The girl and the serpent

by October 30, 2010

In preparation for possession by spirits (Photo by Zoe Getzels)

Some say she was a little girl with pale eyes, kidnapped five centuries ago by an anaconda when she wandered down to the village lake to gaze in the water at her reflection. The snake died for its sin, and the girl became a goddess, reigning over the animals and forests of Venezuela’s mountainous Yaracuy region. Known as María Lionza, the deity became the centre of a national, highly syncretic religion, comprised of elements of Catholicism, Voodoo, Santeria, and indigenous beliefs.

The religion thrives to this day, and its adherents are found in all sectors of Venezuelan society. The mountain of Sorte acts as a site of annual pilgrimage, where on October 12 shamans and worshipers gather to celebrate the goddess and ask for divine favours. The Argentina Independent hosts a fascinating set of pictures taken of the rituals this year by photographer Zoe Getzels. Also worth reading is a 2007 report in TIME magazine, by Jens Erik Gould:

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.

Read the rest here.

Update: A perfect accompaniment to Zoe Getzels’ photos (or vice versa) is this terrific piece of reportage on the rituals, written by Argentina Independent journalist (and Zoe’s sister) Rachael Getzels.