The Cult of Maria Lionza

Photographs and Text by Kitra Cahana

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The Cult of Maria Lionza

Throughout the month of October an estimated forty-thousand Maria Lionzeros, practitioners of Venezuela's fastest-growing and most widespread alternative and syncretic religion, make their way to El Sorte Mountain, the spiritual epicenter of the Cult of Maria Lionza, where it is said that Maria Lionza's spirit resides. They come to connect to the spirit of Maria Lionza, "La Reina", but also to perform Velacions, theatrical-healing rituals, which can be seen around the clock on Sorte Mountain. Pilgrims, hailing from all strata of Venezuelan society, come to the Mountain seeking healing for a broad array of personal and communal issues. During a ritual the patient/patients will lie on the ground, outlined in chalk and candles with fruit, flower and wine offerings sprinkled on and around the patient's body. A trained medium, usually a member of the patient's family or a leader of his/her local community will go into a trance, as onlookers chant "Fuerza! Fuerza!" ("Strength, Strength"). Depending on the type of spirit the medium is possessed by, the medium will take on an array of character traits and costumes specific to the type of spirit it is. The medium will speak in a different voice, walk in a certain manner and perform in a way authenticating the truth of the possession. For instance if the spirit is a Viking Spirit, the spirit will wear a cape, walk on his/her toes with his/her head held high, snort, speak a gibberish type of language which will need an interpreter and slash his/her tongue with a razor blade. If the spirit is one of the old Farming Spirits, he will chew tobacco, walk hunched over with a walking stick and will speak about the days of old. If the spirit is a Malandro (criminal) spirit he will wear sunglasses, smoke cigarettes out of his nose, 'sweet-talk' the women, all while giving guidance to those who seek his advice.

The hybrid religion, which combines elements of West African traditions with Catholic beliefs and Amerindian nature worship, took its form at the end of the 19th century, following the teachings of Leon Dénizarth-Hippolyte Rivail, a French educator who coined the term "Spiritism". Rivail, who wrote under the pen name Allan Kardec, emphasized communication between the world of the living and the world of the deceased by summoning spirits into the body of an intermediary medium. Through a medium, these spirits provide guidance, healing and relate messages to the next world. The Cult of Maria Lionza took these teachings to its core, and today, an estimated third of the country’s population practice the Cult of Maria Lionza, making it the second most widely practiced religion in the dominantly Catholic country. The cult is not meant to replace Catholic practice, but merely supplement it; by day practitioners will go to church, but by night they will perform Velacions, and summon spirits to the hidden altars and sheds in the backs of their own homes. While the spirits’ presences are felt strongest on Sorte Mountain, spirit-possessions are practiced throughout the country, year-round.

At the religion's core is La Reina Santa Maria de La Onza, (Maria Lionza for short), whose persona is shrouded with mystery and mythology. According to Venezuelan lore, she was the fair-skinned emerald-eyed daughter of a 16th century Indian chief from the Yaracuy region of Venezuela. Defying a shaman's advice to sacrifice the young beauty to the Master of the Waters, “the Great Anaconda”, her father sent her to Sorte Mountain to be raised and away from threat, in the luscious green forest. One day, gazing at her own beautiful reflection in the river the Great Anaconda emerged from the waters, spellbound by her beauty, and devoured her. From the inside of the Great Anaconda, Maria Lionza made a pact with Sorte Mountain, promising to disintegrate her body and her beauty into the mountain, if she were saved. In the instant when the mountain agreed, Maria Lionza became Sorte Mountain and Sorte Mountain became Maria Lionza.

However, Maria Lionza is not the only spirit, which mediums summon during their Velacion rituals. Maria Lionza is the supreme deity and key member of the trinity of powers, the "Tres Potencias", who reign over a pantheon of spirits and saints, each belonging to a different court, with particular modes of communication and etiquette. Also composing the “Tres Potencias” is the Negro Felipe, a black rebel slave, who fought in Simón Bolívar's revolutionary army and Guaicaipuro, an Indian chief, both of whom were murdered by Spanish colonists. Each court reflects a different period in Venezuelan social history and fascination. One court, the Corte Malandro, the court of criminals, is made up of deceased Venezuelan gangsters and gang members who were active in the 1970s. Another court is the Corte Medica, a court composed of famous Venezuelan physicians. The spirits of this court perform ‘fake’ operations on their patients, whereby they stimulate medical procedures using real medical instruments. Other courts include the Viking Court, the Court of the Indian and the Court of Revolutionaries, amongst others. It is not uncommon for Simon Bolivar, the founding father of Venezuela to come down and possess a medium.

For years it was illegal to practice cults in Venezuela, and as a result much of this religion was developed and has been practiced in secrecy. Yet under Chavez' rule, cult practice has been legalized. As a result, in recent years Maria Lionzeros have been more open about their practice, allowing media to document the religion's rituals and the ever-changing traditions.