Imagine praying to the plaster statue of a young man on a motor bike, with dark tinted goggles and a gun stuck in his belt. A santo malandro, or thug saint, one of a ‘court’ of spirits in the virtual queendom of María Lionza, a Venezuelan deity of popular origin. The first images of the Queen herself were pastoral, a beautiful young woman against a background of nature, ‘protector of waters, goddess of harvests’. The distance from one image to the other – from the lovely nature goddess to the rough city delinquent – covers a little over a hundred years and the tumultuous historical and political developments in Venezuela during that time.

First, however, I should define the premises of a spiritualistic cult. This one, though such a European term is used to define it, and it was influenced also by the spiritualist movements of the late 19th century in Europe, has strong roots in indigenous beliefs and practices. The acrid-smelling cigars, for example, that are used to help achieve contact with the ‘other’ dimension are a native inheritance, and smoked even by young children, who can be seen at the cult’s altars puffing away with their eyes half closed.

So, the belief: there exist, surrounding us, spirits of the dead (and of natural forces) that can intervene in human affairs. These spirits are not thought of as evil or demonic, though they may be violent and they require careful, respectful handling. They can be called on to advise or act in all kinds of crises of life and to cure illness, diagnosing the cause of the ‘harm’ suffered and offering cures. The envy of others is the cause of most troubles.

There are spiritualist cells in Venezuela outside the cult of María Lionza (some of them find her cult debased), and there are indigenous tribes that continue to practice their own trance-based rites of healing, but María Lionza worship is a popular religion with millions of followers not only in Venezuela but also Colombia and Miami and further afield. It is not clear whether it began in a local indigenous cult (local to the ‘magic mountain’, Sorte, in the center of Venezuela which is its main site) though some of its myths suggest this; in any case, its ascent started at the beginning of last century with the exodus of rural populations to the towns at the time oil was discovered and the false promise of shares for all began to spread. In their new precarious and alienating surroundings, the migrants found in the cult a society and a way of maintaining contact with their past, with the customs and the natural surroundings they had lost. In the early stages, many of the spirits contacted were emanations of nature, duendes and encantos, as well as folk sages and healers. María Lionza was first of all the mistress of waters and of the mountain.

The cult has structured itself spontaneously, in spite of efforts from both inside and outside it to regulate its beliefs and behaviors, and is thus subject to constant change, never more than at the present moment, but the element of nostalgia has gone on down through its transformations; devotees often express sadness at the loss of the sweeter, simpler encounters with spirits that happened earlier, which were reflected also in less rivalry and hostility between groups. Which – this nostalgia – is of course an expression of the country’s sorrow for the loss of a past that made more sense. At Sorte, the sacred mountain, the altars on the slope where the trances and rituals of that earlier period used to be performed were destroyed, many years ago, by a gang from the neighboring town, and at Quibayo, on the other side of the mountain, where the action now takes place, there are angry faces, a smell of burning meat, a National Guard post at the bridge over the river and people to warn of the danger of going any further into the forest beyond. At the earlier stage of the cult there were no animal sacrifices (María Lionza was a protector of animals), but the new phase is influenced by Cuban santeria where they are usual.

One of the images I have stored in my mind of earth as paradise is of Sorte, the old site, on the Queen’s birthday, with the sun slanting through trees on to the altars dotted through the forest on the river bank, their flowers and fruits and brightly colored liquors glowing in competition with the candles on huge birthday cakes. On that journey also I met Aida, a third generation priestess of the cult, wholeheartedly dedicated to the service of her followers, a calm and beautiful woman who told me her spirit sometimes goes out to meet the Queen in her forest surrounded by animals. I do not think it would be possible to meet such a person at the mountain now, though maybe in some small country town one could be found. It is through the mediums – priestesses, wizards (brujos), ‘materias‘ as they are mostly called, material vessels for the spirits – that the devotees get in touch with the spirits, and the mediums have to follow the immediate concerns of their clients. They need different powers now, and the ability to grapple with forces of violence and psychic dissolution.

