ERZULIE joins the Female Power Project

ERZULIE shawl design
ERZULIE shawl design

When I was asking friends which females they were inspired by, one told me that the Haitian goddess, Erzulie, had stayed with her ever since she had taken a class on the people of the Caribbean. A quick Wikipedia search showed me enough to capture my attention. There are so many Erzulies! Erzulie, or “Ezili,” is most generally referred to as the goddess (or Lwa—spirit, or angel) of love. But the Haitian religion, called Vodou, seems to revel in distinctions and specificity, and develops new spirits as the culture demands, adapting to changing social conditions. Thus the proliferation of Erzulies. My main source for information about this belief system is the work of anthropologist, Karen McCarthy Brown. In the early seventies she did field work for her dissertation in Haiti. This unpublished work pioneers a structuralist approach to the visual arts, specifically examining the rich ritual meanings of the Vèvè, or ephemeral drawings made in corn flour on the floor at the beginning of a Vodou ritual.

Two Veve representing the two main Erzulies, Erzulie Dantor and Erzulie Freda, from THE VEVE OF HAITIAN VODOU: A STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF VISUAL IMAGERY, by Karen McCarthy Brown, 1975.
Two Veve representing the two main Erzulies, Erzulie Dantor and Erzulie Freda, from THE VEVE OF HAITIAN VODOU: A STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF VISUAL IMAGERY, by Karen McCarthy Brown, 1975.

 

Structuralism, a mode of anthropological explanation first developed by Claude Levi-Strauss in the 1950s, describes cultural production as a play of opposites: raw and cooked; male and female; clean and unclean etc. The Vèvè, and by extension Vodou, seem perfectly suited to this mode, since there is an explicit oppositional geometry to its fundamental powers of soft and hard spirits—or Rada and Petwo. The Rada spirits, like Erzulie Freda, are associated with the right side, the inside, with the below, with water; they are cool and intimate and familial, stable, predictable. They map almost perfectly to the deities that the stolen African peoples brought with them (across the water) to Haiti. The Petwo spirits, like Erzulie Dantor, are associated with the left side, with the upward direction, the outside, with fire and power and war and destruction, with energy, they are unpredictable and unforgiving and harsh. When devotees are possessed by Petwo spirits (the spirits ride the worshipers like horses) they wield whips and blow whistles. It may be too simplistic to reduce Petwo spirits to representations of power under the conditions of slavery, but there is definitely a connection.

That is not all. The Vodou religion is a mashup of African religions and Catholicism as practiced by the French slaveholders and Polish mercenary soldiers who enforced the slaveholders’ power. There are many aspects to the Virgin Mary and they are connected to the many aspects to Erzulie. Erzulie Dantor (a Petwo Lwa) is associated with the Black Madonna (there are hundreds of these in Europe) and specifically the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Dantor is a single mother and her child is called Anais. She is a fiercely strong protector of women and children. Erzulie Freda (a Rada Lwa) is associated with Our Lady of Sorrows, even though Freda is NOT a mother, she weeps a lot and showers people with affection. In possession rituals, Erzulie Freda starts out showering love on people and ends up weeping with grief and loss—because she has no child and she has no husband—she is overflowing with love but there is no stable object of this love.

But I was not as interested in Freda, I wanted to find a more direct counterpart to Erzulie Dantor, the fierce mother. In my research I did find mention of a Rada Erzulie mother, Erzulie Mansur, but only on Wikipedia, and I could find no other mention of her, neither could I find a Vèvè about her. But new Lwa are always being invented, or found, and in my ERZULIE design I wanted to process the soft and hard aspects of maternal love. I use the generic name, Erzulie, and not specific names, because I want to get to the base of the matter: the dialectic of Maternal Love, a fitting topic for the Female Power Project.

The Vèvè, as described by Brown, are a microcosm of the open-ended and adaptive system we find in Vodou. They display up and down and left and right, like the Cartesian coordinates of the Vodou religion, and each Vèvè has telling signs in particular locations in the drawing referring to its particular Lwa. But they are not dogmatic, and each priest or priestess has their own version of these drawings. A Petwo spirit, Erzulie Dantor’s Vèvè (above) always shows a sword—she is fierce, you don’t MESS with her. As you can imagine, a Rada Erzulie would be more “feminine,” and make references to lace and flowers and pretty things. Since all Erzulies are about love, their Vèvè all have a heart at the center.

What do the Vèvè actually do, what are they for? They are the doorways that allow the Lwa to enter the ritual space and ride their horses (possess their worshipers). Although the Vèvè were an obvious source for imagery in my Erzulie designs, I didn’t actually want to open a door to the spiritual world where the Lwa dwell. I wanted to do everything the Vèvè do except for letting actual spirits into the world, especially outside of the proper ritual setting. You know, just in case!

