Maria Lionza and the future of religion

15 12 2010

Many thanks to this blog for linking to one of my articles on Maria Lionza, the nationalist syncretic cult of Venezuela. And thanks to its further research, I found two more links to be taken into consideration regarding this phenomenon:

A Blood-Spattered Interview with a Viking

The Cult of Maria Lionza: Summoning the Spirit of Venezuela

Both center on the bloody happenings at Sorte Mountain, the legendary home of the indigenous mother goddess, Maria Lionza. The most fascinating thing I learned was concerning the strangest group in the pantheon of this modern religion: the Viking Court. Apparently, there was a Viking-oriented television show in Venezuela in the 1970’s, and in a sort of cargo-cult transformation, these Vikings, including Erik the Red, regularly take possession of mediums to cure people and expel their demons. (This is somewhat similar to the possession of mediums by Pancho Villa in northern Mexico in the 1950’s, who would regularly expel demons by shouting obscenities at them.) The cult to the Vikings is by far the most bloody, resembling the painful bloody rituals of Voudoun and of various holy places of India. It is also indicative of my positing of the divine as completely contingent. “Incarnation” is not the Ideal manifesting itself in the contingency of history, but the means by which the contingent becomes the Ideal. In this process, a head of garlic, a statue of the Grim Reaper, a card game, or a television program can become the center of the sacred; the embodiment of god itself. More on that a little later.

This phemomenon also indicates is the future of modern religiosity, if only seen in the Latin American microcosm. In Latin America, I would contend that the days of institutional Catholicism’s influence are numbered. On the purely Christian side, evangelical Protestantism, particularly that of the Pentecostal-type, will eat its lunch. One Venezuelan anthropologist in one of the above essays states that the Maria Lionza cult is not growing nearly as quickly as many say because of evangelical influence. I believe him, but I think it is the other side of the religious coin. Pentecostalism is the more modern, more decent version of such things as the cult of Maria Lionza, often with the same therapeutic concerns of the blood-spattered mediums. If anything, from a purely modern confessional perspective, Catholicism’s only future will be amongst the “Opus Dei” inspired middle class (God save us from them!), or will be the “official” religion of those who are spiritist on the side (baring a revival of liberation theology, but don’t count on it). “Official” Catholicism has too much institutional and doctrinal overhead (a celibate clergy, a modernizing liturgy, a morality mismatched to modern society) to have any real future.

On the other hand, all of this clearly indicates that Tradition has its roots not in history, but in eternity, or rather, in the eternal return. How is it that anthropolgists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. believe in a trance-based religion, summoning spirits sacred to the national myth? How is it that pop culture can turn into displays of bloody religious atavism within a couple of decades? How is it that religious tendencies suppressed by decent, phallocentric monotheism for centuries suddenly come out in the open, pushed undoubtedly by forces from the outside, but nonetheless speaking to tendencies latent in the human psyche? All religion if it is real religion is cyclical, and absurdly so. Monotheistic religions try to break that circle with the entrance of time (eschatology) into human thinking, but that timeline is always broken apart, reformed, and repeated over and over again. Catholicism, if it is anything, is the uneasy adaptation of the central, desacralizing monotheistic impulse to concrete manifestations of the eternal return. It is my opinion that in the last century or so, this adaptation has slowly been breaking down, though I wouldn’t totally count it out yet.

Really, the future of religion lies either in the ecstatic and often bloody rituals of Maria Lionza, or the freewheeling and institutionally loose (if equally ecstatic) structure of Pentecostalism. Catholicism will only be successful insofar as it can mimic those two tendencies. The future of historically hegemonic Catholicism aside from that is quite grim in my opinion.



13 responses

14 05 2011
Allan Marsden

I submitted a fairly long comment here that has been concatenated by the system so it makes no sense. Please ignore.

