In less than a month, tens of thousands of devotees to the cigar-smoking and liquor-swilling Venezuelan religious cult, El Espiritismo Marialioncero, will make their yearly pilgrimage to Sorte Mountain. Located there is their most important spiritual site: a shrine to Maria Lionza, their highest deity, the spirit of a departed native chief’s daughter.
It is impossible to pin down exactly who Maria Lionza was, the differing accounts of her history being numerous and varied. Whether or not she was an actual historical figure is still argued. Few hints can be gathered from the many disassociated images of her, some showing a crowned, green-eyed girl surrounded by the forest and animals, and some, like the famous statue by Alejandro Colina standing beside the Francisco Fajardo Highway in Caracas, depicting a warrior woman, astride a tapir, holding a female pelvis above her head.
One of the more common stories places her birth sometime during the 16th century, among the native Nivar tribe. Her birth name was Yara, which, in an attempt by the Spanish to Christianize her story, would later be changed to Maria. It is said that the tribe’s shaman prophesied the coming of a green-eyed girl who would have to be sacrificed to the Great Anaconda to divert the destruction of the tribe. Yara’s father, upon seeing her eyes, decided to save the baby from her would-be killers, and hid her in a cave. She grew up there, watched over by twenty-two warriors, until the day she sneaked away and visited the nearby lagoon. There, the Great Anaconda caught sight of her, and, falling in love with her, demanded she come away with him. Yara refused, and in retaliation, he swallowed her whole. But immediately, the Great Anaconda began to swell, displacing the waters of the lagoon, and flooding the village, destroying the tribe. He continued to swell until he burst, and the unscathed Yara emerged.
The tale explains her title, “Protector of Waters,” but as other stories were added to the legend, she gained more honorifics, such as “Goddess of Harvests” and “Protector of the Animals.” When the Spanish tried to Christianize her, she became known as Santa Maria de la Onza (Saint Mary of the Jaguar), which was later shortened to Maria Lionza. Her followers refer to her simply as La Reina (the Queen).
Although she is the principal power worshiped by the cult, Maria Lionza is part of a trinity. Alongside her are Guaicaipuro and Negro Felipe, an indigenous chief and a black slave who were both murdered by Spanish colonists. Together, they make up las Tres Potencias (the three powers).
Las Tres Potencias oversee a number of minor deities, grouped together according to race, occupation, or class. These groups of spirits are called the “courts,” which include the Indian Court, the African Court, the Celestial Court, as well as others.
The history of the religion is as hard to pin down as the history of Maria, herself. Some say it has been practiced since the fifteenth century, while some, like Angelina Pollok-Etz (former Professor of Anthropology at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas), say it only goes as far back as 1920. From all accounts, it began as a nature cult, with Maria being a spirit of waters, forests, and animals, but it quickly began to incorporate elements of Santeria, Palo, Catholicism, and nineteenth century European Spiritualism.
One of the basic teachings of the cult is that the spirits of the dead have the ability to intervene in the world of the living. Sorcerers and mediums (known as “boncos” and “materias”) work together to contact spirits for guidance or magic. The materia will be possessed by a spirit while the bonco converses with it.
Beliefs of the group are constantly evolving, with new deities and practices being adopted every day. One of the stranger additions have been the inclusion of the Viking Court, a group of spirits seemingly inspired by comic books and heavy metal. Those under the influence of the vikings have been known to commit acts of self-mutilation during certain rites, showcasing the medium’s ability to withstand physical pain.
The most recent and somewhat troubling addition to the courts has been the Malandros Court, literally, the “thug” or “delinquent” court. This court is made up of the spirits of dead bandits and gang members, which make up a significant portion of the population in Venezuela. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory reported 21,692 murders in the country during 2012, mostly due to gang violence, and the cult itself acts as “a mirror of Venezuelan culture and society,” according to Wade Glenn, an anthropologist at Tulane University.
The spirits of the Malandros Court are usually depicted as Robin Hood types, sharing their spoils with the community, but the truth about these “saints” is probably less benign. The most popular of these is the spirit of Ismael Sanchez, whose shrines are inhabited by plaster idols of a youth wearing sunglasses, a sideways cap, and a gun in his waistband. The stories associated with Ismael are also numerous and conflicting, but he is most commonly said to have been an honorable thug who was shot in the back by a crooked cop in the 1950s or 60s.
Some materias though have shown concern for the influx of these Santos Malandros, saying that the thug spirits aren’t following the rules set forth by Maria Lionza, herself, concerning spiritual etiquette in the afterlife. The rule is that a spirit must wait for at least ten years before being allowed to come forward as an authentic source of power within the courts, most waiting thirty years, or more. But some of these thugs are shoving to the front of the line, interrupting rituals meant to be calling other spirits, and showing up uninvited, sometimes only a year after their death. It appears that these spirits have as little regard for regulations as they did in life, and not all mediums are happy with this turn.
But the cult of Maria Lionza is said to be the fastest growing religion in Venezuela, with followers possibly representing over a third of the nation’s total population, and it seems to derive its strength from its flexibility and willingness to change. The hurdle created by naysayers seems a small one, judging by the overwhelming popularity of the thug saints. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see what develops next for this budding cult.