includes past presidents, liberators, Indian ancestors – even gangsters who have earned Robin Hood status.

Once a year, thousands of Venezuelans flood to El Sorte mountain where María Lionza’s rebel spirit permeates the water and trees of the national park. Here, healing rituals are performed. Dark forces are summoned from the earth temporarily occupying the body of spirit mediums who razor blade their tongues and stick metal skewers through their cheeks – evidence of the great queen’s magnanimous powers.

The rite takes place on 12th October, more commonly known in the north as Columbus Day, which marks the ‘discovery’ of the New World. The day has since been renamed across Latin America in recognition of the indigenous peoples who lived on the continent before the Conquistadores’ arrival, and is called The Day of Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela. As President Hugo Chávez seeks to reinforce the legacy of Venezuelan heritage, María Lionza stands as a perfect symbol of the struggle, her mixed race roots reflecting that of just about every person in Venezuela.

The Courts

As I approach the park gates of El Sorte, bare-chested young men and shoeless women emerge from the dusty paths, donning colourful bandanas that identify them with their chosen spirit courts – ramshackle campsites transformed into healing churches.

“There’s the court of the Africans, the celestial court, the court of the liberators, the court of the criminals, the court of the gringos…” explains Angel Guarana, a recent initiate into the court of the Indians. His list stretches back to the beginning of time, each historical associate of Venezuela tumbling off his tongue like the name of an intimate friend. As the 19-year-old speaks he prepares for his next rite, tracing a six-pronged star into the ground with chalk dispensed from an old ketchup bottle.

A young girl puffs on a cigar, using the smoke to summon the spirits (photo/Zoe Getzels)

Followers of the court of the Indians summon El Negrito and other indigenous ancestors, channeling their powers in light trances. Members of the celestial court wear white, their peaceful, more Catholic-centred camps illuminating the mountain, the light shining through the haze of cigar smoke, which is said to summon the spirits; even small children puff away on cigars, lingering by the altars as their parents rein in the mountain forces.

But it is the court of the Vikings that really quakes under the force of the mountain shades. Young men – some still in school – channel Viking spirits, the most powerful of all, and slice their tongues with razor blades. Others break whisky bottles over their heads, their potent blood spattering across the audience who keep the spirit alive with enamored applauses and magnetic chants.

Rolando Pinto: Erik ‘El Rojo’

The first time I see Rolando Pinto his skin is pallid and his eyes are unblinking, grey, fixed on some invisible force in the distance. He is not present at all. It looks like all warmth has left his body, all personhood, gone. He writhes on the dusty ground, growling, sometimes highlighted with the piercing decibels of fear. His legs are twisted awkwardly to the side and all his movements refracted into short, sharp bursts that are led by the banco – or aid – who helps channel the Viking spirit of Erik ‘El Rojo’ into his body with cigar smoke, hand gestures, sprays of alcohol. As the drumming reaches a frenzy, he runs the shiny silver razor blade across his tongue; rapidly, over and over, effortlessly, like splicing the peel off a carrot. Blood and foam pour down his chin and the bancos rush to get him a stool, his hands raised in the air, as members of the audience come forward to be blessed.

Rolando Pinto channels the Viking spirit, Erik ‘El Rojo’ (photo/Zoe Getzels)

The blood and sweat, no longer that of 21-year-old Rolando, takes on the omnipotent viscosity of ‘El Rojo’s,’ strengthening all that come into contact. Disengaging from the clamour for a minute, a young man in the crowd turns to me. “You know, this medium is in high demand.”

Prying him for more information, he explains that many men in the audience are members of the national guard: government employees working in customs or at checkpoints. “Chávez’ bodyguards come here to build their strength,” he says. “The president needs protection.”

The last part of the trance is the most painful to watch. Violently resisting the soothing gestures of the bancos who attempt to restore Rolando’s own self, he squirms and kicks on the ground. The bancos swarm around, waving their palms above his forehead. For a second it looks like there might be a panic, like they may be unable to revive him. But they are experts in this field, seamlessly tinkering with the twilight zone between life and death; and with all the astuteness of paramedics, their airy hand gestures and muttered chants restore a lost soul to an empty body. Suddenly he returns, his proud family embrace him, kiss him on the forehead, squeeze his hand, “Good work!” they say, patting him on the back.

Ten minutes later, cleaned off and changed, Rolando says that he has no memory of the trance. There are no remnants of the splices on his tongue, no lisp, no lingering blood. He is calm, locking his fixed gaze with mine, evidence of human presence, returned.

Rolando is a chemical engineering student and works at Empresas Polar, the biggest food manufacturing company in Venezeula. As we speak I can see the steady focus of a scientist shine through. His eye contact never falters and he invites me in, captivating me with the persistence of his logic. Rolando’s everyday reality of food packaging and mathematical equations compounds the mystical nationalism of María Lionza, along with the many more students and government employees who flood to the mountain for the ritual.

