Acrylic Paint and gold leaf on Panel, 18x 24.
St. Afra (died 304) was a Cypriot woman, who was converted in Augsberg, Germany as she hid Bishop Narcissus of Girona from the Roman authorities. She was caught, of course, sheltering the bishop, and as a result burned to death (thus the wings of flame). There are conflicting stories about her, one stating that she was a prostitute in the Temple of Venus (thus she is partly formed of water, here), and the other that she died a virgin. The discrepancy in stories is one reason I chose her to represent Erzulie instead of the Virgin Mary (whom she is syncretized with in Voodoo); Erzulie is presented as innocent and virginal, but also as married to three other Loa, (one being Agwe) and having numerous lovers. For some reason, this is not a contradiction in her case. She is universally adored, all her husbands know about each other, they know of all her lovers, and they are not bitter, because they know that she has that much love. It is possible that Christianity also at one point mirrored this contradiction in Mary—why else a virgin mother, with the same name as the most beloved prostitute and the very first Christian evangelist?—but I felt that it was more succinct in the case of Afra. Also, she shares Church and crypt with St. Ulrich, who happens to be the saint syncretized with Agwe, who, as I mentioned, is one of the husbands of Erzulie.
“Voudoun has given woman, in the figure of Erzulie, exclusive title to that which distinguishes humans from all other forms: their capacity to conceive beyond reality, to desire beyond adequacy, to create beyond need. In Erzulie, Voudoun salutes woman as the divinity of the dream, the Goddess of Love, the muse of beauty.” 138The Divine Horsemen
One of the most striking aspects of the traditions surrounding the devotions to Erzulie is that they always end with her weeping. Erzulie is lovely, beautiful, and she has the adoration of all men, yet she does not strike hateful jealousy in the women, because of her child-like innocence. She induces wonder and care, she is like a child. And, though she begins all celebrations in her honor filled with giddiness and pleasure at the excess of beautiful and expensive things that are always lavished on her parties, she slowly grows sad, accusing the people of not honoring her enough, not giving her enough, not loving her enough. In Maya Deren’s book “The Divine Horsemen,” she suggests that this is just another aspect of her child-like behavior (along with an “impatience with economies, with calculation, even with careful evaluation” 139), that you cannot give a child enough attention to satiate its need, and that those present at the devotions understand this and soothe her. I feel, however, that perhaps Erzulie is right. We do not devote enough of our attentions to child-like wonder, to endless and all-enveloping love—if we did, the world would be a much different place.
Erzulie is the Queen of Impossible Demands, and her demands make the world so. She has three husbands and various lovers, but is also known for her virginal, child-like nature. She demands that her followers live their lives with joy, throwing worries aside and lavishing her with expensive and ‘frivolous’ gifts, perfumes and layer upon layer of finery, and that everyone wear his or her best attire for her parties, regardless of the intense heat or the fact that an earthquake just hit, or the possibility that no one has any money.
Her three husbands cover all of life, with lovers filling in like variations on a theme—for detail, for variety:
Agwe and Damballa rule the sea and the sky, respectively—that is, everything; both the unformed chaos of the deep, churning waters of creation and its thinning and separating out into sky to form the globe. Ogun is the warrior, the masculine, the machete, the force which must not turn against the people (the self)—perhaps he represents the distinction between force (to break things open and push into the new) and power (to keep things the same at all costs). He is known for his miracles, and one mounted by him will often poke himself or run himself through with the blade without injury, or wash his hands in flaming rum without suffering later.
In her successful demands for whatever her heart desires, she is much like St. Rita, who from her deathbed in the dead of winter requested a fig and a rose from her favorite garden, and got them.
Interestingly, the word rose developes from the Sanskrit root vrt. Vrt leads to the Gothic wairth, the Old Nordic verdh, and the Anglo-Saxon weordh, all of which mean “to unroll, to become, to come into being” (Nada Brahma: The World is Sound). It is also the root for the names of two of the three ancient Norse goddesses of fate, Urth and Verthandi. Aramaic and Arabic took this root and unfurled it into varda and vard, or rose, Greek dropped the v and gave us rodos, or rose, and Hebrew gives us wered, which is bud (that which comes into being) and rose (that which has become)— thus bringing into the meaning of the word not only the unfurling of life but the fact that life has already unfurled, that we are circling it, observing.Observing in the sense of the Observer of modern physics, who influences which reality will vibrate with life right now just by perceiving it. And there we circle back to the contemporary English word “word.” As in, God spoke, and there was life. The word is the beginning, and from it unfurls the bud of life. Rita said, bring me a rose, and it was so, and from that came a world where one could request from her other such ‘impossibilities.’ Erzulie decided that the heat was impossible and she wanted to be able to breathe underwater. She spoke, and the water rushed forth, and from it an appropriate husband, Agwe, on his horse.
The world is not a solid rock of reality. It is your next breath, unfurling into your expectations.