A Girardian reading of the myth of Maria Lionza
Gabriel Ernesto Andrade
School of Sociology, La Universidad del Zulia. Maracaibo, Venezuela
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1. The Maria Lionzan religion
2. Past and current academic discussions about Maria Lionza
3. The myth of Maria Lionza
4. A brief structuralist view
5. A Girardian analysis
6. Maria Lionza, the goddess
7. Final considerations
If I would have to find one word to describe the Maria Lionzan religion, it would be 'mysterious'. It is impossible to speak about any aspect of Maria Lionzan religion with certainty. There are no official beliefs and practices, there are no canons. Historians have not been able to reach an agreement as to when and how this religion started to develop.
Unlike some other afro-Caribbean syncretistic religions, the Maria Lionzan religion has not reached a considerable level of institutionalisation. For that reason, it is difficult to speak about the cult to Maria Lionza as if it were a uniform set of beliefs and practices.
Instead, we must speak about Maria Lionzan religion in terms of spiritualist circles that possess a special knowledge regarding the best way to approach the goddess Maria Lionza. Most marialionceros (those who adhere to the Maria lionzan religion) live in the province of Yaracuy in Venezuela, but their numbers have grown in other cities such as Caracas, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto and even other countries such as Colombia, Panama, the U.S.A. and Canada. The spiritualist groups have developed an intense rivalry among themselves. Most of them consider that they hold the true knowledge as to how to approach Maria Lionza, and that the other groups are 'ignorant' and their practices and beliefs offer no results.
Despite these disagreements, there remains a basic set of beliefs shared by all the circles. The central aspect of Maria Lionzan religion, is of course, the cult to the goddess Maria Lionza. As we shall soon see, there are many stories regarding how she came to be a goddess. Maralionceros believe she lives in the mountain of Sorte in the province of Yaracuy. The goddess Maria Lionza is the highest deity in an altar of three, although she is lower than Christ(1). The other two deities of the 'Trinity' are Guaicaipuro (an Indian Chief murdered by the Spanish) and el Negro Felipe ('the Black Philip', a black slave also murdered by white masters).
These three are the leading figures of a pantheon composed by many other lesser deities grouped according to the 'court' that they belong. There are at least six basic courts:
Maria Lionza is the central goddess, but different marialionceros adhere themselves to one of these courts, and become devout followers of Maria Lionza and some specific lesser deities.
Most researchers of Maria lionzan religion agree that the essential trait of this religious expression is participation. Scholars describe the religious attitude and behaviour of marialionceros as 'horizontal'. Unlike monotheistic religions, Maria Lionzan religion has some concrete purposes. Marialionceros participate in the cult; they interact with the goddess. Marcel Mauss' (1967) analysis of archaic societies' relationship with deities is very accurate to describe the marialionceros' relationship with their goddess. They have created some special bonds and networks with their goddess through gift-giving practices. Most marialionceros practice their religion hoping their everyday troubles may be overcome. In such a manner, they pay tribute and offer gifts to their goddess, but they expect some benefits in return.
Most of these benefits are related with divine intervention upon others (even though some informants have expressed that these interventions can be evil, most of the interventions request good fortune for third parties), purifying, healing, making someone fall in love, communicating with the dead, etc.
One of the most important characteristics of Maria Lionzan religion is the state of trance that many marialionceros go through. During some special ceremonies, spirits take possession of a person and the rest of the group is able to communicate with the spirit. 'Bancos' are some sort of priests or shamans that possess a special knowledge about Maria Lionzan religion and only through their help can the rest of the marialionceros achieve the results they hope for.
Just as it is impossible to speak with any certainty about the features of the Maria Lionzan religion because of the contradictory sources and the informants' accounts, it is also very difficult to discuss with any precision the historical roots and development of the Maria Lionzan religion.
Above all, the Maria Lionzan religion is a remarkable syncretistic religious product. In this religious expression, Catholicism, Native American religion and African animistic religion crossed each other's paths synthesising many of their elements.
Until the 1950's, most Venezuelans ignored the existence of such religious practices and beliefs. There was some slight knowledge that in the remote mountains of Yaracuy, there was a legend about a goddess who still lived there. Pollak-Keltz (1985) argues that during colonial times, the cult to Maria Lionza was only one among many others, thus being largely ignored until the second half of the XX Century.
The opening of the oil-industry in Venezuela launched massive migrations to urban centres. Many migrants from Yaracuy brought the cult to the cities, but, since the cult was largely particularistic of each spiritualist group, it did not achieve a sufficient organisation level to be launched. The soon-to be marialionceros attempted to shape the cult into a single unified religion. In 1943, a man named Guédez brought together an organisation of spiritualists to discuss the basis of the cult. This has been viewed as one of the first attempts to formalise the religion (Pollak-Keltz, 1985).
According to Pollak-Keltz (1985: 34), "the cult per se is of recent formation", precisely because of the lack of unity and coherence among the spiritualist groups prior to the 1950's. As we shall see later on, it is most likely that the myth of Maria Lionza, its rituals and its practices, were of native origin but found some equivalent in Catholic and African traditions and synthesised giving shape to the new religion.
During the 1960's, Venezuela began to receive large influxes of Cuban and Haitian immigration. These immigrants adopted the Maria Lionzan religion, but contributed to the cult adding some Yoruba elements coming from Santeria and Voodoo. In such a fashion, the Maria Lionzan religion adopted a Yoruba profile, which had been absent from Venezuela's religious development until the 1960's.
The Maria Lionzan religion has a great social significance for Venezuela. It is very difficult to state with certainty the percentage of marialionceros among the total of Venezuelan population. Marialionceros consider themselves to be also Catholic, and consider the cult to Maria Lionza as an extension to approach Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Because of its 'horizontal' and utilitarian nature, many practitioners of the religion do so only temporarily. They perform Maria Lionzan rituals only when they are in need of it. In such a manner, there are many cases of Catholics who do not consider themselves to be marialionceros, but at some point in their lives have requested the help of a 'banco'.
During the process of Venezuelan national conformation, Maria Lionza was adopted as a symbol of national identity, and the cult was powerfully launched by dictators such as Gómez and Pérez Jiménez. Prior to this launch, Maria Lionzan religion remained obscure and confined to marginal sectors of Venezuelan society. The opening of the Maria Lionza cult attracted large followers coming from other sectors of Venezuelan society, and little by little, the figure of Maria Lionza has increased her prominence as a deity. She became subject of popular and elitist art, and has come to represent an informal national symbol of harmonious mestizaje; this is the process of mixing of the three main cultures (Indian, African, Spanish), which has played a vital role in the social and cultural conformation of Venezuela.
There is a great deal of controversy regarding the Maria Lionzan religion. Orthodox Roman Catholics object to the cult and strongly suggest that it is anti-Catholic. Most physicians also consider that Maria Lionzan religion to some extent is dangerous, for it uses unhealthy methods to attempt healings. Government authorities have guaranteed the freedom of religious cult and expression for marialionceros and have launched its cult as a uniquely Venezuelan religious practice.
Despite all the controversy that she generates, Maria Lionza is a figure of great social and cultural significance in Venezuela. Maria Lionza has ceased to be exclusively confined to the marialionceros and is now a part of all Venezuela. After all, Maria Lionza, the queen, the goddess, is the quintessence of Venezuela: wild, beautiful, exotic; three in one. A Christian trinity, but also a mestizo trinity: Indian, Spanish and African.
Because of its recent formation as a cult, most research on Maria Lionzan religion has been eminently descriptive. We might think of most Maria Lionza scholars as outside 'detectives' finding new features about this cult, which still remains largely hidden and mysterious. Their work has been very important, for until the mid XX Century, the religion was largely unknown. Jiménez Sierra (1971), Zerries (1954), Tamayo (1943) and Salazar were pioneers in penetrating the mountains of Yaracuy and presenting the information about the cult to the rest of the Venezuelan population. Their work deals with a description of the cult and testimonies from informants. Antolínez (1945) recorded some different accounts of the Maria Lionza myth and compared it with other mythological figures of other indigenous peoples of Venezuela and Brazil.
Straka (1972) pointed out the similarities between the myth of Maria Lionza and some traditions from Spain, and suggests that these similarities are causal; the contemporary myth of Maria Lionza must have received some influences from Spanish folklore. Capriles (1973) believes that Maria Lionza is the Venezuelan version of 'The Great Mother', an archetype present in a wide range of cultures.
There have also been some important works written from different theoretic frames. Most of these attempt to explain the popularity of the cult to Maria Lionza from a psychological, sociological and anthropological perspective. Pollak Eltz (1972) believes that the cult has risen among Venezuelans as an alternative to the lack of utilitarianism and social work in the Catholic Church. García Gavidia (1987) considers that the expansion of the cult can be traced to the massive migrations of Venezuelans farmers to the oil industry in the cities. This process threatened the religious stability of Venezuelans, who found in Maria Lionza a new source of psycho-religious equilibrium. The transition from a rural society to an urban one, forced Venezuelans to open up to new religious alternatives, including Maria Lionzan religion. The psychoanalyst Hermann Garmedia (1966) considers that the cult is a product of the archaic Venezuelan mentality that stands behind the rational and modern mentality that the urban Venezuelan society has adopted. For him, Maria Lionza is a manifestation of past experiences that have been stored in the collective unconscious of Venezuelans. Through Maria Lionza, Venezuela's repressed desires and fears come to surface.
Anthropologists and historians alike have had some real tough times in tracing back the origin of the goddess Maria Lionza. How did she come to be a goddess? What's her story? There have been around 25 different legends referring to a character named Maria Lionza, but we shall only take a look at a handful. Ethnologists, however, have discovered that the Maria Lionza myth is constantly being written in the spiritualist circles of Maria Lionzan religion. The informants of the stories are not even consistent with what they tell ethnologists. Some cases have been reported where one individual tells a story, and some years later, that very same individual has changed it, although most of these changes are not really significant.
Until the early XX Century, there was a slight knowledge in Venezuelan urban society that in the remote mountains of Yaracuy there was a myth of a goddess called Maria Lionza. However, no one had attempted to get a written account of the myth. In the early XX Century, Venezuela attempted to launch a massive modernisation program. One of the main features of the project was to provide roads to gain some access to remote corners of the country. This facilitated the job of some ethnographers, who penetrated some regions that previous researchers and travellers had never gone into.
Let us turn to the most important and accepted versions of the Maria Lionza myth.
Among some groups of marialionceros, this version is widely accepted, although it has never been recorded by any ethnologist(2):
"The Caquetio Indian's chief had a beautiful daughter with green eyes. Because it was a bad sign, he decided to take her to the lake and gave her to the anaconda that lived at the bottom of the lake. Right after he threw her, she came right back up as a wonderful goddess surrounded by many animals, waters, and plants. She was Maria Lionza" [Account #1].
The most famous one of all is the one recorded by the ethnographer Gilberto Antolínez (1945) around the year 1923:
"A long time ago, the Jirjana people of Yaracuy received a warning that a girl with green eyes would be born. This was to be considered an alert, because her eyes would be a signal of bad times to come, and if the green eyed girl ever saw herself in the reflection of the nearby lake, a monstrous giant snake would come out of her and would bring death and destruction. Under this prophecy, and just before the Spanish Conquest, a girl with green eyes was born. She was destined to be sacrificed to the Great Anaconda Snake because of the warning, but the girl's father saved her and sent her to a secret place where she grew up. 22 guardians took care of her in her new home, and the guards would energetically prevent the girl from reaching the water at the lake. But, one day, the guards fell asleep and she sneaked away from them and went out into the country and found on her way a beautiful lake, and with fascination, saw her reflection in the water. From this moment on, she took the shape of the giant snake, and grew so much that her body exploded and it overflew the waters and brought floods to the town. Her head stayed in Acarigua, and her tail in Valencia" [Account #2].
The writer Francisco Tamayo (1943), who was a contemporary of Antonilez, collected some more information on this first legend and added that the goddess was benevolent, and that she rides a boar. The name Maria Lionza still does not appear as such, but one of her familiar traits as a boar rider appears (Narváez, 2002).
Homero Salazar offers another description of the legend of the goddess:
"The Caquetio Indians of Yaracuy had a girl with dazzling green eyes. This was a good sign for the family and the community, so much needed, especially during the tough times they were going through as a result of the Spanish Conquista. As she grew up, she came to be a salvation amulet for the community. The girl's name was Yara. Tupi, her mother, took her to the mountains where she remained safe under the care of a platoon of guardians. However, the situation with the Spanish conquistadors grew worse. Yara's charm allowed her to become a diplomat to establish talks with the Spanish, and the community put all of its expectations on her as an instrument for peace. She met Ponce de León(3) using the name 'Maria del Prado'. The talks ended in failure, and she retreated to the mountains where she disappeared and stayed there as a goddess." [Account #3] (Narváez, 2002).
Some ethnologists have noted the fact that these two stories resemble the profile of Uyara, a character found in some myths of the Tupis in Brazil. Antonilez defines Uyara as a woman of sweet but melancholic smile, who attracts and catches men, satisfies her desires with them, and then abandons them. Lust is her moving impulse; she's a man-eater. Uyara's attributes were then projected upon Maria Lionza.
Up to this point, the reader will wonder where does the name Maria Lionza come from? Maria Lionza is a Spanish name, and so far, the goddess is always an Indian. We have only reviewed the versions recollected from Indians who probably had little contact with the Venezuelan criollos. By the 1920's the goddess adopts a new profile in the following story recollected by Garmendia (1980). She is pictured as a white woman:
"Maria was the daughter of a Spanish couple. When she was 15 years old, she disappeared when she was swimming in a lake. She didn't really die, but was rescued by a boar. The boar and Maria were one and the same." [Account #4].
Boar is translated into Spanish as 'onza'. Because of this, she came to be known as 'Maria de la Onza' (Mary of the boar), and popular dialects contracted the name into 'Maria Lionza'.
Another story also portrays her as a white woman:
"There was a girl named Maria Concepcion de Sorte. She was the daughter of a Spanish couple. She grew up among the animals of the forest, until one day she was attracted by a strange light and disappeared. She went to the heavens and joined some Indians, where they made her queen, and rode a boar. [Account #5]" (Narváez, 2002).
Some historians have attempted to enquire on a real and precise non-mythical story of Maria Lionza. According to Herman Garmendia, Maria Lionza was a Spanish lady who lived in Barquisimeto during the mid XVIII Century, and whose real name was María Alonso. She owned vast extensions of land and was famous for her charity attributes, as well as for the nice way in which she treated the land workers. She felt some affinity for boars, and owned a stock of about 1000 animals [Account #6] (Pollak-Eltz, 1985).
Historian Bruno Manara (1995) believes that the character Maria Lionza actually came from Spain. It is possible that Maria Lionza may have been Maria del Marqués. She was born in Spain and came to Venezuela, after her ship wrecked as a result of a hurricane that swept the Caribbean Sea in 1800. She was dragged to the Venezuelan shore, and was rescued by a group of Indians that took her to Chivacoa, a young Indian chief. He introduced her into the tribe and taught her some basic skills, and then she would become queen of the tribe and the mountains [account #7].
A word by itself means nothing. The significance of a word must be considered in relationship to others. The significance of elements is centred on binary oppositions. This basic premise of structuralist linguistics has been the cornerstone of the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss and other ethnologists who have followed a structuralist approach.
Ferdinand de Saussure's method identified langue and parole. Langue is the whole set of possible permutations that language can adopt, while parole is one of those permutations that conforms a specific language. Structuralist anthropology, then, considers cultural elements as a permutation set out of all possible permutations (Millet and Varin, 1975).
In mythology, the interchange of permutations (parole) is usual. However, the set of possible permutations (langue) remains a closed system for all of the human minds. Thus, myths may differ in content, but structure prevails. Structuralist anthropology has proven that myths continuously play with the possible permutations of culture. What takes place in one myth is switched around the same structure in others. This clearly takes place in the Maria Lionza myth.
Lévi-Strauss' methodology suggests that in order to understand a myth's structure, we must place the myth in a table of diachronic and synchronic elements. Rows represent synchronic elements and columns represent diachronic elements. Reading the table horizontally, we will study the system at a given point in time. Reading it vertically, we will study its development over a period of time. Let us turn to such a table.
|Account #1||Maria Lionza is an Indian girl||Maria Lionza has green eyes||Maria Lionza is thrown to the lake||Maria Lionza comes right back to the surface|
|Account #2||Maria Lionza is an Indian girl||Maria Lionza has green eyes, it's a bad sign||Maria Lionza's father saves her from sacrifice||Maria Lionza is looked after by 22 guardians||Maria Lionza becomes a monstrous snake||Maria Lionza's body winds up in Valencia|
|Account #3||Maria Lionza is an Indian woman||Maria Lionza has green eyes, it's a good sign||Maria Lionza is guarded by a platoon of guards||Maria Lionza becomes a diplomat||Maria Lionza disappears|
|Account #4||Maria Lionza is a Spanish girl||Maria Lionza is rescued by a boar||Maria Lionza becomes half-human, half-boar||Maria Lionza disappears while swimming|
|Account #5||Maria Lionza is a Spanish girl||Maria Lionza is made queen by Indians in heaven||Maria Lionza goes to the heavens|
|Account #6||Maria Lionza is a Spanish lady||Maria Lionza becomes a land owner|
|Account #7||Maria Lionza is a Spanish lady||The Indians rescue Maria Lionza from drowning||Maria Lionza becomes an Indian queen|
As we can see from table #1, the Maria Lionza myth itself is a complex game of switching. On some accounts she's Indian, on others she is Spanish. Her eyes are a good sign, but they also become a bad sign. On some accounts she is rescued by her father, on others she is rescued by some Indians. She becomes a queen, but she can also become a monstrous snake or a diplomat. Structuralist anthropology shows us that indeed, myth is conformed around binary oppositions and continuously undergoes transformations.