An unscathed Rolando kisses his girlfriend just minutes after being in a trance (photo/Zoe Getzels)

“This is a religion for everyone” he says, repeating, “for everyone”. “Good or bad. It depends how you use the spirits.” Rolando has been learning how to summon spirits since he was a young boy; the art of going into trance is passed down from older spirit mediums.

“I’ve been doing this since I was six,” he explains. But it is the sport of men. Those who self-mutilate are all in their twenties, strong and fit, they hanker through the campsite as the sun catches their muscles; Viking tattoos on one arm, scars from spirit possession on the other. The more violent the display, the more potent their power.

But in an interesting twist on the macho showcase, it is transvestites who really control the ceremonies. Men who have undergone surgery and hermaphrodites tiptoe in and out of the campsites, wiling their feminine charms to harness in the guiding forces of María Lionza; this special connection to the buxom earth spirit displayed conspicuously on their bodies.

Made in Socialism

While the festival is rooted in indigenous folklore, what really seems prevalent is the Venezuelan national spirit. The flag is everywhere adorning altars and decorating piercing spokes; it is also part of the dress code with many donning the national colours.

Since Chávez was elected in 1998, the court of the Libertadores has rapidly grown. Here, ordinary Venezuelans gain strength from the liberators of their nation, thrown into unearthly seizures, through the powers of Símon Bolívar and José de San Martín. “Chávez is not on the altar yet,” explains an old man, as he pours holy-river water over his head, “but in the next 20 years, he’ll be up there with the others.”

But a former Chávez supporter who has been coming to El Sorte for many years notes that this year the mountain appears more empty than usual. “Less people can afford to come here…If it were real socialism, Chávez would have provided free buses!”

Nevertheless, there are still more than 8,000 people present at El Sorte. A blend of folkloric hero worship, Catholicism, African Voodoo and Cuban Babalawo, the cult of María Lionza permeates all levels of Venezuelan society. Chávez endorses these practices. And since he came to power the more violent, bloody spirit mediums have moved down the mountain and out in the open. It is rumoured that Chávez himself engages in such magic. Whispers fly that his recent decree to exhume the bones of the celebrated liberator, Símon Bolívar, was merely a ploy to use them for his own Babalawo rituals.

Whether or not Chávez is trying to carve out a place for himself on the future altars of spirit mediums is unknown. But many supporters are enraptured with his mission, reciting his mantras without even realizing.

A peaceful healing ritual at Yuraima Nuna’s camp site (photo/Zoe Getzels)

“Healthcare should be free for everyone,” explains Yuraima Nuna, a teacher and mother of three, who prides herself on the free curative rituals that she conducts under the bridge. The altar of her celestial court glitters with candles and flowers; hidden amongst them is a gangster effigy holding a gun, a Mary statue, and the buxom María Lionza riding her tapir.

Yuraima doesn’t possess the brute physicality and youthful hubris of the Vikings; “I’m not God,” she says, wistfully. “I’m the instrument of God. Don’t let anyone tell you that they can heal people. Only God can do that.” Her family sits around and watches, tending to the candles, preparing for the next rituals. Under the dark bridge, her campsite glimmers through the shadows, the pure, virginal white piercing the noise of the drumbeats and bloodletting that pours forth from the mountain above.

Summoning the Spirit of a Nation

María Lionza freezes the memory of a fractured past and bridges the indigenous history of Venezuela with contemporary politics. The symbols are so intermeshed, drawing on Catholicism, voodoo, even remnants of druid religions; it is impossible to tease out the strands. The cultural rite stands for Mestizo heritage, a shared history so engrained that all sense of individual identity has instead become wrapped up in the state.

What it means to be Venezuelan is unclear, but on the Day of Indigenous Resistance, this syncretic cult humours the discussion. Somewhere in the confusion, lurks a grain of truth. Perhaps it is of healing, of recovery, of unity. Either way, the perplexing choice of Viking spirits powerfully pervades the performance. On the Day of Indigenous resistance, contemporary Venezuelans throw off the shackles of oppression by summoning their most ultimately European of roots: war hungry Vikings who are said to have reached the new world long before the Spanish Conquistadors. Some sort of mistranslated joke that has become twisted and distorted in the throes of a tumultuous history.

As we leave El Sorte behind us, the blood, sweat and phlegm drying on our clothes, the world of everyday Venezuela boasts it’s own surreal quality. We pull up at a petrol station and pay US $1.84 for a full tank. A man sweeping the forecourt suddenly rushes to our side. “I saw you on the mountain!” he says, proudly flashing his Viking tattoo and embracing us one by one, his scarred left arm brushing against my neck. Turning our backs to depart, he remains in the shadow with his broom, grinning with all the force of María Lionza herself. To be Venezuelan perhaps, is this. A return to everyday life, bolstered by what he has seen on the spirit-saturated mountain. The cacophonous chants of “fuerza! fuerza!” running through the land as if normality truly depends on it.

Lead Image by Zoe Getzels

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