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.
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St. Tweety

6 12 2010

Someone sent me this article about the saints venerated by Mexican drug smugglers. This one was a little out of the ordinary:

Traffickers also rely on good-luck charms, such as Scarface posters and pictures of Tweety, the yellow bird from Looney Tunes. Apparently traffickers find comfort in the idea that although Sylvester chases Tweety, he never catches the wily bird, Almonte said.

Next to their pictures of St. Jude and Santa Muerte can also be found pictures of a cartoon character. This is not surprising, as even back in Mexico, people would carry and “pray to” sea beans and heads of garlic for luck in such things as games of chance.

This perhaps is another chapter in the phenomenology of the divine: how does something go from being popular image or inanimate object, to being a saint, a demi-god, or a god itself. What is the difference between luck and Providence; a local manifestation of the preternatural and the metaphysical ens causa sui of philosophy?

Perhaps the “god of philosophy” or the “god of ethics” is just as much an “idol” as Tweety, and serves almost the same purpose.





Notes on the divine contingent

2 12 2010

The common expectation of the religious person in the face of a secular critique is that only the divine can save humanity from the universal threat of contingency. Even Heidegger said: “Only a god can save us”. My main contention over the past few years is that the divine itself includes contingency; one could even say that it is contingent par excellence. In principio erat Verbum does not somehow mean that things are ordered perfectly according to human understanding. It may mean that they are ordered according to another that we do not understand, but to say such a thing is ridiculous in itself.
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Spiritism – the other white meat

20 10 2010

Found this by chance on Youtube





On canonizations – official and otherwise

5 10 2010

Of late I have slowed down my investigations into “folk Catholicism”. My conclusion is gradually becoming one of not seeing much difference between these unapproved practices and “official” ones. The roots of both are usually the same, and their flavors are remarkably similar. And for many people, they can exist side by side without much anxiety as to how they “fit together”.

In some of the most “folk Catholic” places, particularly in Latino communal settings, it is very common to see statues of John Paul II and Mother Teresa a few feet from Santa Muerte love soaps or las Siete Potencias Africanas candles. Being the Internet-literate Catholic that I am, I was thus a little fascinated by the whole idea of beatifying Cardinal Newman. I suppose I have to reveal my ex-Lefebvrist bias, and state that theologically I don’t trust canonizations in the last forty years. The streamlining of the process and the elimination of the devil’s advocate makes me feel that canonizations in the Church have become far too political (Escriva de Balaguer, I am looking in your direction.) But that distrust is a complicated one, for I know that there are a ton of traditional saints, like my beloved Saint Barbara or St. Expedite, who wouldn’t pass the test of a devil’s advocate today.
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El Niño Fidencio… de Roma a Espinazo

27 09 2010

A review and reflection on the film

The above is the trailer. The whole film can be watched here. You gringos got lucky, because this one has subtitles.

It is best to start at the beginning. Around the beginning of last century, a child was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, by the name of José Fidencio Sintora Constantino. He was orphaned and came of age amidst the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. Unlike most Mexican young men, he seems to have been committed to domestic service rather than field work. It also seems that he was afflicted with Kleinfelter’s syndrome, meaning that his sex organs were underdeveloped and he seemed to be perpetually a boy (niño), without facial hair or a deep voice. In the early 1920’s, he would settle in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, in a small railroad town known as Espinazo.

Like a select few, Fidencio was thought to have el don. That means that he had the power to cure using traditional healing methods. Literally, it is a “gift”. But Fidencio’s gift was something extraordinary, something that comes along only every so many generations. From his humble beginnings as a local curandero, he became a national phenomenon. Apparently, he could cure anything using nothing but herbs, prayers, and in extraordinary circumstances, surgeries with a piece of glass (without anaesthetic). His fame grew to the point that the urban legend spread (not based on any facts, but still) that he cured the radically anti-clericalist president of Mexico, Plutarco Elias Calles, of leprosy. Some say that in exchange for his cure, Calles was asked to cease his radical persecution of the Church, which subsequently happened. To the people of the time, and in his legacy, he was given the name, el Niño Fidencio, or the Child Fidencio, even though he lived to forty years of age.
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On superstition – part II

20 09 2010

“Your grandmother was superstitious,” my mother told me when describing my paternal grandmother’s veneration of la Santa Muerte. “She said that if she prayed to her, she wouldn’t come to take her in the night.”

This from my mother, who could seamlessly weave faith and folklore, old wisdom and wives’ tales into her exhortations to close the door when I left the house or not put too much salt in my food. Even my mother has standards, even when it seems that I don’t.

