Tag Archives: goddesses

“The Sandman: Endless Nights” by Neil Gaiman

This book is comprised of seven vignettes, each featuring one of the Endless, Gaiman’s archetypal beings that are beyond even mere gods. As such, you should only approach this book if you have a good understanding of the Sandman mythology.

There is a great scene in this book where Gaiman elaborates on the essence of the Endless, and how they differ from gods and goddesses.

Killalla: Look, you seem nice enough. Will you answer some questions for me? Just give me some straight answers?

Sto-oa: Certainly.

Killalla: Why was everyone afraid of his older sister? The pretty one? They wouldn’t talk to her or anything.

Sto-oa: Because in the end, each sun, each world, every galaxy, will collapse and end, either into flame, or into darkness. And when that happens, she will be there, for each of us. Now do you understand?

Killalla: Not really.

Sto-oa: She is Death.

Killalla: Oh. You mean . . . she’s the Goddess of Death, or the incarnation, or . . .

Sto-oa: No. She is Death. Just as that one is Desire. Or your lover is Dream.

Killalla: Of course he is Dream. I met him in the Kingdom of Dreams, and he followed me back. He’s the king there . . .

Sto-oa: No, Killalla. He is not the king. He is Dream. Just as I am Sto-oa.

(p. 73)

So what is important and revealing in this passage is the differentiation between the gods and the Endless. Gods and goddesses have to be gods of something. But not the Endless. The Endless represent the seven aspects of existence, which every sentient being must face at some point in his or her existence. Our dreams, desires, despair, delight/delusion, destruction, destiny, and death are not dependent upon any supernal entity. They exist in spite of divine beings. In fact, even divine beings must face each of the seven.

Now his path takes him into his dwelling, a place of corridors and halls.

The paintings in Destiny’s hall show his brothers and sisters as they might wish to be seen (although the wish and the thing are so close in the realm of the Endless that you cannot get a thin-bladed knife between them).

You will spend time in the realm of each of his siblings – you will dream, despair, desire, destroy, delight and otherwise, and, eventually, die – but you were his from the very first page, and only he will read how your story comes out, a long time from now.

(p. 147)

I feel like I have personally visited with all the Endless. I know, I am still alive, but I came close to death a couple times and feel like I have met the sister that most fear. I’m not quite sure what Destiny still has in his book regarding my story, but obviously, it is not finished yet, since I am still here.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives” by Neil Gaiman

In this installment in the Sandman saga, Neil Gaiman explores the brevity and impermanence of existence, both human and divine. We all accept the ephemeral nature of human existence, but do not want to believe that gods and the universe are also transitory. But if we accept that we are a reflection of the divine, and our lives are temporary, then it stands to reason that divine existence is also temporary, with a beginning and an end, as part of a cycle that is beyond our ability to understand.

Early in the book, Death comes to claim a man who lived an unusually long life. He asks Death whether he had a long life, and Death responds:

“You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”

Death’s answer is sobering. We are prone to compare our lifespan with others, but time is really just an illusion. We all have exactly the same amount of time on this plane—one lifetime. Even if you believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, the fact remains that for this incarnation, you only have a lifetime.

Later in the book, Dream has an encounter with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. Ishtar is working as an exotic dancer, and after meeting with Dream and Delirium, she decides to perform her sacred dance at the club. But before she begins, she shares with the club manager the secret of the birth and death of gods, knowing that he will not survive the dance to pass the secret on to others.

“I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams… and what comes after, not even we know.”

What Gaiman is asserting here is that gods manifest from the collective unconscious, that the realm which the human psyche can only vaguely glimpse through myth and symbol is the birthplace of all things divine. And as long as these gods are nourished by our spiritual and psychic energy, they thrive; but once humans cease to feed a god or goddess the requisite energy, they wither and pass, returning again to the formless source.

Throughout the book, Dream and Delirium are on a quest to find their brother, Destruction. After they find him, there is a great scene where Destruction takes his brother and sister out under the stars, and uses the stars as a metaphor for the ephemeral existence of all things, divine and temporal.

“I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments. Gods come, and gods go. Mortals flicker and flash and fade. Worlds won’t last, and stars and galaxies are transient, fleeting things that twinkle like fireflies and vanish into cold and dust. But I can pretend.”

This speaks volumes about the human condition. We move along the paths of our brief lives, pretending that we are a part of some grand, eternal thing. But it is an illusion, just like time. All lives, all existence, everything that is, is in reality just a fleeting twinkle, a flash that will ultimately fade and be forgotten. Knowing this does not make me feel disillusioned with life, but grateful for every moment that I am blessed with. Knowing that my life is but a flicker makes me want to cherish and make the most out of it. For me, this concept is not crippling, but empowering. I hope it has the same effect on you.

Cheers and blessings.

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“Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

I had to travel for work recently, and this was the perfect book to read while on flights and in hotel rooms. It was a quick read, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Basically, everything you expect from Gaiman in the retelling of Norse myths. He took stories from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda and presents them in his own voice. It works really well.

There is an abundance of the usual characters that we expect in the Norse myths: Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya, and so on. But Gaiman also treats us to some lesser-known players, and some of these stories have resonant similarities to other myths. For example, in the following creation story, Ask and Embla are created from the Ash and Elm trees, and the names conjure images of Adam and Eve.

Ve carved the logs. He gave them the shape of people. He carved their ears, that they might hear, and their eyes, that they might see, and lips, that they might speak.

The two logs stood on the beach, two naked people. Ve had carved one with male genitals, the other he had carved female.

The three brothers made clothes for the woman and the man, to cover themselves and to keep them warm, in the chilly sea-spray on the beach at the edge of the world.

Last of all they gave the two people they had made names: the man they called Ask, or Ash Tree; the woman they called Embla, or Elm.

(p. 34)

It is rare that I actually laugh out loud when I am reading, but it happened during this book (glad I wasn’t drinking coffee – it would have come out my nose). It occurred during the myth about the Mead of Poetry, which Odin, in the form of a giant eagle, stole from a giant, carrying the mead in his mouth and spitting it into vats back as Asgard. But that is not the whole story.

There. That is the story of the mead of poetry and how it was given to the world. It is a story filled with dishonor and deceit, with murder and trickery. But it is not quite the whole story. There is one more thing to tell you. The delicate among you should stop your ears, or read no further.

Here is the last thing, and a shameful admission it is. When the all-father in eagle form had almost reached the vats, with Suttung immediately behind him, Odin blew some of the mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.

No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similes and ugly rhymes, you will know which of the meads they have tasted.

(p. 151)

I will forever have this image in my mind when I read a bad poem!

Many of the myths in this book are symbolic for issues that we as conscious beings have to grapple with. A great example of this is when Thor wrestles an old woman and is unable to defeat her. This tale is symbolic for how we, aware of our mortality, have to wrestle with the knowledge of our impending death as we enter into old age.

“And the old woman?” asked Thor. “Your old nurse? What was she?” His voice was very mild, but he had hold of the shaft of his hammer, and he was holding it comfortably.

“That was Elli, old age. No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only to one knee. We have never seen anything like last night, Thor. Never.”

(p. 176)

Something that has always fascinated me about mythology is how recurring themes appear across various myths, regardless of the time and place in which those myths originated. A great example is the river which the souls of the dead must cross. For me, it symbolizes the crossing of the stream of consciousness, which we must undertake in order for our consciousness to return to the divine source.

Hermod the Nimble rode for nine days and nine nights without stopping. He rode deeper and he rode through gathering darkness: from gloom to twilight to night to a pitch-black starless dark. All that he could see in the darkness was something golden glinting far ahead of him.

Closer he rode, and closer, and the light grew brighter. It was gold, and it was the thatch bridge across the Gjaller River, across which all who die must travel.

(pp. 242 – 243)

This book is outstanding on so many levels. It is simple and accessible, yet brimming with profound wisdom for those who want to dive deep into the text. I highly recommend this to all readers.

Cheers!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VIII – The Songs of the Harper

GreekHarp

In this book, Alkinoos holds a feast and a competition in honor of his still unknown guest, Odysseus. During the feast, Demodokos, a blind bard, sings songs which include tales of what happened to Odysseus, which stir deep and painful emotions within Odysseus as he listens.

So as I mentioned in my last three posts, each of the previous three books dealt with the theme of resurrection and rebirth associated with an element. In Book V, Odysseus is reborn through the element of earth; in Book VI he is reborn through water; and in Book VII he is reborn through fire. Now, to complete the cycles of rebirth, in this episode Odysseus experiences resurrection through the element of air.

The element of air is symbolized through the breath of the bard, Demodokos. As the bard sings the tales of Odysseus, his breath gives life to Odysseus’ past, essentially providing immortality through the art of poetry.

The following passage is worth a closer reading because it contains the key to understanding the importance of the bard’s voice in regard to the rebirth through air.

At the serene king’s word, a squire ran
to bring the polished harp out of the palace,
and place was given to nine referees—
peers of the realm, masters of ceremony—
who cleared a space and smoothed a dancing floor.
The squire brought down, and gave Demodokos,
the clear-toned harp; and centering on the minstrel
magical young dancers formed a circle
with a light beat, and stamp of feet. Beholding,
Odysseus marveled at the flashing ring.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 132)

The first thing to notice is that this takes place in a circle, which is a symbol of rebirth and continuity. The bard is placed in the center, signifying the central importance of the singer in the divine cycle. The dancers, representing action and emanation, circle around the source of the divine breath. It is also important to note that we again see the appearance of the number nine, the importance of which was established in Book III where the number nine symbolizes the connection between the earthly and the divine.

I want to point out that Demodokos sings three times. There is symbolic significance to this, since the number three represents, among other things, the three stages of life: birth, growth, death. After that, the cycle repeats itself with rebirth.

When we get to the third song, it is Odysseus who requests the theme, which is about how he took the lead in the attack from within the wooden horse at Troy.

The minstrel stirred, murmuring to the god, and soon
clear words and notes came one by one, a vision
of the Akhaians in their graceful ships
drawing away from shore: the torches flung
and shelters flaring: Argive soldiers crouched
in the close dark around Odysseus: and
the horse, tall on the assembly ground of Troy.

(ibid: p. 140)

Here the breath of the poet resurrects Odysseus as the words inspire visions. Words have the power to create, and many creation myths use breath or words as a symbol for the source of divine creation. For me, it makes sense that this element should be employed as the fourth level of rebirth for Odysseus.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and have a blessed day!

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“I Love the Thought of Those Old Naked Days” by Charles Baudelaire

VenusDiMilo

Venus di Milo

I love the thought of those old naked days
When Phoebus gilded torsos with his rays,
When men and women sported, strong and fleet,
Without anxiety or base deceit,
And heaven caressed them, amorously keen
To prove the health of each superb machine.
Cybele then was lavish of her guerdon
And did not find her sons too gross a burden:
But, like a she-wolf, in her love great-hearted,
Her full brown teats to all the world imparted.
Bold, handsome, strong, Man, rightly, might evince
Pride in the glories that proclaimed him prince —
Fruits pure of outrage, by the blight unsmitten,
With firm, smooth flesh that cried out to be bitten.

Today the Poet, when he would assess
Those native splendours in the nakedness
Of man or woman, feels a sombre chill
Enveloping his spirit and his will.
He meets a gloomy picture, which be loathes,
Wherein deformity cries out for clothes.
Oh comic runts! Oh horror of burlesque!
Lank, flabby, skewed, pot-bellied, and grotesque!
Whom their smug god, Utility (poor brats!)
Has swaddled in his brazen clouts “ersatz”
As with cheap tinsel. Women tallow-pale,
Both gnawed and nourished by debauch, who trail
The heavy burden of maternal vice,
Or of fecundity the hideous price.

We have (corrupted nations) it is true
Beauties the ancient people never knew —
Sad faces gnawed by cancers of the heart
And charms which morbid lassitudes impart.
But these inventions of our tardy muse
Can’t force our ailing peoples to refuse
Just tribute to the holiness of youth
With its straightforward mien, its forehead couth,
The limpid gaze, like running water bright,
Diffusing, careless, through all things, like the light
Of azure skies, the birds, the winds, the flowers,
The songs, and perfumes, and heart-warming powers.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

This is a poem of contrasts. In the opening stanza, Baudelaire describes classical Greek and Roman statuary. These statues depict the human form as it truly is—a work of divine art. These cultures believed that there is nothing obscene about the naked human form. The human body is such a thing of beauty that the ancients used it as the ideal for depicting their gods and goddesses.

In the second stanza, we are assaulted with the contrast to the human body as art. Here we are shown the exploitation of human beauty in the form of pornography and prostitution. Baudelaire presents us with a vision of a society that fails to see the beauty of the naked body from a divine perspective, but instead uses the naked human form as a focus for our baser desires. It could also be argued that in addition to this stanza being a critique on the sex trade, it is a statement about inner corruption. Our bodies often reflect our inner health and happiness. In a society plagued with vice, decadence, and ennui, it stands to reason that our physical bodies would reflect the decay that festers within us.

In the third stanza, I sense that Baudelaire is seeking to reconcile these two opposites. He concedes that modern society provides “Beauties the ancient people never knew.” It seems that Baudelaire is seeking a merging between the wonders of the modern world and the appreciation for human beauty that was the ideal of the ancient Greeks.

The last thing I want to say is that this poem stirs the emotion I felt as I watched the video clips of ISIS members destroying artwork. Throughout history, fanatics have destroyed art because it was deemed obscene or heretical. My feelings are that any work of art that portrays humanity, in any of its diverse forms, should be appreciated and preserved.

I hope you have a wonderful and artistically inspired day.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 8

Lestrygonians

This episode corresponds to the section in Homer’s Odyssey regarding the Lestrygonians, who were cannibalistic giants that destroyed most of Odysseus’ ships by hurling boulders at them. Images of gluttony and consumption appear throughout this episode.

Early in the episode, Bloom is thinking about the death of Stephen Dedalus’ mother which leads him to consider the strains of having a large family. He sees children as the devourers of their parents, almost a reversal of the Kronos myth where the father devours his children.

Fifteen children he had. Birth every year almost. That’s in their theology or the priest won’t give the poor woman the confession, the absolution. Increase and multiply. Did you ever hear such an idea? Eat you out of house and home.

(p. 151)

As Bloom walks and the hour approaches noon, he gets hungry. Joyce uses cannibalism as a metaphor to describe Bloom’s feelings. He feels drained and weak, as though his energy was consumed by those people with whom he interacted earlier in the day. I can relate. Sometimes I have to interact with people who seem to feed off my very being.

This is the very hour of the day. Vitality. Dull, gloomy: hate this hour. Feel as if I had been eaten and spewed.

(p. 164)

Bloom goes to Burton’s restaurant to eat and is repulsed by the men there savagely consuming meat, which I find ironic considering the relish with which Bloom ate the kidney earlier in the book. I suspect he experienced one of those moments of horror when you see yourself in others and feel disgust at the realization that you are no different from them.

His heart astir he pushed in the door of Burton’s restaurant. Stink gripped his trembling breath: pungent meatjuice, slop of greens. See the animals feed.

(p. 169)

Unable to dine in Burton’s he turns and exits. At that moment he has an epiphany as he realizes that killing is a part of eating and that in our society, just as in the animal world, there are two kinds of creatures: the hunters and the hunted.

He came out into clearer air and turned back towards Grafton street. Eat or be eaten. Kill! Kill!

(p. 170)

Bloom winds up at a vegetarian restaurant to eat and while he is there his mind wanders as he starts to think about images of goddesses represented in art. The curved images of the divine feminine merge with images of digestion, thereby turning the digestive cycle into a symbol for the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth as embodied in the archetype of the triple goddess.

His downcast eyes followed the silent veining of the oaken slab. Beauty: it curves, curves are beauty. Shapely goddesses, Venus, Juno: curves the world admires. Can see them library museum standing in the round hall, naked goddesses. Aids to digestion. They don’t care what man looks. All to see. Never speaking, I mean to say to fellows like Flynn. Suppose she did Pygmalion and Galatea what would she say first? Mortal! Put you in your proper place. Quaffing nectar at mess with gods, golden dishes, all ambrosial. Not like a tanner lunch we have, boiled mutton, carrots and turnips, bottle of Allsop. Nectar, imagine it drinking electricity: gods’ food. Lovely forms of woman sculped Junonian. Immortal lovely. And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine. They have no. Never looked. I’ll look today. Keeper won’t see. Bend down let something fall see if she.

(p. 176)

There are lots of other great sections in this episode, and I personally feel like I could write a whole series of posts on all that is here (occult symbolism, bawdy humor, freemasonry, social mores, prejudice, and so forth). The writing is extremely rich. But alas, I will move on to the next episode, which ends on page 218 with the phrase: “From our bless’d altars.” But I want to end this post with the concluding paragraphs from this episode because they worked so well for me. As Bloom spots Blazes Boylan, he panics and ducks into the National Museum to avoid him. The pace of the language perfectly captures his frenzied feeling, building in intensity as Bloom seeks escape and safety.

I am looking for that. Yes, that. Try all pockets. Handker. Freeman. Where did I? Ah, yes. Trousers. Purse. Potato. Where did I?

Hurry. Walk quietly. Moment more. My heart.

His hand looking for the where did I put found in his hip pocket soap lotion have to call tepid paper stuck. Ah, soap there! Yes. Gate.

Safe!

(p. 183)


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

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“The Color of Magic” by Terry Pratchett

ColorOfMagicThis is a book that I had heard about often but had never read before. It is the first book in the Discworld fantasy series, a series that is comprised of an astounding 40 books (which means my reading list has just increased by 39). In fact, this is the first actual Pratchett book that I’ve read. I did read Good Omens, but that was a collaborative book written by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

I loved this book!! It worked on multiple levels for me. As a work of fantasy, it was extremely imaginative, weaving together magic, science fiction, mythology, and fairy tales. But it is also a very funny book, overflowing with puns and satire. I literally laughed out loud during certain sections of the book. Finally, Pratchett’s writing is impeccable. There was never a moment when the characters and the fantastical realm did not come to life for me.

The basic plot is that a failed wizard named Rincewind grudgingly accepts the responsibility to guide a “tourist” named Twoflower around the Discworld, a flat, circular world that rests upon four giant elephants who ride through the universe on the back of a gigantic cosmic turtle. The two characters move through a series of adventures and interact with an array of interesting beings. That’s all I’ll say—you know how I hate spoilers. I will include a few quotes, though, and share my thoughts on them.

There is a great paragraph early in the book where Twoflower is trying to explain to Rincewind the logic of insurance, a concept that is foreign to Rincewind. Twoflower, who is from a different world, works calculating insurance risk. The passage has some great puns and pokes fun at the insurance industry.

Inn-sewer-ants,” repeated Rincewind. “Tha’s a funny word. Wossit mean?”

“Well, suppose you have a ship loaded with, say, gold bars. It might run into storms or, or be taken by pirates. You don’t want that to happen, so you take out an inn-sewer-ants-polly-sea. I work out the odds against the cargo being lost, based on weather reports and piracy records for the last twenty years, then I add a bit, then you pay me some money based on those odds—“

(p. 45)

I can’t help having an image of an insurance company as a hive of sewer dwelling insects, racing around like worker ants.

Another scene that stands out for me is the depiction of the gods playing a game of dice. It is a great metaphor for human existence being a strange blend of chance and fate, where anything can happen. During the game, which is played by the god Fate and an unnamed goddess who is only referred to as the Lady, there is a great interaction between the two about the desire cheat one’s fate.

Fate raised an eyebrow.

“And no cheating, Lady,” he said.

“But who could cheat Fate?” she asked. He shrugged.

“No one. Yet everyone tries.”

(p. 98)

The following passage is one of the most resonant symbolic scenes for me.

On either side of him, two glittering curtains of water hurtled toward infinity as the sea swept around the island on its way to the long fall. A hundred yards below the wizard the largest sea salmon he had ever seen flicked itself out of the foam in a wild, jerky and ultimately hopeless leap. Then he fell back over and over, in the golden underworld light.

(p. 222)

I see the water here as symbolizing both existence and the collective unconscious. Every drop in the ocean is an individual thought, or an individual being, all swirling together in this existence before rushing over the edge in a waterfall to become part of the ineffable and the infinite. The salmon represents an individual, caught in the currents of life. With a hopeless futility reminiscent of Sisyphus, the salmon tries to challenge Fate, to go against the flow, but fails. Ultimately, Fate always wins in the end and you become part of the greater mystery.

I’d like to finish up with one last quote, which I think beautifully sums up life. There is so much to do, to see, to experience, that it is impossible to do everything that is on one’s bucket list (especially if you accept the idea of parallel universes). I know that I will never do all the things I want to do, visit all the places I’d like to see, or read all the books I want to read. But I won’t despair; I’ll just make the best of the time I have and enjoy as many of life’s wonders as I can.

“Sometimes I think a man could wander across the Disc all his life and not see everything there is to see,” said Twoflower. “And now it seems there are lots of other worlds as well. When I think I might die without seeing a hundredth of all there is to see it makes me feel,” he paused, then added, “well, humble, I suppose. And very angry, of course.”

(pp 230 – 231)

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

DivineHorsemen

I finished reading this book last night. To sum it up, it is nothing short of amazing, one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Not only is it highly informative and inspirational, it is masterfully written. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in religion, spirituality, anthropology, sociology, or with even the slightest interest in human culture.

This post covers the second half of the book. I cover the first half in an earlier post.

The second half of the book focuses primarily on the voudou rites. It is emphasized that voudou rituals are religious and not magic rituals. The purpose of a religious ritual is very different from that of a magical ritual.

… religion differs sharply from magic, for the sorcerer’s apprentice has only to learn the proper words and their proper order to achieve the desired result. The magic ritual is made mysterious because the magician conceals his means from the eyes of the observer; the religious ritual seems mysterious because the observer cannot yet grasp the meaning of what he sees. In a sense, religious training develops the psychic perception and power of the individual; magic apprenticeship provides informations as to the means of manipulating the world. (p. 158)

One of the rites discussed is that of baptism. I found this fascinating, particularly because all I knew about baptism was Christian-based. In voudou, baptism is the process of making something divine, thereby creating an object that can be used to contact the divine spirits.

… baptism does not so much confer divinity upon an object per se as it makes the object a “door” by which divine energy may be drawn into this world by those who possess the key, which is the name to be called. (p. 186)

Voudou rituals are intended to serve the gods, not to attempt to bend the gods to serve the practitioners. For this reason, voudou practitioners are called serviteurs, since they are essentially offering themselves to the gods.

Divinity is an energy, an act. The serviteur does not say, “I believe.” He says: “I serve.” And it is the act of service — the ritual — which infuses both man and matter with divine power. (p. 187)

Two key components of a voudou ritual are drumming and dancing. These help alter the serviteurs’ consciousness, opening them up to the mystical experience. Deren states that drumming is “the organic axis of the spiritual cosmos, around which all temporal elements of ritual are centered.” (p. 238) Regarding the ritual dancing, she asserts that “such dance might be understood as a meditation of the body.” (p. 241)

The final chapter of the book focuses solely on possession. There is no way that I could do this chapter justice in a blog post. Suffice to say that it is riveting to read. Deren describes in breath-taking detail how it feels to become possessed, the physical and emotional changes that one experiences. It must be read to be appreciated. I will note, though, that she describes the loss of self associated with possession by a loa (divine being) as a feeling of death, since one’s spirit is displaced by the loa.

To understand that the self must leave if the loa is to enter, is to understand that one cannot be man and god at once. (p. 249)

I cannot emphasize enough how powerful this book is. Just looking over my notes as I write this post fills me with awe. Now, as an added bonus and to whet your appetite to purchase and read this book, I am including the film that Deren made documenting her observations. It’s worth taking the 50 minutes to watch. The footage of the rituals, including possessions, is amazing. Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

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“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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