Maya Deren’s Erzulie

25 03 2010

Maya Deren in her book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, gives a different perspective on the divine feminine than is seen in most cultures. The central goddess of Voudou is not a mother goddess, but a goddess similar to Aphrodite or the Muses in Greek mythology. I speak of course here of Erzulie. As is the case of all loa, she is more archetype than person, and she is the manifestation of “that which distinguishes humans from all other forms: their capacity to conceive beyond reality, to desire beyond adequacy, to create beyond need.” Far from being the divine mother giving birth in the midst of protean chaos, she is the mother of the “myth of man’s life – its meaning…that very principle by which man conceives and creates divinity.”

When she takes possession of someone in a Voudou ceremony, she is the true woman of luxury, often making irrational demands on the surrounding devotees, themselves sunk in dire poverty. She performs an elaborate toilette, using only a new soap, the best combs, the finest jewelry. She also demands the best food and flowers, and displays an elaborate formalism in every gesture. She is a veritably “out of this world” character in the midst of the squalor of her surroundings. This is needed in this system, as Deren writes that:

In her character is reflected all the élan, all the excessive pitch with which the dreams of men soar, when, momentarily, they can shake loose the flat weight, the dreary, reiterative demands of necessity; and the details with which the serviteur has surrounded her image reflect the poignant, fantastic misconceptions of luxury which a man who has only known poverty would cherish.
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