Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”
1. Whale souls
Silent reading, as we know it in the West, is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Ivan Illich, popularized only in the 12th century by the influential French abbot Hugh of St. Victor. Prior to that time, even a monk reading alone in his cell would sound the words out. How else could their full power be felt?
The origin of silent prayer is not so easy to pinpoint. The practice of meditation in one form or another is probably as old as the hunter’s profession. Such meditations – of necessity silent, so as not to spook the game – need not be the especial province of men, either. A while back I quoted Tom Lowenstein (Ancient Land, Sacred Whale, FSG, 1993) about the bowhead hunt as formerly practiced by the Inuit of Tikigaq, in North Alaska. The male and female skinboat owners (umialik) had equally potent roles in visualizing and conjuring the prey animal:
In contrast to her “Raven” husband’s freedom on the sea, the woman umialik stayed at home in her iglu and did nothing for most of the whale hunt. This, in essence, was her mythic role. Secluded and overtly idle like the uiluaqtaq of the story, the umialik woman was completely passive. . . . Within this inertia lay shamanistic power. How this functioned may be seen in the umialik’s parallel actions.
The woman’s springtime ritual in fact started on the sea-ice. On the first day of the hunt, when the male crew left Tikigaq, the woman walked ahead to the open water. With the help of the woman the crew would have found a good place to wait, and the woman lay down on the ice with her head pointing toward Tikigaq while the men embarked and pushed off from the ice. After travelling a short distance the steersman brought his boat round and returned to the ice-edge. Silently, the harpooner leaned over the prow, dipped his weapon in the water opposite the woman and then touched her parka. When she had been “struck”, the woman got up and, without looking back, walked home.
The moment she reached her iglu the woman ceased activity, and for the rest of the hunt sat passively on the sleeping bench. . . . While her posture on the ice had resembled the rising whale and the position of her head indicated the direction from which the whale must come, woman had been the whale’s body. In her ritual tranquility she now enacted the whale’s soul. Not only did she transmit to the whales the generous passivity that whales were supposed to feel towards their hunters, but she already was the whale’s soul, resident within her Tikigaq iglu, suspended between the conditions of life and death that the hunt counterpoised and made sacred.
It is difficult for most of us to grasp the depth of affection one might feel toward an Animal whose body is not only food but also the Land itself. How the overtly active man and the overtly passive woman together contrive to weave a net of longing for the beloved animal was at the heart of the annual drama of the Tikigaq Inuit.
Quiet as the woman remains, she and her husband are in balanced partnership. . . . But the whale brought home through the shared operation implies a third partner in the myth-role. This third partner is the land itself. Land, like the woman, is externally quiet but dynamic within. And like all symbols of the whale hunt the land remains ambiguous. . . . Tikigaq [peninsula] is primal sea-beast, its iglus microcosmic versions of the whale and the sea-beast. When a Tikigaq harpooner strikes the land whale stirs; when the katak [iglu entrance hole] gives birth with the death of a bowhead the whale in the katak is both Tikigaq nuna [land], and bowhead, and just katak.
As Lowenstein’s informants put it:
These small whales, inutuqs,
small round fat ones
come to us from down there,
from their country south of us.
The women sit at home.
They are whale souls in their iglus.
The whales listen and sing.
They hear Tikigaq singing.
Listen to the north wind!
Listen to the sea-ice!
Listen to the inutuq
2. A mindful god
According to Jewish tradition, silent prayer was invented by a woman.
Now there was a certain man of Ramathaimzophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
And this man went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the LORD, were there. And when the time was that Elkanah offered, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions. But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the LORD had shut up her womb.
And her adversary [i.e. Peninnah] also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb. And as he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of the LORD, so she provoked her; therefore she wept, and did not eat. Then said Elkanah her husband to her, Hannah, why weepest thou, and why eatest thou not, and why is thy heart grieved? Am not I better to thee than ten sons?
So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk.
Now Eli the priest sat upon a seat by a post of the temple of the LORD.
And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.
And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli marked her mouth. Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? Put away thy wine from thee. And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto.
Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him. And she said, Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.
And they rose up in the morning early, and worshipped before the LORD, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the LORD remembered her.
Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the LORD. And the man Elkanah, and all his house, went up to offer unto the LORD the yearly sacrifice, and his vow. But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned, and then I will bring him, that he may appear before the LORD, and there abide for ever. And Elkanah her husband said unto her, Do what seemeth thee good; tarry until thou have weaned him; only the LORD establish his word.
So the woman abode, and gave her son suck until she weaned him. And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the LORD in Shiloh: and the child was young. And they slew a bullock, and brought the child to Eli. And she said, Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the LORD. For this child I prayed; and the LORD hath given me my petition which I asked of him. Therefore also I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the LORD. And he worshipped the LORD there.
Thus the King James Bible, 1 Samuel 1. For Hannah’s song of thanksgiving – model for Miriam’s song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – let’s turn to the Anchor Bible translation by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr.
My heart exults in Yahweh!
My horn is raised by my god!
My mouth is stretched over my enemies!
