On June 3rd this year, Venezuela observed Corpus Christi celebrations through their Diablos Danzantes de Corpus Christi Festival. Today’s post talks about this uniquely Venezuelan festival. It discusses the reasons for its celebration, it looks at how the locals celebrate the occasion and what the festivities mean to the Venezuelans.
Corpus Christi and the Diablos Danzantes de Corpus Christi Festival
Corpus Christi is a Roman Catholic celebration that honours the Eucharist as the body of Jesus Christ. To put it simply, on this day, Catholics believe that bread and wine were transformed into the physical body of Jesus Christ. The feast of Corpus Christi holds a lot of importance to the citizens, as 71% of the Venezuelan population are Roman Catholics.
According to the Gregorian calendar, Corpus Christi falls on the ninth Thursday after Holy Thursday. Hence, it is celebrated every year between May and June. This year, it was on the 3rd of June.
While the rest of the Catholics around the world attend mass or hold processions, Venezuela celebrates the day in their own unique way. They too celebrate with a procession and attend mass, but they also dress up as devils by donning special costumes and putting on grotesque masks on their faces. Additionally, they play percussion instruments and perform sacred dance movements. This is known as the Diablos Danzantes or Dancing Devils of Corpus Christi festival.
All of these elements combined intend to drive evil away and, pray for prosperity, good harvest and good health. It is a uniquely Venezuelan cultural festival, one that creates the atmosphere of a colourful carnival, bringing people together.
San Francisco de Yare, a city 75km north of the Venezuelan capital Caracas, and Naiguatá, a coastal city also in the northern part of Venezuela, are two famous places to visit for the Dancing Devils festivities.
The origins of this festival are believed to have roots in 5th century Spain, when the Catholic Church used the art of dance to convert people following pagan beliefs, into Christians. In the later centuries, particularly in the medieval period, evolved versions of the dances became a part of Corpus Christi celebrations in Andalucía, Spain. These celebrations also involved wearing masks and costumes.
The festivities reached Venezuela with the Spanish, who colonized the country and much of the South American continent between the 16th and 19th centuries. At that time, the colonists introduced their religious beliefs and festivities to the region, replacing indigenous practices and beliefs.
During their period of colonization, they also transported slaves from various kingdoms in West Africa to work on the various plantations that the Europeans had established. Historians and anthropologists believe that the Corpus Christi celebrations were used as a tool to attract the African slaves and the indigenous population in the area to participate in European religious events. It proved successful, especially with the slaves, as they had their own traditions and festivals that involved wearing masks and dancing. With this, the Corpus Christi celebrations evolved and eventually, African and indigenous musical elements were added.
How is the Dancing Devils Festival Celebrated?
A procession of dancing devils, a mass, dance and music are the main part of the Corpus Christi celebrations around Venezuela. This cultural event is celebrated in local villages, especially where religious fraternities are established.
Cofradias are fraternities consisting of a group of ordinary boys and men, who take the responsibility for organizing the Dancing Devils fest as per local tradition. They also ensure that the festivities of Corpus Christi are done smoothly. There are presently only 11 brotherhoods in Venezuela, most of which are located near coastal areas.
The members of the fraternity hold a high position in society and are considered sacred. Parents often make their children join these fraternities from a young age to participate in the organization of the event and even as performers. This way, they learn about their cultural traditions and get the wisdom of elderly members who are also part of the group.
They take the time to gather themselves to arrange the funds, the decorations, costumes, masks and other items required for the event. The arrangements commence way in advance, starting with deciding on a theme. The theme influences the design of the masks, which also is the responsibility of the brotherhood.
The members are given ranks that determine their role in the Dancing Devils festival. This ranking system is known as the devil hierarchy. The most important and the higher ranking members are the primary, secondary and tertiary foremen. The primary foreman is responsible for leading the prayer, procession and dance and, for the protection of his group. His guides or the second and third foremen are in charge of maintaining order in the group, during the dance and procession. The group also usually has a woman known as the Sayona who represents the devil’s mother.
The primary foreman assumes the position based on their personality, knowledge, age and experience. This person must also be capable of handling internal conflicts and must have the ability to listen to people’s worries.
