The Dancing Devils of Yare
IT WAS only midmorning, but it was already very hot. As we watched a group of men dressed in full traditional costume, we wondered how they could stand the scorching heat! We were visiting the small agricultural town of San Francisco de Yare, Venezuela. The men in costume were the famous Diablos Danzantes de Yare, the Dancing Devils of Yare.
Most people in Venezuela are Catholic and confess belief in the Bible. However, for generations ritual dances that prominently feature the portrayal of demons have played an important part in local culture. The Catholic Church not only tolerates the dances but actually promotes them. This is the case with the Dancing Devils of Yare.
After arriving at Yare, we were surprised to see that the local headquarters of the Brotherhood of the Most Holy Sacrament, a Catholic organization, was also the headquarters of the dancing devils. The building is known as the Casa de Los Diablos (House of the Devils). It was Wednesday, the day before the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi, and there were a number of professional photographers positioned outside the building. Suddenly, there was a loud drumroll, and several men dressed up as demons started to dance.
Devil Dancers’ Costumes
Each dancer wore a red shirt, red trousers, red socks, and sandals. Each wore a rosary, a cross, and a Catholic medallion around his neck. Another cross was fastened to his costume. In one hand each held a devilish-looking maraca and in the other, a short whip. But most outstanding were the huge, grotesque multicolored masks, with horns, prominent eyes and, often, bared teeth. Each mask was attached to a long, red, cloth hood.
We learned that there were different types of dancers. The main capataz, or overseer, is also known as the diablo mayor, or chief devil. His mask has four horns. He is generally chosen because of his seniority. The assistant overseer, or segundo capataz, has three horns, and the ordinary dancers with no rank have only two. Some of the dancers are promeseros, people keeping a promise to dance once a year for a certain number of years, or perhaps for life. This promise, or vow, is usually made by individuals who believe that God has granted them a special request.
On to the Church
At noon, the dancers leave their headquarters and make their way to the local church to obtain the priest’s permission for the rest of their procession. The dancing devils meet the priest outside the church. There they kneel to receive his blessing. Then they dance through the town streets, sometimes from door-to-door. Quite often the householders greet the dancing devils with candies, drinks, and other foods. This procession continues nonstop throughout the afternoon.
The next morning as Mass begins in the church, the dancers meet back at the Casa de Los Diablos. Shaking their maracas in unison, from there they dance their way to the cemetery, to the rhythm of drums. An altar has been set up in the cemetery, and before it they honor dead friends. During this ceremony the rhythm of the drums is slow. Then, out of superstitious fear, they exit the cemetery by walking backward, making sure that they don’t turn their backs on the altar. From there they proceed to the church and wait for Mass to finish.
At the end of Mass, the priest comes out and blesses the dancers, who kneel with bowed heads, their masks hanging from the hoods, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. The priest takes a seat alongside the chief devil. The two of them listen to the vows of the new promeseros, who explain why they are promising to dance and for how many years.
The drum players begin to beat their drums faster, and the dancing devils follow by shaking their bodies and their maracas vigorously in rhythm with the accelerated tempo. Women dance too but not in devil costumes. They wear red skirts, white blouses, and white or red handkerchiefs on their heads. During a portion of the procession, some of the dancing devils carry an image of their patron saint on their shoulders. The dancers finish their procession by parading in front of the church, after rendering homage to a prominent cross in town.
Not for Jehovah’s Witnesses
This proved to be an interesting experience for us as tourists. During our visit to the small town of Yare, we could not avoid observing the public events that took place with the dancing devils. Yet, as Christians we, like the more than 70,000 other Jehovah’s Witnesses in Venezuela, do not join in the feast of the Dancing Devils of Yare or similar processions.
Why not? Because we heed the words of the apostle Paul: “I do not want you to become sharers with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and also the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and likewise the table of demons.” (1 Corinthians 10:20, 21, New American Bible)—Contributed.