14 05 2011
Allan Marsden

>How is it that anthropolgists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. believe in a trance-based religion, summoning spirits sacred to the national myth?believing in a trance-based religion, summoning spirits sacred to the national myth< is that it works, at least subjectively, and improves the lives of those who follow it. I'm not suggesting it's for everyone, and those who look to follow religious leaders/teachers rather than to make their own contact with the Sacred might be better looking elsewhere.

As to the absolute reality of any of this, frankly I neither know nor care. I have never believed that Truth (with a capital T) is knowable, even if it does exist. As such, I feel at liberty to follow what works for me.

3 01 2011
Afternoon Links — 1.3.11 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

[…] future of modern religiosity” is indicated by “Maria Lionza, the nationalist syncretic cult of Venezuela,” writes Arturo Vasquez. “[T]he days of institutional Catholicism’s influence are […]

18 12 2010

Even though this was a cheesy exploitation movie bearing little in common with the non-fiction book that was its purported source, I actually liked it back in the day, in a turn-off-your-mind-and-enjoy-a-bad-movie sort of way.

18 12 2010
Robert Hiyane

18 12 2010
Robert Hiyane

Instead of the Traditional Latin Mass there is a new medium to communicate with the Divine via Arturo:

17 12 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Catholic Charismatics are Eucharistic oriented, have devotion to Mary and loyal to the Pope and that is doctrinely and spiritually different than Voodoo. Not all “trance” states are the same and the main difference is their focus and result.

Yes, loyal to the Pope covers a multitude of sins, doesn’t it? So when they work themselves into a frenzy and start speaking in tongues, the Pope’s name defends them from malignant influences.

Long time readers know that I grew up in a charismatic household, so it’s not like I don’t have direct experience of these things. For Catholic “possession” experiences, I would ask the reader to look up the taranta phenomenon of southern Italy, as well as the the plight of the benandanti as described in Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles.

17 12 2010
Robert Hiyane


That is nonsense. There is an obvious and objective difference between Catholic Charismatics and a pagan Venezuelan god, channeling a TV version of Eric the Red or anything else mentioned. Catholic Charismatics are asking the HOLY SPIRIT to come in them and NOT possess them and NOT some individual entity. Catholics don’t ask Saints to possess them only to pray for them and intercede from them. Catholic Charismatics are Eucharistic oriented, have devotion to Mary and loyal to the Pope and that is doctrinely and spiritually different than Voodoo. Not all “trance” states are the same and the main difference is their focus and result.

Syncreticism can be good and has happened throughout the history of Christianity but this is not blending of native customs with Christianity. This is something fundamentally different and deifing TV portrayls of Vikings and bloody possessions.

This is nonsense and I can’t even believe anybody defends it.

17 12 2010

I don’t think Arturo is coming out in favor of possession or arguing that any of these manifestations are normative Christianity. I think he’s just calling it as he sees it. In point of fact, Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing form of Christianity worldwide (particularly in Africa and Latin America); and if you study and observe Pentecostalism, while its adherents may not be channeling Vikings or cutting their tongues, the similarities of many Pentecostal phenomena to what you see in “heathen, demonic” religions are quite striking.

I might point out that there is a thriving Charismatic (i.e., Pentecostal) movement in the Catholic Church which, while more reined in than other forms, still has a lot of similar phenomena. It has been, to say the least, controversial in the Church, but no one has kicked it out yet.

Finally, if you look at the actual facts on the ground in any era of Christianity except maybe the Apostolic church, you see the vast mass of Christians as very vague on dogma, very syncretic, and open to weird influences–that is, more or less like the adherents of María Lionza, to different degrees. It’s hard for Americans to get this, since we were founded by relatively zealous Protestants, with the result that American culture is more Biblical (in certain ways) even among laity of modest education, than has been historically the norm. Still, even the US has been a fertile ground for unusual religious movements (Mormonism, Christian Science, New Age, etc.), and Harold Bloom, in his fascinating (and irritating) book The American Religion argues that Americans are less conventional than they seem, being unconscious crypto-Gnostics.