Being a medium is considered by the men and women who take it on as a serious responsibility, both to their followers who are seeking healing and protection from the spirits, and to the spirits themselves who need to incarnate and serve in order to rise in the spiritual hierarchy, acquire more light, and thus become free of earth’s suffering. A medium’s training is arduous: he or she has first to carry out the ‘terrestrial’ tasks of looking after the altar, preparing the setting for rites – at the mountain this will consist also of marking on the ground with talc or gun powder outlines of human bodies where devotees will lie to be ‘worked’ – and looking after the medium in trance to make sure he or she comes to no harm. Then the aspiring medium must learn to manage the various levels of possession, from the first appearance of the ‘fluids’ in the body, to full loss of self as the alien identity takes over. The intermediate stages may be extremely confusing, while a chaos of sensory stimuli invades the body – as the entities, spirits, psychic fields, whatever we want to call these autonomous forces, compete to take over the medium – and exhausting physical contortions may result, but eventually the signals provided by different rites, by the demands of devotees and by the recognizable signs given by the different spirits as they appear define the characters a medium will channel. Most mediums develop an intimate relationship with a limited selection of spirits.

In the cult imagination, the figure of the Queen is flanked by two main attendants, the indio chief Guaicaipuro and the black fighter against slavery Negro Felipe ( these are the tres potencias, the three powers), and surrounded by a series of courts representing different racial and occupational groups. These courts are the source of the variety of corporal, gestural expressions found in trances and rites. Different spirits within the courts will have their singularities, but each court is a world with its reason for being, its functions, and the message it projects to devotees about their identity within the nation, the discriminations they suffer, their rights and aspirations. The bodies of the mediums in trance perform an alternative  – subaltern – history and sociology, and the reason for calling on the spirits at any given time may not be principally to solve particular problems, but to create a space of mutual understanding and communication, where, for example, the black element in Venezuelan race and society, can reveal and weep its wounds and be comforted.

The earlier earth spirits came quietly to the mediums and offered reconciliation with nature. The court of the chamarreros, one of the largest, consists of  ‘folk’ figures, apparently rough and ignorant, even buffoonish – their speech may be slurred and ungrammatical – but astute and wise, able to give good advice on many problems of life. Many of them are curanderos, healers by natural means. One of the earliest courts also is the indios, tribal chiefs who led the resistance to the Spanish conquest, the most heroic figures of the cult (however contradictory it may appear, the Venezuelan people, who are practically all of mixed blood, identify with the original indio inhabitants against the Spanish). The caciques appear in trances proud and fierce, with bulging, muscular arms and shoulders – and for someone who’s never seen anything like it, it’s perhaps hard to believe how completely a body can change under the pressure of the new entity inhabiting it. Fat, flabby men may be seen leaping from rock to rock up the mountain.

The liberators, Simon Bolívar and other figures in a largely mythologized account of the wars of independence, form another popular court. It’s difficult at any public level in Venezuela to find an ‘objective’ account of independence, and popular worship of these heroes crosses with the official version, though the cult’s Bolívar is a more intimate, approachable figure than the official demi-god, and is even said by some to have had a black mother. A personal experience: when Bolivar appeared on one occasion during the great ’embassy’ of spirits at the mountain on the Queen’s birthday, he didn’t initiate a dialogue with the crowd as others had done (the crowd knew all the appropriate responses), but simply coughed a soft, tubercular cough. He was instantly recognized. Everyone rose to their feet and started singing the national anthem.

The ‘corte médica’, the doctors’ court, is a particularly interesting case. Its center is the Blessed José Gregorio Hernández, awaiting approval by the Vatican of enough miracles for him to be finally proclaimed a saint of the church, and usually portrayed as a Chaplinesque figure in black and white. His supposed saintliness in life (early last century) is based on his generosity to the poor, whom he didn’t charge for treatment, and since his death countless miraculous cures have been attributed to his spirit. The Vatican is not convinced. Other doctors of the same period are also on the altars, as well as folk healers, and spirits who operate without cutting, a probable inheritance from the Philippines. Any kind of medicine, from herbs to potions to antibiotics may be prescribed though mediums. The doctors behave quite formally in trances, with professional seriousness.

The next group, really two groups that appeared at around the same time and share some characteristics, are the Vikings and Africans. The Vikings are unwieldy, menacing characters of comic book appearance (and names like Mr.Robinson). When they appear in trances the mediums often harm themselves, cutting their limbs and chests, even their tongues, and using their own blood (Viking blood) as part of the ritual, as a curative substance. The Africans are similar, dragging chains and displaying wounds or amputations (the mediums’ bodies contract accordingly) as they reenact slavery, a disgrace still alive in the Venezuelan psyche that seeks release through the cult.

