Maya Deren’s book, The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, is one of the greatest works of metaphysics of the 20th century. Unlike the works of such figures as Husserl and Heidegger, and very much like the work of Mircea Elaide, she attempts to find being in the midst of life itself, and not in pure thought. For her, Voudoun is not just some “ungodly” superstition, some manner of manipulating spirits in order to get your own way in life. The complex pantheon of deities and the rituals used to feed and invoke them are informed by a complex worldview in which all things are interconnected. The truth of being is thus not abstract, but is so concrete that it flows through the very veins of the worshippers themselves.
Deren begins her work speaking of the gros-bon-ange, the very foundation of the Haitian concept of divinity. This force lies within man and is immortal, but it is not quite like the Western concept of the soul. It is more collective than that; it carries the family history, even the history of the people, in all of its wisdom and élan. A dead person’s gros-bon-ange is collected again from the depths and put into a govi, a clay jar, in a Voudou temple. In Voudou ceremonies, such energies are channeled for the benefit of the living; those that the dead people have left behind.
Such a force also manifests itself in this life, and this is why the Voudoun priesthood is hereditary. A person can become a hougan because he has powerful gros-bon-ange: he carries his powerful ancestors in his blood. Even if a person neglects these ancestral forces, they have a way of manifesting themselves again, demanding to be served. Thus, a common retort from someone who practices Voudoun has little to do with “belief” in the Western sense. A Voudoun serviteur will often say about his faith: “I serve the loa”.
The loa are thus not the gods simply put, but ancestors that are so distant that they have been converted into archetypes. All loa were once human beings, but no loa can be remembered as an individual person. They are the ancestors so distant that they have become an abstraction; they are the energies and powers that give order to the primordial chaos. And, as I said above, they do not exist apart from people as “transcendent spirits” in the modern Judeo-Christian sense, but are “carried in the blood” and are only made manifest during possession ceremonies. In this system, it is almost as if Plato’s world of Ideas was really inhabited by the souls of the dead, reflecting transcendent principles such as love, strife, fertility, death, and so on.
Such loa have their own particular order of invocation within the pantheon and the Voudou ceremony. Above all, of course, is the Creator God who is above all, associated by most with the Christian Trinity. (As I said, Voudou ceremonies often begin with a set of Catholic prayers known as the litanies.) The supreme God, as in many African systems, is a sort of deus otiosus; he rarely intervenes in human affairs, leaving all of this to the loa. (For your information, many say that natural disasters such as earthquakes are from God, not the loa.) The first to always be invoked, however, is Legba, lord of the crossroads. Others that are commonly invoked are Ogoun, the lord of war; Erzulie, the love goddess; Damballah, the ancient sky serpent; and Loco, a rain deity.
While all of these loa are distant ancestors who have become abstractions, all still have their own characteristic traits that manifest their own “humanity”. Ghede, the lord of death, often presents himself as a vulgar trickster with a modern taste for sunglasses. Ogoun, of course, is often virile and violent, while Erzulie is fickle and demanding. Damballah, being so ancient, has little personality and speaks in a barely audible hissing. But all, through their presence, bestow blessings and wisdom. Very often, when the loa “ride” someone in a possession ceremony, they are consulted regarding problems faced either by individuals or the community. The loa are also “fed” with animal sacrifices which feed the ancestral forces at the heart of the cosmos.
One of the most moving parts of the book was Deren’s description of the ceremony for the loa of the sea, Agwe. The ceremony itself is very elaborate, and the preparation lasts for several days. It culminates in bringing a large boat loaded with offerings (sacrificed animals, baskets of vegetables and other fruits, banners, and a seven-tiered cake) to the sea. This is the banquet from which various loa, the guests of Agwe and his consort, La Sirene, will partake. It is brought out in the midst of great jubilation and cast out, and the devotees then see it sink into the ocean.
This could be a heartbreaking scene, considering the months and years it takes to compile the means to pay for this “banquet”, and the poverty that the devotees have to live with in their daily lives. Deren, however, explains all of it with great poetic acumen, recalling their song as,
a calling melody, which rose and fell in a minor key, and seemed to be borne so swiftly away on the wind that the mind’s eye saw, in swift kaleidoscope, the waters of the brilliant Mediterranean, the grey Artic, the South Pacific, and the never-seen, unknown seas everywhere, wherever they might be- with these voices borne by this melody, ruffling the waves of each of them, calling the god everywhere, over the vast reaches of his domain.
Agwe Arroyo, protect your children,
Sea-shell in hand, care for your little ones…
And perhaps that is the most perplexing part of Deren’s book for a good, monotheistic Western person. We have been trained to think that paganism in general, and Voudoun in particular, is a superstitious cult to cruel and uncaring (if not to say, demonic) forces. And perhaps the old cults of the “civilized” ancient world were like this. Zeus did not seem to care much about human beings. Perhaps no one called Baal “father” and meant it the way we do. And conceding that Voudoun was used by such unsavory characters as “Papa Doc” Duvalier to terrorize the Haitian populace, nevertheless one cannot help but be sympathetic to Deren’s portrayal of the cult to the loa.
In the same ceremony for Agwe, Deren describes a peculiar trait of the gods. When possessing a person, many of the gods weep:
It is said that the gods of the Sky Pantheon all weep. Some say it is because they first came from the waters below the earth and are still, in a sense, wet. Others say that the rains which fall are the tears of the gods; so it is because the gods weep for man out of compassion that life can go on…
The people in the boat were accustomed, now, to the fact that their great gods wept, and they accepted it, sometimes saying to them, as one would to a child, that they mustn’t weep…
Deren ends her recounting of the ceremony for the god of the sea (and thus I end my brief essay) with these words:
I turned from him to the glad faces of the others, and turned away to the sea and wept. It was at this moment that I understood why the gods, who loved these men, would weep.