A Goddess in Motion

Visual Creativity in the Cult of María Lionza

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Roger Canals
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , August
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anthropology has learned two important lessons about material objects, religious or otherwise: first, they have their own “lives” or biographies—from production and use to disposal—and second, they are often conceived and experienced not as mere objects but as persons. In his new and satisfying book A Goddess in Motion: Visual Creativity in the Cult of María Lionza—on an “indigenous cult” in Venezuela—Roger Canals finds these processes at work in images of the cult figure María Lionza.

What initially strikes us, and which struck Canals, is the varied appearance of Lionza—sometimes a white woman, sometimes indigenous/Indian, sometimes mestiza or even African. This point establishes his primary premise and focus, that there is ongoing creativity and experimentation in the visual aspect of the cult, a “constant updating of the images,” and unending freedom in “reinventing her representations” (7). Accordingly, the book examines multiple images—material, corporeal, and mental—across three visual variables, namely, Lionza’s ethnic identity, her moral nature, and her femininity.

The opening chapter asks the obvious question: who is María Lionza? To answer the question, Canals plumbs the myths and tales told about Lionza, some of which portray her as an indigenous woman from the early days of colonialism, others describing her as European or mixed-race. (Although no narratives report an African heritage, some images display her as such.) Perhaps the point is that her “ethnic group cannot be determined since she is a fusion of all of these origins” (37). Indeed, Canals stresses that, while members refer to the cult as an indigenous religion, it is better recognized as a modern urban reflection on indigeneity, and that her story “is not an indigenous myth, but rather a myth about the indigenous” (43).  

The second chapter surveys the ritual activities of the cult, which comprise “a multiplicity of purification, divination, healing, and initiation rituals in which a medium is possessed by the spirit of María Lionza or other divinities of her pantheon” (52). Central to the rituals are images of Lionza and her fellow spirits, placed on altars, and interacted with as if she were present and/or they were in her presence. The third chapter delves into the issue of the ritual image, the “picture of spirits,” and the ritual likeness. Whether white, Indian, black, or mixed, she is La Reina, a potent being whose permission must be sought before she can be seen or approached. Images, especially three-dimensional ones such as statues, are dressed, coiffed, and addressed as if they were a person. In his analysis of two-dimensional photographic images, Canals applies Georges Didi-Huberman’s concept of the “double regime of image.”

Moving beyond the cultic moment, the fourth chapter investigates how and where María Lionza appears in art and popular culture—specifically, “paintings, sculptures, collages, photographs, comic strips, and videos” (97). Featuring several reproductions of these works, this chapter finds that they tend to “evoke, from different angles, the idea of mestizaje of the Venezuelan population and, more particularly, that of María Lionza as a synthesis of this diversity” (103). The issue of representation or likeness emerges as we contemplate visual versions of the queen that hardly resemble her—or hardly resemble an actual person at all. On the other hand, an artist like Gala Garrido may illustrate herself in the guise of Lionza.

However, Canals does not limit the case to material images. The fifth chapter turns to corporeal and mental images, the former coming into being when the spirit inhabits the body of a believer and in depictions of her in “theater, dance, and cinema” (131). The mental image arrives in dreams, apparitions (understood locally as manifestations of María Lionza when she bears a message), and visions (momentary sightings when the spirit is not seeking to communicate). Although a typical account of religious images might overlook such forms of the divinity, Canals argues that mental images are actually “the main channel María Lionza and other spirits from her pantheon use to communicate with believers” (133).

Finally, as new visual technologies have arisen—and as María Lionza’s followers and fame have spread around the world—she has appeared in new ways and in new formats. Not the least of these new representations is in digital formats, where websites, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, and any number of “documentaries, fiction films, and reports and visual works created by artists” abound (145). Again, as with the material images before the worshipper, these digital representations are treated with personal respect: the pages and sites are sometimes “conceived as offerings or gifts offered to the goddess” (144), and the images held therein are sometimes handled and preserved “as if they were holy cards, or personal amulets” (145). Such images are particularly important for believers who live far from Venezuela, whether they are emigrant Venezuelans or converts in other countries such as Spain.  

The last chapter emphasizes this “nomadism of images” (167), which correlates to and necessitates a constant reinvention of the image—and thus of the myth, the appearance, and the person—of María Lionza. Inevitably, as she and her cult travel and circulate, she and it acquire new traits and lose old ones, “by combining elements belonging to other representations,” “by introducing new elements,” and “by making María Lionza converge with other divinities” (175). Anthropologists and religion scholars should recognize and welcome this description and analysis, supporting as it does our awareness that religions are not static, eternal facts but invented and ever-reinvented traditions that absorb, discard, and reinterpret bits as they flow across time and space. María Lionza truly is a goddess in motion—just as all culture is and always has been in motion—and the treatment in the book adds to and reinforces our knowledge of the processes of making and remaking religion specifically, and culture generally.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor of Anthropology (retired) at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
February 27, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roger Canals is a lecturer in the department of social anthropology at the University of Barcelona. Besides numerous articles in visual anthropology and anthropology of religion, he is the director of several international award–winning ethnographic films, including A Goddess in Motion: María Lionza in Barcelona (2016). He was awarded the Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Wenner Gren Foundation.


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