I rejoice in my vindication.
For there is no holy one like Yahweh,
And no mountain like our god!
Do not speak haughtily
Or let arrogance out of your mouth.
For Yahweh is a mindful god,
And a god who balances his actions:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
While the feeble are girded with armor;
The sated have hired out for bread,
While the hungry are fattened on food;
The childless wife has borne seven,
While the mother of many sons is bereaved.
It is Yahweh who slays and quickens,
Who sends down to Sheol and brings up.
It is Yahweh who makes poor and makes rich,
Who debases and also exalts;
Who raises the poor from the dust,
From the scrap heaps lifts the needy,
To give them a seat with noblemen
And grant them a chair of honor.
For the straits of the earth are Yahweh’s . . .
3. Red wedding
Behold, a female anthropologist married a god, a warrior diety of a people doubly exiled: first from Africa, then from Haiti. Like the god of Israel in exile ramifying into the ten-fold sefirot, this god too has subdivided.
As Sen Jak Majè (Saint James the Elder), Ogou is a “man of war” who fights for what is right and just. As Ogou Panama, he is a pèsònaj (an important person) who demands to be treated with ceremony and deference. As Ogou Ferray, he is fierce and uncompromising. As Ogou Badagri, he is shy, handsome, brave and loyal. Yet, as Ogou Yamson, he is an unreliable drunkard who finds power in booze and swaggering talk; and, as Agèou, he is a liar and beggar. And when Ogou is called by the names Achade or Shango (the two are sometimes conflated into one character), he is said to be a sorceror.
(Karen McCarthy Brown: Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, University of California Press, 1991)
There are many more Ogou besides these, says Brown. What qualities unite them?
Ogou teaches that to live one must fight. Pride, endurance, self-assertion, discipline, and a firm commitment to justice are qualities that bring success. But in one turn of the screw, pride can become braggadocio, endurance can become stubbornness, self-assertion fades into mere bullying, and discipline is transformed into tyranny. An overly developed sense of justice, one that is tempered neither by humor nor by graceful resignation, can lead to suicidal rage. . . . Because the constructive and destructive parts of Ogou’s character are so close together, none of the various Ogou is good or evil, right or wrong, in a simple, unqualified way. Each contains his own paradoxes of personality, which are teased out in possession-performance and in song. In July of 1979, for example, [Brown’s priestess] Alourdes’s community sang a lively song for all the Ogou:
Papa Ogou, tou piti kon sa.
Papa Ogou, anraje.
Papa Ogou, all children are like that.
Papa Ogou, enraged.
Such lean phrasing, replete with double and triple entendre, is characteristic of Vodou songs. From one perspective, Ogou is counseled in this song to show forbearance toward his children, his followers. From another, Ogou is a strutting banty rooster who throws childish tantrums when he cannot have his way.
As with the storm-god Yahweh’s evolution into the LORD of Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity, when the African gods crossed the ocean, they “submerged their connections to the natural world and elaborated their social messages.” But they did not at the same time retreat into an ever-more remote heaven, accessible only to true believers and only in the afterlife. Quite the opposite: the gods became more down-to-earth and accessible, entering directly into the bodies of their followers for frequent dramatic performances that mingled high seriousness and low comedy. And whereas the People of the Book stress the believer’s inner intention, all one needs to bring to the Vodou spirits (in addition to the appropriate offerings) is an open mind. “Try it and see if it work for you,” the priestess Alourdes urges her clients.
Vodou practitioners have little use for abstractions. “Vodou seldom halts its kinaesthetic and sensory drama to force its wisdom into concept or precept; proverbs, anecdotes, ancestral tales, and songs are the only vehicles subtle and flexible enough to cradle the messages when the truths of Vodou are put into words,” Brown notes. In this respect, it resembles indigenous and village-based religions the world over. In some sense, can we not agree with the ancient Chinese philosophers who argued that when religion has to promulgate formal precepts, it’s simply a sign that society has entered a crisis phase, a breakdown in communal norms? Viewed from the ethnocentric perspective of inhabitants of an urbanized civilization, we tend to view “tribal” religions as earlier stages in a progressive evolution leading (of course) to us, and perhaps beyond. But which kind of religion tends more closely to reflect the true, mind-boggling complexity of nature? Is the desert- or alpine-dweller’s longing for transcendent Godhead, moksha or nirvana automatically superior to the Vodou priestess’s regular experiences of immanence within a rainforest-like profusion of sacred roles?
But of course, there’s no reason to see transcendence and immanence as necessarily opposed; Haitians certainly don’t. Virtually all Vodou devotees consider themselves good Catholics. They would disagree strongly with my use of the term “god” for Ogou – he is considered a spirit.
Bondye (God) is singular and supreme in Haitian Vodou. He is a deity with roots in the Christian god as well as in the so-called high gods of West Africa. Yet in the Haitian view of things, Bondye, like his African models, rarely gets involved with individual human lives. Attention to the everyday drama of life is the work of his “angels,” the Vodou spirits. . . .
