Sorte Mountain does not appear in any guidebook on Venezuela. Nobody is there selling ice-cream or offering to take photos of tourists. It is only discussed, when it is discussed at all, in private and in Spanish. It stands in the otherwise unexceptional state of Yaracuy, and buried somewhere deep inside the 40,000 hectares of virgin forest that it occupies, is the principal altar of the pagan goddess María Lionza.
After weeks of discussion and deliberation, my Venezuelan friend Enrique had reluctantly agreed to take me to the mountain, and as we drove through seemingly endless fields of flowing corn to approach the huge, jet black and thickly-wooded mountain, an ominous feeling crept into my otherwise far from superstitious breast.
Just a few days before, I had stayed at the home of another Venezuelan, whose grandmother had been a famous witch. My friend showed me a huge altar that adorned the spacious back room of their house, covered with images of the goddess and her byzantine pantheon. Gazing over the bewildering landscape of divinities, I told my friend that I was planning to visit his country’s centre of spiritualism and black magic, Sorte Mountain. He looked at me like I had just said I was going to jump into the crater of an active volcano.
“Are you insane?” he protested emphatically. “Why would you want to? It’s incredibly dangerous! People get killed and kidnapped there all the time!”
“Well,” I replied, “I guess that’s one of the reasons why it sounds so interesting.”
As we came to the turnoff that led towards the mountain, we drove past a monumental eight-meter tall statue of the goddess, and craned our heads to appreciate the magnificently sculpted body of the incredibly muscular and voluptuous deity.
An identical statue of María Lionza stands in the center of the nation’s capital, erected in the 1950s by the dictator Peréz Jiménez, who attempted to use her image as a symbol of national unity. The figure holds a human pelvic bone over her head (usually interpreted as a symbol of fertility) and sits astride a giant tapir. Several presidents of the republic have placed wreaths of flowers on the statue as acts of public devotion.
There are three entrances to the mountain: the gates of Sorte, El Loro, and Quibayo. All but the last have become far too dangerous for all but the most foolhardy seeker of his own violent death to visit. Quibayo at least had some modicum of security in the form of national police who stood guard at the entrance.
We drove into a parking area full of vehicles and got out of the car. It was a Sunday, the busiest day of the week on the mountain, and it had been difficult to persuade Enrique to bring me on that day. He had been putting it off, hoping to be able to get a police escort for the trip and come mid-week. But the escort had fallen through, and there were now only three of us: Me, Enrique and his son Sergio.
Quibayo was once the headquarters of indigenous resistance to Spanish colonialism, and every October twelfth (the official “Day of Indigenous Resistance” in Venezuela) tens of thousands of worshippers gather here and perform various mystical feats, like walking on hot coals, lacerating their skin, slitting open their tongues, and drinking whole litres of rum in a single burning gulp.
The scene on the mountainside was like something out of India, and didn’t resemble anything I had seen elsewhere in Latin America. There were thousands of people there, transsexuals, gangsters, prostitutes, insane elderly entering into the darkest stages of senility, all roaming in packs. The cult attracts the fringe elements of Venezuelan society, and people from all walks of life seek the sacred site to bathe in the waters of the local Yaracuy River.
I had already met several people who had visited the mountain, and they all had stories to tell. One man had told me that he was taken there by his mother to be cured of childhood insomnia (which problem was indeed resolved by the visit), and as he was being bathed in the river by a shaman, an eight-year-old female friend who had accompanied him suddenly seemed to become possessed by a demon, screaming in a deep, horrifying voice and flailing about until she had to be forcibly restrained. Another interesting account was that of a middle-aged woman I had heard of who had been inexplicably paralyzed with no doctor able to cure her. When she was brought to Sorte and bathed in the river, she began to convulse violently, and worms poured out of every orifice for several minutes –until she regained full mobility.