The ‘harm’ being cured by the spirits is often a sense of despair and abandonment; the frustration of an unfulfilled life, without justice or any way out, is somatized, and at the same time the victim identifies with strong and potent figures who demand respect. The Vikings represent a new style in the cult of María Lionza: their origin is strictly urban and they show influences from cartoons, punk fashions, salsa, rock and heavy metal music, the dangers and temptations of street violence. It’s their presence, and the pressure they put on mediums to show their capacity to stand the pain of the self-hurting they impose, that make many regret the kinder atmosphere of the cult’s beginnings. Still, the fellowship of the cult, both with neighbors in the barrios whose society it helps to structure, and with the spirits themselves in meetings across the divide of death, provides an experience of identity and belonging in an otherwise hostile world.

So now we come to the latest phenomenon to arise in the cult, the strangest and perhaps the saddest, the ‘santos malandros’, thug saints or holy thugs. I have to admit at this point that I have personally witnessed only marginal manifestations of thug saint worship, having been scared off trying to observe  – sometimes participate, as I did earlier – by the consequences of my last visit to the mountain, some years ago now (I caught a destructive  influence), so I’m mostly relying on the reports of others. In the old cemetery in Mérida, the town where I live (and this I have watched over the years), is the tomb of Machera, one of the first of the criminals to be sainted; the tomb has been made into a chapel, full of flower offerings and plaques donated by grateful devotees, ‘for grace received’ as the Catholics say. For thirty years now, beginning when the tomb was a simple concrete slab, students have been bringing offerings of their exercise books, asking for Machera’s help in their exams. How this started I can only guess, from other similar cases: a despairing student turns to a popular and powerful figure for support, and when his plea is successful and he passes his exams the word starts to spread among other students. Machera was far from being an intellectual: he was a school dropout, a thief and probably a murderer and rapist. He was killed in a shootout with the police. He is said to have distributed what he stole among the poor in his barrio; this Robin Hood characteristic is the usual justification given for worshiping the thugs after they die. Machera’s mother sits on many days beside the altar to her son, ready to tell anyone who wants to hear what a wonderful son and good boy he was, though neighbors in the barrio may tell quite a different story.

The context for the worship of criminals is of course the deterioration of the circumstances of the lives of the people, especially the poor in the big city barrios. Venezuelan society for years now has been obsessed with violence. It’s discussed endlessly as a political question, the tabloids exploit it mercilessly, and a large sector of the population is exposed to it daily. There are usually around 40-50 murders in Caracas over any weekend from clashes between gangs or with the police, who attack with indiscriminate violence. (Over the pre-Christmas weekend there were 76 murders in Caracas, and well over 20,000 in the country last year.) In the barrios stray bullets often kill innocent people. The barrios are areas of danger, pain and death, and the inhabitants of barrios, especially the young men, live with the stigma of their marginalization. Their features, mixed race, tough, playing up their masculinity, are identified in the public mind with crime and they meet with suspicion and rejection everywhere, which of course often pushes them into crime. Justice doesn’t work for them and they can have no belief in institutions.

Prisons are an extreme and appalling representation of the collapse of law and order. Last year there was an outbreak of rioting in one of the worst prisons (which has since been closed down because of the protests of the surrounding community); at the cost of many lives, the prisoners kept the national army at a standoff for a month, and when the army finally went inside they discovered a huge arsenal that included grenades and machine guns. The prisons are governed not by guards but by a mafia of the inmates, and the unlucky prisoner, inside perhaps for some minor theft, who can’t pay for the favor of the bosses, is practically condemned to death. Since then rioting in another prison has led to even more deaths

Not surprisingly, one of the favors devotees most commonly ask of the spirits of the holy thugs is help in keeping a son or partner out of prison, or getting him out if he’s inside. They ask the spirits to keep their loved ones out of the gangs, to prevent them from using drugs or cure them if they’re addicted. They ask for protection against crime and against the dangerous influences of the thug saints themselves. They may also ask for help in committing crimes.

The other, complementary aspect of the spiritualistic relationship with the thug saints is the devotee’s prayers for their ‘salvation’, for their ascent through the levels of purification and illumination – increasing light – of the world after death. The thugs need the devotee’s support as much as the devotees need them, especially as they are very raw spirits, recently dead, with a heavy load to sins to purge. Having crossed the divide, they can, however, intercede for their followers with divine sources of power, and this in turn gives them merit.

