“Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti” by Maya Deren – Pt 1

DivineHorsemen

I am going to do something a little different. Usually, I will finish a book and then write about it, unless there is a particular passage that inspires me. In the case of Divine Horsemen, though, I feel that I need to write about the first half of this book before I continue reading, mainly because it is so dense and there is so much information here I don’t feel I could adequately cover it in one blog post.

First, a little background on why I started reading this book. I have always been fascinated with religion, mysticism, and spirituality, and have tried to learn as much about various traditions while keeping an open mind. I lived in Miami for many years and had quite a few Haitian friends there, with whom I occasionally discussed voodoo (or voudou). I also have a close friend who was initiated into the voudou religion. Anyway, following a recent trip to New Orleans, I realized that I really don’t know much about the religion of voudou, so I contacted my friend and asked him if he would be willing to instruct me on some of the basics. He gladly agreed and suggested I begin by reading Maya Deren’s book.

So far, the book is nothing short of amazing. She documents the rituals she attended with incredible detail and ties the Haitian deities and practices into larger themes of universal archetypes. Already, this book has had a profound impact on me.

Deren begins her book by explaining her concept of myth: “Myth is the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.” (p. 21) She continues by stating:

The metaphors of the diverse myths differ; the nature of the Cosmic Catalyst is the same. It is an energy which, out of the anonymity of void, of chaos, of the wholeness of the Cosmic Egg, crystallizes the major elements, precipitates the primary areas, and finally differentiates the first androgynous life (as the solitary Adam) into the twinned specializations: male and female. (p. 23)

Essentially, she asserts that all creation myths contain the same elements, that life is first created from the void as the combined androgynous archetype, which is then divided into the masculine and feminine.

Much of the first half of the book deals with the loa (which are the voudou deities) and with the symbolism associated with those deities. “Each loa is but an aspect of one central cosmic principle differentiated by the emphases which that central principle manifests according to the varying contexts in which it operates.” (pp. 94 – 95)

One of the symbols that is explored is that of the cross, or the crossroads. The cross symbol is prevalent in Christianity and the symbol of the crossroads represents a place where one encounters beings from other realms, as evident in the tale of blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads. But as Deren explains, the crossroad symbolizes the intersection between the two planes of existence: the spiritual and the physical. It is at this point where one can move between realms.

It is, above all, a figure for the intersection of the horizontal plane, which is the material world, by the vertical plane, the metaphysical axis, which plunges into the mirror. The crossroads, then, is the point of access to the world of les Invisibles, which is the soul of the cosmos, the source of the life force, the cosmic memory, and the cosmic wisdom. (p. 35)

The name of the loa that controls the crossroads is Legba, an androgynous deity that contains divine feminine and masculine principles. Deren explains that Legba’s symbol (or vever) is comprised of male and female elements.

As principle of life, as the initial procreative whole, Legba was both man and woman and his vever still bears the sign of this totality. (p. 96)

Another example of masculine/feminine divine balance is represented by Damballah (the serpent god) and his female counterpart Ayida (whose symbol is the rainbow). Together, it was Damballah and Ayida who created all existence out of the void, or from the Cosmic Egg.

OurosborosDamballah and Ayida, who together represent the sexual totality, encompass the cosmos as a serpent coiled about the world. (p. 116)

This is clearly a manifestation of the ourosboros, a symbol which represents “the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished.” (Click here for source.)

The voudou religion demonstrates a genuine gender balance, recognizing that male and female energies are both required for the creative process, on the material plane as well as the metaphysical plane.

The female principle thus participates in all the major cosmic forces (with the exception of the distinctly masculine forces personified in Ogoun) and Voudoun does not idealize woman, per se, as the principle of fecundity. Neither does it give preferential emphasis to the maternal womb over the phallic principle, either as cosmic origin, or in the prevalent psychology as reflected in ritual. Because of this explicit insistence that generation is the responsibility of male and female equally, the female principle enjoys less singular and specific importance here than in several other major mythologies. (p. 137)

This is by far my longest blog post and I feel like I have only scratched the surface regarding some of the key themes covered in the first half of this book. It is a very dense and informative book, and one that must be read slowly and thoughtfully in order to fully grasp the material. If you are at all interested in religions and spirituality (and I assume you are if you have read this far), then I encourage you to find a copy of this book and spend some time with it.

I will be writing Part 2 upon completion of the book.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti” by Maya Deren – Pt 1

  1. Pingback: “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti” by Maya Deren – Pt 2 | Stuff Jeff Reads

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 2: At the Crossroads | Stuff Jeff Reads

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