by Yndiana Montes-Fogelquist
People's extreme beliefs, sublime or not, have always found a place in the mountains. Maria Lionza is the goddess of nature, love, harmony and peace. The myth of the Venezuelan indigenous deity Maria Lionza riding her tapir is very strong through the times, not only in Venezuela but also in some Caribbean countries and Islands. The Natural Monument Cerro María Lionza is in the mountainous complex that forms the Massif de Nirgua, pertaining to the Mountainous System of the Caribbean. Venezuela has the biggest Caribbean coast of all South American countries and Maria Lionza followers make the pilgrimage to the Sorte Mountain with all kinds of offerings. These offerings are deposited on the various altars where Maria Lionza is revered with several other Caribbean "deities" on Sorte Mountain. Her cult began in the 20th century and it has elements of indigenous, African and Catholic beliefs. It's mind blowing to see the mountainside rituals of purification and guidance that the "sacerdotes" and "sacerdotisas" of Maria Lionza perform in the rivers of her mastiff and also in villages and cities. Such purifications take place every October and these religious devotions have followers in all social strata but especially among the lower classes, and studies show that more than one third of Venezuelans are "devotos." The original large statue of Maria Lionza was for decades on Caracas's highway but it is now at the entrance of Sorte Mountain.
A well-known expert on Maria Lionza is the Venezuelan writer Elizabet Pazos. She published the book Maria Lionza: Deidad Aborigen Entre Chamanes y Curas (it translates as Maria Lionza: Indigenous Deity between Shamans and Priests). “Maria Lionza represents the union of the three races, the indigenous, the black, and the white, which conform us as a nation. The Indigenous social and political structure of what is now Venezuela was very different from the Mexican pre-colonial times,” she says. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in 1552 to the territory now known as Venezuela, they found resistance from indigenous people. “They noticed that there were not hierarchies among the Caribbean aborigens, but a much more egalitarian society. Indigenous populations were nomads and were not interested in building big cities as they were very intertwined with the jungle,” she continues.
And it was in the natural world where the blend of the indigenous, the Spaniard (Catholic) and African cultures took place, and with them the mystic and theological elements which were the origin of this central figure of our religious syncretism. Queen María Lionza is recognized as the Mother of all Venezuelan spiritists. Maria Lionza has been positioned worldwide and a spiritism deity, and she and the rest of “deities” (the trilogy are Queen María Lionza, El Negro Felipe and Chief Guaicaipuro,) are the representation of the "Gloria del Espiritismo Nacional Venezolano.” These manifestations have many detractors, especially among the Catholics and Evangelicals. But, their presence is still very strong in the Venezuelan collective unconscious centuries ago.