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Hostile Spiritual Takeover: Thug Saints in the Cult of Maria Lionza

Maria Lionza RitualIn 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.

Maria LionzaOne 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.… Read the rest

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