CARIBBEAN / María Lionza: An Afro-Hispano-indigenous form of Spirituality in Venezuela
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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
and tranquility.
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.

Autor: Jesús García
Published: March 08, 2012.

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Version: 12020307 Rev. 1
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