According to Girard (1986: 73), "mythology is a game of transformations. Lévi-Strauss has made a most important contribution in revealing this". The Maria Lionza myth is a game of transformations itself. What shows off in one account is shifted in another. Mythology is a game where cards are being continuously shuffled by a magician, every time we have different orders of cards, but the whole set of cards is the same, it remains there, or so the structuralists claim. Girard (1986: 73) warns that "when the magician shuffles the cards long enough and displays them in a different order he is preventing us from thinking about what has disappeared and makes us forget the disappearance if we happened to notice it. The magician of mythologies and religions has a very good audience in our structuralists".
We will probably wonder, what disappears? Myth is to Girard, a fallacious story. But it is not fallacious in the sense that it deals with supernatural events. There is a wide variety of texts that deal with magical elements and they remain truthful indeed. Myth is fallacious in the sense that it lies, it hides a story that does not want to tell us. For Girard, the origins of culture can be traced back to a collective murder. Myths keep a record of the founding of culture, but as they develop and change, myths will do whatever possible to hide the original murder. Myth development is a game of transformations. Although structurally identical, myths are different. But in the process of transformations, the original murder is eventually erased from myth, though never completely. Even in the most complex and fascinating myths, we could look for clues that point towards the original murder.
Girard's thesis on the origins of culture in a founding murder is not entirely new. In Totem and Taboo (1948 ), Freud had already worked out a relatively similar formula regarding the original murder, and in Moses and Monotheism (1948 ), added the notion that culture tries to erase the traces of the murder. What's ground-breaking in Girard's work is the way in which he understands how this murder takes place and how culture rises.
Human beings, according to Girard, are highly mimetic creatures. Aristotle had already discovered this. Human beings are capable of reproducing others' behaviour in a most unique way. At the same time, man feels incompleteness with himself; he feels he lacks something. Man continuously looks for this missing piece in other people whom he takes as models. Everything models do, the subject feels attracted to do also. In such a manner, desire is highly mimetic also. The subject desires almost nothing by his own. The subject's desires are only a copy of those of the model's. Anything the model desires, the subject will desire it also. The subject does not desire an object because of a real need or autonomous wish to achieve the object. The subject desires being the model, and understands that desiring the object his model has desired is the closest path to being the model. This is what Girard (1996) calls 'metaphysical desire'.
Very rarely does an object of desire have the capacity of satisfying both the model and the subject's desire. The subject understands that he will never be his model, and thus, begins to hate him. The model turns into a rival. Both individuals want the same thing, but only one of them can achieve it. The object of desire looses importance in the rivalry. The more fascinating the rival is, the more hated he turns. The real quarrel is not over the object of desire. The quarrel is about defeating the other, the model/rival; achieving the object of desire will only function as a token of the defeat over the rival. Both quarrellers imitate each other's desire with such intensity that they become each other's doubles. They can't tell apart from each other any longer.
Animals do not have the mimetic capacity of men. Girard (1987:95) writes: "growth of mimetic activity [is] linked to the increase of brain size". In animal societies, a well-structured hierarchy of dominance prevails. Dominated individuals have no chance of taking the place of those in control. They don't have the mimetic capacity to do so. Animal societies are naturally differentiated; there is no danger of getting to situations of doubles that can lead to violence and self-destruction. Man, on the other hand, does have the capacity to put in danger the hierarchy structure of dominance in the specie. Man is able to imitate to such a degree, that there is no natural differentiation. Anybody can become anybody's double. As long as they imitate, dominated individuals can easily take the place of those in control.
Human mimesis is then potentially dangerous. It has the capacity to unidifferentiate to such a degree that puts in danger the order and stability that the dominance hierarchy structure assures. In pre-human forms, the mimetic behaviours reached a dangerous point. Individuals imitated each other's desire intensely and there was no structured hierarchy of domain, thus, the existence of the primal horde was in danger.
Mimetic tensions are solved everyday through what we call 'scapegoating'. People who are quarrelling can restore peace among themselves if they pick on a third party, blame them for the problems going on, and eliminate it, whether it means killing it, expelling it or excluding it.
The early horde of proto-humans solved their problems in such a fashion. Their mimetic tensions were eased by choosing a victim and killing it. After this murder, tensions went away and peace returned. This is the origin of what we call 'culture'. Proto-humans became humans through the murder of the scapegoat.
The common usage of the word 'scapegoat' implies a person blamed for crimes, but did not actually commit them. In scapegoating, the victim is blamed for the tensions and troubles that the community is going through. However, not anyone can play the role of victim adequately. Scapegoats, according to Girard, must be both marginal and at the same time a part of the community in order for the scapegoat mechanism to work properly. Richard Golsan (1993: 36) writes: "their marginal status makes it easy for them to be singled out and unlikely that their persecution will illicit a reprisal". But at the same time, the victim can not be a complete outsider because it would be difficult to blame the victim for the internal troubles of the community. The victim must be both in and out.
After the victim's murder, the community feels at ease, for peace and stability has returned. The community arrives at an understandable conclusion: if the scapegoat was the source of disorder, it must also be the source of order. Stability only came with the victim's death. James Williams (Girard, 2001: xvi) writes: "... if the victim could cause all their troubles and yet also produce such peace and prosperity, he or she must be a different sort of being, a higher, more powerful sort". Girard calls this process double transference. In the mind of the scapegoater, the victim is the cause of both disorder and order. Eventually, the victim becomes a god.
Culture's foundational murder lies at the centre of the sacred and of every human institution. The foundational murder remained in the collective memory of the early community. Whenever mimetic tensions and undifferentiation rose up again, the community understood that by scapegoating once again, order could be regenerated. This is how ritual sacrifice began. The community began re-enacting the original murder in the hope that it would restore peace one more time. For Mircea Eliade, (1967) rituals mark a return to a sacred centre. For the religious mind, time is cyclical; it is always a return to the beginning of time, to the occasion when everything started. In this fashion, ritual can be considered as a return to the original murder scene.
Many generations later, myths appeared. As every other cultural form, myth has its origin in the foundational murder. While ritual re-enacts the original murder, myth narrates it. However, it must be done in a very careful and measured fashion in order for culture to keep its stability.
Myth must present a fallacious story in order to work; it must lie about the foundation of culture. If scapegoaters ever come to understand that the scapegoat is not the source of disorder and then of order, the founding mechanism fails. In order for culture to work, scapegoaters must be convinced that the victim is guilty of the crimes that he or she is accused of. In other words, the community must lie to itself about the victim. Murder is a horrible thing to do. The community must never discover that its very culture is founded on a murder.
Myth, then, takes on a double task. It must convince the community that the foundational victim is guilty of the community's troubles, and at the same time, it must dissimulate or erase the murder. Myth development, with its complex game of transformations, has managed to do this, but not entirely. As myth evolves, the clues of the murder are eventually put away and the guilt of the victim is emphasised. The task of the myth student is to trace back the traces of the original murder and put them together.
The victim's guilt, however, is not entirely clear either. Double transference allows the victim, from being very bad, to become very good, to such a degree that he or she becomes a god. In myths, gods are guilty of the community's troubles. This guilt, as well as the murder, may be hidden, but if we look carefully, they remain there.
Girard (1996: 119) offers five key points to look for in a myth in order to understand and reach the traces of the hidden original murder:
This is the sequence of cultural foundation. Myths will not always present this order or the five themes in their entirety. But precisely, this has to do with the development of myth. As myth evolves, this sequence becomes more and more complex, and the themes become hidden and switched in a game of transformations.
