By ARIANA CUBILLOS (AP)
SORTE, Venezuela — Thousands of Venezuelans congregated for candlelit rituals on a remote mountainside where adherents make an annual pilgrimage to pay homage to an indigenous goddess known as Maria Lionza.
Many smoked cigars in purification rituals, while others closed their eyes lying face-up surrounded by candles and elaborate designs drawn on the ground with white powder.
Some calling themselves the "Vikings" pricked their tongues with razor blades, drawing blood that ran down their chins and chests. They said they could not reveal the esoteric secrets that govern their traditions.
The rituals, which began late last week and lasted through Monday, are held every year in the name of the indigenous goddess Maria Lionza, who according to legend came from the mountain at Sorte, near the northwestern town of Chivacoa.
Some repeated the word "strength" while dancing atop flaming embers in a ceremony honoring the goddess early Monday at the start of the annual Oct. 12 rituals. Many camped in tents while dedicating several days to the spiritual ceremonies.
The traditions centered on Maria Lionza are hundreds of years old and draw on elements of the Afro-Caribbean religion Santeria and indigenous rituals, as well as Catholicism. Believers often ask for spiritual healing or protection from witchcraft, or thank the goddess for curing an illness.
Venezuela is predominantly Roman Catholic. The church disapproves of the folk religion but has long since abandoned its attempts to suppress it.
A statue on a Caracas highway divider honors Maria Lionza, depicting her naked and sitting astride a wild tapir.
Followers of the sect regularly leave offerings of flowers, liquor, coins or fruit at shrines honoring the goddess or other folk saints.
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