María Lionza certainly seemed like a woman to be reckoned with. But who is she? Apparently the oldest legend of María, whose indigenous name is Uyara, is that she was the eerie, green-eyed daughter of an Indian chief, born around 500 years ago. One day the local shaman declared that unless she be sacrificed to a giant anaconda living in a nearby lake, the entire tribe would be brought to ruin. The chief was unable to give her up, however, and instead hid the girl away in a cave of the mountain, with warriors to guard her and prevent her from going out. But one night she escaped and wandered out to the river. The murderous anaconda emerged from the deep to devour his prey, but was so smitten by her charms that he fell in love instead. Uyara then entered into communion (?) with the serpent, and the churning of the river’s waters that ensued caused a flood that drowned the tribe and fulfilled the prophecy. After that, the girl was transformed into a goddess of the forest, who watched over all that passed on the mountain from a writhing throne of living reptiles.
Over time, story variables were altered to appeal to different circles of society as the religion grew. The name Uyara was changed to María as the Catholic Church tried to Christianize the cult, and around 1920 the myth was given a radical makeover to involve the white daughter of Spanish colonists (instead of an Indian), who instead of communing scandalously with a serpent, simply disappeared one night with a jaguar to become María de la Onza (“María of the Jaguar”), later simplified to “María Lionza.”
As we wandered the mountain paths, we came across people lying prostrate in intricate multicolored chalk silhouettes, with candles lit around their bodies, and constellations of religious symbols (swastikas, pentagrams, astrological signs, stars of David, etc.) sketched in the ground nearby. Men in ecstatic trance danced about with swinging machetes, howling and spitting in demonic voices. These mediums are called bancos, or spiritual guides, and are mandatory for all seeking favors from the goddess.
The cult of Maria Lionza is generally considered to involve black magic, and is usually taboo conversation among mainstream Venezuelan citizens. When I had sought advice in my plans to visit the sacred mountain, the response was always either dismissal (“I’m not interested in that kind of place”), warning (“Just take my advice and stay the hell away from there!”) or diversion (“Why don’t you visit Angel Falls like all the other nice tourists?”). Nonetheless, in spite of all attempts by the locals to minimize the relevance of Sorte Mountain in Venezuelan society, the cult is indeed exceptionally important.
The exact number of worshippers is impossible to ascertain, because they are largely underground, but it is definitely huge, and hundreds of thousands visit the mountain each year. Her influence has spread in a wide geographic swath, and the Panamanian salsa singer Rubén Blades (now the country’s Minister of Culture) even composed a song in her honour, which I heard numerous times in local bars. Priests of the cult are called santeros, and you can see them all over Venezuela wandering around dressed entirely in white.
One of the keys to the popularity of the cult is its intriguing holy trinity, which appears everywhere and represents the three main cultures of the country: the white virgin Maria Lionza, the Indian chief Guaicaipuro (who led a union of native tribes against the Spanish), and the black rebel slave Negro Felipe (who fought in Simón Bolívar’s revolutionary army).
There is a theory that Hugo Chávez himself is a believer in the cult, and that he bases many of his political decisions on the counsel of secret santero advisors. One of the supposed evidences of this is that when Chávez came to power, one of the first things he did was change the images on the currency, so that now the five, ten and twenty Bolivar notes bear the images of Negro Felipe, Guaicaipuro, and a relatively unknown and ghostly white woman (Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi, a minor hero of the Venezuelan revolution against the Spaniards) respectively, effectively stamping the cult trinity into the printing presses of the national treasury.
While being the most important deity of the trinity, María Lionza also presides over a massive and confusing hierarchy of “courts” of supernatural beings. Various groups in Venezuela revere different gods that correspond to their ethnicity, politics and even profession, and over time the hierarchy has been gradually expanded to include numerous historical figures. Besides the “indian court,” presided over by the ghost of Chief Guaicaipuro, and the “black court,” headed by the spirit of Negro Felipe, the eccentric Venezuelan pantheon also includes:
The medical court: Headed by José Gregorio Hernández, a doctor who lived at the turn of the century and treated the poor for free. Revered as a saint in Venezuela, he was accidentally run over and killed by the only car in Caracas in 1919, so he does not seem as beloved of God as the locals like to make out, but don’t say that to a Venezuelan.
