Unquestionably, the culture of resistance among the historically most oppressed sectors, such as the sub-Saharan Africans or the indigenous peoples, played a determining role in the construction of a cultural model in Latin America.
On October 12, 1492, the first perverse globalization by humanity began with what is called the discovery of America. This act led to a terrible genocide in the “New World” and a depopulation of Africa to repopulate the Americas and the Caribbean. Twelve million indigenous people were exterminated, according to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in his Brevísima Relación de destrucción de la Indias. More than 20 million sub-Saharan Africans were kidnapped and removed to the New World. This situation, framed by the imposition of a western cultural model that tried to completely wipe out the diverse and advanced Afro-indigenous cultural models, was met by resistance in the form of “cimarronaje,” a Spanish word which refers to all the forms of struggle that the oppressed used, in their situation as slaves, to try to preserve their various languages, social, technological, cosmogonic, cultural and, above all, spiritual practices. This culture of resistance against the oppressor is seen as a dynamic process in which the disappearance of the original cultural elements, which was forced by the religious, military and governmental authorities in the colonies, was opposed. This should not be seen as opposition to the enrichment that comes from contact with other cultures. Instead, it should be seen as the possibility of coexisting, with dignity, with the other cultures in an equal relationship of respect and understanding, mutually created, leading to new results through a process of continual transformation to achieve new scenarios.
It is within this conceptual framework that we examine the spirituality of María Lionza, which is the result of the relationships between the religious symbolism of the indigenous, Spanish, and sub-Saharan African peoples. This is why we call it Afro-Hispano-indigenous. To date, there is no consensus among historians, anthropologists and ethnologists about the origin of this spirituality. It is believed, however, that its ethnic and historical origin dates to the Negro Miguel rebellion in the gold mines of Buria (in the state of Yaracuy, Venezuela) on December 22, 1552. This African had been enslaved in Puerto Rico and was later transferred to a poor province in Venezuela. The rebellion was one of the first by the Africans and their descendants on land, as the first had occurred in Santo Domingo against Diego Colón (1522). Miguel opposed the forced labor to which he and his brothers were subjected. In December of 1552, they rose up and killed the Spaniards and joined with the indigenous Jirahara, which were part of the large family of Caribbean Indians. Miguel declared himself king, his woman a princess, and his son a prince. He later attacked the Spanish army and King Miguel, his son, his followers and the Jiraharas were killed. Guiomar, his woman, was able to escape and silently disappeared. Over time, indigenous people reported seeing her riding a jaguar (onza) and wearing her hair long. Then she disappeared. Once again, she was seen along the banks of the rivers and streams. The site where she appeared was in the Sorte Mountains in the state of Yaracuy. The waters of the mountain streams were considered sacred and it was there that the origin of the spiritual veneration of María Lionza began. Perhaps the name change from Guiomar to María occurred because both the indigenous people and the Africans and their Christianized descendents transferred to her the image of the Virgin Mary, and from that came the name María Lionza.
María Lionza is a religion and religiosity. It is an institution but it is also very free of the sense of ownership. In other words, those who practice it are not necessarily tied to a church. In this sense, Martín Baró makes sense when he says: “First of all, it is useful to establish a distinction between religion as a social institution and religion as a personal experience…. By religion we mean all those beliefs, feelings and behaviors that refer to a supreme being through which groups and persons try to answer the ultimate questions about the meaning of life and death…. And by religiosity we mean all the various concrete forms through which groups and persons live the religion… the religious representations refer to all those beliefs and symbols of a confession or faith through which the people interpret their lives and their reality.”
The María Lionza spiritual practice is an Afro-Hispano-indigenous religious expression with three essential elements: telling the future, possession, and folk healing. Nelly García de Gavidia states: “These make up a bundle of relationships that makes the existence of one of them impossible without referring to the other two. This comprehensiveness is what makes the three rituals effective. Through these three aspects of worship, believers have a sequence of practices and beliefs that help them explain the relationship between humankind and nature, allow them to have symbolic control through these spiritual strengths, and explain the relationship among people in the present.” Field studies that have been done on María Lionza worship in various sites in Venezuela such as Sorte (Yaracuy), Maracay (Aragua state), Caracas (Federal District) and Barlovento, have shown that possession is essential for any María Lionza believer. Possession may occur in front of the altar, in the sanctuary where the images of the various saints that are part of the religion’s pantheon are displayed, or a person who has already been initiated may fall into possession simply while walking or sitting. But before falling into possession, the believer must pass through a process of trance.
The trance, according to Nelly García de Gavidia, is characterized by a lack of response to the setting and an apparent concentration of attention on something deep inside the self or something far off in the cosmos. It may last for minutes or hours. It begins abruptly and violently, but later, through the initiation rituals, it is tamed. During the trance, the person may suffer total amnesia and remember nothing that he or she did. The trance is the moment of disorder. It is chaos and it affects all of the worshippers because it allows greater freedom and lets them free up emotions that they may not be able to express in daily life, when they maintain careful control of their bodies. This mask or disguise goes well beyond the face, but in the trance the mask falls away.
It has been observed that among María Lionza believers that the trance begins with abrupt movements of the hands and arms, shaking of the waist, throwing oneself to the ground, and sharp movements of the head. When this occurs, the others present in the sanctuary immediately come to the aid of the person in the trance, who is possessed by some of the spirits and is totally affected by them. “The trance, far from being a gruesome practice, is a technique for resolving tension,” says Roger Bastide. Through spiritual possession, the person becomes someone else and takes on a new dimension with the other believers. Generally, the person in the trance, called the possessed, drinks rum or brandy and smokes tobacco. It is this transported person, with the spirit in his or her body, who asks questions of a patient or is consulted about problems.
