Venezuelans turn to magic in difficult times

SORTE, Venezuela - In a clearing beneath the magic mountain of Sorte, a half-naked witchdoctor cavorts over three quivering boys lying inside an intricate chalk circle lighted by candles.

"Strength, by the light of the moon. Strength, by the light the queen," his followers chant in the dusk, invoking the protection of Maria Lionza, the mythical forest goddess who rules Venezuela's most powerful cult.

The three boys have come to this jungle shrine to be purified from witchcraft. The rite mingles voodoo rituals from the South American nation's slave past with Indian shamanism and the beliefs of the dominant Catholic church.

The shaman sprays liquor from his mouth over their bare bodies and blows smoke from a cheroot into their faces while summoning a spirit from Maria Lionza's court to possess him.

Suddenly, his eyes roll and he bursts into a high-pitched jabbering. He has been taken by Elegua, a belligerent young spirit from the court of the seven African powers -- one of dozens of minor deities in Maria Lionza's spirit kingdom.

"Strength," chant the youths, quickening their drumming as the medium writhes and shrieks. Eventually, he collapses and his disciples help the dazzled boys to their feet.

Despite rumors of black magic and violence, hundreds of brightly clothed pilgrims flock each weekend to the birthplace of Maria Lionza, seeking relief from illness or adversity.

Rising social discontent has swollen her following in recent decades as wild swings in the price of Venezuela's lifeblood, oil, have impoverished three-quarters of its 24 million people and turned the once-affluent nation to soul-searching.

"In times of crisis, such as now, people look to the spiritual, some power from above, for a miracle," said Marino Diaz, author of a book on the cult.


For some, Maria Lionza was a green-eyed Indian princess sacrificed by her father to a giant serpent, for others the daughter of a Spanish conquistador who escaped to the woods.

As disenchantment grows in the cramped hillside slums of the capital Caracas, the voluptuous wood nymph has come to symbolize hope for many. Flowers and tributes from the faithful adorn a statue of the fertility goddess astride a tapir, erected during the 1950s nationalist regime of dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, which guards the main highway through the capital.

"For us, Maria Lionza represents equality, a figure from the time of the Spanish who protected the Indians, the slaves and those in need," said Rafael Mendez, a 44-year-old mechanic from Caracas, referring to Venezuela's colonial past.

Sorte's rituals have their roots in the tobacco shamanism practiced by Indians since before European adventurers first braved the Orinoco River in a futile quest for El Dorado.

"Tobacco is the messenger," said a toothless Maria de Sorte, puffing a cheroot as she stood beside the river that guards the entrance to the forest. "It opens pathways to the spirits."

Before a caravan of pilgrims may cross the river, a spiritual medium must smoke tobacco at the great altar and ask permission of the queen. Such candlelighted shrines, adorned by statues of Maria Lionza or spirits from her Mestizo court, which adherents claim is a vernacular offshoot of the dominant Roman Catholic Church, are scattered across Venezuela.

A trail of more than 80 altars, each dedicated to a separate spirit or court, stretches toward the peak of the mist-shrouded mountain. The lush green woods around them reverberate with the beating of drums, wild cries and the explosion of coconuts filled with gunpowder, used to scare away evil spirits.


While Maria Lionza is a peaceful nymph, most of the figurines that deck the jungle altars at Sorte are warriors: rebellious Indian chief Guaicaipuro; runaway slave leader Negro Felipe; Argentine leftist revolutionary Che Guevara; and Venezuela's homegrown independence hero, Simon Bolivar.

"In Venezuela, the worship of the past has become enlisted for the cause of dissent and revolt," said Yolanda Salas, an authority on the cult from state folklore institute FUNDEF.

Venezuelans' reverence for the rebel has been exploited by the current president, colorful, left-leaning Hugo Chavez, who led a failed military coup in 1992 only to be elected democratically six years later. He has hijacked the memory of the great Bolivar to glorify his own political "revolution."

Brushing aside political conventions, the former paratrooper has depicted the battle for Venezuela's democratic destiny as a fight between good and evil, God and Satan. In the process, he has attained messianic status for many cult members.

"Millions of spiritualists voted for Chavez, we formed an alliance when he ran for president. ... Chavez is like a high spirit made flesh, a liberating spirit," said bleary-eyed witch doctor Luis Perez, emerging from a trance.

In religion, as in politics, there are always those who will take advantage of the poorly educated masses. Venezuela's social turmoil, including rising violent crime and poverty, has promoted more mutinous and exotic sects: the blond-haired warriors of the Viking court, the Afro-Cuban spirits of Santeria, and the court of the Thieves.

These are foul-mouthed spirits who like liquor and sex and show their power by forcing mediums to slash themselves with broken bottles or knives. The higher up the path in Sorte, the more bizarre the rituals; there are rumors of animal sacrifice and voodoo in the remote woods.

"When a medium assumes the personality of a spirit, they have guides on how to act," said author Diaz. "Some people do not feel destined to be a medium, they just put on theater."

In a hut near the foot of the mountain, an old man sits at a candlelighted altar decorated with images of Maria Lionza. "I am a great guru ... the greatest in Latin America and in Europe as well," said Rafael Reyes, his dark eyes sparkling. "I control the third eye and the sixth sense," he added mysteriously.

The cult, he explained confidentially, is related to a Druid religion that sacrificed humans to make soap.

"You have to be careful of the charlatans around here," cackled Juana de Dios, the closest thing to a high priestess at Sorte, who leads the annual "fire dance" to celebrate the feast of Santa Barbara -- a dance across burning coals.

Behind her fast-food shop, the wizened spiritualist said she studied for two years before starting her 45-year career. She claimed to have performed miracles, curing people of madness and even removing a kidney with the aid of a spirit doctor.

"People talk about the situation of the country, but the faithful have always come," she said, chuckling. "Don't drink the water here or you will keep coming back forever."

10:00 02-15-01

Copyright 2001 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.