A classic anthropological adventure in Voodoo

Maya Deren Hallowe'en invitation art

A vever drawn by Maya Deren

In an earlier post, we met Stanford anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann, who immersed herself in the spiritual practices of modern witches and evangelical Christians to learn more about the psychology of religious experiences. She was not the first scholar to use herself as a guinea pig in this way. Maya Deren, a filmmaker and dancer, went to Haiti to document Voodoo rituals in the 1940’s and 50’s, and ended up being initiated into the religion.

Although Deren was not an anthropologist, she worked with those who were when she abandoned her film project to write Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Her book climaxes with Deren’s first-hand account of being possessed by the Voodoo goddess Erzulie.

Deren tells us what happened before and after she was overcome by the loa, the goddess, but she cannot describe the experience itself, because she wasn’t there. Erzulie was there instead.

What Maya Deren remembered

The singing and drumming were already in progress when Deren arrived that evening. Joe, a neighborhood priest, sits next to her. They make small talk until Joe rises to accept the ceremonial greeting given to him. When he finishes, it’s Deren’s turn to accept a  greeting.

She plays her role like the dancer which she was, mentally counting steps (“…curtsey, turn left, two, three, curtsey, back right, two, three..”). Then comes her first indication that tonight will be different. Deren loses track of where she is in her dance. No matter, the others cover for her, and she returns to her seat. Her conversation with Joe resumes.

The ceremony intensifies, and Deren leaves her seat once more to sing and dance. Upon returning, she is sweaty and wants a handkerchief from her maid. When Deren steps over to her maid, her left leg roots itself to the ground, immobile, pitching her forward. People around her catch her fall. She returns to her seat while someone else fetches the handkerchief.

She feels light-headed, and her thoughts are foggy. Deren recognizes this feeling, and the trouble in her leg, as the “warning auras of possession.” She leaves the ceremony to walk alone in the cool evening. She smokes a cigarette. Her head clears. She weighs her options.

Protocol demands that she return for the salute to the local guardian loa. When she does, a friendly officiant recognizes her vulnerability, and digs his fingernail into her palm. The shock of pain restores her focus, and she shakes hands with the guardian loa (that is, with a man possessed), receiving  a momentary shock.

The drums pick up, and Deren’s moment of decision arrives, She does not wish to be carried away by the drumming, singing and dancing. She can leave now,

Yet in my heart, I know that it is not fair to stay only when it is easy, or pleasurable, or exalting, and to withdraw in the face of discomfort. This is as much a part of it, as if, in accepting the rewards, one had contracted to endure the ordeals.

And so she resolves to stay, still to resist, but not to flee.

The possessed man is restored to himself. The  next song is for Erzulie.

The dance begins pleasantly, but becomes more demanding, more physically arduous as time goes on. Deren thinks in contractual terms again,

I cannot say, now, why I did not stop, except that, beneath all this is always a sense of contract: whether, in the end, one be victor or victim, it is to be in the terms one has accepted. One cannot default.

After Deren resolved to endure the rigors of the dance, it became no longer so demanding. She began to perceive things in slower motion (a favorite film making technique of hers, as it happens). She thought about the quality of her dance movements, the extension of her arms, the swirl of her skirt. She notices that the other dances have moved away from her, giving her space.

The other dancers are giving her space because they can see that the transformation is happening. Terror at the loss of self strikes Deren. She keeps moving, but her legs do not respond normally. Her sense of self doubles (another favorite film making technique of hers). She is watching herself, and it is not herself that she is watching. Her eyelids flutter, and there are longer and longer gaps between the successive moments of sight.

Her legs become rooted and she pulls them free, again and again. She falls into the waiting arms of others who are singing. They catch her, and then again she resumes the dance.

