The following article is from our November 2005 issue.

Bolívar's Red Reincarnation? German sage not held responsible for disappearing Hugo Chávez busts. By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Long before the Germans exported Mercedes Benz automobiles, they sent mythologists to the most distant corners of the world. To this day, these sages are esteemed in distant lands, for example in Venezuela where a bizarre cult anguishes over the question of whether leftwing President Hugo Chávez should be worshiped as a reincarnation of Simón Bolívar, hero of Latin America's 19th-century struggle for independence.

Granted, Bavarian faith healer Klaus-Dieter Nassall is not quite in the same league as Max Müller (1823-1900), the famed German-born Oxford Orientalist whom Indians still revere for his mammoth 51-tome translation of the "Sacred Books of the East." Still, Nassall is well within Müller's tradition of German thinkers ferociously delving into the mysteries of exotic religions - and being accepted as venerable scholars by adherents of those faiths.

Unlike Müller's oriental drift, though, Nassall's expertise is particularly focused on the Western hemisphere. Many Venezuelans among whom Nassall had dwelled for decades see him as a wise wizzard. So when in 1999 they elected Chávez, a leftwing former army officer, as their new president, word spread among the wizards of the syncretistic Maria Lionza cult that Nassall had proclaimed him a Simón Bolívar reincarnate who would do wondrous things for his nation.

This was probably an apocryphal pronouncement; at least that's what Nassall says now that Chávez has become controversial even in spiritualist circles. But as this supposed statement made the rounds among the poor in the barrios of Carácas six years ago, Chávez's busts began adorning the altars of Maria Lionza temples, alongside images of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the archangel Michael, assorted Catholic saints, Viking warriors and other idols nobody else has ever heard of, such as some peculiar figures wearing top hats and post-Victorian attire.

"I simply remarked among friends that Chávez was a man of Bolivar's spirit," Nassall insists in a recent telephone interview, sounding less certain than a year ago when he described the Venezuelan leader as the embodiment of Bolivarian ideals. Apocryphal or not, though, even a sage's whispered word weighs mightily in Venezuela, especially when it seems to be in line with a celebrated oracle.

Back in 1967, Beatriz Veit-Tané, nowadays the self-proclaimed high priestess of Maria Lionza, prophesied that in the year 2000, "a messenger of light will rise from the humble classes" to resurrect Gran Colombia, Bolivar's short-lived creation. It consisted of present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Bolivia, but collapsed shortly before Bolivar's death in 1830. To restore Gran Colombia is one of the political goals of the FARC, Colombia's lethal, kidnapping, cocaine-trafficking Communist guerilla movement whose leaders proclaimed Chávez as the quintessential "Bolivarian officer."

So when Chávez came to power Maria Lionza devotees saw this event at first as a harbinger of a new Latin American empire; to them he was the portended messenger: "Today he'll own Venezuela, tomorrow the entire world," rejoiced back then Antonio Osuńa, the priest of a Spiritist temple in El Carpintero outside Carácas, reminding me eerily of a Nazi slogan I had heard in my childhood. At any rate, some 5,000 boutiques specializing in esoteric objects confirmed the new president's exalted state by exhibiting his bust in show windows and on their shelves.

"These days a lot of 'brujos' (temple leaders) no longer believe he is Bolívar," reports Nassall who personally still likes Chávez while objecting to some of his despotic ways. Osuńa, however, is "quite angry with him," says Angelina Pollock-Eltz, an Austrian-born ethnologist and Maria Lionza authority living in Carácas. Thus it appears that Chávez has caused a schism within the spiritualist community that once venerated him, and that's not good news for Venezuela's pro-Cuban head of state. For it means that he has lost a substantial portion of his former worshipers.

According to Rainer Mahlke, another German scholar, one-third of Venezuela's 22 million citizens is at least "passively involved" with this religion, which is based on the teachings of the 19th-century French schoolteacher Léon Dénizarth-Hippolyte Rivail (1804-1969). Writing under the nom de plume of Allan Kardec, Rivail taught that souls, while in transit from one body to the next, could be appealed to for guidance.

