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.

As in many pantheons, there is not just one Erzulie, but many. A Petro manifestation of Erzulie, know as Erzulie Ge-Rouge, often comes upon the possessed person as a violently crying child. According to Deren, she is:

…the cosmic tantrum – the tantrum not of the spoiled child, but of some cosmic innocence that cannot understand- and will not understand- why accident would ever befall what is cherished, or why death should ever come to the beloved.

In this manifestation, Erzulie is the broken dream, the despairing side of a harsh life, something all too familiar to her devotees. She is the patroness of prostitutes for obvious reasons, but she is also a virgin in the sense that she represents the transcendence of loss and grief. The author continues:

Erzulie is the loa of the impossible perfection which must remain unattainable. Man demands that she demand of him beyond his capacity. The condition of her divinity is his failure; he crowns her with his own betrayals. Hence she must weep; it could not be otherwise.

She is identified with the Virgin Mary in many of her manifestations, which is not surprising in this syncretic system. But such identification seems sacrilegious to the devout Western ear. How can a being so capricious, vain, and moody be likened to the real Queen of Heaven?

But such capriciousness was also a trait shared by the Blessed Mother in medieval lore. AG once cited a story of the Virgin as the jealous bride of a wayward cleric where Mary says:

How can this be, since I am who I am,
That you are leaving me for another woman?
It seems you’re badly underrating
My worth and my beauty…
You must be drunk
To give your whole heart and all your love
To a woman of this earth?
And to leave me, the Lady
Of Heaven? Tell me true, where is the woman
With greater goodness and beauty than I?

The Virgin then threatens the cleric with Hell if he runs off and violates his vows. Could this be a manifestation of Erzulie, the jealous Muse and tantrum of the cosmos? I will leave your pious minds to contemplate this.

Perhaps Deren is reading too much of herself into the ceremonies that she witnessed. She may be romanticizing this figure since she claims in her book to have been possessed herself by this goddess. In the end, however, I find her reading of this Voudou spirit compelling since it takes the belief system at face value while taking it a step further. The average serviteur may not whole heartedly agree with everything Deren writes, but he would no doubt respect it, and perhaps even consider it a source of contemplation. In a way, all Deren is doing is what Iamblichus or Proclus did when they metaphysically interpreted the cult of Greece in late antiquity.

In Erzulie, then, many of the religious archetypes of the sacred feminine collide: the Muse, love goddess, Mater Dolorosa, wailing ghost, etc. But what most fascinates me about her is that she is also the Apollo of the Voudou pantheon: the mistress of inspiration out of whom flows all that is transcendent, luxurious, and beautiful. In a sense, just as in the case of Apollo and Hermes, she is logos, but logos spoken in tragic despair and poverty. I need not draw out for the Christian reader what this ultimately can signify.


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3 responses

17 07 2010
joel

Thanks for the enlightening write-up. I was very fortunate to be able to attend a ceremony last night in celebration of Erzulie. I’m curious about a part of the ceremony and wondered if someone could enlighten me a bit. While the eldest mambo was being ridden by Erzulie, they were leading her out of the circle of people. While she was leaving she would approach people in the crowd and she poured something on my hands (smelled like perfume or aftershave), which i washed my hands with. Anybody know the significance of this gesture?

Thanks in advance, and in response to “Question”‘s question, I would say that No, Vodou is no more dangerous than any religion… and in fact almost surely less dangerous, because the prevailing rule is inclusivity rather than exclusivity. That is, when Vodou encounters a belief that contradicts its teaching, it is capable of incorporating (or, I suppose ignoring) that belief rather than trying to combat it, argue with it, or overcome it.

29 03 2010
question

Isn’t Voodou dangerous?

25 03 2010
mcmlxix

My mind is more porous than pious.

Veneration of archetypes…is this just what a lot of religion is? Manifestation of archetypes. Dependent arising. A collection of conditions that produce a personality.

So to, it matters not whether a saint was at one time a flesh and bones human, although I suspect most were.

Even the millions of Hindu devas (the old gods, or cognate divinities/devils) are in the long process of evolving into mere archetypes…personalities…leaving only the person Brahman…or leaving only No-thing as was the case with Buddhism.

Does this have negative implications for Christianity…the One God and His only begotten Son? No, I would say only if you want it to. Ones interpretation of the inkblot doesn’t change the inkblot.

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