Generally, the transportation is done using music, to the beat of a drum. As the beat of the drum increases in intensity and the chorus of believers shouts “strength… strength… strength,” the spirit enters the person who is ready to receive the spirit and be transported. Traditionally, the person ingests a glass of pure rum before being transported and at the end of the process shows no sign of being drunk, and the breath does not smell of liquor. The transported person recommends the treatment the patient needs.
This treatment could include taking baths with certain herbs or lighting candles of various colors, such as yellow, blue, red, black and purple. The follower who guides the person is called “banco” (and can be a man or a woman) and has the knowledge to lead the spirit into and out of the body of the transported. To bid the spirit to leave, the spirit is shown the way out of the body. This is done by the faithful saying goodbye to the spirit and the banco beginning the process of guiding the spirit by blowing in the ear of the transported person. The person comes back to the real world and has no memory of what has happened.
Organization of María Lionza spirits
The María Lionza spiritual practice is characterized by a series of indigenous, African, and colonial white spirits, especially those who participated in the resistance to conquest and colonization and in the war of independence by Venezuela. These spirits are organized into “courts.”
The courts are a kind of sub-pantheon of spirits under the omnipresence of María Lionza. The Indian Court consists of those indigenous people who fought mightily against the Spanish and did not submit to the conquest. Guaicaipuro was the main figure among them. He defeated the Spanish several times and assassinated the Spanish ruler, feeding him to a pack of hungry dogs. There are two indigenous figures who are favorites among the believers, however, and are turned to for the possession. The first is the feminine divinity called Rosa, often called India Rosa. The other is Paramaconi. To invoke India Rosa before the altar, the following prayer is said:
India Rosa you are worshipped with great fervor.
You who can bring about peace and understanding
I implore you
to fulfill my request.
Traditionally, outside of possession, the devotee of India Rosa makes a specific request, prays a credo and a Hail Mary daily and lights a red candle for seven days. To ensure fulfillment of the devotee’s wishes, he or she does not reveal the prayer made to the image of India Rosa.
Paramaconi is the other spirit most often invoked among the Indian court. The following prayer is used:
Oh benevolent chief who shows kindness
to your subjects.
You who protects the beings
who inhabit the earth, which grants riches
to those who beseech you at the altars.
Oh Chief Paramaconi, today I call
on your heart to grant me this favor.
The second court is the African Court, which includes another greater fighter on behalf of independence for Venezuela, known as Black Felipe or Black Primero (Negro Felipe). He was one of the fighters who battled alongside the native whites to achieve Venezuela’s independence from Spain. There were thousands of African descendents who, like him, suffered worse fate than the so-called heroes of independence because they were practically used as shields by the troops led by Simón Bolívar or José Antonio Páez.
Black Felipe is the head of the African Court. When he possesses a person, he usually asks for a red turban to be placed on the person’s head. The following prayer is said to Black Felipe:
Oh great brother, omnipotent Black Felipe
exemplary in life, kind but with great courage
who, in battle after battle, defeated our
enemies and who showed nothing but kindness
from your great heart for your friends, and gifts
for the ill and the fallen, I ask in this hour of distress
and sorrow that you lend me the power that you owned in life
to repay the evil of my enemies and to turn them away
because I do nothing wrong to anyone and wish harm to no one.
Another black woman who plays an important role in the African Court is known as Black Matea (Negra Matea), who in life was the wet nurse for liberator Simón Bolívar. She rarely takes possession. Both Black Matea and Black Felipe are important figures in Venezuela’s history that are incorporated into María Lionza worship and they may possess any believer, regardless of race or skin color.
The third court is called the Celestial Court and included a young doctor who was known in life as José Gregorio Hernández, “God’s servant.” He was born in Isnotu, a town in western Venezuela. After graduating from medical school, he began working in the poorest sectors of Caracas. Unfortunately, he was hit by one of the few automobiles that existed in the early part of the 20th century. The accident killed him instantly. Over time, apparitions were reported and miracles were attributed to José Gregorio. It was customary among the poor who lacked medical care to go to the tomb of José Gregorio and ask for his intercession.
The first miracles attributed to José Gregorio Hernández began to occur in Caracas. These miracles are referred to as “operations” done by the spirit that leave the ill person smelling of alcohol, iodine or Mercurochrome. The figure is part of the María Lionza pantheon. When José Gregorio appears, he often has a stethoscope. “God’s servant” dedicates himself to spiritual operations. In these spiritual operations, the ill person is placed on the floor and surrounded by many candles. José Gregorio asks the patient about his or her illness and, depending on what the patient says, conducts the spiritual operation by marking the affected part of the body, with the help of medical spirits such as Dr. José María Vargas. Traditionally, these operations take place at night. Today, there is an effort by some of the followers of José Gregorio to beatify him in the Catholic Church, but because he is the most called-upon spirit in the María Lionza religion, the Vatican has reservations, because beatification could also be seen as recognizing the “spiritual power” of María Lionza.
Today, the María Lionza spiritual practice is the highest religious expression of the Venezuelan people that has spread beyond the country’s borders. Colombia has adopted it as one of its most significant religious forms, and many Colombians are followers of José Gregorio Hernández. It is also present in the Dominican Republic, as well as in Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao and even New York City, where the singer Rubén Blades dedicated a song named María Lionza. The greatest display of the faith occurs each year on October 12, the day of the encounter of the three civilizations, which takes place in the mountains of Sorte province. On that day, thousands of faithful come to a natural sanctuary to make promises, prayers and “operations” and to reaffirm their faith in this beautiful creation of the Venezuelan people.
Author: Jesús García
Published: March 08, 2012.
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