On a Venezuelan mountain, worship and a blend of traditions

 SORTE MOUNTAIN, Venezuela — A medium lit the candles around him. The pounding of drums filled the air. A crowd of pilgrims repeatedly shouted “fuerza” — strength — with such fervor that beads of sweat dropped from their brows. Even his tipple was ready: A helper poured Johnnie Walker Swing whisky into a hollowed bull’s horn.

But Erik the Red was not in the mood to party.

Instead Erik, a Norse spirit who possesses some of the devotees of Maria Lionza — a figure at the center of the Venezuelan religion that draws thousands of pilgrims each October to this remote mountain in the northwest — looked a bit uncomfortable.

Blood trickled from points on his face, which he had punctured with a nail. He staggered under his red cape. Yet he went on with his duties, blessing a teenage girl in search of good fortune in romance and rubbing the belly of a middle-age housewife suffering from a hernia. To one and all, he offered sips from his horn.

“One is born with this ability to channel positive energies,” explained the medium, Juan Antonio Castillo, 42, a shoe salesman who said he had been possessed by the Norseman and carried out the ritual accordingly. “Erik,” he said admiringly, “was first a pirate, then a farmer, then a great warrior who made it to Greenland.”

Maria Lionza, with its ever-growing pantheon of saints and spirits, has emerged as one of the New World’s most malleable religions, blending Catholicism with West African traditions and many other customs. Across Venezuela, it is symbolized in statues depicting a sensuous Maria Lionza, an Indian woman riding a tapir — the South American herbivore related to the rhinoceros — while holding a human pelvis in her upstretched arms. As many as 30 percent of Venezuela’s 27 million people, from varying social classes, take part in its rites, according to anthropologists.

Maria Lionza is said to draw on centuries-old rituals by Caquetio and Jirajara Indians who resisted Catholic evangelization, but historians say it crystallized around the end of the 19th century or the start of the 20th, around the time the teachings of Leon Denizarth-Hippolyte Rivail, a Frenchman who popularized trance communications under the name Allan Kardec, became fashionable in Caracas and other Latin American cities.

Since then, Maria Lionza has constantly evolved, absorbing with each generation new spirits that can be appealed to for guidance. Followers channel the souls of both local heroes like Pedro Camejo, known as Negro Primero, a slave who fought in the independence war here against Spain, and despots, like the legendary dictator Juan Vicente Gomez.

Even Venezuela’s infamous violent crime seems to be represented. Some devotees in recent decades have started paying tribute to “santos malandros,” or holy thugs who somehow became legendary for feats of crime in the slums of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

Some traditional “courts,” or groupings of similar spirits, offer prominence for once-marginalized historic figures like Negro Miguel, leader of a 16th century slave revolt. Then there are newer groupings like Erik the Red’s Viking Court, which anthropologists believe stemmed from fascination with a 1970s television show about Vikings.

“Maria Lionza is one of the most syncretic religions I have ever encountered,” said Wade Glenn, an anthropologist at Tulane University who has studied Maria Lionza’s evolution.

The pilgrimage to Sorte Mountain here in Yaracuy state each October offers a glimpse into the rituals of Maria Lionza. More than 5,000 devotees come from Venezuela and abroad, including Colombia, the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean islands of Curacao and Aruba.

Then the Marialionceros, as followers call themselves, start their rituals, which take place around Venezuela’s Day of Indigenous Resistance, the October holiday here that is a counterpoint to Columbus Day in the United States.

Earlier this decade, local news reports suggested that some devotees saw President Hugo Chavez as a reincarnation of Simon Bolivar, who is the hero of Venezuela’s liberation from Spain and a revered saint in Maria Lionza.

But there were no signs in Sorte that such reverence for the president had taken root. Images of Chavez, while usually ubiquitous in rural Venezuela, were absent here. Some devotees said they liked Chavez. Others said they did not.

The pilgrims visit shrines to Maria Lionza, whom they call “the queen.” At some shrines, she is depicted as an Indian princess. At others, she is portrayed with fair skin and green eyes.

Some devotees smoke cigars and recite chants as they pray for good fortune in the months ahead. Others go much further. They draw elaborate designs on the ground with chalk, and lie within them awaiting cleansing before spirits possess them. Then they prick their faces with razor blades or make incisions in their chests with machetes. They writhe in apparent agony, or ecstasy. Some speak in tongues.

“Our time in Sorte gives us the opportunity to get away from the daily burdens of our lives,” said Delwin Rodriguez, 35, who works as a fabric salesman in Guarapiche in eastern Venezuela.

The pilgrimage’s most frenzied point comes at midnight, at the start of the Day of Indigenous Resistance. The fire dance begins. To the hypnotic pounding of drums, more than 20 devotees dressed as Indians jump through burning pyres of wood, a chance to demonstrate imperviousness while possessed by spirits.

They dance on the embers, mixing expressions of glee, agony and indifference. Some put pieces of burning wood in their mouths. At each movement, a helper shadows them, taking swigs of cocuy, a Venezuelan liquor made from the agave plant. The helper spits out the cocuy in a spray aimed at the feet of each devotee.

“I feel wonderful,” said Anderson Rodriguez, 23, a participant in the fire dance, showing his unscathed feet afterward. He said he hoped that his devotion would advance his wishes to get a job at the Moron oil refinery near here. “I adore my queen,” he said, “and I hope, now, that she can lift my chances in this life.”

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