Perhaps this was the reason why my mother would only reluctantly tell us how things could really be like back on el rancho in Mexico. It was at a birthday dinner that AG and I took her out for (my mother is out of her element in any restaurant that doesn’t serve hamburgers) that she first told me about the remedies for el mal de ojo, or evil eye. I had known such things existed, of course, as my closest cousin was “cleansed” by his grandmother of the fright sickness. This type of stuff was just background noise for a pocho kid growing up in rural central California. By the sheepish way that my mother recounted this particular story, she probably already heard the “half way catechized” Catholic naysayers telling her that this was just superstition. “Here, have another scapular.”
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New film on Venezuelan spiritism

31 08 2010

You can watch the whole film in Spanish starting with the above video.

When watching this, I cannot help but think that the surge of spiritism in Latin America, tied in intimately with the emergence of “folk saints”, has to do with the growth of secularism in the discourse of civil society. Practices and attitudes that always existed in the Catholic framework detach themselves and become “separate religions”. In most places, the hegemony of the Church was challenged with the independence movements in the 19th century. By the 20th century, the elites were often secular positivists or even spiritists in one form or another (Allan Kardec making spiritism seem to be a “science of the soul”). The first president during the Mexican Revolution, Francisco Madero, was a devout spiritist.

The syncretism seen above often is the result of these beliefs trickling down to the “lower classes”. Catholic figures and symbols, being part of the communal and national consciousness, are effortlessly grafted onto spiritist beliefs, and vice versa. With the invasion of other sects and forms of religiosity, it is easier for these tendencies to identify themselves as other religions altogether separate from “official” Catholicism. Curanderos become priests, “superstitions” become dogma, and religious identity becomes less complex for some people, while more complicated for others.





The saints vs. the locusts

12 08 2010

Or: What the Doctors of the Church are really for

The doctors of the Church were considered to have special power over insects and other agricultural pests. In Socuéllamos (Ciudad Real) a lottery was held among the doctors of the Church to choose the saint for a vow against locusts and vine worms. In other towns St. Ambrose and St. Thomas Aquinas were used. Perhaps the theologian saints can be explained by the custom of ritual excommunication of grasshoppers and insect pests. In ecclesiastical trial what lawyer could present a more convincing case than a doctor of the Church?

-William Christian, Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain

To clarify, what is being spoken of consistently here is not some favoring of “local religion” as the manifestation of the pure faith of the noble savage. That does not tell the whole story, nor is it fair to either the “experts” or the “plebs”. To the experts, since it is from them that much of what is “exotic” in “folk religion” originates. Often “popular religion” is really just the remnant of philosophical beliefs left behind by cultural elites in favor of a newer, more enlightened religion. Arguably, this is the case regarding such things as the evil eye in much of the Catholic world and the “dragging of the tongue” in Italy that was initially introduced to the populace by missionary friars. On the other hand, such a patronizing attitude excludes the cultural agency of the populace. The laity understood many complex theological concepts better than many would give them credit, and often better than those who sought to educate them regarding these doctrines. In some ways, they could grasp things more intuitively than many educated, ideologically driven pedagogues.

It is the existence of this “intuitive Catholicism” that seems to throw many of my readers off. I should repeat here that it is not some sort of straightfoward exchange. What we really have is a continual struggle over symbols and what they mean; ideas and how we interpret them. For the Spanish town dweller around the time of the Counter-Reformation, the office of Doctor of the Church was not primarily one of the teacher of abstract doctrines. While such duties were important to some, the average Catholic there sought to incorporate the saint into the basic cosmovision of survival and patronage. In this case, the best way to get rid of locusts and other pests was to try them in an ecclesiastical court, and invoke the “smartest” saints to be the prosecution.

It is that sense of “organic” religiosity, the very ground of belief, that I seek to study. In doing this, I hope to avoid all ideological posturing. In the trials of the locusts by the saints, we have a perfect harmony between the “high” and “low” religiosities often contrasted on this blog. In the end, they need each other, though in my estimation it is best if they remain distinct.

above: Miguel Jacinto Melendez’s St. Augustine conjuring a plague of locusts





The cursed accordion

10 08 2010

According to the account, a now famous Cajun accordion player was suddenly plagued by a mysterious lung ailment that the doctors could not cure. He was taken to a treater who told him that he had been “struck” by someone who put “snake poison” on his accordion. The treater “put” a prayer on the accordion and washed it to counteract the poison. He then performed frequent treatments on the patient for three weeks, and concluded by placing a “prayer note” between the keys of the man’s accordion. Shortly after the treatment the musician began to feel better and eventually experienced a full recovery.

-found in “Cajun and Creole Treaters: Magico-Religious Folk Healing in French Louisiana” by Rocky Sexton, in Western Folklore, Volume 51, July/October, 1992.