Celebrating Maria Lionza

Celebrating Maria Lionza

Thousands of religious followers make a pilgrimage to Sorte Mountain in Venezuela for a weekend of fire dances, cleansing ceremonies and healing rituals. (NYT)

Devotees of the María Lionza religion, a mix of Catholic, West African and other customs, make a pilgrimage each October to Sorte Mountain in Yaracuy State, Venezuela, home of the high altar to the religion’s central figure.

María 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 María 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.

This colorful New York Times video about the pilgrimage to Sorte Mountain offers a glimpse into the rituals of María Lionza. More than 5,000 devotees come from Venezuela and abroad, including Colombia, the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean islands of Curaçao and Aruba.

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

The pilgrims visit shrines to María Lionza, whom they call “the queen.” Some devotees smoke cigars and recite chants as they pray for good fortune in the months ahead. Others 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.

CHANNEL: New York Times

Length: 4:43

By Simon Romero, Anahi Aradas & Emily B. Hager