Friday, August 15, 2008

Maria Lionza - indigenous myth or folk legend?



This is just one version of the many myths that have been linked to Maria Lionza, the cult figure from Yaracuy State who is venerated throughout Venezuela.

With so little known about the origins of the cult it is impossible to know if Maria Lionza was a real historical figure or if the legends refer to an Indian girl from one of the historical tribes that inhabited the area around Chivacoa, where the sacred mountain of Sorte is located.

What is clear is that adherents of the cult, who refer to her simply as "La Reina" ("The Queen"), have continuously added stories and attributes to this local folk figure to increase her importance and power.

Adding to the confusion is the iconography of Maria Lionza. In some images she is shown as a Virgin Mary figure, others depict a European-looking lady with green eyes, an elegant dress and a crown.

The most famous image of her is the statue by Alejandro Colina which was placed on the Francisco Fajardo Freeway in Caracas in 1953 by the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez. It shows a muscular indigenous woman sitting astride a tapir and holding aloft a female pelvis.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the cult became more widespread as people from the countryside moved to Caracas and other big cities. It was also a time when writers and artists were looking back to Venezuela's indigenous past in response to a spate of archaeological finds from the late 1930s and there was a conscious attempt to link "La Reina" to this rediscovered past.


Yara, or Maria Lionza as she was known afterwards, was an indigenous princess. She was the daughter of Yaracuy, the chief of the Nivar tribe, the granddaughter of Chief Chilua and the great-granddaughter of Chief Yare, all great warriors and leaders.

The birth of Maria Lionza must have occurred around the year 1535 in the state that today is named after her father.

The shaman of the village had predicted before Yara was born that if a girl was born with strange, watery-green eyes, she would have to sacrificed and offered to the Master of the Waters, the Great Anaconda, because if not it would lead to the ruin and extinction of the Nivar tribe.

However, her father was unable to sacrifice her and so he hid the little girl in a mountain cave, with 22 warriors to watch over her and stop her from leaving.

She was also forbidden from looking at her image reflected in water.

But one day, her guards were mysteriously put to sleep and the beautiful young girl left the cave and walked to a lagoon, where she looked into the water and saw her reflection for the first time.

Captivated by her own image, she was unable to move, but her presence awakened the Master of the Waters, the Great Anaconda, who emerged from the depths, fell in love with the girl, and drew closer to take her away.

When she resisted its advances the anaconda swallowed the girl, but immediately he began to swell up, forcing the water out of the lagoon, flooding the village and drowning the tribe.

Finally, the anaconda burst and Maria Lionza was set free, becoming the owner of the lagoon, the river and the waters, the protecter of the fish and later of all the plants and animals.

Translated from various sources by Russell Maddicks

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

yo must be crazy after living 12 years in Vzla been able to come back to england, jeeeee you must be dying.... so boring.....

Anonymous said...

This is all very fascinating. I saw the documentary "Taboo" and did a search on Maria Lionza after seeing what her followers did to themselves in her honor and was pleased to find your page.

Very informative - thank you!

Anonymous said...

LOVE YOUR BLOG , BY THE WAY IM VENEZUELAN ...

Anonymous said...

I'm Venezuelan and I've been looking for more information about this for some time. My aunt was named after Maria Lionza, Marlion.

Anonymous said...

maria lionza was what we call *mestiza*, the child of an indian chif: yaracuy, and a spanish woman. we love maria lionza she is the goodes of natura, wild animals, and waters and she is beatifull

Anonymous said...

is that a femal or male

Luisa said...

Hello! Russell

I really love your blog. I am just fascinating with all that. I love legends and myths, and I want to say you thanks you very much for all this information. I am venezuelan, living in Barcelona, Spain. XXX

Anonymous said...

This is really informative and fascinating, great job and thanks for bringing us back some Venezuelan culture. I am also looking for some research on the natives that hike up to the top of the mountain and ask Maria Lionza to "take their bodies and do good with them", like possesion. Best of luck with your travels

Anonymous said...

Weird!! I mean why?

Allan Marsden said...

I am a worshipper of Maria Lionza in Wales, UK - I spent some time in Venezuela a few years back and was lucky enough to spend time at Sorte and get involved in various rituals there. I have brought quite a lot of stuff back with me to the UK, and set up an altar in my home. I'd be really happy to find anyone else who is interested in Yara in the UK. Contact me at allan.marsden@btinternet.com