Crossing a river flanked by candle-lit shrines, I heard a man yelling, hoarse and shrill, in a mix of Spanish and a bizarre form of English. He sat wet and convulsing on the riverbank, rocking his head from side to side and gaping at the sky with outstretched arms possessed, said those gathered around him, by the spirit of Erik the Red, the 10th century Viking. And the spirit was taking questions.
The annual celebration of Venezuela's Maria Lionza religious cult draws thousands of pilgrims to a mountain in Venezuela's Yaracuy state to pay homage to an Indian goddess. The religion is a centuries-old blend of West African animism, indigenous spirituality and Catholicism, and includes elements of Caribbean Santeria, brought by Cuban immigrants to Venezuela in the 1960s. But it is also uniquely Venezuelan, depicting its deities not through saints but through historical figures. At the top of the hierarchy is Maria Lionza herself, who legend has it was born to an Indian chief in the 1500s and had supernatural powers. Today she is portrayed as a light-skinned, green-eyed woman riding a tapir with her arms outstretched.
The celebration involves drumming and walking on hot coals, possession rituals and communication with deities to ask for assistance in the temporal world. Lesser deities organized into "courts," which include Venezuelan Indian chiefs, famous doctors and even independence hero Simon Bolivar. Few, though, are as gory as the "Viking Court," upon which I happened to stumble by the river bank.
The questions I asked the man possessed by Erik the Red were those of a journalist trying to understand the ritual rather than a believer seeking help. That's not how the spirit saw it. "To complete happiness, something is missing that you don't have," the man told me. Then, I noticed a dense, red liquid spouting from his mouth, running down his chest and muddying the ground beneath him. I asked him where it came from. He punched himself in the stomach, grabbed my arm and spewed about a tablespoon of blood into my palm.
I was stunned for a moment, and then asked for help to help wash off my hand, which didn't impress the Viking spirit. He turned next to Ambar Tesorero, a spiritual healer from a city near Caracas, who said one of her patients was being slowly killed by a pact made with Lucifer 60 years ago. Could Erik the Red help break the spell? He advised her take the elderly woman to a cemetery, along with three large black candles, a rooster, a pig's head and dirt gathered from seven different places, including the ground outside a hospital. At the cemetery, she should ask permission to break the pact in a ceremony that included pouring water over graves and killing the rooster. Her answer would come when she smoked a cigar if the ashes fanned out in the shape of a rose, the devil's pact could be broken.
Tesorero was daunted: "Lucifer is a being, a spirit of the darkness," she told me. "What he likes most of all is to look for souls. It's a risk what I'm going to do. I'm risking my life." But Tesorero, a 36-year-old mother of four who used to drink the blood of possessed men like this one until she stopped for fear of contracting a disease, was up to the challenge. She said she had been single ever since her ex-husband forced her to choose between him and the spirits, and could not keep a boyfriend because they got scared. "The dead are seen in my face," she said. "Sometimes at night when I'm sleeping, a dead person shakes my foot or it talks."
Ronny Velasquez, an anthropology professor at the Central University of Venezuela and a devotee, estimates that as many as half of Venezuelans embrace the beliefs of Maria Lionza, and says the number is rising. He attributes this to a decline in Catholic worship and a growing nationalist sentiment. "There is a critical reflection about the religion that was imposed on us," he says. "We look for something to identify ourselves. We don't have to identify ourselves with saints that came from abroad." However, Daisy Barreto, an anthropology professor at the same university, doesn't think Maria Lionza's ranks are growing, believing that its growth has been inhibited by the burgeoning Evangelical Christian movement.
Many Maria Lionza followers insist that President Hugo Chavez is a devotee, despite the President's having publicly insisted that he is not. Chavez certainly benefits from the growth of the cult, because it weakens the influence of the Catholic Church, whose leaders tend to support the political opposition. Support for Maria Lionza by a Venezuelan leader would be nothing new. Dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez erected a statue of the deity in Caracas in the 1950s, and it has become a national symbol.
"Politicians have always used the figure of Maria Lionza to identify with the people," Barreto says. "They know the cult is strong and has a strong following." Catholic priests, meanwhile, are vehemently opposed to Maria Lionza and Santeria, although they say a shortage of priests nationwide slows their efforts to offset these followings. "It says in the scriptures that we can only reach salvation through Jesus Christ," says Father Antonio Acurero of the Caracas neighborhood El Valle, who is leading a campaign against Santeria. "There can't be other gods."
After the session with Erik the Red's spirit was over, the man who had hosted it reappeared, still staggering but no longer bleeding and hoarse. I could see now that chunks of skin had been cut away from his chest with a razor. His name was Brian Mendoza, a 26-year-old employee at a perfume store in Caracas. He said he had first channeled a spirit when he was eight years old, and that no one taught him how to do it. He claimed to recall nothing of our conversation while he had been possessed, and invited me to join him at a hot coal ceremony. I followed him as he walked barefoot over the bridge, but he was briskly weaving in and out of the crowd, and moments later I had lost him. For the rest of the night, I couldn't help but rub my palm where the blood had been. There was still plenty of it spattered all over my jeans, T-shirt and I realized as I sat down to write my notebook.