Celebrations begin on Wednesday, on the day before Corpus Christi when members of the brotherhood meet. During this meeting, they perform blessing ceremonies to protect the men and young boys who will take part in the procession from bad luck, evil powers or any spiritual harm. Then, they form small groups and visit the local cemetery to pay their respects to the devils who’ve passed away. While returning from the cemetery, they do not turn their backs until they reassemble in front of the church.
That night, a wake is organized where the members pray, recite poetry and play fulia music, a genre of Venezuelan folk music. The next day, the Corpus Christi feast early in the morning with the sound of the church bell.
The dancers known as promeseros gather at church, pray to the Santisimo or the Blessed Sacrament and make a promise to dance on the day of Corpus Christi for a specific number of years or, for a lifetime, in exchange for a favour. These favours can be wishes to heal the people of the town. The promise sort of acts like a contract between the members of the brotherhood and the church.
At midday, when the sun is at its highest in the sky, costumed devils crawl in front of the church and a small play takes place. The spectators gather to see this. Here the devils pretend to attack the church and those protecting the building, but they fail every time. They attack, again and again, only to face defeat. The devils finally give up and bow in front of the Eucharist, submitting to God. This demonstrates the victory of good over evil.
The priest then blesses the devils and, as their penance, a procession takes place in the heat. Then the drums start playing and the dancing begins. The other participants hold and shake maracas in one hand and a stick with a red kerchief to ask for donations. In the evening, a mass is held that further emphasizes the fact that good wins at the end of the day. Finally, the bells in the church ring again, denoting the end of the celebrations. Everyone returns home and waits for next year’s celebrations.
Music and Dance
The members of the brotherhood dress up and perform sacred dances determined by the beat of the drums and the rhythms of the maracas.
Maracas, which are indigenous instruments, are carried by the members in their right hand. The percussion instruments are decorated according to the theme of the event. They’re either painted or the heads are wrapped in colourful fabric. Their main purpose is to provide rhythm for the dancers. The sounds that they produce are believed to keep evil at bay.
The next instrument is the bell. A belt of small bronze cowbells hangs from the waist of those in procession, making sounds while dancing. When the dancers move, the bells ring, giving rhythm along with the maracas. Also, like the maracas, the ringing sound that the bells produce repels evil spirits, ensuring that no evil spirits sneak in during the festival.
Next is the most important instrument, the Caja drum, which is played by one of the members of the fraternity. The drums, the rhythms of the bells and maracas provide the beats for the dancers. The other important instrument is the cuatro, a small four-stringed guitar that resembles a ukulele. It even produces the same sharp sounds as the ukulele.
The dancers follow traditional choreography, one that is passed down from the older generation to the younger. It is believed to have elements of the Bamba dance, an indigenous form of dance with movements expressing merriment. This version of the dance involves a lot of stomping, arm and foot movement that form the sign of the cross. Lastly, the devils (costumed fraternity members) dance with their heads bowed down, as a sign of submission to God.
Mask and Costume
The devils wear a pair of trousers, a full-sleeved shirt, a cape and a kerchief for a headcover. The cape suspends from the shoulder to the back of the knees. The colour of the clothes may differ from town to town but usually, they feature vibrant colours and are patterned with crosses. Sometimes they even have the images of saints on them.
Rosaries, amulets, crosses, ribbons and bells are worn as accessories to the clothes. The participants even wear a tail with a little bell at its tip, representing the tail of the devil. All of these ornaments and accessories are supposed to drive evil away.
Another prop that some of the higher ranking devils carry is a whip, an object symbolizing order and discipline. Showing that they have the procession in order.
The main accessory is the mask that the devils wear. The masks are made of a clay base and detailed with papier mache. They’re painted in bright colours highlighting the grotesque and horrifying features. The character on the mask is based on the theme decided by the fraternity, but they’re mostly shaped as zoomorphic or mythological creatures. The size of the masks depends on the age of the fraternity. The older the brotherhood, the larger the masks.
A common feature in all masks is their horns. And, like most objects involved in the event, they also have a meaning.