According to mediums quoted by Ferrándiz Martín, the santos malandros are not well defined, emphatic presences like the Vikings, and they come through insistently but confusedly, cold like the corpses they recently were, with very little light. They complain and are rough and rude, demanding drink, drugs and women; they have not accepted the fact that they are dead. They may also have scars and wounds or be crippled, these disfigurements being performed in the bodies of the mediums. The rites connected with their appearance are not yet fixed and behavior around them may be chaotic. Their legends are also incoherent: Ismael, the oldest of them, is a harmless, innocent street-corner thief or a heavy bank robber and killer according to the focus of devotees. A constant element in his story is that he assaulted food trucks and shared the booty with all his neighbors. This kind of popular justice and community solidarity is the basis of thug saint worship.

The appearance of Ismael, a generic tough figure with dark glasses and a pistol in his belt, is similar to that of all the thug saints in images on the altars or on the cards sold in the perfumerías, the shops where materials for the cult’s rituals are found. They are depersonalized, rough, tense figures, suggesting a kind of suspended life. The defiance and force they portray is what attracts devotees.

The persistence of the holy thugs in appearing in trances, sometimes pushing their way in past other spirits, is disconcerting not only to more traditional mediums and cult members, but often to the mediums themselves who receive them. Again according to Ferrándiz Martín, they have caused disruption on many levels of cult practice: they appear in trances well before the ten years from their death which is supposed to have been imposed by the Queen herself as the minimum time necessary for spirits to detach themselves from the immediacy of living – the usual time, in fact, used to be more like thirty years; and they tend to stick to the mediums in their daily lives, instead of withdrawing at the end of a session.

To quote Ferrándiz Martín (my translation), “the arrival of the thugs in the cult involves a complex inscription of urban spaces of violence in the bodies of mediums and devotees, produced by the sensory continuity between trance and intensity of life in the barrios.” He explains how for the young mediums in the barrios, being possessed by thug spirits may appear to be one more phase of their daily involvement with social stigma, except that in this case they have some control over the stereotypes they are handling. Their contact with the spirits is also a service they are doing them, aimed at their purification and rehabilitation in the virtual zone where they exist, and the alternative versions that emerge of the thugs’  lives are a form of revolt.

In the barrios the body itself is a danger zone, exposed to stray bullets, police violence and the enmities that arise from gang warfare, and the constant tension may lead to loss of the sense of personal limits. The symbolic worlds common to the rest of the country, historical, social and cultural, may never take shape in the psyche of people condemned – many of them from birth – to a life under suspicion and threat. The psychic life of the mediums, and of cult members too, already fragile in relation to what is supposed to be their social reality, becomes under the influence of the thug spirits even more permeable. In place of the social and symbolic worlds that are barred to them, they participate in an alternative reality – a performed and at the same time viscerally experienced reality – where the living are welded together psychically through their shared subjection to a kind of terror, and the living and the dead communicate across a thin barrier and mutually assist each other to relieve the miseries and terrors of their state.

In this dimension, the true contradictory nature of their thug neighbors, boys and girls who went astray, takes the place of the official and tabloid representations of dangerous and damnable enemies of society. The thug saints, after all, were young people who in some way rose above their wretched, often brutal, circumstances through acts of rebellion, challenging the powers which would have kept them in subjection. They were courageous and generous and paid for it by a kind of martyrdom. They can be counted on to provide protection and support to others living in the same abject misery they rebelled against.

To finish I will return for a moment to Machera, the helper of students in the Mérida cemetery, and the object of devotion now to many ordinary people who feel great sympathy for him. The last time I visited his grave it was his birthday, and people were gathering to celebrate it. A Mariachi band was expected. I had got the hour wrong and didn’t wait, but I took away with me a postcard commemorating the date. Machera is portrayed among clouds in the heavens, in the company of Christ and God the Father, signifying both his redemption and his power to intercede. Is this an image of the healing power – and self-healing power – of people’s love, and could it extend to other thug saints and their followers in the far tougher circumstances of the barrios of Caracas? As with the Venezuelan revolution, against all odds, could there be hope?


Francisco Ferrándiz Martín, Escenarios del cuerpo, espiritismo y sociedad en Venezuela, Universidad de Deusto, 2004

Michael Taussig, The Magic of the State, Routledge, 1997


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