Venezuelans seek spirituality from mountain goddess, African traditions

Tue Jul 5, 2016 11:30am EDT
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By Sarah Dagher and Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) - One long night every year in a mountainous rain forest in Venezuela, hundreds gather to dance on red-hot embers, enter trance-like states, and worship an ancient goddess known as Maria Lionza.

Those who travel to the mountain known as Sorte in central Venezuela are practitioners of a cult that is built on local indigenous traditions. Followers say its rituals heal pain and can even cure disease.

Legend holds that Maria Lionza, the daughter of an indigenous chief and a European colonizer, battled a massive anaconda until the serpent exploded - causing torrential rains that are typical of the jungle surrounding Sorte.

"Those of us who recognize our ancestral roots pay homage to our queen in the sky by offering spiritual services, helping cleanse people, leading prayer and seeking to do good," said Alexis 'Suami' Samarena, a devout follower of the religion.

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Maria Lionza's followers congregate at Sorte on October 12, which in Venezuela has been dubbed "Day of Indigenous Resistance" in response to celebrations of Christopher Columbus traditionally observed on the same day.

There are no official figures on how many followers of Maria Lionza exist in Venezuela.

However, the cult's influence has spread sufficiently beyond the South American nation's borders that Panamanian salsa legend Ruben Blades dedicated a song to Maria Lionza in 1978.   Continued...

People take part in rituals at the Sorte Mountain on the outskirts of Chivacoa, in the state of Yaracuy, Venezuela October 10, 2015. REUTERS/Marco Bello