Divine Horseman by Maya Deren

Filmed between 1947 and 1951, this film explores Haitian Vodoun ritual in great detail.

Celebrants invoke the Gods or Loa by setting up a cross at the axis mundi which is the intersection between the physical and spiritual planes. Legba is the link between the worlds who must be first addressed . He is the Guardian of the Sacred Gateway, a logos who bridges the two worlds. The celebrants draw a detailed mandala at the foot of the cross. Drumming unites the participants and they begin to dance as the Gods enter through the center post.

“Divine Horseman” refers to the belief that a Loa “mounts” a dancing celebrant like a rider mounts a horse. The Loa takes over the body of the dancer which is evidenced by the almost super human moves the dancer performs.

Early in the film, we see the Priest or Hougan kill a bird in order to unite the animal life force with the Loa. This force helps the Loa to achieve possession of the body.

Like occult streams of Christianity, the Haitian celebrants worship the snake, or Amvala, as the source of all wisdom and Deren shows mandalas portraying the snake as something similar to the ouroboros of the West.

We see an elaborate ritual where Agwe, the spirit of the sea, weds Erzulie the Goddess of love. The Priestess or Mambo performs this rite. The celebrants build a raft for Agwe and put it to sea after bird sacrifice consecration.

Erzulie, a Sophia-Virgin Mary figure, gave humans their unique characteristics which consist of:

Conceiving beyond reality —Desiring beyond adequacy– Creating beyond need.

When the best dancer is possessed by the Loa, then Erzulie has arrived and all feel relief and calm. The drumming rhythms become somewhat more defined as Guede who is the God of life and death, trickster, guardian of the History of the Folk, and child protector, arrives accompanied by Ogoun, an Loa of might.

Haitian Vodoun is syncretic- African roots merged with later imposed Catholicism.

We now see a ritual for Guede that begins with Catholic liturgy, libations, and the drawing of the mandala at the axis mundi with cornmeal. Chicken is waved over celebrants so it may absorb evil. It eats the cornmeal of the mandala and the Houngan breaks its wings in order to prevent the evil from flying away. When the animal is killed its life force is united with the Loa. We also see a goat castrated, shaved, and killed as an offering of the life force to Guede who now can possess the Priest’s body.

The film also deals with Loas of aggression which are expressions of the celebrants cosmic rage over slavery. We see a bull run around a temple which is later tied to a tree and sacrificed.

Deren concludes her film with the Spring Festival over which Guede presides.

Note: Wikipedia has a discussion page that states:

“It is also important to note that the word “Voodoo” is rejected by the African-American Diaspora as an offensive perjorative of their ancestral religions.”

This page clearly states that Vodoun in the US developed independently of Haiti and should therefore not be viewed as being imported from Haiti. Also from the same Wikipedia discussion:

“The Vodoun religion is estimated to have existed for more than 10,000+ years, having its ancient roots in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, East Africa, India, Asia Minor (ancient Turkey), ancient Crete, Thessalonia, ancient Israel, and in ancient Afro-matrilineal Ionia (later known as “Greece”) , and later in ancient Rome. It was in all of these locations where the African, Queen mothers established their powerful temples and theocratic empires. At their height, these African, matriarchal empires reigned for more than 4,000 years—centuries before their conquer by the Dorian Greek invaders (6-7th B.C.E). Until the present, western revisionists credits the ancient social and religious history of these African matriarchs to the Dorian Greeks, and have hidden their cultural theology under “Greek Mythology.” The consequence of this action was intended to forever obscure the historical fact that the Vodoun (and other African) religion(s) was one of the major African, ancestral religions practiced all throughout the ancient world. Over the centuries, as the African matriarchs were conquered and their temples seized or destroyed, they migrated westwardly, ultimately settling into the West African region; the religion having adapted to the cultural and language nuances with each new settlement and wave of immigrants. Currently, Benin (ancient Dahomey), the Domincian Republic, Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti are credited with being the “home” of the Vodoun religion by western scholars. However, the actual number of its practitioners and adherents throughout the world are far more numerous. “

I believe that the author is saying that Western tradition attributed the origins of Vodoun to Greek influence when in fact Voudon existed independently and was later obscured by Greek conquest. The author may be suggesting that the Greek pantheon was derived from the conquered Vodoun practitioners, but if we accept the major premise of Vodoun that the Loa exist in a spiritual world then it would be expected that they reveal themselves to different cultures simultaneously in ways that are consistent with the cultures.

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2 Responses to “Divine Horseman by Maya Deren”

  1. Sean Says:

    Great post. I agree with what you are saying for the most part. Vodoun has so many different variations based on the different lineages from different tribes. Even the rituals, and the actions performed therin, have different meanings. Though they have very similar basic premises. Again, great post.

  2. http://tinyurl.com/sporolive36000 Says:

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