'It's All to Do with Words': An Analysis of Spirit Possession in the Venezuelan Cult of Maria Lionza

Article excerpt

Humans possessed by spirits are often described as ill or distressed, lacking power, control, and agency, and spirit possession has been described as a kind of ventriloquism in which mediums acquire a voice more powerful than their own as humans. What remains unsaid and unheard is what the spirits and humans talk about during possession episodes. This article suggests that the tendency to focus on the form and not the content of possession episodes has allowed for another form of ventriloquism, in which anthropologists themselves use the mediums to speak to their own agendas. Against this tendency, participants in the cult of Maria Lionza see words as central to the cult, to be listened to carefully. An analysis of the content of their possession episodes reveals how, far from being passive, deprived of agency, and 'muted', the possessed in the cult are actively engaged in an ongoing conversation with anthropologists, historians, the media, and the state.

In most anthropological accounts, humans who become possessed by spirits are described as ill or distressed, as lacking power, control, and agency, their experience one of loss (Bourgouignon 1973; Crapanzano 1977; Lewis 1989; Obeyesekere 1981; Ong 1988). Such accounts generally assume that the mediums participate in possession so as to acquire a more powerful and authoritative voice than the one they have as humans. Spirit possession is thus described by anthropologists as a kind of ventriloquism in which the mediums use the spirits in order to speak (Nourse 1996: 425). What anthropological analyses tend to leave unclear, however, is what the spirits and the possessed actually say during possession episodes. Instead, they tend to focus on the context in which spirit possession develops, on its form, and on the social, economic, or ethnic background of the participants. [1] By contrast, mediums and believers in the Venezuelan cult of Maria Lionza describe their cult, their beliefs, their relations with the spi rits, and the spirits themselves as being constituted through and by words. Words, they affirm, are what the cult is all about. This article develops out of an attempt to make sense of this striking discrepancy between perceptions of spirit possession within the Maria Lionza cult and anthropological understandings of the phenomenon.

Boddy (1994: 408) states that spirit possession has long attracted anthropological interest and 'has rarely missed a theoretical beat' because, in its form, 'it appears dramatically and intransigently exotic, unrecognizable' (1994: 407-8). Exoticism, however, is not the only possible explanation for anthropological interest in possession. The tendency to focus on the form of possession episodes (which is often elaborate) and to neglect the content (which, by contrast, is often prosaic) has allowed for 'others' -- that is, neither the spirits, nor the possessed, nor the believers -- to speak through the possessed. More specifically, this article argues, spirit possession can be described as a form of ventriloquism in which anthropologists themselves use the mediums in order to speak. Often it is the anthropologist who seems to take hold of the possessed and speak through their bodies, and the voice gained by the possessed becomes that of the anthropologist. On further examination, their agendas seem to coinci de with remarkable regularity Like the anthropologists, the latter seem to be contesting, depending on shifts in emphasis within the discipline, gender and ethnic inequalities, marginality colonialism, capitalism, or racism. Indeed, so frequently have anthropologists and the possessed coincided in this way that one could imagine a reversal of perspective: not anthropology analysing spirit possession, but spirit possession as a window onto the variety of shapes anthropological theories have taken over the years.

As academic discussion has developed, the suggested causes leading to spirit possession have also changed. …