Ex opere operato

26 04 2010

Thoughts on Voudoun and worship

A collective religion cannot depend on vagaries of individual aptitude and persuasion; on the contrary, it must stabilize these vagaries and protect participants against their own weaknesses, failures, and inadequacies. It must provide the generally uncreative, often distracted individual with a prescribed movement and attitude, the very performance of which involves and perhaps inspires him… The tradition must support the individuals, give them security beyond personal indecision, lift them beyond their own individual creative powers…. It does not rise from their grace, their power, their knowledge. It confers these upon them.

-Maya Deren, The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

Deren in her book is perceptive in terms of analyzing the very “objective” concerns of Voudoun serviteurs and religious practice. For Deren, in these there is no room for virtuosity, just as there is no room to take it upon oneself to serve the lwa. All of these are phenomena the laws of which originate in another world. It is that other world’s virtuosity, its creativity, that must manifest itself in ritual, not our own.

The West has long ago abandoned this sense of the connection between worship and cosmos, at least on the fundamental level. What is important is not the cycle of the universe but history; what matters is the commemoration of events, not archetypes. The most modern scholarship is keen to point out the difference between the Christian and non-Christian visions of space, time, and eternity. How the seminal events manifest themselves in the present is a question of commemoration and not invocation; it is fundamentally an action haunted by the fear of idolatry. What matters most is history and not cosmos; moral action and not theurgical performance.
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The Metaphysics of Voudoun

12 04 2010

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.
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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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