Maya Deren: Divine Horsemen Dance the Living Gods of Haiti

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Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti journeys into the world of the Vodoun religion, communing with the drums and loa rituals, made by avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren between 1947-1951.

screenshot from Maya Deren's "Divine Horsemen"

In 1946, much thanks to her critical acclaim for her avant-garde film “Meshes of the Afternoon,” Maya Deren was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship grant, which she used to travel to Haiti and film “Meditation on Violence” — a controversial piece on the rituals of vodoun, which she not only filmed but also participated in, ultimately disregarding the terms of her Guggenheim Fellowship.

Maya Deren’s Magical Ethnographic Film of Haiti and the Wonder of Vodoun

The film captures the rituals of Rada, Petro and Congo cults, whose devotees commune with the cosmic powers through invocations — ritual offerings, song and dance. The Vodoun pantheon of deities, or loa are introduced as living gods, actually taking possession of their devotees. Also featured are the Rara and Mardi Gras celebrations.


Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti” explores the Vodoun religion of Haiti, filmed by Maya Deren during 1947-1951, and edited posthumously by Teiji and Cherel Ito (1971).

the lving gods of Haiti - vodounAlthough best known as a pioneer of independent experimental cinema, Maya Deren (born 1917 as Eleanora Derenkowsky in Kiev, Ukraine, died in 1961 in New York City) was also a Vodoun initiate, and hence able to take her camera and recorder where few have gone before or since. The soundtrack conveys the power of the ritual drumming and singing. Maya went first to Haiti as an artist, thinking to make a film in which Haitian dance should be a leading theme. But the manifestation of rapture that first fascinated and then seized her transported her beyond the bounds of any art she had ever known. She opened to the messages of that speechless deep, which is, indeed, the wellspring of the mysteries.

In 1947, wire recorders (which could operate on automobile battery power) had just come on the market and Maya Deren brought the first one to Haiti. She first traveled there on a Guggenheim fellowship grant in 1947. Included in her soundtrack to Divine Horsemen (shot between 1947-51) are some of the finest recordings ever made during Vodoun religious ceremonies near Croix des Missions and Petionville.

A Creative Force

Regarded as one of the founders of the postwar US independent cinema, the legendary Maya Deren was a poet, photographer, ethnographer, filmmaker and impresario. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) ranks among the most widely viewed of all avant-garde films, made with her second husband, Alexandr Hammid, in Los Angeles.

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Meshes of the Afternoon, A Film By Maya Deren and Alexandr Hammid, soundtrack recent, added by Ryan OC.

Originally a silent film with no dialogue, music was later composed by Deren’s third husband Teiji Ito in 1952. Her social circle back in New York also included Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, John Cage, and Anaïs Nin.

Updated 9 January 2018

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt