Published on 18 November 2011 by Al Jazeera
A man with his own blood dripping over his torso makes guttural noises, before placing his hands on a pilgrim to cleanse him.
The bloodied entity embodies the spirit of a Viking, and is believed to have healing powers.
In a trance, he pushes the pilgrim to the ground, who appears shocked and dulled.
Thousands of followers of the cult of Maria Lionza enter into such purifications, spiritual acts and rituals every October.
It inspires religious devotion in some and has grown in popularity in Venezuela during the last few decades. One of few studies on the number of followers says up to one third of the population from every strata of society have in some way participated in the cult.
“I have been coming here for 30 years. I come to be with the spirits and to cleanse myself. I come to have a release from normal life,” said one woman.
Day and night, thousands of worshipers nestle themselves on the side of Sorte Mountain in the northwest, lighting candles and smoking cigars for purification and chanting to drum beats.
October 12 is usually the most sacred day – Venezuela’s Day of Indigenous Resistance – when some pilgrims dressed as Indians come to walk over fire in a show called Baile de las Brasas (dance of hot coals). They say the force of spirits prevent them from feeling the flames.
The cult has its origins in the writings of 19th-century Frenchman Leon Denizarth-Hippolyte Rivail. Rivail wrote, under the name Allan Kardec, that people could seek guidance from the souls of dead people summoned into a living body.
This has merged with African, indigenous and Catholic beliefs, brought under the central figure of Maria Lionza – or ‘La Reina’ (the Queen).
According to legend, Maria Lionza’s lived on Sorte Mountain in the 15th-century, after her Indian chief father sent her there for safety. One day, when staring into the river a giant anaconda ate her. But from within the anaconda Maria Lionza promised the mountain to disintegrate herself there if she were saved. When the mountain agreed, Maria Lionza and Sorte Mountain became one.
On Sorte Mountain, near the town of Chivacoa in Yaracuy state, spirits, with one leading, are arranged into ‘courts’ with various identities – for example, Indian, African, Viking or Liberator.
Different spirits appear in the courts – including farming spirits, criminals and Simon Bolivar – Venezuela’s nineteenth century liberator.
Courts sit below the “Tres Potencias”, or three powers: Guaicaipuro – a native Indian chief, Negro Filipe – a black slave and at the pinnacle Maria Lionza. They all reside below Catholic saints who cannot be reached via mediums.
In a small clearing, a man in a red dress speaks in tongues and shouts cackles, as he interprets people’s souls and troubles.
The shaman beckons a woman into the circle of followers and helpers that surround him and an alter.
Amid cursing, smoking cigarettes and the drinking of a local liquor, he demands to know the about the woman’s stability, before blessing her using honey and a candle.
Next a man is told to come forth. The spirit tells him that he is searching that he cannot find, most prominently for a lover, before blessing him.
Followers are able to engage in direct dialogue with the spirit in the bodies of mediums.
Wade Glenn is an adjunct assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans and has spent about four years researching the cult as part of his PhD. He said: “The ability to have a face-to-face conversation with a spiritual entity who one believes has the power to resolve one’s problems is very therapeutic.”
“People discuss their problems with the spirits and receive advice and perhaps a healing ritual. Practitioners refer to the spirits as ‘hermanos’ [brothers] and feel a very close personal bond with these spirits.”
Traditional curing practices had been prohibited until the 1960s in Venezuela – where Catholicism is the dominant religion. However, currently legislation protects such religious groups.
Its devotees are mainly from the poorer sectors of society. At present, they often look for protection from insecurity in one of South America’s most dangerous countries, or economic progression in a nation where 37 per cent of people live in poverty.
“The failure of achieving cultural expectations causes young men to select between two options – they may choose a life of crime or they may choose to become a medium in the cult of Maria Lionza. Mediums earn respect. They feel important and powerful,” Glenn said.
But the upper classes have also had periods of affiliation from the 1950s and many now practice, typically for assistance with personal, family or relationship issues.
“These are reasons why people in the United States might go to a psychologist but many people in Venezuela prefer to seek a practitioner of Maria Lionza,” according to Glenn.
People also come for help with physical ailments, sometimes believed to be caused by witchcraft.
Where established institutions – whether government, the Catholic Church, health services or the security apparatus – in Venezuela are lacking, Maria Lionza is filling a gap.
To many is it a release from daily struggles, a hope for change in their lives – physical, emotional or financial – and a steadiness in a nation increasingly viewed as unstable.