Wednesday 15th June, 2005

 

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Rituals and customs in Venezuela

In a rite with historic roots from the Middle Ages, the eve of Corpus Christi in Venezuela heralds annually the return of Los Diablos Danzantes, the devil dancers.

During this festive event, the streets of villages and towns across Venezuela are flooded by men of all ages dressed up in elaborate and colourful devil costumes and sporting ferocious papier-mâché masks.

In large busy urban areas like Caracas, however, the tradition is maintained only at certain parts of the city, on the outskirts or amongst schoolchildren.

In some instances, the ringing of bells and three beats on a metal drum summon the presence of the Diablos Danzantes the day before Corpus Christi. The devil dancers may then run amok in the town before falling upon their knees in front of a church to pray. Usually they hold a night-time candle-lit mass called el Velorio de los Diablos Danzantes.

During the Middle Ages, different customs developed in Europe around Corpus Christi. One of these was a splendid outdoor procession in which merchants, nobles and clergymen participated. Another was the performance of mystery plays in public squares or churches.

Dances symbolising the struggle between good and evil, Heaven and Hell also came to mark the occasion. By the 17th century, major characters from the mystery plays themselves appeared in the processions as people began to dress up as saints and other biblical characters, devils and demons, symbolising the honour that had to be paid by all to the Eucharistic Lord.

In Spain, figures with immense masks representing famous Old Testament characters took part in the procession and performed traditional dances on the streets. In the churches groups of choirboys danced before the altar in honour of the Blessed Sacrament.

The customs and rituals surrounding Corpus Christi were introduced to the New World by Spanish conquistadors. Enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples adapted them and the present day music and art forms of the Venezuelan devil dance owe much to this blend.

According to one account, the Venezuelan dancing devils of custom date back to the 17th century, when Spanish slave-owners initiated attempts to convert the enslaved Africans to Christianity.

They connected Corpus Christi to penitence, the payment of debts and to notions that they thought would appeal to the subjugated pagans in their power: land fertility, bountiful harvests, the honouring of the earth and the securing of blessings upon the family.

Today, devil dancing is still a serious matter for many participants who pledge to dance each year in penance for the sins of their families.

The devil dancers may be organised into confraternities dedicated to the Eucharist and in the early hours of Corpus Christi, they visit the graves of their predecessors before attending church.

The procession begins after the Corpus Christi Mass and the whirling devils with their drums and bells are said to be a fearsome sight as they run through the streets driving evil from the cities and towns.

They visit houses and shops, purging evil and receiving gifts in return. In some towns and cities they may dance all night to scare away the devil.

In Venezuela, the area noted for having the oldest and most famous Diablos Danzantes is San Francisco de Paula de Yare. Different locales have their own distinctive costumes and masks but in San Francisco de Paula de Yare, the colour of the devil dancers is yellow and red.

Many villages have specific numbers of devil dancers, ranging from 13 to 200. According to one source, if you count the number of dancers you may see an extra devil, for example 14 instead of 13. This means that the devil himself is abroad and has joined the dancing masqueraders.

You may also count one less, such as 12 instead of 13. This means that one of the dancers was not concentrating enough and the devil whisked him away across the mountains.

In cases like these, some dancers have claimed that they ended up miles away and that they had to walk for days to get back to their villages after being snatched away by the devil.

Some Spanish words

Here at the Secretariat for the Implementation of Spanish (SIS), one of our aims is to facilitate an awareness of Latin American culture and society and the driving forces behind them.

We invite you to increase your knowledge of countries and communities across the Spanish-speaking Americas and in this respect we will leave you with a few vocabulary words related to this article’s topic:

devil dancers — los diablos danzantes

wake — el velorio

mask — la máscara

church — la iglesia

street — la calle

town — la ciudad

For more information on the Spanish as the First Foreign Language (SAFFL) initiative, please contact the Secretariat for the Implementation of Spanish (a division of the Ministry of Trade and Industry) at 624-8329

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