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Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti by…
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Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

by Maya Deren

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Maya Deren rocked up in Haiti in 1947 with eighteen crates of video equipment and a plan to film some local dances. At the age of 30, she had already won the Grand Prix Internationale at Cannes, and had just divorced her second husband. No time to lose, this one. Now she wanted to do something different, something related to her love of choreography and ethnographic research.

What she found in Haiti was what a lot of her bright, restless, arty friends in the US were looking for – a complete, ‘authentic’ spiritual system, unburdened by the baggage of Western religion, and one that put physical movement and personal contact with the divine at the heart of the spiritual process. Her project thus shifted from being about dance to being about her integration into vodou society.

If Divine Horsemen had been written today, it would be written as a ‘personal journey’, undoubtedly with one of those enormous subtitles that the American publishing industry loves so much, like Divine Horsemen: How I Uncovered the Secrets of Voodoo, Met God, and Learned to Love My Inner Zombie. Instead, what we get is something – ironically – altogether more dispassionate, a meticulous description of a religious practice and its associated worldview. Though Deren clearly participated in a lot of vodou ceremonies over many years, the first-person pronouns are refreshingly rare, and she limits herself to talking about the religion per se rather than how she was drawn into it.

The one exception to this is her account of when she was mounted by a lwa – that is to say, when she was possessed by one of the vodou deities. It's an extraordinary passage, and Deren wisely withholds it to the final section, by which time she has set up the overarching philosophy so well that the reader is ready to accept what she is saying (even if, like me, you are inclined to interpret the experience in psychosomatic terms).

Other moments are harder for Deren or her reader to explain. At one point, Ghede, a spirit of death and misrule, possesses a mambo (roughly, a priestess) during a ceremony to heal a seriously ill child. Deren relates the following exotic incident (male pronouns are used when a male lwa is inhabiting a body):

He took the blood of the goat and, undressing the child, anointed her with it. Then, singing fervently, he reached down between his legs and brought forth, in his cupped palm, a handful of fluid with which he washed the child. It was not urine. And though it would seem impossible that this should be so, since it was a female body which he had possessed, it was a seminal ejaculation. Again and again he gave of that life fluid, and bathed the child with it, while the mambos and hounsis sang and wept with gratitude for this ultimate gesture.

The child survived. Moments like this make you aware of the extraordinary flexibility with which vodou can endow gender: there are also regular sacred marriages, for example, between a woman and a male lwa who, during the service, happens to be mounted in a female body.

But such bizarreries aside, Deren's real value is in elucidating the more everyday aspects of practising vodou – the physicality of it, the centrality of rhythmic movement and the deep spirituality that can be induced through repetitive dance; she is very sensitive to these matters, and makes several perceptive comparisons to the different moods brought about by dancing a waltz rather than a rumba.

By the time she left Haiti, Deren had, during some quick but productive trips home, picked up husband number three, who would eventually edit the rushes of her Haitian trip together into the film of Divine Horsemen (1985), which was released more than twenty years after Deren's death. She was a remarkable person and this is a remarkable book – creative, self-effacing, generous, full of something that feels a lot like wisdom. ( )
2 vote Widsith | Feb 13, 2018 |
There are certainly many interesting observations in here, but I just could never get past the 'oblivious white lady goes to An Exotic Place and encounters Exotic Peoples' aspect of it. To be fair, my perspective may be tainted by the anthropology professor who first brought it to my attention, and how much she worshipped the ground Deren walked on. ( )
  redpersephone | Nov 21, 2015 |
Maya Deren is better known as a dancer and filmmaker. This book is the result of her traveling to Haiti with a plan to film the local dances for representation purely as an art form, and coming to the realization that she couldn’t do so with artistic integrity. Instead, she felt the need to understand the local religion of voudoun.

The book gives a good look at the mythology and culture of voudoun, and how the religion integrates into the community. Haiti’s slaves were brought from several different regions in Africa, and Deren shows how the different heritages manifest in everything from the various loa to the ritual drumbeats.

Deren provides copious footnotes and references to anthropological literature; in 1953, it would have been a good starting point for more extensive research. Her up-close perspective is interesting, but the structure is rather academic and makes it a slow read. ( )
  slothman | Oct 6, 2010 |
Maya Deren was a avant-garde filmmaker from the 40s and 50s. She decided to go to Haiti to investigate the practice of Voodoo, and spent a lot of time with various groups there, being given access to rituals and practices which noone outside of Voodoo circles had been given access to. The book is the story of her experiences, and is incredibly fascinating. ( )
  jacklund | Dec 3, 2005 |
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Maya Derenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Campbell, JosephPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0914232630, Paperback)

Includes photographs and drawings. Foreword by Joseph Campbell This is the classic, intimate study, movingly written with the special insight of direct encounter, which was first published in 1953 by the fledgling Thames & Hudson firm in a series edited by Joseph Campbell. Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen is recognized throughout the world as a primary source book on the culture and spirituality of Haitian Voudoun. The work includes all the original photographs and illustrations, glossary, appendices and index. It includes the original Campbell foreword along with the foreword Campbell added to a later edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:36 -0400)

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