So it goes: the leg fixed and then wrenched loose, the long fall across space, the rooting of the leg again – for how long, how many times, I cannot know. My skull is a drum; each great beat drives that leg, like the point of a stake, into the ground. The singing is at my very ear, inside my head. This sound will drown me! “Why don’t they stop! Why don’t they stop!” I cannot wrench the leg free, I am caught in this cylinder, this well of sound. There is nothing anywhere except this. There is no way out. The white darkness moves up the veins of my leg like a swift tide rising; rising; [it] is a great force which I cannot sustain or contain, which, surely, will burst my skin. It is too much, too white, too bright for me, this is its darkness. “Mercy!” I scream within me. I hear it echoed by the voices, shrill and unearthly, “Erzulie!” The bright darkness floods up through my body, reaches my head, engulfs me. I am sucked down and exploded upward at once, That is all.

Deren’s next memory is of coming to, coming back to herself. Sound is confused with light. She feels as if rising up from underwater towards the surface. She sees at first forms without meaning, then the visible forms resolve themselves into meaningful objects.

As the souls of the dead did [in other ceremonies], I, too, have come back. I have returned. But the journey around is long and hard, alike for the strong horse, alike for the great rider.


Along with the incorporeal tulpas of the earlier post on Luhrmann’s work, the incarnations of the loas and spirits of the dead are what Mircea Eliade called hierophanies. They are events which those who experience them interpret as breakthroughs of the  supernatural into the natural world.

Although the “media” differ, conscious hallucination versus a real person with a different personality, the content is similar in “social possession” and thought-form interaction. The observer experiences the presence of somebody else, an  autonomous person, who behaves consistently with the observer’s expectations for that character and archetypal category. Whether Voodoo god or Leland Stanford. Jr., whether phantasm or portrayed by a flesh-and-blood person, whether cultivated by ritual (or experimental methodology) or spontaneous, like dreams and waking visions, the observers’ experience is  remarkable for its schematic similarity across cases.

A modern secular view will interpret these events as the breakthrough of something natural, albeit unusual, into the field of consciousness. Fair enough. But the experiences are real, some can be reliably induced, and all share uniformity of content at the level of archetypes.

There is every reason to think, therefore, that hierophanies occurred throughout human existence. If so, then hierophany is a candidate mechanism for how the idea of the supernatural first arose in human thought. However elaborate religious ideas eventually became, at root, the supernatural may be only an unfamiliar aspect of the natural, interpreted as something different in kind.

There may be a temporal boundary in the West between a cultural disposition to accept what breaks through in hierophany as something beyond nature, rather than to extend the boundaries of what is natural to accommodate novelties. Eighteenth Century Mesmerism, not so different from tulpas and loas, was seen as the discovery of a new natural force, “animal magnetism,” reflecting the spirit of that time.

Among Benjamin Franklin’s scientific contributions was to serve on the French panel which established that Mesmerism was not any new material force, but something in the participants’ minds. Time was not yet ripe for many to think that it was plenty remarkable in its own right for the human mind to incorporate such capacities among its natural endowments.

A Jungian way of distinguishing Voodoo ritual from other hierophanies is as a social division of labor, sharing the burden of conscious encounters with unconscious contents. A few persons, the possessed, are overwhelmed by upwellings. The other participants, then, perform the absent ego’s necessary functions, especially to look after the body of the possessed. It is these others who consciously interact with the unconscious contents. Compare Jung’s active imagination, where a single person deals with the contents without being overwhelmed, retaining an alert ego, perhaps accompanied by a therapist or other witness to lend a hand in the case of trouble.

Deren offers a more religious, and less economic, interpretation of the incompatibility of ego and loa being resident simultaneously.

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.

 Jung might be pleased that his active imagination method might, on this view, be described as someone being “man and god at once.”

Some media notes

The “White Darkness” chapter of Deren’s book, her account of her possession by Erzulie, is available here:


Although Deren did not complete the Haitian movie, she did shoot about 5,000 meters of film there. Some scenes she might have been unwelcome to film had she not been an initiate herself. Deren’s widowed husband and his later wife edited the footage into about an hour of narrated scenes, also called Divine Horsemen. It comes and goes online (no link available as of September 2014).

Atop this article is Deren’s artwork for a Hallowe’en party invitation in the style of a vever, an often mandala-like drawing dedicated to a loa. In this case, the loa is Ghede, guardian of graveyards, and so of the collective memories of humankind, whose holy night Hallowe’en is.


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