When the church bell tolls midday in Naiguata, a town on Venezuala’s Carribbean coast, the sound of drums emanates and residents appear dressed in devil costumes and pour into the main square.
For hours, they wait dressed in their colourful costumes under the sun for their turn to pay their penance. Participants kneel down and proceed on their knees towards the town’s church while praying for a miracle to be granted.
Once every devil has paid its penance, drums become louder and then the devil dancing begins.
This centuries-old tradition known as the “Dancing Devils“, symbolises the triumph of good over evil, in which the “devils” bow their heads to show their submission to religion.
Dancers move around chaotically, stomping their feet and whirling around to confront and intimidate other participants.
There is very much a Carnivalesque type atmosphere, with a mixture of pagan symbols such as animal-shaped masks, as well as religious icons with many wearing crosses and having images of the saints painted on their clothes.
Residents are marketing Corpus Christi in this tradition – Corpus Christi is Latin for ‘the body of Christ’ – which Catholics celebrate to proclaim the transformation of bread and wine into the actual body of Christ during Mass.
As is often the case in South America, these celebrations are rooted in a mixture of old world and new world traditions.
According to some theories, the Dancing Devils originated in the fifth century in Spain, where the Catholic Church used the dance to convert pagans to Christianity.
In Venezuela, it was used to draw African slaves into the religious celebrations. Descendants of those slaves now represent a majority of the population in Naiguata and many other towns in Venezuela’s Carribbean coast.
Across Venezuela, there are 11 “cofradias”, or religious groups who follow the Dancing Devils tradition. Celebrations vary slightly. In Yare, all the dancers wear red – the colour traditionally associated with the devil. But in Naiguata, the outfits are multi-coloured and many dancers wear religious images to “ward off evil spirits.”
The masks in Naiguata represent sea creatures as the town is on the coast, while other towns inland base their masks on mythological creatures and characters.
Traditionally it was only the men that were allowed to be a part of the cofradias, but in Naiguata, women are now allowed to join in the procession.
Preparations start long before Corpus Christi and the cofradia is divided into groups, with each group having different themes for their masks. The size of the masks depends on the length of time that particular group has taken part in the festivities. The older the group, the bigger the masks and the higher the group’s ranking in the “devil hierarchy.”
Celebrations start early on Corpus Christi, with fireworks at dawn. Participants wear gloves to protect their hands during the procession to the church on their hands and knees.
After paying penance in front of the church, the dancing then starts to the accompaniment of drums and bells that are attached to the dancers’ hips or shoes.
Celebrations culminate with an evening mass at which the devils then surrender to the forces of good.
This year’s festivities were particularly special as it marked the first time the festivity was recognised as intangible cultural heritage of humanity by Unesco, the United Nations cultural organisation.
“Unesco took us very seriously. Now we are known worldwide. We are enjoying this for the first time this year,” says Pablo Izaguirre, the Diablo Mayor, or Elder Devil.
- Photos: Corpus Christi celebrated around the world (photos.mercurynews.com)
- Venezuela’s dancing devils mark Corpus Cristi (sacbee.com)