The first theme is linked with a state of undifferentiation or disorder. Girard has observed that most myths begin with themes of confusion. Gods and humans are all mixed up, day and night are not differentiated, etc. It is a metaphoric way of representing the chaotic state that reigns in man's natural state. Pre-cultural men imitate each other to such a degree that they become everyone's doubles, they are all undifferentiated and engaged in an eternal effort to eliminate each other. Everything is confusing, chaotic. This undifferentiation troubles the community and puts its survival in danger.
The second theme is the first trace of scapegoating. In the mist of the confusion and undifferentiation that prevails in the first theme, an accusation towards the scapegoat comes up. As we noted earlier, scapegoating is blaming someone for a crime that is not really his or her fault. The scapegoat is targeted as the cause of all the troubles and dissatisfactions that the community is going through. Since undifferentiation is horrifying to the community, the victim is usually accused of a crime of unidifferentiation. These crimes can be of a wide range. Parricide and incest are the two most common undifferentiation crimes attributed to victims. Killing one's father and sleeping with one's mother is to tear away all differences needed to maintain a social stability. Incest contributes to a situation of doubles where the father no longer has the capacity of exercising authority, for the son has taken his place. There are some other crimes of undifferentiation present in mythical accusations. Monsters are usually doubles. The Sphinx is undifferentiating; we can't tell precisely what type of animal this is. The Sphinx is monstrous because its undifferentiation represents chaotic, reciprocal all-against-all violence. The accusation is believed to be real. The victim is guilty of the crimes of which he or she is accused, and thus, the victim's crimes are thought to be the cause of all the troubles the community is going through.
The third theme has to do with the stereotypes that help the community identify its victim. As we stated earlier, the victim can not be a complete outsider, but at the same time, it must be marginal within the community. Victims are usually identified through some special physical attributes: extreme beauty or ugliness, too powerful or too weak, someone who limps, someone who's missing a body part, etc. The victim is part of the community, but at the same time presents some traits that allow the community to regard it as marginal and facilitate its identification as victim.
The fourth theme is the central one, for it is the sacrifice itself. Since myth must lie to itself in order to work, this theme is perhaps the one that is best hidden. The victim's elimination is very rarely presented in graphic terms. Sacrifice is soon transformed into magical and metaphoric elements so that the evidence of the original murder is eventually wiped away. 'Disappearances' are some common clues of a collective murder. Through myths, victims continuously disappear. No one in the community ever knows of that person ever again. Men who become gods usually 'disappear' and go to heaven. Other ways of dissimulating the collective murder is by making us believe that the victim went to their death willingly, or by turning into stones, or going to live at the bottom of the sea. Any tale of a victim no longer living among the community must be considered a way of covering up the original murder.
The final theme narrates what happens in the community after the scapegoat is eliminated. It is the reversal of the first theme. If we couldn't tell apart from day and night in the first theme, now we are able to do so. Men have their own world, and gods have theirs. The community becomes differentiated again, and peace, order and prosperity return. Once the scapegoat is eliminated, plagues and floods cease, fertility abounds, etc.
This is only a sketch of the mythical patterns. The myth student, then, must use these guidelines in order to find the original murder. In well-developed myths, the original murder will be harder to find, but never impossible, as Gil Bailie (1995: 103) argues: "... if myth is to serve as the 'sound-track' for future sacrificial re-enactments, these hints of violence cannot be altogether erased". Myth, as we've said, is a lie. It actually believes the victim's guilt as the cause of disorder, and at the same time, in the victim's power to restore order through his or her death. But, despite being fallacious, myths retain some truth. Myths tell a true story, though they lie in the way they narrate it. The writer has placed so much emphasis on the victim's guilt that, paradoxically, his account becomes credible.
The student must get to the heart of myth, and that is the founding murder. The key to understanding myth and 'demythologising' is not to remove magical and supernatural elements, but rather, to understand the mimetic processes that lead to the sacrifice, and that myth tries to hide. Our task in the Maria Lionza myth, then, shall be to reach back as far as we can to encounter the founding murder. We will follow the chronological order of accounts expressed before. Let us then, begin our analysis.
Account #1 begins straight to the heart of the matter. We are told that the Caquetio chief had a daughter who was born with green eyes. It would appear to be that the theme of undifferentiation was skipped and cut right ahead towards the theme of identifying the victim. To begin with, there is no sign of a mimetic rivalry or theme of undifferentiation in this account. The community does not seem to be bothered by anything. However, most of the accounts tell us that the Maria Lionza story occurred during the Spanish conquest of Venezuela. This account does not explicitly say so, but we have some good signs showing that there was a concern regarding an external threat. The girl is born with green eyes and causes horror in the community. For Girard (1987: 116-117), "the evil eye is the mythic accusation par excellence... in times of war this [the evil eye] becomes the espionite, a kind of mass phobia of spies". According to some historians, the Caquetio were occasionally at war with neighbour tribes, but the Spanish represented a new type of threat to them. Never before had the Caquetio felt so close the danger of being defeated by an external enemy. The presence of the Spanish was clearly a disturbing one. The Caquetio felt an external enemy was invading their land and space, and, as most societies do under these circumstances, took every precaution to avoid being watched by the enemy. Although we are not told that the Caquetio felt dissatisfaction, the scandal produced by the girl's eyes allows us to infer that the Caquetio did feel threatened. The green-eyed girl is seen as a spy. She has some evil green eyes that are watching every movement of the Caquetio and inform the enemy. She is not explicitly accused of being a spy, but the scandal produced by her green eyes points towards that direction.
The girl also fits the stereotype to become a victim. As we stated earlier, in order for sacrifice to work, the victim must be both an insider and an outsider. Individuals that meet these criteria have greater chances of becoming victims for sacrifice. The little girl is a perfect scapegoat. She is the daughter of the Caquetio chief; she's therefore a member of the community, an insider. But her green eyes make her different from the rest of the group. Most Caquetio Indians have dark eyes. She is also extremely beautiful, an unusual trait. She is part of the Caquetio community, but not entirely so.
Some historians have suggested that Maria Lionza was not the daughter of the Caquetio chief. The real father may have been a blue-eyed Spanish soldier, which explains how the girl was born with green eyes. Some even suggest that the chief, realising his wife had cheated on him, decided to give away the child because she was the product of an adulterous relationship. We shall not pay attention to this detail, but we must consider the fact that this account increases Maria Lionza's stereotype as a victim. In Maria Lionzan religion and in popular Venezuelan culture, Maria Lionza is above all, a mestiza. She represents the new identity that comes out of the crossing of three races. A mestizo is a person born out of a white father and Indian mother, or viceversa. To some degree, a mestizo can be thought of as a monstrous undifferentiator. In a mestizo, we can't tell very clearly what race he belongs to. He's half-Indian, half-Spanish. If the account regarding the girl's father is true, we have every reason to believe that the community points its accusing finger towards the little girl because she has committed a crime of undifferentiation. The little girl is the perfect scapegoat.
So far, we have a community under the threat of invasion, and a little girl who is identified as a victim who bears a 'bad sign'. The next step is the sacrifice itself.
This account, in comparison to the later ones, is relatively undeveloped. There are no complex plots or amazing elements yet. However, the efforts to remove the evidence of a collective murder are already placed upon this first account. Clearly, we have a theme of accusation and selecting of the victim. The myth insists that it is necessary to put away the little girl because of her green eyes. These themes are not hidden. Yet, the central theme, the sacrifice itself in an explicit form, is already missing.
The chief takes the little girl on behalf of the community and 'gives' her and 'throws' her to the lake and the anaconda. She then comes right back up to the surface with some marvellous animals and plants. 'Giving' away a child to some ferocious snake resembles an offering. The chief offers the little girl to the anaconda. Offering is linked to sacrifice. In fact, offering is sacrifice. Religious literature such as the Hebrew Bible and the Qu'ran continuously repeat the words "to offer a sacrifice". It should be clear that what is meant by "giving her to the snake" is actually that the girl was murdered. Perhaps, the chief was the only one who murdered the child, but he acted on behalf of the whole community.
This account doesn't tell us that she died. In fact, she never dies; she comes right back to the surface stronger than ever before and surrounded by plants and animals. As soon as the girl is eliminated, prosperity has returned to the community. Eventually, the community has come to believe that the murdered girl is also the cause of order. She is not the evil eyed girl anymore; she has come to be a goddess. Maria Lionza can bring prosperity to her community only after she has been murdered. She is a goddess in as much as she has been sacrificed. Her death brings life, as it is clearly shown in the myth. After she is thrown to the lake, she comes right back up with some beautiful animals. These animals are good signs of prosperity. Maria Lionza is now the bearer of prosperity, but she could do this only after she has been thrown to the lake, that is to say, after she has been murdered.