The celestial court: Composed of Catholic saints and headed by Saint Barbara, the patron saint of military men, explosives specialists and mathematicians, and venerated by all believers who live in fear of a sudden death.
The court of orixás (West-African gods of the Yoruba cult): Headed by Changó, the god of lightning and storms, and populated with other deities like Eshu (the god of destiny) and Babalu (the god of disease).
The political court: Overseen by the ghost of “the liberator” Simón Bolívar, and involving several other notable Venezuelan politicians of yesteryear, including the current president, Hugo Chávez himself.
The Viking court: Headed by Eric the Red and composed of several apparently sacred Scandinavian spirits with names like “Mr. Baby” and “Mr. Barbarian.” No, I’m not making this up.
But perhaps the most interesting group of spirits invoked by the Venezuelan people is the corte malandra (literally the “gangster pantheon”). Walk into any spiritualist shop in modern Venezuela and you will find foot-tall figurines of Juan Francisco Carrillo, alias Ismaelito, a bank robber who died violently after murdering dozens of people in the 1970s. The holy statuette is traditionally adorned with a sideways baseball cap and fat cigar, along with a ready pistol jutting from his belt. A small figure of Isabelita, a famous prostitute who died of venereal disease, will likely appear next to him, wearing trashy earrings, a tight pink halter-top and a knife strapped to her ankle. Both characters were real people, and their gravesites in the Southern Cemetery of Caracas are regularly visited by adoring worshippers, who offer their ghosts a formula of seven-colored candles, cigars, anise-seed liquor and salsa music, in return for supernatural favors.
Venezuelan thugs and hitmen give mediums cigarettes and a bit of booze to drink, and the shamen dutifully conjure up the voices of long dead whores and murderers to offer spiritual succor. It is apparently widely believed by many that venerated criminals like malandro Ratón (“Evil Rat”) can offer assistance from beyond the grave to help get people out of prison, cure syphilis and drug addictions, and protect children from gang violence.
I had already heard many stories of the mobsters that vacationed in the mountain forests. They reportedly believe that they are the malandros de María Lionza (“holy thugs of the goddess”), and that it is their sacrosanct duty to her to rob, rape and/or murder every innocent that stumbles across their path. There was certainly no shortage of questionable characters roaming around the mountain when I went there, in any case. Tattooed and scarred delinquents abounded, splashing about noisily in the river in long shorts and basketball jerseys.
A gorgeous Venezuelan girl in a dripping wet T-shirt and hot pants walked past me, as a shaman nearby howled and shattered a coconut with a machete, pouring the juice in the face of a man lying on the ground. A group of black transvestites were conducting bizarre dancing rituals in loose orange robes and headbands in the distance. One of them cast a lusty glance at Enrique as we approached and shouted “¡Oiga! ¡Venga cá! ¡Cuanto más viejo, más sabroso!” (“Hey, come here! The older you are, the more delicious!”)
Enrique smiled back and wagged a finger.
An interesting thing about the shamen and mediums that I had seen, at Sorte and elsewhere in Venezuela, was that a large proportion of them seemed to be gay. I wondered if, as with India’s hijira, their sexuality was not considered a kind of taboo and mystical power amongst the Venezuelan believers, lending them a backhanded kind of credibility in their fringe-of-society profession.
I rolled my eyes at Enrique, but he seemed unperturbed. He himself, like so many others I had met and would meet later on in Venezuela, was a bit of a mystic. He had numerous friends in the highest circles of Venezuelan society who had spent decades studying alchemy and astrology, and he himself told me as we walked that, based on a lifetime of careful observation, women born under the sign Aquarius were almost always the best in bed, and that when a man’s sign falls in the eighth house of Uranus, he tends to show homosexual tendencies…
 Sound too crazy to be true? Remember that William MacKenzie King, who served six full terms as Canada’s Prime Minister, is well known to have taken advice from his dog, the channeled spirit of Leonardo da Vinci and the ghost of his dead mother (as per the book “A Very Double Life: The Private World of MacKenzie King,” by C.P. Stacey).
 A friend who does social work in the Caracas slums told me that recently it is not uncommon to find wax images of President Chávez in the ghetto family shrines.