The number of horns on the masks represents the hierarchy of the devils. The more horns the mask has, the higher up the person is in the hierarchy. The first foreman wears a mask with 4 horns while the second and third foremen have 3.
Every region with a brotherhood has its own ways of celebrating the festival of Corpus Christi. Let’s look at how the two most popular cities for the event celebrate it.
San Francisco de Yare
San Francisco de Yare is a city located in the state of Miranda, in northern Venezuela. The Yare brotherhood is seemingly the oldest of its kind in the Americas. The celebrations are so grand and popular that the festival has become synonymous with the town. It is also why the place attracts so many domestic and international tourists at this time.
The Diablos Danzantes festival in San Francisco de Yare follows local traditions that date back to the 18th century. The brotherhood in Yare believes in a myth explaining why the celebrations in their town began. The myth is as follows:
Years ago, a priest with no money to organize the Corpus Christi procession said that if there was no way to organize the Blessed Sacrament procession, or if there was no person willing to carry it out, the devils would come and bring misfortune. Initially, no one believed him, but one day, a storm hit the town and with it, the devil entered the church. And, it was since this incident that the brotherhood of Yare took the initiative to dress up as devils and dance on the streets to ensure evil spirits never harm them again.
The celebrations in Yare are different from those in other places.
Firstly, Yare still doesn’t allow women to dance in the processions with men. This is permitted in some of the other towns celebrating the festival.
Secondly, in Yare, the participants and dancers wear red clothes for their performance during the procession. The colour is associated with the devil but, some sources prove that it was not always the case. Earlier, the participants would wear bright coloured costumes while the second and third foremen and the drummers would wear white costumes. In 1948, the then education minister sent red fabric to the brotherhood to tailor new costumes with it. This is because the group was supposed to perform at the inauguration of the first Venezuelan president elected to office, in the capital. It was how the dancing devils of Yare became popular and the reason why they wear red for the festival.
Naiguatá is a city located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. As such, the masks used for the festivities are shaped like sea creatures, unlike the other towns, whose masks feature mythological creatures and characters. Additionally, the dancers wear multi-coloured costumes with images of saints to drive away evil spirits.
Another special feature about the celebrations there is that women can take part in the dances. Something towns like San Francisco de Yare don’t permit.
The Importance of the Dancing Devils of Corpus Christi
Evidently, the festivities hold religious importance to the Venezuelan people, acting as a sign of solidarity & hope in difficult times and providing protection from misfortune. But, that isn’t the only thing it protects. The celebrations also safeguard tradition and cultural heritage. With a rise in the number of supporters and participants over the centuries, the event is organized every year, allowing the transmission of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next. The knowledge of making masks, costumes, the drums, the dance and more. Protecting things that are unique solely to Venezuela. This protection was fortified when, in 2012, the festival was enlisted as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It was also the first tradition to be on that list, further highlighting its importance.
Issues and COVID-19
Recently, cities such as Yare are facing issues from tourists coming in from other Venezuelan cities. At one point in time, the locals would benefit from their presence thanks to the increase in revenue. However, now they seem to be disrupting the celebrations as they pose a threat to the participants, other spectators and festivities overall as they take advantage of the massive crowds. There have been reports of these visitors misbehaving, harassing local women, pickpocketing, supplying drugs, etc. As a result, many of the fraternities now no longer wish to advertise their festival to visitors as their actions ruin the essence of the celebrations. In some places, they’ve already taken action by banning hard liquor and disallowing outsiders to participate in the dances.
Though misbehaviour may have an impact on the celebrations, the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t. Despite the number of active cases and slow vaccinations, the festivities were permitted this year provided that they took protective measures. And, reports say that they did. The participants wore face masks under their devil masks and tried to maintain social distancing. Plus, visitors weren’t there this year to crowd the streets.
This year, the brotherhood prayed to the Holy Sacrament to end the global coronavirus pandemic.
It is a relief to know that this uniquely Venezuelan version of the feast of Corpus Christi that features a mix of Spanish, African and indigenous cultures, will not go extinct anytime soon.
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Pollak-Eltz, A., 1996. The preservation and recuperation of folklore in Venezuela. Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, 15(1), p. 189.