To sum up, we have girl who is guilty of being a curse, her evil eyes remind the community of a spy, but after her death, she becomes a wonderful goddess that brings life, prosperity and protection. This account comes in classical mythic fashion. The Girardian analysis is not difficult: a clear sequence of accusation, sacrifice and restoration of order. But, as the myth evolves and plays the game of transformations, it becomes more and more complex and it improves its skill in hiding the original murder.
The shift from account #1 to account #2 is a huge one. The plot becomes more and more complex, and the second account is much more elaborated. As much as it is elaborated, the traces of the foundational murder also begin to disappear, and it becomes harder and harder to see an accusation, a murder, and a return of order.
The first great transformation regards the Indian tribe itself. The Indians are no longer part of the Caquetio tribe; they now belong to the Jirjana. The tribe is announced that a girl with green eyes will be born, and the community must be careful, because if the green-eyed girl ever saw herself in the reflection of the water, a monstrous giant snake would come out of her and she would bring death and destruction.
To better understand this myth, let us compare it to the Greek myth of Oedipus. The similarities between these two myths are amazing. In the Oedipus myth, the oracle announces the community that someday a child will sleep with his mother and kill his father. There is no oracle in the Maria Lionza myth, but the community is announced that some day a child will also do some terrible things. Parricide and incest are no doubt some monstrous crimes, but being born with green eyes and seeing our own reflection in the water is not considered terrible at all by today's standards. The reader may object by arguing that the similarities between both myths are not really great. The truth of the matter is that, placed in the context of the myth, seeing one's reflection in the water is as terrible as parricide and incest. They are all crimes of undifferentiation. As we stated earlier, to sleep with one's mother is to undifferentiate. Father and son turn into rivals, they become doubles of each other, and incest tears apart the differentiation that allows culture to develop and function. To see one's own reflection in the water is to produce a double, it leads to undifferentiation. The real person and the water reflection resemble each other so much that it represents the chaotic violence that horrifies societies.
Therefore, in both myths, it is announced that the person will commit a crime of undifferentiation, and should this ever happen, it will bring disaster to the community.
Scared by the prophecy, Oedipus' parents decide to get rid of him. They prepare to slay him. In the same fashion, scared by what is announced, the Jirjana community considers that the only option is to get rid of the girl and decide to sacrifice her. Oedipus is rescued by a stranger and manages to escape his execution. In the same manner, Maria Lionza is rescued by her father. He takes her to a secret place where she is now protected by 22 guardians whose mission is to secure that she never reaches the lake so she won't ever be able to see her reflection in the water.
After some years, Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother, fulfilling the prophecy made by the oracle. After Maria Lionza grows up, she manages to escape and reaches the lake and sees her reflection, fulfilling the prophecy that the community had been warned about. Oedipus' crimes bring about some terrible plagues to the city of Thebes. Maria Lionza's actions have as consequence the floods. Keeping in mind these similarities, let us rewind and start from the beginning of this account.
The Spanish conquest of Venezuela appears as a historical setting for the myth. The Spanish have not yet arrived to invade the community, but their presence is felt nearby. As in the first account, the girl's eyes have a relationship with the threat of being watched and spied by an external enemy. The prophecy already identifies the future victim through some signs of victimage: green eyes that would make her a perfect scapegoat.
When the green-eyed girl is born, everyone in the community is alarmed, for this is the child that will bring floods and destruction. What had been hidden in the first account, comes out in relevance in this second account: the girl is sentenced to be sacrificed. If we take a shallow look, this account would appear to be a rejection of sacrifice. The entire community is ready to sacrifice the girl, but her father bravely rescues her. However, we must not be fooled, as we shall next see.
He takes her to a secret place where she is kept by 22 guards. One day, the guards fall asleep and the girl innocently walks through the forest and finds the lake. She sees herself in the water, and then, becomes a monstrous snake that brings floods. Regardless of the apparent rejection of sacrifice, this myth still considers the girl to be guilty of the crimes for which she has been accused. The girl sees her reflection in the water, she creates doubles. Right after her crime, she becomes a monster. Monstrousness, according to Girard, is linked with undifferentiation. Mythical monsters are undifferentiating creatures. Maria Lionza becomes a half-snake, half-woman creature; we can't tell what she really is, we can't differentiate her. The production of doubles and the becoming of a monster bring about the floods to the community.
The community has identified a victim and has accused her of some crimes. This myth believes that the girl is the cause of dissatisfaction among the community. This dissatisfaction is metaphorically expressed in the form of floods. This does not mean the floods were not real, the important point to rescue is that Maria Lionza's crimes have some devastating consequences. The floods have only come in as much as the girl saw her double in the water and became a monstrous snake-woman. In this manner, we have already found the first three key themes offered by the Girardian methodology: dissatisfaction, identification of the victim, and accusation.
These three themes should lead us to the central theme of sacrifice. In the first account, this theme is already absent, but we still understand that 'giving' the girl is actually 'killing' her. In this account, however, the murder is getting out of sight once again. The girl is not murdered by anybody. If we take a close look, we will understand that the murder is well hidden, yet it remains there. After she sees herself in the water and becomes a snake, she grows so large that her body can't take it anymore. In the same way that a balloon with too much air explodes, Maria Lionza's size leads her to explode.
This 'explosion' should be considered a murder. She has only exploded because she grew so large. She has only grown large because she became a snake, and she became a snake only because she saw her double. Her explosion is only a natural consequence of her monstrousness. In this fashion, her murder is a justified consequence of her culpability. It is important to note that the floods come before she explodes, not after. That is to say, it is not her death that brings the floods; quite the opposite, her crimes bring destruction, and her death brings prosperity.
Where are the signs of prosperity in this account? After her body explodes, her head stays in Acarigua and her tail winds up in Valencia. These are two present-day Venezuelan cities. If we follow the myth correctly, these two cities are founded upon the corpse of the victim. The head and tail are the founding stones of Acarigua and Valencia respectively. Tombs, according to Girard, have a great symbolic power as they represent the prosperity of a community founded upon the death of a victim. The victim's corpse brings life to the community. Maria Lionza's death brings prosperity in as much as her body becomes the founding stone of these two cities(4).
While the first two accounts remain 'mythical' in the sense that magical and supernatural elements abound, account #3 removes them. Although some magical elements remain, it deals with a much more precise historical setting and the events it narrates are far from what we consider 'mythology'. Myth and history mix to form this account.
Account #3 marks a return to the Caquetio as the community from whence Maria Lionza comes. As in the first two accounts, the community has a girl with dazzling green eyes. But, unlike the other accounts, the green eyes are now a good sign. They are the mark that identifies a messiah-like figure that might be able to negotiate peace with the Spanish. This account does not hesitate to place the Spanish conquest as the historical setting for the story. The first theme is evidently present. There is an atmosphere of disorder and unidifferentiation. The Caquetio Indians probably never felt a serious threat of conquest during pre-Columbian times. The Spanish represented a new major threat. Richard Golsan (1993: 63) argues that "as long as humans can believe they have effectively rid themselves of their violence by attributing it to outside sources... they continue to presume their own innocence". The Caquetio community never considers that perhaps the dissatisfaction comes from the community within. They have transferred their blames towards the Spanish threat, a new scapegoat.
Maria Lionza grows up to bear all the hopes of the community. She is already bearing a sacred space, for she comes as a salvation amulet for her tribe. The girl, whose name is now Yara, is able to exercise political power over her community. She is called upon to be a chief diplomat and negotiate peace with the enemy.
A diplomat is as high a post as a king is. Girard maintains that kinship originated in the process of double transference attributed to the victim. While the victim is guilty of the disorder, it is also the cause of order. Because the victim will be the cause of order in the near future, very frequently is given the best treatment before his/her death. Such is the case of the war prisoners of the Tupinamba in Brazil. Sometimes, however, the victim's death may be delayed, and given the power of this victim, he/she can become king/queen. As Girard (1987: 57) mentions: "in kingship, the dominant element is what happens before sacrifice, in divinity it is what comes after sacrifice". The king, then, is a sort of living god. It is a god who has not been sacrificed yet.