Since the late 19th century, Rivail has had a significant influence on mystical circles in Europe, Australia and the Americas, where members of the bourgeoisie conducted séances in darkened rooms making spirits opine on contemporary affairs. If this superstition calmed down a trifle during World War II and its aftermath, it returned with a vengeance after the 1960s when New Age rescued Kardec from oblivion. Societies bearing his name sprang up in every Western country where his standard work, "The Spirits' Book," can be downloaded from the Internet in many languages.

In Venezuela, Kardec-style spiritualism filtered down to the poor and crime-infested barrios where it mixed with folk Catholicism and tribal religions. Hundreds of thousands are now actively engaged in this cult in whose temples the departed allegedly take possession of mediums puffing liturgical cigars and drinking astounding amounts of liquor, usually cheap rum but on rare occasions also fine cognac or sweet champagne.

The cognac must be fed to a medium hoping to be possessed by Bolivar himself. The faithful call upon him for advice on political and legal matters, though Mahlke informs us that if you try to invoke the "libertador" you never know who might show up. It could be John F. Kennedy, or Hitler, or Stalin rather than Bolívar.

As for the sweet champagne, well, that's the favorite tipple of Maria Lionza who gave the cult its name. As Venezuelan lore has it, she was the fair-skinned, green-eyed daughter of a Jirajara Indian chief centuries ago. At her birth, a shaman advised the chief to kill this child at once, lest she unleash calamity upon her people.

Instead, the chief ordered his best braves to raise his daughter away from the tribe near a lagoon guarded by an anaconda, which fell in love with the girl but gobbled her up after she resisted its advances. As a result, the reptile grew and grew, squeezing the water out of the lagoon. The water flooded the Indian settlement, drowning the tribe.

Then the anaconda burst, and out popped Maria Lionza, evidently looking precisely like - centuries later - Spanish-born empress Eugenie of France, the wife of Napoleon III. At least this is how Venezuelan artists have been portraying her ever since Kardec's teachings became the rage of Venezuela's elite just about the time when Napoleon III and Eugenie were sent into exile after losing the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

To her worshipers, Maria Lionza, Eugenie's look-alike, is of course still in power as queen of all nature, of game and fish, forests and rivers, ranches, coffee and tobacco plantations. With a crown glistening in her luscious brown hair, she is the "Madre Reina," the queen mother heading a trinity called "Tres Potencias," or three power.

Her partners are Guaicaipuro, the ferocious Indian chief who fought the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century, and Pedro Camejo, Bolívar's faithful general also called Negro Primero. Each represents the principal races in Venezuela. Guaicaipuro is brown, Camejo black, and Maria Lionza, though allegedly the daughter of an Indian chief, has nevertheless the alabaster skin of a Spanish noblewoman - for that's what Empress Eugénie was born as.

This is not to say that these three outrank Christianity's trinity. Angelina Pollock-Eltz sees Maria Lionza rather as a "utilitarian cult" that does not presume to be an alternative to Catholicism but rather a supplement. The God of Christianity is the master of the universe to be worshiped in church, no question about that.

But the other trinity - Maria Lionza, her two colleagues and their entire pantheon - help in sickness and affairs of love, in matters of terrestrial power. It is before these ghosts that the faithful bring their crasser desires they dare not bother to trouble God with, such as their lust for affluence on earth and even their dark wish to wreak misfortune on an adversary.

Maria Lionza now appears only seldom at séances, giving advice to the faithful through a medium intoxicated with sweet champagne. On one of these rare occasions she evidently counseled a shop apprentice by the name of Eugenio Mendoza, Klaus-Dieter Nassall says.

Mendoza is a fervent Maria Lionza follower. In his case, the advice of "Madre Reina bore fruit. It made him an industrialist and one of Venezuela's richest men - the nation's "king of concrete." With that, he is anathema to Chávez whose leftwing direction has thrown into turmoil not just Venezuela's Christian churches but also the bizarre cult that worshiped him fervently only a few years ago.

- Uwe Siemon-Netto is a Washington-based columnist and university lecturer.