María Lionza is a very well-known figure revered by the population of Venezuela, so much so, that she is often considered a symbol of the country, a figure that represents the nation’s history and identity. The term “cult of María Lionza” refers to a multiplicity of purification, divination, healing and initiation rituals in which a medium is possessed by the spirit of María Lionza or of other divinities of her pantheon. The origin of the cult can be traced back to a group of sacred Indian practices of the Pre-Hispanic era in the Yaracuy region, in the central eastern part of Venezuela. These rituals consisted of the adoration of female divinities associated with river waters, the snake and the rainbow. Since the beginning of the Spanish colonisation, these religious practices have succumbed to the influence of Catholicism. With time, the cult of María Lionza, which spread across the Venezuelan territory, incorporated some characteristics of African cults practised in Venezuela. At the end of the 19th century, the cult was decisively influenced by Alan Kardec’s spiritism. During the 1940s, and coinciding with the oil boom, the cult of María Lionza, which had been essentially rural, migrated to large cities like Caracas. With this migration, the cult began to undergo a process of Africanisation.
Today, the cult of María Lionza is still regularly practised in Venezuela. It is also present in other Latin American and Caribbean countries as well as the USA and Europe. The cult has a significant presence on the Internet, especially on social networks.
It all started in 2002, when a friend who had recently returned from Venezuela gave me a statue of a naked Indian woman mounted on a tapir. “That’s María Lionza” she said, “one of the most important divinities in Venezuela”. The image immediately fascinated me. A few weeks later, a Venezuelan woman gave me a print as a present but, in this case, María Lionza was not depicted as a nude Indian, but as a queen with a lighter complexion, either white or mixed race. This plurality of representations was intriguing, and shortly afterwards I decided to start a PhD thesis about María Lionza and her cult at the EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) in Paris and at the Universitat de Barcelona. Since then I have continued to research the cult of María Lionza in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and, more recently, Barcelona.
In 2011 I started to notice that the image of María Lionza was beginning to appear in esoteric shops in Barcelona, my native city. At the same time, I had contacted various Venezuelans and Catalans linked to that cult. I then decided to begin anthropological research about the cult of María Lionza in Barcelona. As per my previous research, my aim was to create an ethnographic documentary. This time, however, I also set myself the objective of creating a participative website. I received the Wenner-Gren Foundation Fejos PhD Fellowship. This website and the documentary Barcelona has a queen are the fruit of this research.