Yara (Maria Lionza) occupies a kingship position (and in the later accounts, she becomes a queen herself). She is a potential victim who has not been sacrificed yet, and because of the double transference, the whole community places its expectations on her. The talks fail; not even the wonderful diplomat can save the community from the Spanish threat. In frustration, she disappears. The story doesn't tell us that the girl was collectively killed, there are no clues of murder. Girard (1986: 57) argues that "one of the ways of denying that relevance [of the murder] is by affirming that although the victims are dead, they went to their death willingly". Yara chooses to disappear because she failed. She was not able to meet the expectations of the community in negotiating a peace. We have a subtle accusation here. The community accuses Yara of being incapable to bring peace. While being a queen, a living victim, she was unable to solve the problems. Therefore, she must die. She disappeared, so we are told. We must be very suspicious of disappearances, for they are another way of covering murder. And interestingly enough, after her disappearance, she becomes a goddess. There is a big clue of collective murder. The double transference makes the disappeared girl a goddess. She is a goddess only because she was collectively killed.
Historians have been puzzled by the 'disappearance' of Maria Lionza. They simply regard it as a lack of information from a story about a girl who all of sudden retreated to the mountains and never returned. These historians have been fooled by myth. Similar to what theologians tell us about Satan, myth's greatest trick is to convince us that the story being told is not a myth. The myth student who sees in this story a reliable account about a girl who simply goes away can not understand what's actually taking place and has been fooled by myth's own ability to remove magical elements in order to make it look more reliable.
Towards the end of the myth, we are told that the girl 'disappeared' and stayed there as a goddess. The most common interpretation of this account has been that the girl went away, her reputation as an amazing woman remained, and years later, this historical figure became the object of a religious cult. They argue that when the myth tells us that the girl stayed as a goddess, it means that popular culture regarded this person as divine; it should not be considered that a supernatural process of god-conversion actually took place. It is a way of saying that this wonderful person remained an important figure in popular culture.
Girard (1996: 256) writes: "... unless they [gods] are first murdered they will never exist... gods begin to exist like gods, at least in the eyes of men, only after they have been murdered". The historians are right in saying that the account is not telling us about a 'supernatural conversion'. But the historians are not able to see that, if this girl was turned into a goddess, it was because she was collectively murdered first.
Kings, as victims waiting for execution, must please the mob(5). Revolutions are a tragic reminder that whenever a king is not able to provide satisfaction to the community, the king (and very frequently his innocent family) will be executed. The community of lynchers places all of its hopes upon the victim. They hope that the victim will solve their problems. If the victim is living, as it is the case of kings, he will be responsible to bring about peace. Maria Lionza failed to do this; she has failed her own community. The account has tricked us into believing that in disappointment, she went away never to return. Observing the mimetic processes taking place, it would be more accurate to consider that she was collectively murdered.
This account appears to be one of the first 'historical' and 'de-mythological' tales about Maria Lionza. It takes place in a precise historical setting and the magical elements are removed. Most importantly, it assures the possibility that Maria Lionza was in fact a real living person. Yet, this account continues to be myth; it does not understand (or does not want to) that in fact, there has been a murder.
Before turning to account #4, we must remember the important syncretistic nature of Maria Lionzan religion. As we've been saying, Maria Lionza is, above all, a mestiza. We must keep this in mind in order to understand how, in the first three myths, Maria Lionza is considered to be an Indian, and then, starting with account #4, Maria Lionza is now a white woman.
In tracing the evolution of the Maria Lionza myth, this account is much simpler than the previous two. In fact, it comes to resemble much more account #1 due to its simplicity. We have placed it as the fourth account because it is the first one to portray Maria Lionza as a white girl. Despite all the transformation this account has received, the original murder remains.
The girl swims and once again, disappears. There are no evident signs of disorder, accusation or restoration of order. The text knows quite well that 'disappearance' means 'death'. It tells us that the girl disappeared, but did not die. If 'disappearance' does not mean 'death', then the word 'but' would not be necessary.
This myth obviously retains much of the plot described in account # 1 and #2. There would appear to be no crime done by Maria Lionza, no accusation, and no sacrifice. But, as in the first two accounts, water is linked to death. In the first account, the girl dies by 'being thrown to the lake'. In the second account, the girl sees herself in the water, gives rise to floods, and then, she dies. Account #4 continues this pattern. Water is collective murder. She swims, and then, she 'disappears'. We already know that 'disappearances' are actually a way of dissimulating murder.
The account tells us that a boar rescues the girl. Maria and the boar became inseparable, up to a point that she is 'Maria de la Onza' ('Mary of the boar'). There is indeed, an accusation. Once again, the girl is monstrous, although her monstrousness is dissimulated. She is boar and human all in one, she unidifferentiates. Double transference sometimes makes it possible for the crimes of the gods to become minimal. The deity is so wonderful that its initial fault is not really considered. For instance, according to Girard (1986: 80), "when Zeus turns into a swan to become Leda's lover, we do not think of the crime as bestiality". The accusation endures, but double transference can turn it minimal. Maria is monstrous, but after her disappearance, that is to say, her sacrifice, she is not really that monstrous.
Account #5 continues the track of Maria Lionza as a Spanish girl. It tells us that the girl grew up among the animals. Growing up among animals is an important clue to consider. She is not animal, but neither is she human. She is monstrous, she undifferentiates, and she is guilty. Maria Lionza is a girl who lives among a community of animals. At the same time, Maria Lionza shares with the animals, she lives with them, but she remains a human being. She is both an outsider and an insider of the community, which makes her a perfect scapegoat. But, as in account #4, her bestiality is not really all that relevant.
The girl sees a strange light and 'disappears'. Up to this point, it should be clear the insistence of the myth in substituting 'murder' with 'disappearance'. In his analysis of the myth of Quetzalcoatl, Gil Bailie (1995: 102) writes: "...[according to the myth] people fell [from the bridge] and turned into stone. Except in myths, people don't turn to stone... When the mythological mind recollects the frenzy of a full-blown violent crisis, it muses". Bailie is warning us that collective murder is disguised in myth. Except in myth, people don't just 'disappear'. Bailie (1995: 103) continues: "To mine the myths for anthropological insight, one must look for signs of where narrative seems to be glossing over violence. In this myth [Quetzalcoatl's], one such sign is the reference of people dying and turning to stone". In this manner, 'disappearance' is a sign of murder.
'Seeing a strange light' is also a common feature among some other American myths that deal with a collective murder. Another Aztec myth, the story of Tecuciztecatl, tells us about some characters that 'throw themselves to the sun'. In his analysis of this myth, Girard (1986) warns us that these characters have actually been killed, and myth has made it look like they've gone to their death willingly. Seeing a strange light and 'disappearing' is probably reminiscent of a sacrifice at a burning stake. In this manner, we must once again consider the girl's 'disappearance' as murder.
After her 'disappearance', she becomes divine; she goes up to the heavens and some Indians make her queen. Divinity and kingship unite in this account. She becomes a 'queen' of the heavens. She is both goddess and queen. The king is a delayed victim, and the god is a sacrificed victim. Both gods and kings are victims. Maria Lionza is both of them. This should lead us to conclude that Maria Lionza was in fact a victim.
For the time being, we shall jump to account #7, we will return to account #6 later.
Account #7 is perhaps, the most 'historical' and non-magical of all the ones narrated in this article. There are no disappearances, no rising up to the heavens, no half woman-half animal, and the account given is in fact quite reliable, the story makes sense. But, interestingly enough, it gives us some of the best clues to arrive at the conclusion that Maria Lionza was in fact a victim.
Maria Lionza is not regarded as a goddess in this particular account. She was a real being, and she does not live in the mountains. Her story was quite impressive, and perhaps it was transformed into myth by popular imagination. Historian Bruno Manara does a fine job in presenting an objective account of who Maria Lionza was.
It begins by telling us that she is Spanish, and a shipwreck drives her to the shores of Venezuela. She is rescued by some Indians and taken to the village, where she receives the favour of the chief, and then, after learning some skills, becomes queen. The account confirms in every detail Girard's theory on kingship and sacrifice. A total stranger and outsider is brought to the village. The Indians make her one of their own and they teach her many of the basic skills of Indian lifestyle. After some time, she becomes queen. How can a total stranger reach power? How is it possible that the community obey her?
According to Girard, the process of hominization was launched by sacrifice. As we stated earlier, unlike animals, human beings are highly mimetic creatures who have a great capacity to imitate and become undifferentiated among themselves, clearing away the domination hierarchy that prevails in animal societies, thus creating disorder. The proto-humans became humans as they discovered the power of sacrifice as a reconciliatory mechanism. In this sense, men went out hunting to look for sacrificial victims. This allowed men to abandon their caves and explore new territories. It's very likely that the Indians did not rescue Maria Lionza in a place right next to the village. They must have rescued her while exploring new territories and looking for new sacrificial victims
Societies constantly search for sacrificial victims. As we noted earlier, the scapegoat can not be a complete insider, but neither can it be a complete outsider. It must be both in and out. The Indians found and rescued a total outsider, a Spanish woman. They bring her to the village and they make her one of their own. The Tupinamba of Brazil have the custom of integrating their war prisoners to the community. They are allowed to participate in everyday life and sometimes are assigned some women and form their own family. After some years, they are sacrificed (Girard, 1983). Why would they integrate the prisoner to the community? Because the sacrificial victim can not be a total stranger.
