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The religion of Maria Lionza, Goddess of Nature and Love, is a Venezuelan spiritual tradition that brings together aspects African, Catholic, and indigenous beliefs, much like Santeria. Espiritismo Marialioncero (Maria Lionza Spiritualism) is the fastest growing religion in Venezuela, with Maria Lionza as the most important deity at the head of the pantheon. She also forms a trinity with two other saints, (Guaicaipuro, who was an indigenous chief murdered by Spanish colonists and Negro Felipe, an African slave who was also murdered by the colonists). Together they are known as the tres potencias (three powers). Other deities in the pantheon include historical figures like Jose Gregorio Hernandez, a Venezuelan physician who later became a very popular Catholic saint in Latin America, and Simon Bolivar, the country’s founder who liberated much of Latin America from Spain. Espiritsmo Marialioncero is not meant to replace Catholicism, but rather accompany it. Devotees of Maria Lionza see no conflict between going to church by day and attending rites of Maria Lionza by night. The name of Maria Lionza itself is a shortened form of Her Catholicized name Santa Maria de la Onza (Saint Mary of the Jaguar).

marialionzaAccording to Venezuelan folk legends, Maria Lionza was born sometime during the 16th century as the beautiful, emerald-eyed daughter of an indigenous chief in Yaracuy. The village’s shaman had predicted before her birth that if an emerald-eyed girl was born into the village, she would have to be sacrificed to the Great Anaconda. If this were not done, the tribe would become extinct. When Maria Lionza was born with the fated emerald eyes her father could not bring himself to sacrifice her, and so sent her away to a mountain cave along with twenty two soldiers to guard her.

maria-lionza2However, one day her guards were mysteriously put to sleep, and the young girl escaped from the cave, arriving upon a lagoon. She looked into the lagoon’s waters and upon seeing her reflection for the first time was so captivated by it that she was unable to move. The Great Anaconda sensed her presence and fell in love with the girl. When Maria Lionza rejected the snake’s advances, the Great Anaconda swallowed her whole. From within the Great Anaconda, Maria Lionza made a pact with La Montaña de Sorte to disintegrate her spirit and beauty into the mountain if she could only be saved from the snake’s belly. The mountain agreed, and Maria Lionza and La Montaña de Sorte became as one.

esquinaThroughout October, and especially on the Venezuelan holiday Dia de la Raza (A Venezuelan holiday corresponding to Columbus Day that celebrates Venezuela’s indigenous heritage rather than Columbus’ discovery of the New World), an estimated forty thousand Maria Lionzeros (devotees of Maria Lionza) from all over the country make pilgrimages to La Montaña de Sorte in the state of Yaracuy in honour of Her. They come to Her for both healing on a personal and communal level.

CaptureDuring rituals performed on the mountain, devotees lie on the ground outlined in chalk and surrounded by candles and fruit. The priest (banco) begins the rite of tobacco by mentioning the four elements and directions followed by various Catholic prayers, such as Our Father and Hail Mary. The tobacco is used in order as a divination tool by examining the ashes and flame of the burning tobacco to search for the devotee’s problem as well as the cure. Flower and wine offerings are sprinkled onto the devotee’s body and a trained spiritual medium (materia) will go into a trance while onlookers chant “”Fuerza! Fuerza!” (Strength! Strength!). Through the medium, spirits of the Espiritismo Marialioncero pantheon provide guidance and healing for the devotee.

Capture1A famous statue of Maria Lionza has  also watched over Caracas since 1953, when the statue was commissioned by dictator Perez Jimenez. She stands on the Fajardo Freeway sitting atop a tapir, holding a female pelvis over her head.