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A ceremony in the cult of Venezuelan goddess Maria Lionza. Self-harming rituals are practiced in this cult. Source: EJ George/YouTube Screenshot

Venezuelan Cult Still Practices Shocking Self-Harming Rituals


Every year thousands of Venezuelans hike into the mountains around Chivacoa and practice fire, blood, and smoke rituals as they pay homage to their indigenous goddess - Maria Lionza - who is still revered and worshipped across the South American nation. Some Venezuelans believe that practicing the self-harming rituals will help them to avoid pain and heal quickly.

According to a report in The Island Garden, devotees come to the weeklong event at Sorte Mountain seeking “spiritual connection and physical healing.” These traditions are many centuries old and like voodoo in Haiti, Roman Catholicism is the official religion of Venezuela but these types of rituals may be considered unofficial religious worship, drawing on both Roman Catholicism and the Afro-Caribbean religion Santeria with its indigenous rituals.

Representation of Maria Lionza. (Altar de la Reina Maria Lionza)

Ritual Liberties and Spiritual Trauma

Santería is a Spanish word that means the "worship of saints” and it is also called Regla de Ocha, La Regla de Ifá, or Lucumí. It is an Afro-American religion of Yoruba origin that was developed in Cuba by West African descendants. Legends say Maria Lionza came from the mountain at Sorte, near the northwestern town of Chivacoa, and her holy day is October 12, which many Latin Americans hold as Indigenous People’s Day.

Rather than sleeping in golden palaces like Roman Catholic bishops, many of these worshipers camped in tents in an old forest, dedicating several days to the deeply-spiritual rituals which require participants to enter trances that apparently allow them to “channel spirits” and “escape injury” from otherwise dangerous feats of self-harm.

According to the New York Times, this year’s opening ceremony held last Saturday, saw Francisco Verdaguer throwing his body through lapping flames and he also danced across red-hot coals and circled the flames, striking his forehead intermittently with a “smoldering club.” What kind of trauma must one be suffering to do such harmful things to one’s self?

Are There Political Reasons for the Self-Harming Rituals?

After two decades of socialist rule, a series of measures by President Maduro have cornered the courts and judges and the current government represses dissent with often-violent crackdowns on street protests. Through the systematic jailing of opponents and prosecution of civilians in military courts, the country now suffers a severe shortage of medicines, medical supplies, and food with millions of Venezuelans unable to feed their families adequately or access primary healthcare.

A campaign of violent-harassment by government officials on human rights’ defenders and foreign media outlets, and having total impunity for their human rights violations, has led to an exodus of a million Venezuelans who have fled the repression, and this situation represents the “largest migration crisis of its kind in recent Latin American history”, according to Human Rights Watch. This has led to a “swelling” of devotees to Santería as Venezuelans are now looking for solutions to their pains as they often feel the political system and churches have let them down.

Statue of Maria Lionza. (Venezuelan Indian)

Statue of Maria Lionza. (Venezuelan Indian)

Come On Now…

Returning to all this ritual self-harm, according to Francisco Verdaguer not one of the coals left a “single mark” on his flesh and he told reporters “I feel good, thank God”, and he added “my feet are fine, and my body is free of any burns.” While Venezuelan’s of course have the sympathy of the free world, what they do not have is a free pass to bend science and expect other folks, like us, to buy it.


Francisco Verdaguer needs to read a 2005 National Geographic article in which David Willey, a physics instructor and an expert on the science of fire-walking at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, proved that “wood is a lousy conductor, and so are human feet” and with conduction being the main way heat transfers from coals to feet during walks, anyone can do it. The fire-walker’s feet, according to Willey, briskly touch ash-covered coals and with such a short time of contact between feet and coals there is not enough time to burn or char the feet.

Catholic Traditions “Love” a Bit of Blood from Time to Time

The Venezuelan healing ceremonies include a man who had summoned a spirit and subsequently slashed at his tongue with a razor and jabbed it into his bare chest, while other men lay amid candles and white powder drawings as onlookers walked among them.

A person taking part in one of the Maria Lionza ceremonies. (Altar de la Reina Maria Lionza)

A person taking part in one of the Maria Lionza ceremonies. (Altar de la Reina Maria Lionza)

This has all the hallmarks of self-flagellation, the disciplinary or devotional practice of beating with whips. According to a BBC news story on why Catholics engage in self-flagellation, such behavior is acted out for symbolic purposes during penitential processions to remind devout believers that Jesus was whipped before he was crucified. In other countries (including some South American countries) devotees participate in “Passion Plays” where people engage in painful practices that draw blood.

Floggings and Mutilations ‘for’ God

According to Geoffrey Abbott in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, religious flagellation originated in ancient societies as a way to drive out evil spirits, to purify, and as an incorporation of the animal power residing in the whip. Among prehistoric cultures, ceremonial whippings were performed in rites of initiation, purification, and fertility, which often included other forms of physical suffering - including in many Native American initiations - floggings and mutilations inflicted by “masked impersonators of gods or ancestors.”

But even with all this rationalization, doesn’t all this lead to that old classic question: isn’t self-harming to relieve pain as corrupted a concept as fornicating for virginity?

Top Image: A ceremony in the cult of Venezuelan goddess Maria Lionza. Self-harming rituals are practiced in this cult. Source: EJ George/YouTube Screenshot

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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