Maria is introduced to the community. She learns to become an Indian, yet she is not an Indian. She is a member of the community, but she is also a stranger: a perfect victim. On his account, Manara doesn't seem to explain the strange fact that the Indians accept a stranger as one of their own, but we now know that the community is preparing Maria to become a victim.
Yet, it remains to be asked: how could the Indians make her queen? She is a stranger; she doesn't really have a complete and absolute knowledge of Indian affairs. A reasonable answer is the principle of double transference. There are no doubts that Maria was a future victim integrated into the community. The Indians know that this stranger, when sacrificed, will bring great prosperity to the community. Little by little they make her one of their own, and give her an extraordinarily nice treatment. She, in other words, is a living goddess awaiting sacrifice. The admiration towards her is so great, that she is able to become queen, as it in fact occurs in the account given by Manara. In most accounts, Maria Lionza is a goddess, in another, she is goddess and a queen, and on this one, she is a queen. They all point to the conclusion that Maria Lionza was a real sacrificial victim.
Let us review the six accounts evaluated and attempt to trace a chronological line of them.
Up to know, we have sufficient evidence to consider that the myth of Maria Lionza is inspired on a real murder. Accounts #1, 2, 3, 4 & 5 include a murder scene. It should not be considered a mere coincidence then, that all of these myths are just some fantastic tales that have little to do with reality. The murder is a constant theme in all accounts.
The first two accounts are 'mythical' indeed. No rational person would ever consider that a girl who goes to the bottom of the lake returns right back to the surface with some extraordinary animals, or that just because the girl saw her reflection in the water, she became a monstrous snake. There are great probabilities that account #2 is posterior to account #1. The second account is much more elaborated than the first one, but the central point we must consider is the way in which the second account hides the murder. While in the first account it remains relatively explicit, the second account already covers it up in a much more elaborated fashion. According to Girard, ritual came up before myth. Ritual, in its most essential form, is a re-enactment of the foundational murder. Sacrificial rituals leave a good track of evidence relating to the original murder. Myth rose up much later and unlike ritual, little by little, it erases the traces of the murder. Early myths contain a clearer account of a murder than the later and more developed myths.
The shift from account #1 to account #2 expresses this pattern. The murder is much harder to find in the later account. It is a sign that myth will do whatever possible in order to hide the murder.
In account #3, history and myth unite. The story deals with some real historical figures and there are almost no mythical elements. Most historians would consider this account as reliable and would agree that it is not a myth. What they don't realise is that this account hides in an even more spectacular fashion the original murder. In account #1 & 2 we still have some good signs of a murder. Account #3 removes them even further. We are told that the girl just 'disappeared'. By removing the magical elements and mixing with some historical data, this account has fooled most historians. It has made them believe that just because it contains no magical elements, the account should be considered reliable. The removal of magical elements is a seducing form to make us believe that the girl just 'disappeared'. No doubt this account can not be considered mythical in the traditional sense. Yet, this account remains fallacious. It is trying to make us believe that there was no murder. What make a story mythical are not its magical elements. What makes a story mythical is the way in which it hides the truth about the sacrificial victim. Magical elements are a common way of covering up the murder. But the removal of the supernatural and/or magical does not guarantee that the truth about the victim has been revealed. A text stops being mythical only when it is capable of understanding the victim's innocence and listening to his/her voice. Account #3, in its own astute way, silences it. Despite its 'mythical' nature, account #3 is helpful for our task. It locates Maria Lionza in a precise historical setting, something the previous two accounts could not do. With its pseudo-reliability, account #3 confirms that there was a real Maria Lionza, it is not just a simple product of Venezuelan folklore with no historical basis, as some suggest.
There is a great shift between accounts # 3 & 4. The most significant change regards the identity of Maria Lionza. She is now a white girl. We must keep in mind the syncretistic nature of the cult to Maria Lionza. Although no historian has been able to determine it with certainty, it is very likely that the story of Maria Lionza was an Indian product that found some equivalent in a Spanish story and with time, they mixed and gave shape to the present-day myth. Thus, accounts #4 & 5 are probably anterior to account #3, but there is simply no way of knowing. The important point to rescue is that, accounts # 4 & 5 remain as mythical as accounts # 1 & 2. Magical elements prevail and the girl mysteriously disappears.
Our evidence is sufficient enough to understand that, behind every account of the myth we just revised; there is a founding murder. But, some might ask, is this founding murder metaphoric? To what degree is the alleged murder a real one? It could be argued that the murder indeed appears in all of the myths, but this doesn't mean that it is founded upon a real event.
Account #7 is quite reliable in the sense that it does not contain any magical elements. It tells a very believable story of a Spanish woman rescued by Indians, and after some time she becomes queen. We have explained the process that allows her to become queen. This should allow us to understand that even the most historically precise of all accounts indicates that a sacrifice was on the way. The account does not narrate such an event, but it is quite possible that the queen could have been sacrificed at some later time unnoticed by the historian. Account #3, another version with a precise historical setting and without any magical elements, tells us that the girl 'disappeared', we never knew anything about her ever again. Thus, there was in fact a girl who did talk to the Spanish authorities and never came back.
The sacrifices narrated or hidden in myths did in fact take place, and the gods are real victims. To make this point clear, let us return to Girard's comparison between myths and other sorts of texts that present the same structure. Persecution texts, found through out all of History including the modern world, but especially during the Middle Ages, follow the same pattern as myths. They accuse victims of something and believe the accusation to be real, and at the same time, describe the victims' death or expulsion and believe that this was the cause of the restoration of order. This clearly takes place with the example Guillame de Machaut described a few pages ago, the medieval poet who writes a text accusing some Jews of poisoning waters and causing death during the Black plague, and at the same time describes some of the Jews' executions. Machaut believes in the accusation and he attributes all of the problems to the Jews. He also considers that thanks to their execution, happiness returns among the community.
We have every reason to believe that the executions narrated in persecution texts are real. The writer of the text gives a fake account of the events. He considers the victims to be guilty. Yet, the truth of the execution remains. The writer has placed so much emphasis on the victim's guilt (which we know to be false), that his account becomes credible. According to Girard (1987: 118), there is a real lynching because, "why would one constantly encounter the perspective of the lynchers if there were no lynching to provoke it?"
In all the versions of the myth (except perhaps account #7) we have just analysed, we find the perspective of the scapegoater, of the community, of the lyncher. In all accounts, the girl is guilty of something, whether it is a crime of unidifferentiation such as seeing herself in the water, growing up with animals or becoming a snake, and thus, the girl is considered to be the cause of disorder, in the very same manner that Guillame de Machaut considered the Jews to be responsible for the poisoning of the rivers. If all myths present the perspective of the lynchers, it must be because there was in fact a real lynching.
Another objection might come up. Assuming that there was a real sacrifice and a real victim, the dates do not seem to match between the two accounts with a precise historical setting. Account #3 tells us the story took place in the XVI Century, while account #7 tells us that it occurred in the year 1800. I'm afraid Girardian theory has not yet offered enough tools in order to approach this type of problems.
For Girard, persecution texts and myths are structurally identical. The difference lies upon the fact that the former has removed magical elements and has kept a precise historical setting. The Maria Lionza myth has some great magical features, but it has also a precise historical setting. Myth and history are all integrated in one.
The myth of Maria Lionza and Maria Lionzan religion in general is itself a product of syncretism. The myth of Maria Lionza is taken from history and fantasy, besides the fact that the stories that have served to conform this myth come from many different regions and cultures. In this manner, accounts #1 and 2 deal with an Indian girl and her relationship with water. Account # 4 and 5 deal with a Spanish girl that also has a special relationship with water. Mircea Eliade understands quite well the symbolism of water and its link with life and death. For him, water symbolism is charged with regeneration: water erases (destroys) old forms and gives fresh start to a new social and cosmological order. "Water symbolism implies dying and being born again" (Eliade, 1967: 112). Accounts #1, 2, 4 & 5 have water as a regeneration symbol. Through the waters, María Lionza dies. But at the same time, these waters bring prosperity. The water symbolism is related to the notion of the 'death that brings life' as understood by Girard. It is quite possible that accounts #1 and 2 were of an Indian origin and accounts #4 and 5 had its origin in Spanish folklore. The similarities of these myths allow them to fuse into a new one.
