The foot of Sorte Mountain in Yaracuy, Venezuela is the spiritual base of the religion of Mariá Lionza. Throughout the month of October, thousands of adherents of this syncretic belief voyage to the area in search of purification and guidance. Cartel members pray for protection from the vindictive spirits of dead gangsters. Mediums channel the souls of ancestral leaders, and shamans spill their own blood to heal the sick and infirm. La reina or the queen, as her followers call her, is the revered goddess of nature, love and harmony that inhabits the mountain.
Like a reverse exorcism, pilgrims invite the spirits of chieftains, Vikings and even criminals to permeate their bodies. (It is also not uncommon for Simon Bolivar, the 19th century liberator of Venezuela, to possess a medium). By communing with these spirits, believers hope to tap into otherworldly powers that can bestow healing and enlightenment. Other characteristics of the month-long event include jumping through bonfires, walking across hot coals, lighting candles over pagan symbols and chanting. Director Michelle Coomber says, “Rather than the religion being a magical adjunct to people's lives, it’s now their only hope for healing.”
It is estimated that up to a third of Venezuela’s population are practitioners of the religion and hail from all strata of society. However, as the country faces the biggest political upheaval in recent South American history, the number of 'Mariá Lionzeros’ is expected to rise.
“With Venezuela in economic collapse, the country is facing medical shortages of up to 90%," Coomber comments. "There aren’t drugs to buy in the pharmacies, and the doctors don’t have supplies for operations. Desperate and in need of treatment, more and more people will make the pilgrimage to Sorte.”