In Vodou, as in virtually all religions, “the spirits select their special devotees, not the reverse.” In fact, I suggest that if we are to draw any meaningful distinction whatsoever between religion and magic, this question of who selects whom would make an excellent criterion. The sorcerer commands and attempts to exert control over the animating forces of the universe with little concern for their own sovereignty or well-being. The religious person petitions, offers sacrifice, bows in thanksgiving, offers devotion. The religious person partakes; the sorceror consumes. For in many, many cultures the relationship to the sacred finds symbol and expression in the most essential forms of union: eating and making love.
Within Alourdes’s group of special spirits, one stands out. He is her mèt tèt (the master of her head), Ogou Badagri. But the dominance of Ogou Badagri in her life does not go unchecked. . . . For example, even if a situation has called out the aggression of the Ogou in Alourdes, Gede can possess her and put the matter in an entirely different light through his iconoclastic humor. . . .
Because Alourdes has gone through the Vodou marriage to Ogou Badagri, she calls him her “husband.” She sets aside one night a week for him. On this night, she receives the handsome soldier in dreams, and no human lover shares her bed. . . .
The most striking part of Ogou Badagri’s character is his ability to endure in the face of trials that would break many others. . . . Forsaking attack, Alourdes, like Badagri, chooses wakefulness. She draws her power around her like a cloak, holding it close to her body. She does not dream of extending herself outward and conquering the world. Rather, she controls what experience has taught her she is able to control – herself.
The anthropologist too has Ogou around her head. From the very beginning of her involvement with Vodou, she says, “every priest or priestess who chose to make a diagnosis told me that Papa Ogou was my mèt tèt.”
Although I had witnessed many Vodou marriages and been fascinated by them, I originally had no intention of going through the ritual myself. Then, one day in 1980 when I was alone in my apartment and full of rage (I had some things to be angry about at that period of my life), I found myself muttering, “Stop trying to make the anger go away. It only makes it worse. It’s yours. Marry it!” I picked up the phone and called Alourdes.
Brown resolved to do, as she put it, “fieldwork on my own psyche.” Alourdes performed divination, diagnosing her as suffering from a blockage of will or energy. She thinks too much, acts too timidly. As Brown explains, “a life of energy or flow” is the Vodou ideal. “The goal of all Vodou ritualizing is to echofe (heat things up) so that people and situations shift and move, and healing transformations can occur.”
The marriage took place the next month at Ogou’s regularly scheduled July birthday party. Around two o’clock in the morning, when the songs summoning Ogou began, I excused myself from the twenty-five or so people gathered around Alourdes’s sumptuous altar tables. I went upstairs to change into my wedding clothes – a bright red sundress purchased especially for the occasion and, on my head, a red satin scarf. When I came down the stairs half an hour later, everyone oohed and aahed over my fine attire. Everyone, that is, except Papa Ogou.
He had mounted Alourdes in my absence, and I found him decked out in his own finery, his red velvet military jacket with the gold epaulets. But Ogou ignored me. I stood by patiently while he talked to one person after another without acknowledging my presence. No matter how I maneuvered, he always managed to keep his back to me.
Everyone was getting nervous. One woman said, “Papa Ogou, your beautiful bride is here, behind you. Don’t you want to talk to her?” Ogou ignored the question. Then a man whispered in my ear, “Go on!” and gave me a shove in front of Ogou. The spirit looked at me with a cold eye. “What do you want?” he asked. I found my voice. “I am here to marry you. You promised you would marry me. You have made me wait a long time. I am ready.” Papa Ogou threw back his head and laughed. It was a deep, rich laugh. “Begin the ceremony!” he shouted, and, taking my arm, he propelled me toward the largest of the altar tables. Once again, Ogou had taught me the warrior’s lesson: know what you want and fight for it.
4. Pronouncing no name
The African American poet Lucille Clifton composed a moving series of poems on her husband Fred’s death from leukemia at the age of 49. They are included in her book Next (BOA Editions, 1987). Toward the end, Lucille’s own voice has become submerged in the voice of her dying husband:
leukemia as dream/ritual
it is night in my room.
the woman beside me is dying.
a small girl stands
at the foot of my bed.
she is crying and carrying wine
and a wafer.
her name is the name i would have given
the daughter i would have liked to have had.
she grieves for herself and
not for the woman.
she mourns the future and
not the past.
she offers me her small communion.
i roll the wafer and wine on my tongue.
i accept my body. i accept my blood.
eat she whispers. drink and eat.
something is growing in the strong man.
it is blooming, they say, but not a flower.
he has planted so much in me. so much.
i am not wiling, gardener, to give you up to this.
the death of fred clifton
i seemed to be drawn
to the center of myself
leaving the edges of me
in the hands of my wife
and i saw with the most amazing
so that i had not eyes but
and, rising and turning
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things
“i’m going back to my true identity”
i was ready to return
to my rightful name.
i saw it hovering near
in blazoned script
and, passing through fire,
i claimed it. here
is a box of stars
for my living wife.
tell her to scatter them
pronouncing no name.
tell her there is no deathless name
a body can pronounce.