It points out that all of the accounts that serve as ingredients for the syncretistic product of the Maria Lionza myth dealt with real victims. I'm afraid we won't really know on what precise victim is Maria Lionza inspired; instead, it would be convenient to say that Maria Lionza is inspired on all the victims of the different accounts that have served as antecedent. Maria Lionza is inspired on the Spanish victims and on the Indian victims, she is inspired on the victim of the XVI Century and on the victim of the XIX Century.
We have taken a look at the different accounts of the story regarding how Maria Lionza came to be a goddess. We shall now turn to the profile of Maria Lionza per se, as it exists today in Maria Lionzan religion and popular Venezuelan culture. For marialionceros, Maria Lionza is not just a product of Venezuelan folklore that is interesting but should not be taken literally. Maria Lionza does exist and she lives in the mountains of Yaracuy.
Until the 1950's, the cult to Maria Lionza was relatively obscure for the rest of Venezuela. Once Maria Lionza was taken as a symbol of national identity, the Maria Lionzan religion received a massive number of adherents. Prior to this revival, the cult to Maria Lionza basically dealt with offerings, sacrifices, good will asking and other magical features.
The new population of marialionceros came from Venezuelan cities, and they had retained much of their Christian faith. They had a taste of modern life, with both its problems and advantages. Maria Lionzan religion became increasingly attractive as a way of alternative medicine, and her curative attributes became the cornerstone of her cult. The massive launch of the mid XX Century gave rise to some transformations in the profile of Maria Lionza as a goddess. Until that time, Maria Lionza was an overwhelmingly Indian figure. She was then given attributes coming from Spanish and African traditions that gave the goddess a totally new profile. Art began to portray her as a muscular and beautiful woman, resembling Greek-like gods while other artists portrayed her in the Virgin Mary's style of traditional Catholic art.
Today, Maria Lionza is a goddess with fantastic attributes. The list of attributes is too great to name them all, but we will examine a few. She is, first of all, a fantastic miracle worker. The great popularity of the cult has to do in great part, with her capacity to bring miracles to those marialionceros that ask for her help and give offerings(6). The 'medical' court is one of the most popular ones, precisely because she is said to work with the help of venerated Venezuelan physicians from the past. Maria Lionza is also the defender of the Indian's rights. Some historians have traced this feature back to the Virgin Mary's attributes as advocate of humanity before God in Catholic tradition. But, being a white goddess, she also shows some great charity attributes as a woman that, despite her race, cares for people of other races; she is the antidote for racism. Finally, she embodies Venezuela's hopes. In Maria Lionza, African, Spanish and Indian cultures unite peacefully and work together in harmonious courts to bring miracles and happiness to all Venezuelans. Maria Lionza has become the guardian of Venezuela.
Feuerbach's thesis on religion has been widely discredited. However, some ideas remain helpful. For Feuerbach (1972), religion is a form of alienation. Man projects all of his ideal attributes and hopes towards gods. If we are to follow this line of thought, Maria Lionza is the bearer of all hopes and ideals. She is the ideal Venezuelan woman. She cures(7), she does not look upon colour, she is for all social classes, and she unites all three races into one peaceful and glorious nation.
So far, we have an amazingly extraordinary goddess. How could it then be possible that Maria Lionza, an accused and guilty girl as seen by myth, all of the sudden turned into a wonderful goddess? Girard offers a most satisfying answer.
Early and undeveloped forms of myth and religion do not hesitate in presenting a guilty victim and narrating its sacrifice. As we have seen, account #1 is quite explicit when it comes to presenting the sacrifice. However, as myth develops, the sacrifice is strongly covered and the victim's guilt is reduced.
Societies, Girard argues, blame the victim as the cause of disorder, but eventually realise that the sacrificed victim is also the cause of order. We have already called this process double transference. The victim turns from being very bad, to being very good. The victim becomes a god, and as we have seen, while waiting for its execution, the victim may even become a king.
Gods therefore, are both bad and good. María Lionza's ambivalent nature is best described by Hermann Garmendia (1966), a well-known researcher of Maria Lionzan religion: "She [María Lionza] is a goddess, a queen and a mother that is angelic and demonic [my italics]".
The initial crimes that the victims were blamed for in the beginning loose importance and are reduced. Girard (1986: 83) writes: "...gods who are fully guilty, are succeeded by gods of limited or even non-existent culpability". Myth has its ways of achieving this, "the simplest solution is to retain the victim's crimes but claim they were not intended" (Girard, 1986: 82).
If we revise the different accounts of the Maria Lionza myth, we will discover that she is not presented as the wonderful deity she is today. In the first myths, the girl is guilty of having green eyes and of seeing herself in the water. Account #6 presents in a clear form the principle of double transference. Maria Lionza is a farm owner who shows compassion for the workers. But, in Antolinez's account of the Brazilian goddess Uyara (upon which the Maria Lionza figure is largely based), she seduces and plays with men. Uyara appears to be viewed as Bizet's Carmen. She plays with men, but this is not seen as a terrible thing. Quite the opposite, it is a sign of her sensuality, a feature of the Venezuelan exoticness that makes her more attractive.
Account #2 presents in classical fashion the unintended guilt of the victim. It is not Maria Lionza's fault that she saw herself in the water. The guards were supposed to take care of her, but fell asleep. She innocently saw her double. In the same manner, account #3 does not consider her explicitly guilty of the failure of the talks with the Spanish. She is guilty of being unable to arrive at a peaceful arrangement with the Spanish, but it is not her fault, the Spanish simply could not be convinced.
Maria Lionza, thus, is not the wonderful goddess that the present-day cult portrays. She is in fact a guilty and monstrous victim turned into a semi-innocent and wonderful goddess after her murder.
Maria Lionza is no doubt, a source of heated debate in Venezuelan society and among domestic and international scholars. In 1999, the debate was revived during the process of writing a new Constitution for Venezuela. Some politicians and Catholic representatives argued that Maria Lionza must not be considered a religion and the political authorities should exclude marialionceros from recognition and social benefits.
It would be difficult to place a Girardian analysis of the myth of Maria Lionza in a debate with other political and academic perspectives. I have not dealt with historical, sociological and psychological perspectives. Neither do I attempt to make a political statement about Maria Lionza. My intention has simply been to explore a different understanding of the myth. In such a manner, I believe that out of all the authors I have referenced at the beginning of the essay, the above analysis can only get into a full discussion with the work of Hermann Garmendia. To my knowledge, he has been the only major scholar who has attempted to arrive at a theoretic understanding of the myth of Maria Lionza.
As we stated earlier, Garmendia believes the myth of Maria Lionza is a manifestation of Venezuela's collective unconscious. The repressed desires and fears of Venezuelans come out in the myth of Maria Lionza. For Garmendia, Maria Lionza is an archetype of the fear of incest, and the desire of justice and greatness. This Jungian interpretation is worth considering. However, 'archetypes' remains an abstract category difficult to affirm or deny. I believe that beyond the 'archetypes', there remains a much more concrete and precise manifestation of human nature in the myth of Maria Lionza: the surrogate victim mechanism. As I have attempted to show, all versions of the myth deal with the collective murder of a victim. Garmendia considers the myth as a 'regression' of Venezuelan mentality. I simply consider the myth as one record among many others around the world presenting (and hiding) how the sacred is founded upon the collective execution of a scapegoat.
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1. Most marialionceros consider their goddess as the best bridge between Christ and humanity, and belong to the Maria Lionzan religion as a way of approaching Christ.
2. I have synthesized and translated all accounts
3. Ponce de León was a real historic figure. He was one of the leading conquistadors of Venezuela
4. To some extent, this account resembles the Rig Veda. Vrtra is the monster-snake that represents primordial chaos. Vrtra blocked the waters. Indra killed Vrtra, allowing the waters to flow freely and creating a new order. In both myths we have a monstrous snake representing chaos and its death allows the waters to flow freely and restore order.
5. Girard does a remarkable analysis of John the Baptist's execution and Salome's dance before Herod and his guests. Girard argues that even though Herod is a king and does not want to execute John, he must go along with Salome's request and please the mob. See "The Scapegoat" (1986), pp. 125-148.
6. Although some of these offerings are animal sacrifices, most of them are fruit and flower offerings. Leo Lefebure sees in this a challenge to Girard's mimetic theory. According to Lefebure, fruit sacrifice is not a violent form of ritual. See Lefebure's "Revelation, the Religions and Violence".
7. Placed in the Venezuelan context, this attribute is extremely important, for Venezuela has faced some serious health and medical problems in the past.