Here is a quote from Karen McCarthy Brown where she gets at what visual art can do both inside and outside of a religious context: “The experiential data the Vèvè refer to have not lost ambiguity or emotive content and, as a result, the right image in the right context is capable of provoking a seemingly endless stream of meaningful associations.” There is an undetermined openness to powerful images that allows the viewer to enter into the experience in an active way, to lend meaning to the work of art, in a dialogue with the visual object. Some people really are seized by a work of art, and in the proper situation their minds are possessed by a rush of spiraling associations.

Scarf design
Scarf design

This leads me to the point that art and ritual may have very similar functions: to mediate—to open up doors between—these structural opposites that our minds and societies lay down like laws. In Vodou spirit possession the spirit world and the human world interact; male humans can be ridden by female Lwa and take on their characteristics—and women can be possessed by male spirits; ritual spraying of alcoholic drink mediates fire and water. But there is one kind of opposite that has to be kept mostly separate and that is the two kinds of Lwa, Rada and Petwo. However, the separation is symbolic, not absolute. Their rituals are held at different times but they are performed in the same space. Their altars are in separate rooms, but Rada and Petwo do play out in the same system. Perhaps the pain and grief of the diaspora is so profound that the before power and the after power are like matter and antimatter: if they get close they are a creative social engine, but if they touch they will annihilate everyone in the room. In this way historic pain can be creative OR destructive, and, I think, they are most often both.

This is on a much larger scale than what I am trying to get at in my ERZULIE pieces. In this work I am saying that motherhood is something like that. There is a part of motherhood when softness and giving and encompassing are the most appropriate and good, and there is another part when hardness and cutting and fierceness are called for. There is pulling and there is pushing; there is an overflowing wealth but also separation and loss. The power comes from the dynamic discord of these opposing poles, and it is almost impossible to get it just right, but that is one of the most basic forces for humans, this gentleness (and oneness and nurturing) and fierceness (and anger and separation) wrapped up with motherhood. You must always, especially, avoid the bear with cubs. To birth the world there was, and had to be, a breaking of the vessels.

Now, on to the design. Let’s start at the center. That is also where the Vodou ritual starts, at the poteau-mitan, or the center pole in the Vodou temple. This is an instance of the sacred tree we see in many religions. It is the way that the Lwa get from their world (below) to ours. The center vertical line in a Vèvè makes direct reference to this center pole. In my ERZULIE designs the center tree graphic is the only direct reference to Vèvè. The leaf shape is used in Vèvè to refer to “leaf magic,” or medicinal herbal lore, a gift from the Lwa and a special power that comes from the same tree that brings the Lwa to our world. In my designs I am also making reference to the human spine, which is another vertical center line that partakes of the tree of life. The people who wear the shawl or scarf will align the printed leaf tree with their own spines.

Working out from this tree/spine you can read the word “ERZULIE” twice on the shawl, six times on the scarf, both forward and in reverse. When I did this I was thinking of how the Vodouisant (a practitioner of Vodou) says that the Lwa come from the other side of the mirror or from the other side of the water. The shawl can be read from both sides since it is translucent. So it reminds us of how it is to look from the other side—a reference to the experience of the worshiper possessed by her Lwa.

Photographing fire.
Photographing fire.
Photographing Caribbean water in the Virgin Islands
Photographing Caribbean water in the Virgin Islands.

Working out from the words we see on the left (Petwo) side hot colors and flames, and on the right (Rada) side there is cool pink water. They transition into each other, these two forces, but are still held safely apart by the spinal leaf tree. And over these basic elements we see the hearts, at the heart of every Erzulie Vèvè. On the right is a flower called “Bleeding Heart,” or Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Here is a picture of this plant, also commonly called Dicentra spectabilis. The softer, Rada, Erzulie loves flowers. The bleeding heart is a central devotion in Catholicism and is associated with the Rada Erzulie Freda. On top of the flower is a watery heart.

Bleeding Heart, or Lamprocapnos spectabilis.
Bleeding Heart, or Lamprocapnos spectabilis.
Catholic bleeding heart—on lace!
Catholic bleeding heart—on lace!

On the left, over the fire, is a lace heart overlaid with a pair of scissors. Instead of looking for the right sword to photograph, I realized that scissors make much more sense (for me), AND they are heart shaped. Scissors are for cutting and for making. They are like a woman’s sword.

Both sides end in lace, a beautiful web traditionally made by women’s hands. The web is the tissue of the social world that ritual knots together. It is the “seemingly endless stream of meaningful associations” that art can lend us, if we are lucky.

Blue, if you were wondering about the blue, is Erzulie’s favorite color.