Holy Thugs … and Vikings
Heard about this phenomenon — the cult of Maria Lionza — this morning on BBC World Service. The piece focused mainly on the “Thug Court” (or malandro court), a portion of the Maria Lionza pantheon made up of deceased Venezuelan gangsters and gang members who were mainly active in the 1970′s. I couldn’t find a link to that audio or transcript but I did find more information about Maria and the Thug Pantheon, including an audio slide show from BBC, related to the aforementioned radio piece (and it’s well worth seeing the pics of the rituals and hearing the sounds of the pilgrimage festivities), and this blog re-posting a Time article from 2009. Excerpted below is a bit about Ismaelito, one of the principal ‘holy thugs’:
There is no doubt in his devotees’ minds, for example, that Ismaelito, the king of the holy thugs, was a thief and one of the most wanted crooks of his time. Still, among many who knew him when he lived, he’s considered more of a Robin Hood than a criminal. In El Guarataro, a shantytown in southeastern Caracas, those who knew him remember the time he raided a meat delivery truck and shared the bounty among his neighbors. “I was an errand boy,” recalls Carlos Flores, 50. “He would steal, but he never killed. Today’s malandro is mean — he will kill you for a pair of shoes. Ismael wasn’t that way. He even helped my mother carry her grocery bags up the steep hill.”
This video, also linked on the above-mentioned blog, gives you some background on the ‘saint hoodlum’ phenomenon in the unique context of Venezuela:
The BBC report touched on this a bit, but it isn’t surprising to me that in a country where violent crime is part of everyday life, and poverty is rampant, criminals can be raised to the level of god-hood — especially when some of these gangsters have been granted Robin Hood-esque back stories.
There are numerous “courts” — sort of sub-pantheons — in the Maria Lionza mythology: in addition to the criminals, there are politicians (not always the same thing!), teachers, doctors, etc. The most inexplicable — and the most disturbing, from the sources I’ve read — is the “Viking Court.” This court is supposedly taken from a Viking-themed show that was very popular in Venezuela in the 1970′s.
Some traditional “courts,” or groupings of similar spirits, offer prominence for once-marginalized historic figures like Negro Miguel, leader of a 16th century slave revolt. Then there are newer groupings like Erik the Red’s Viking Court, which anthropologists believe stemmed from fascination with a 1970s television show about Vikings.
Below is a description of the behavior of adherents of the Viking Court during their pilgrimage to Sorte, the spiritual home of the religion, from The Argentina Independent:
But it is the court of the Vikings that really quakes under the force of the mountain shades. Young men – some still in school – channel Viking spirits, the most powerful of all, and slice their tongues with razor blades. Others break whisky bottles over their heads, their potent blood spattering across the audience who keep the spirit alive with enamored applauses and magnetic chants.
From a 2007 Time article, a brief interview with a Maria Lionza devotee who had just channeled the spirit of Erik the Red:
After the session with Erik the Red’s spirit was over, the man who had hosted it reappeared, still staggering but no longer bleeding and hoarse. I could see now that chunks of skin had been cut away from his chest with a razor. His name was Brian Mendoza, a 26-year-old employee at a perfume store in Caracas. He said he had first channeled a spirit when he was eight years old, and that no one taught him how to do it. He claimed to recall nothing of our conversation while he had been possessed, and invited me to join him at a hot coal ceremony. I followed him as he walked barefoot over the bridge, but he was briskly weaving in and out of the crowd, and moments later I had lost him. For the rest of the night, I couldn’t help but rub my palm where the blood had been. There was still plenty of it spattered all over my jeans, T-shirt and — I realized as I sat down to write — my notebook.
This video from The New York Times gives an overview of the religion’s yearly pilgrimage, and a look at some of the rituals. But go to 2:33 to see “Erik the Red” in person. Weird, wild stuff.
I don’t know exactly where this is leading (somewhere interesting, I hope), but “Viking Metal” band Amon Amarth are obviously popular enough in Venezuela to tour there. That’s right, there’s a sub-genre of metal called Viking Metal (it’s some very LOTR stuff — and if you know what Amon Amarth is a reference to, you are nerdier than I, good sir/madam) and these dudes have played in Venezuela … there’s even some video shot there on YouTube. Even weirder, wilder stuff.
Here are some other links related to Venezuela, Maria Lionza and syncretic religions: