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Maya Deren: Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods Of Haiti. Excerpts.

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Maya Deren *  
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods Of Haiti.  
Great Gods cannot ride little horses (Haitian proverb)


This soul may achieve (...) the status of a loa, a divinity, and become the archetypal representative of some natural or moral principle. As such, it has the power to displace temporarily the gros-bon-ange of a living person and become the animating force of his physical body. This psychic phenomenon is known as "possession". The actions and utterances of the possessed person are not the expression of the individual, but are the readily identifiable manifestations of the particular loa or archetypal principle. Since it is by such manifestations that the divinities of the pantheon make known their instructions and desires and exercise their authority, this phenomenon is basic to Voudoun, occurs frequently, and is normal both to the religion and to the Haitians.


The loa bow to the priest, are hurt by disrespect, weep for neglect. And the worshipper is devout but demanding; he both begs and bargains. If he expects and accepts the constant intervention of the loa in the daily affairs of his life, it is not because he has an easy belief in miracle; it is because he does not regard such intervention as miraculous.


Meanwhile the great loa fight to arrest this development. They rage against the deterioration of ritual disciplines; they complain of insufficient service, attention, food; they strike at the neglectful serviteur; they repeat their ultimate threat - that they will withdraw. And, indeed, very gradually, their appearances have become rarer, while the minor deities now come often and with great aplomb. The Haitians are not unaware of this. They say: "Little horses cannot carry great riders".


During all this time the rattle and bell have not ceased sounding for a moment, and now that communication with the abysmal regions has been established, the other souls follow more readily. One even has the impression that they are crowding in a line at the far end, that they jostle each other and compete to emerge from the cold, wet regions. Sometimes the houngan seems to argue with two of them at the same time; he pleads for patience, insists on one's seniority over the other, asks their names, labors to expedite the entire procedure as fairly as possible. A girl begins weeping for joy when she hears her mother's voice. Another one excitedly recognizes her father.  
And then a certain voice rises higher, more plaintively than the others. This is a man, weeping. The houngan asks for an identification. The answer is unclear. He asks again, but does not recognize the name. Finally he calls out to the assemblage: "Does any one know this man?" There is no answer. "Where are you from?" "Jacmel." It is a town on the opposite end of the island. Someone wisecracks: "Father, you certainly lost your way", and the whole crowd laughs. The voice explodes into a fit of rage. "It is all very well for you to laugh now, but wait until it is your turn, and your good-for-nothing family doesn't trouble to bring you up." Then, just as suddenly, the voice breaks down into a fit of sobbing. His anger and his sorrow have sobered the crowd, and compassion moves them.  
The voice of the houngan, gentle and sad, explains that unfortunately all the govis are already reserved for certain dead. It is impossible for anyone to receive him now. Perhaps his family has had some financial reverses and surely, any day now, they will make the ceremony. Gently, tactfully, the houngan asks the soul to withdraw, to go back down, to permit the others to emerge. The sobbing begins to grow fainter, more distant, finally fades away. In the darkness someone murmurs, "poor vagabond", and the others nod in compassionate agreement.  
Someone begins telling of a similar incident and a general babble sets up in the court. Angrily the voice of the houngan shouts out to them. How can he be expected to hear the voices of the dead when the living are making such a confounded racket. The chastened crowd falls immediately silent. There is no sound but the grating and ringing of the asson for several moments. Then a woman's voice, its timbre somehow characteristic of a market-place vendor, can be heard clearly.  
"Business must be pretty good", she says to the houngan, "if the family can manage to pay your fees." The crowd bursts out laughing, and the houngan's angry retort is lost in the noise. "Or perhaps", she says, "little Cocotte, there, has developed a side line." The niece who has been referred to, turns and flees while the crowd laughs louder than ever. "It's Marie, all right", one person says to the other. "It's certainly her", they repeat. The spectators are very alert, ready for the good show that Marie would always put on with her off-color comments. "You ought not to say that", the houngan says. "Cocotte is a good girl, you know that", and he begins talking rapidly, to avoid any further embarrassing comments.  
Some of the souls arrive in anger and are difficult for the houngan to handle. One, apparently very powerful, gives him great trouble, and at a certain moment the houngan's voice seems to be choked off, as though the spirit were threatening to possess him.


Instead of regarding primitive religion as a falsification of the true nature of matter, as compensation for and even as antagonistic to a true understanding of the physical universe, it might be useful to assume, as a hypothesis at least, that such religious systems propose ideas which are essentially correct and in harmony with the nature of the physical universe.


The Voudoun loa do not have a supernatural prerogative of arbitrary decision. An event which, to the serviteur, does not seem logical is not accepted with good grace as the "will of God"; on the contrary, the serviteur is aggressive in calling the loa to account and in exacting the explanation to which he feels entitled and which would indicate the corrective procedure he should follow. This belief that all phenomena must contain some logical principle, this concept of a pervasive logical causation is, as a matter of fact, identical with the premise underlying scientific investigation. However, the perception of principle - the organization of experience into a meaningful pattern - is a function of the mind of man; the Voudoun expression is precisely "to have loa in the head". Moreover, while Voudoun recognizes, for example, that both the sea and Agwè, the principle of the sea, are objective realities, it specifies that Agwè - as a figure separate from the actual sea - comes to one's head not from the sea but from one's parents. The inheritance of loa, then, refers to the transmission of ideas or principles, or what is, in effect, education. Furthermore, these principles are handed down in the very blood that links one generation to another. Just as blood itself is constantly subject to glandular and dietary variations, so the psychic chemistry of these individual carriers, itself affected both by internal conditions and by external circumstances, in turn affects the principles which it nourishes. The loa, then, partakes of the nature of the head that bears it. The principle is modified by person.  
This would seem to leave the way open for such limitless variations upon the theme, as it were, that the identity and continuity of the principle would be almost obliterated by individual particularizations. But in a relatively homogeneous culture too great a diversity of individual attitudes would not occur. Moreover, the attenuated process by which a parent becomes ancestor, and the ancestor in turn becomes archetype, serves to filter out the merely decorative elaboration, the purely subjective modulations of that first principle. Only that variant endures which can remain as significant to a distant descendant as it first appeared to the immediate family. In the course of the evolution into loa there emerges, from the singular person, the general principle which characterized him. Thus, just as principles may be deduced from the objective phenomena in which they are manifest, so they may be discerned in the subjective attitudes of persons. Religion includes an analysis of the physical universe but its function is to propose moral values; it is not concerned exclusively with matter, but equally, even predominantly, with man. The optimistic man perceives reality as a benevolence; the unfortunate man knows intimately its violent faces. A loa contains both subject and object, both the seer and the thing seen. In Voudoun neither man not matter is divine. A loa is an intelligence, a relationship of man to matter.  
Such a degree of philosophical and psychological awareness -containing, as it does, such strong similarities with modern relativism-is admittedly unexpected of a so-called primitive culture. Yet it is the only interpretative reconstruction of the Voudoun metaphysical logic which is confirmed by the actual structures, beliefs and practices and in terms of which both the major assertions and the ritual details emerge in meaningful relationship.


Such an arrangement of the pantheon reveals, as well, a significant facet of the Haitian serviteur. For the characterological details and accessories by which the various manifestations of his loa are identified are not decorative, whimsical accoutrements; they are evidence of his genius for creating a concrete physical expression, not only of the general ideological sense of each loa, but of the subtle emphasis and even nuance by which each aspect is distinguished. As Rada Goddess of Love, Erzulie speaks in diminutive, soprano accents; in her Petro aspect her voice has a primordial, almost beast~like growl.* Such characterological delineation in living actuality stands, in Voudoun, in the place of the literature and art in which most other mythologies portray their divinities.  
The intimate relation between loa and serviteur, the dependence, as it were, of the loa upon the very blood of the serviteur for existence and transmission, has been the guarantee of the loa's life. Today the gods complain more and more frequently that they are not served well enough, nor feasted adequately. And, indeed, if their energies are not restored, they may, for want of proper devotion, in turn soon grow too weak to support the devotee. Meanwhile the serviteur, throwing up his hands in an ambivalent gesture at once of helplessness and defiance, says: "Let them do what they wish with me. I can't do any more." Displacement, poverty, instability are effecting a gradual but certain demoralization. The psychic blood of the people is growing thinner; the great gods appear less frequently. The serviteur says, with a nostalgic resignation: "Big loa cannot ride little horses."  
When they do appear, many of the major loa weep. Various explanations are given for this. But the loa presumably have vision and the power of prophecy, and it is possible that, with such divine insight, they sense, already, the first encroaching chill of their own twilight. It is not surprising that this should come. It is more surprising that it has not, already, long since passed into night. Yet the gods have known other twilights, and the long nights, and then the distant but recurrent dawn. And it may be that they weep not for themselves, but for the men who served and will soon cease to serve them.  
When this occurs, this pantheon which has been manifest only as living form, will leave behind it little of written record, save what may be subsequently recorded in the light of another world, another era. In this suspended, composed twilight, which neither distorts by dazzling nor yet destroys with dark, ness, the loa seem to linger a moment, as one might pause on the threshold of departure, to remember, and to be remembered, and to be perhaps recorded in this luminous light.


Ghede, in fact, knows a good meal-ticket when he sees it, and he is not above taking advantage of it; or, to put it otherwise, he is above any concern with the appearance of dignity.


When a houngan conducts a ceremony for Ghede, he brings out the gravely ill who are under his care and commends them especially to Ghede's attention. For Ghede is just, and if it is not yet time for a man to die, and if that man humbly asks him as a defense, he will refuse to dig his grave no matter how much the magicians under Baron Samedi may insist on it. Thus Ghede is the last recourse, the final judge of a man's life and the worth of his soul in death.


The difference is not in what they do or see but in how much they understand of what both of them do and see. This is why it would be absolutely useless for a neophyte to memorize and imitate the gestures of the priest, and why the sacred rattle, however powerful in a houngan's hands, becomes powerless in any other's. It is in this respect, also, that religion differs sharply from magic, for he 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 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 information as to the means of manipulating the world.


To receive the blows 'honestly' on the head, would soon make him punch-drunk. When a situation is temporarily or permanently and irremediably brutal, the organism behaves like a clever boxer: it shields the mind from the blows which would only destroy it, and absorbs the shock in the muscular and durable flesh. If the Haitian peasant were forced to 'face' this hopeless situation, it would be moral suicide for him. What possible moral justification can there be for making a man stare into the jaws of his own death? And where is the medical wisdom of telling a patient that his indigestion, or worse, is due to his own insecurity, or the world situation, and thus brutally destroying the flimsy veil of tolerable discomfort by which the man sought to conceal from himself his intolerable despair?


It may some, times happen that the loa themselves will come to baptize the object personally, and this is the "strongest" baptism possible. Once an object has been baptized, its use is specifically limited to sacred purposes. To make other use of it is a profanation which the loa may punish severely. For example, a girl who had a handkerchief which had been consecrated to Ghede "borrowed" it from him one day to carry into town, since she had no other. The following morning she had a very severe headache, which persisted for several days, until finally Ghede was invoked and explained the reason for his displeasure and punishment. The distinction between the things which belong to oneself, personally, and those which belong to one's loa, is very clearly observed. This does not mean, how,, ever, that the sacred object is completely detached from its human owner. The accidental loss of the same sacred handkerchief, whose secular use resulted in rather severe punishment, would not bring commensurate power (or any power at all) into the hands of the finder. Moreover, it is a very simple matter for the owner to remove the divine spirit from an object. Even the drums may be so "degraded", for one has but to light a candle and simply announce to the spirits in the drums that one wishes to remove them-in order to sell the drums, or for whatever reason one might have. Thus, while baptism is essential to all ritual endeavor, it is also the most simple of ceremonies in itself.  
If one pieces together all these separate details regarding the baptism of objects, it becomes apparent that baptism does not so much confer divinity upon the object per se as it makes of that 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. The owner of the object, then, possesses an access to divine power, but he does not possess the divine power itself, nor does he have absolute control over that energy in action. To think of the baptized object as a "door" illuminates, also, the fact that this object is not sacred in itself but only when it functions as an access to divine power, and it is this latter which is sacred. Thus the baptized object is sacred only in action; and since an act is transitory in time, Voudoun has, indeed, a quality which can only be described as a constant "disappearingness"; for when its function is fulfilled, the object ceases to be sacred.  
The peristyle, which, during the evening's ceremony, was a holy temple place-vibrant with a sense of divine power becomes, the morning afterward, once more a meaningless area in which chickens and dogs wander about, women sit gossiping, and children sleep. The vever which was drawn with such elaborate care is destroyed by the offerings placed upon it, by the dancing feet, and is finally swept away with the debris of the ceremony. The loa, whose every demand was fearfully or eagerly met, leaves the head of a man to whom one may then casually refuse even a cigarette or a piece of bread. Nothing is accomplished for ever; it must always be done again. Moreover, an invocation to Legba, sung by a radio per, former, is simply a song. On the other hand, the hounsis of the chorus command no particular respect or recognition. Neither the song nor the singer is sacred; the sacred moment is the singing of the song for the sacred purpose of summoning Legba. 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.


If one were to ask "Does his ritual cause that thing to happen?" the answer would be in the affirmative. But causation, in religious terms, is not causation as defined in scientific terms. The world of a religious man is governed by moral reason, not by material reason. The Haitian does not mean, for example, that health will result from a certain ritual action; he means that health will be a reward for his performance of it. And if one were to press him to examine the implications of this idea more profoundly, one would discover that the value of the ritual would not be negated by some error of ignorance of the ritual detail; on the contrary, the serviteur would be rewarded for the devout intention of his effort. In other words, he would be morally correct even though technically wrong, and this fact is the religious reality; the material errors are relatively unimportant.


In this respect the critical distinction between magic and religion becomes evident, for there are no such rites, designed to develop the person, in magic. A magician's apprenticeship consists of exchanging his services for secreted, concealed information, whereas the religious neophyte, by virtue of experience and ordeals, matures spiritually to an understanding of things which have been frankly evident in public ritual all along. Magic refers to power, which is amoral in nature; the primary emphasis of religion is moral discipline and development. Magic rituals are performed with the intention of producing a direct result upon the world and their ritual details are immediately linked to the object; in religious ritual the physical act is frequently quite disconnected from the desired reward. In effect, in religion the serviteur is changed; in magic the world is changed.  
It is of major importance, also, that the principles governing this subjective development in religion derive from the collective context. The individual who functions in interdependent terms with the community cannot forge ahead too far, since this would alienate him from the very forces upon which he is dependent. The impulse and incentive behind the magician, on the other hand, has always been an individualistic triumph, whether for good or for evil. Yet he too has been restrained somewhat by his dependence upon the collective community. Indeed, the best condition for magical action is not the primitive community with its collective emphasis, but the modern community, with its individualistic emphasis, and it is here that one may experience the preeminent spectacle of the magician at work. He conceives his plans in almost solitary secrecy, or with a few cohorts; he is feverishly protective of the exclusive right to exploit the power of his discovery or invention; he is frequently concerned with an almost occult effort to divine that special twist of public taste which makes for a hit or a best-seller; he is devoted to the idea of a magic combination of words in a certain just-so order, which is a catchy slogan; he labors to create a skillfully obsessive image of material or sexual seduction, and is not above accomplishing this with a maximum of artifice and connotative sleight of hand; he is involved in a complex and formal series of cabbala-like manipulations involving "contacts", publicity incantations, and even what might be accurately termed the cocktail libation. Moreover, this is all pursued in the interests of his own personal aggrandizement and entirely irrespective, in a profound sense, of the public welfare. The hexes, elixirs and fetishes of primitive magicians are paltry achievements compared to the vast powers of such modern magicians.  
Magic on such a scale could not, in fact, exist in an interdependent culture in which, on the one hand, projects of any scope could not be undertaken without the knowledge of others, and on the other hand, the collective could not and would not tolerate such an individualistic offensive upon its integrity. So firmly imbued is the man of such a culture with the collective principle, that he assumes any technique to be public property, available for the use of the collective. The innocent, unabashed readiness of "natives" to imitate or adopt some new aspect of dress or manner or method which may strike their fancy is but one manifestation of their complete ignorance of the notion of originality in the possessive, "copyright" sense. In his mind any technique, and especially any improved technique, is a dispensation of divinity and therefore comprehends the moral purpose of collective benefit. It is this idea that made primitive cultures such easy prey to invaders with superior mechanical equipment. The history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas begins, in each isolated district, not with native resistance but with native welcome. They welcomed the superior "things" which, they assumed, would, like all other techniques, accrue to the improved welfare of their community; and they welcomed the men who brought them, as beings upon whom the gods had chosen to confer such exceptional talent and power. By the time the native priests grasped the immoral function of the equipment of their guests, it was too late to marshal their amazed and demoralized forces effectively. The failure of the priests was a failure to recognize the new face of their most ancient antagonist, the magician. But even if they had recognized it, or could have recognized it today, their battle would nevertheless have been lost. For an industrial culture, while liberating individuals from the interdependence which requires and guarantees a homogeneous morality, is also characterized by an emphasis upon technological achievement per se: the invention of means and the development of methods. Such separation of means from ends, of techniques from morals, marks the era of the magician. Against an entire era, the priests of collective ritual religions, proposing their metaphysic of collective morality, are virtually helpless.


In certain passages Malinowski sees the function of religion as primarily a moral adjustment. "Myth fulfills, in primitive culture, an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safe-guards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man. ." (p, 19). As such, Malinowski considers it "an indispensable ingredient of all culture" (p. 92). But in another connection he seems to assert that it is a compensation for inadequate scientific analysis and technological control of the physical universe. "We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes.... The integral cultural function of magic ... consists in the bridging over of gaps and inadequacies in highly important activities not yet completely mastered by man.... Magic is thus akin to science in that it always has a definite aim intimately associated with human instincts, needs and pursuits. ." (pp. 81-2). The implication would seem to be that scientific, technological progress would somehow automatically and simultaneously comprehend a moral authority and directive for its benevolent and proper administration and that it would thus eliminate the need for myth or religion as a separate moral system once the technological inadequacies, for which it compensated, were eliminated. This nineteenth,century confidence in the positive moral nature of material progress can almost be formulated, in retrospect, as a belief that science and technology are infused or animated by a benevolent spirit. Such confidence, which the pragmatic, realistic primitive only guardedly extends to the cosmic forces and attends with a complex system of corrective vigilance and persuasion, has unfortunately proven to be completely illusory in reference to man. It is even possible that, in encouraging the devaluation of moral systems as distinctive and valid constructs, this unreserved confidence in science and technology con, tributed to the contemporary situation in which the inadequacy of moral values and authority is the more alarming inasmuch as that every technological progress has created forces for which moral control is more imperatively necessary than ever before.


To be made aware, once more, that man is of divine origin and is the issue of and the heir to an uncounted multitude of hearths and minds; that at the root of the universe the great imperturbable principles of cosmic good endure; and that even under his torn shirt, his hunger, the failures of his wit and the errors of his heart, his very blood harbors these monumental loa - is to experience the major blessing with which possession rewards men's dedicated service. This major reward comprehends all minor needs, and, with its very generality, soothes all the diversity of singular fears, personal losses and private anxieties. Whatever other benefit the loa may bring - advices, prescriptions, medicines - these are but secondary.  
Demure, if you will, that all this is merely a reference to a man's intellectual powers. Explain that it is the 'imagination' which makes him capable of conceiving beyond the reality, which he knows, and that this is compounded of memories. Speak of "idealism" as source of his willingness to undergo ordeal on behalf of creative, non-material achievement. Insist that in foregoing immediate reward he seeks historical position. Add, even, that such values are engendered by the influence of father, the love of mother, the praise of men. List all those intellectual and moral qualities - vision, inspiration, imagination - which most distinguish the poet, the philosopher, the scientist; catalogue them, count and differentiate and 'explain' their origins, their operation, mechanisms and motivations. The Haitian will not dispute you. When you have finished, he might shrug his shoulders, saying simply, in Creole: "All that, we call 'to have the loa'".


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