Now one may like or dislike any or all of this, but that’s a separate issue from whether it is the actual state of affairs. I think it is, and that this is what Arturo is saying–not that its cool to channel Eric the Red! As to what (if anything) to do about it–well, that’s where everyone has his own opinion.

17 12 2010
Erick Distajo

This post is also dangerous to Catholic Christians (or for that matter Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Oriental Orthodox, Monophysites/Jacobites, Nestorians, Jews, Seekers and Agnostics and anyone else of good will)

Bloody violent possession by outside entities is not part of the incarnation nor the Divine but sounds eerily like demonic possession.

Give me Opus Dei and the Cross and thermometer every day of the week and twice on Sundays rather than this bizarre and dangerous stuff.

17 12 2010
Erick Distajo

It does not take a genius to see that this is demonic and dangerous as are your narco-saints of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde. This is not a sign of the incarnation or anything else.

“Possession” by TV characters, dead Vikings, Pancho Villa, Voudoun, the goddess/demon Kali has NOTHING to do with Christianity nor Monotheism nor anything good on this plane nor any of the myriad of planes of existence nor beyond the veil.

This is your most insane post yet.

16 12 2010

Thanks for the link to our course blog. I’m enjoying digging through your blog — some really amazing material!

16 12 2010

“Incarnation” is not the Ideal manifesting itself in the contingency of history, but the means by which the contingent becomes the Ideal.

I see what you’re saying, but one, doesn’t that beg the question as to whether the Ideal even exists; and two, couldn’t it be construed as the same thing?

I mean, if there is no transcendent realm (and for the broader purposes of discussion, I’m not going to insist that said realm be understood theistically; after all, Buddhism is non-theistic, but it does have a definite ideal–nirvana, dharmakaya, Adi Buddha, etc., just to give some of its names), then there is no Ideal as such, right? Either you get societally constructed or agreed-upon “ideals” (truth, justice, the American Way, human rights, the New Communist Man, etc.) or a purely fictitious “Ideal” that is used to make life bearable. In your post on rejoicing in the present you seem to reject the concept of the Ideal, at least insofar as you move away from Neoplatonism and view dialectical materialism as a “method of understanding the world”. Admittedly, I’m not completely clear on where you’re coming from.

My own temperament is to say that if there is no Transcendent (theistic or otherwise) then there’s no meaning in life and they might as well nuke the world and put it out of its misery right now. However, having beaten to death discussions over the meaning of life on Rod Dreher’s old blog and David Klinghoffer’s, as well, I’m well aware that others are just dandy and copacetic with a here-and-now only.

If one does assume the existence of the Ideal (however construed, metaphysically), then couldn’t one say that the Ideal manifesting in contingency and the contingent becoming Ideal are (to use a metaphor) the Transcendent and the Immanent straining towards each other? I mean, isn’t the idealization or spiritualization of even a hoodlum in a sense trying to see the Eternal filtered through even a rather murky window? And isn’t the Ideal, if it exists, often forced into rather murky waters to incarnate in this vale of tears?

As to the future of Catholicism, as an Anglo (pero un anglo que tiene un gran interés y estimación de la cultura hispana) and convert to Catholicism, I must say that Latino cultures, when they fall away from Catholicism, sure have much more interesting directions to go! My overall estimation of the future of Christianity among Anglos in this country is threefold. The intelligentsia seems by and large to be drifting into disbelief, of the various flavors of atheism, agnosticism, “not religious”, or the vague, “whatever” type of belief that Jonathan Rauch calls “apatheism”. The members of the intelligentsia who do join a religion tend Buddhist, and the (relatively) few who are Christian mostly become Catholic (often of the “cross and thermometer” type, alas) or Orthodox.

Second, the lower-echelon, wannabe intelligentsia or middlebrows are attracted either to New-Agey stuff or Buddhism Lite.

Finally, the unwashed masses tend towards Pentecostalism or Fundamentalism of various degrees of wackiness, held with various degrees of consistency.

Given those options, María Lionza doesn’t sound so bad.

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