Caracas, Venezuela - The cult is a 19th-century invention based on the writings of Frenchman Leon Denizarth-Hippolyte Rivail. According to his writings, people could summon the souls of the dead into living bodies where the deceased could been be questioned for guidance. The cult is known as "Maria Lionza."
Practitioners engage in a number of rituals that are part Catholic, part voodoo, and part shamanistic. They typically gather around Sorte Mountain in Venezuela, which they believe to be sacred.
According to the legend, Maria Lionza lived on that mountain in the 1400s. It is said that while she was gazing into a river, she was attacked and swallowed by an anaconda. From within the Anaconda, Maria Lionza made an agreement to marry the mountain if it would save her. Once saved from the Anaconda, Maria Lionza and the mountain became one.
People come from all around the country each October to celebrate the cult's holiest days. The national holiday of Indigenous Resistance, October 12, is generally considered to be the most sacred. On that day, some of the pilgrims dress in native garb and perform a ritual known as "dance of hot coals." They claim that the spirits prevent their feet from being burned as they walk over beds of coals.
But the chief feature of the religion is its rituals which involve summoning of the dead. Generally, famous people are summoned into the living with the possessed murmuring and chanting as their words are interpreted by a cult priest. However, ancestors and virtually any other dead spirit can be conjured up according to the faithful.
Worshipers are then able to question the spirits and get advice. Virtually any topic from love, to prosperity, to other personal problems can be discussed. Priests and spirits are generally consulted before any major decisions are made.
Researchers say the cult has become popular as crime and poverty skyrocket in the increasingly troubled country. More than a third of the population lives in poverty and is poorly educated.
Established institutions are finding it difficult to meet the needs of the people, so when their basic needs remain unmet they become increasingly likely to turn to a religious cult -- it's that cult offers them solutions.
Commonly, practitioners seek the advice of spirits instead of psychologists. Less often, but more dangerous are occasions when people approach the spirits with physical ailments. Witchcraft is commonly blamed for sickness, so practitioners seek healing from shamans rather than doctors.
So long as Venezuela remains an impoverished country with many people lacking education and social services, the cult of Maria Lionza is likely to remain popular.