With a single kick, Victor Medina collapses a burning pyre, then crosses the smouldering embers in his bare feet.
He walks purposefully with a distant gaze, while embodying an indigenous spirit during a ritual on Mount Sorte in northwestern Venezuela dedicated to ending the Covid-19 pandemic.
Medina grabs a burning branch and slaps it against his head, which is adorned with a feathered headdress.
He takes another smouldering branch and bites it without flinching.
As he strides around the ceremonial enclosure, Medina is followed by Jeancarlos Liscano, who spits mouthfuls of liquor at him.
“Come on!” Liscano shouts during the “dance by candlelight” on the slopes of the mountain in Yaracuy state, where, according to tradition, a goddess called Maria Lionza appeared.
“We do it to honor the queen … in particular so that she delivers us from this pandemic,” 40-year-old teacher Liscano told AFP before himself striding over the fire.
Every October 12, known in Venezuela as the Day of Indigenous Resistance, thousands of believers descend on this wild epicenter of Venezuelan spiritism and santeria to worship the image of the goddess, who is represented atop a tapir.
Coronavirus restrictions meant only around 20 local residents were allowed to take part in 2020.
Authorities allowed the masses to return this year, although the crippling economic crisis that has left the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves facing fuel shortages meant the numbers were significantly down on previous years.
Two of Medina’s ritual dance companions died of Covid.
“Today we’re paying our respects to them,” said the 33-year-old baker.
Smoking tobacco, he prepares to invoke the Cacique Tiuna, a native chief that lived 500 years ago.
Before beginning the ceremony that demonstrates the power of spirits on Earth, hundreds of people observe a minute’s silence to honor the 4,600 Venezuelans who have died from Covid, according to official figures that experts consider under-estimated.
Then the drums begin.
“Come on! Come on! I’m not afraid of him!” chant the spectators as they move to the beat in front of four bonfires.
Covered in black soot, Medina says “my body is a bit tired” but he feels “excellent” after completing the ritual for the seventh time.
Some 5,000 worshippers camp on the mountain’s slopes where they have erected altars several meters tall.
The figure of Maria Lionza is everywhere, surrounded by candles, flowers and fruit.
She is often accompanied — in a sort of trinity — by images of the indigenous cacique Guaicaipuro and Pedro Camejo, known as “Negro Primero”, a soldier who fought for independence from the Spanish.
All sorts of historic figures are venerated. There is even a “court” of liberators, doctors, Vikings and even criminals.
Tilo Pereira, a 50-year-old merchant, spits blood while invoking the Viking “Mr Robdison”.
A fellow worshipper pours water on his head while Pereira, his bare chest covered in blood, tries to pierce the inside of his cheek with a large needle.
Pereira is “material”, a medium between the spirits and humans.
The rituals are meant to heal. In a trance, participants cut themselves with blades and walk on glass shards.
“The spirit helps you,” said Pereira, who sports a tattoo of a Viking.
“I’ve danced on broken glass, eaten glass, razor blades… it’s normal.”
Krashnahia Gonzalez, 57, says the mountain is magical and credits it with curing him of Covid.
“I prepared my little tea, my things, I took my clothes and went up there and took a bath in cold water… naked, I got rid of these negative energies with blue soap,” he said.
Jose Bernal, a 61-year-old laborer from Valencia, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) away, came to the mountain to recover from Covid.
His lungs were affected by the illness and he says he gets tired from the slightest effort.
Seated with his eyes closed, a spiritist blows tobacco smoke over his body while pouring fruit juice over his head.
Afterwards, both head down to the river where Bernal plunges three times into the water before washing with soap.
“This is the spiritual hospital,” says Jeckson Mendez, a spiritist who denies he is practising “bad magic.”
Brunel, a Catholic, says he feels “like I’ve been given more energy” and hopes for Maria Lionza to “perform a miracle for my recovery.”
by Andrea TOSTA