Papa Legba


Joined June 2010

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In an interview with Paul de Angelis, Leonora Carrington stated:

“Yes, we distinguish life from death, but in my opinion things aren’t as they have been explained to us; I believe life and death must certainly be different for each person, like dreams are. I think that to understand something about death, first we have to understand the different places that exist within us, and dreams are one of those places; that is to say, the Paul and the Leonora of a dream are in some sense a different Paul and Leonora. It seems as if there exists a world in reverse: we have a body with which we go about different activities while our physical body remains inactive and asleep; with that other body we do things, go places, drive cars, ride a bike…” (translation mine).

In that vein, death could be more like passing into a different dream; it’s not that you end, but more that this particular relationship between you and your surroundings ends and you pass into awareness of a different relationship. It’s interesting to read the interview in its original Spanish (as printed in Leonora Carrington: La realidad de la imaginacion, by Whitney Chadwick), as you see the distinction between the two forms of the verb ‘to be’ reflect a significant opinion about death: ‘estar’ signifies being in an impermanent sense—to say that he is handsome today, or in that suit, rather than handsome all the time; ‘ser’ signifies being in a permanent sense—to say the man is tall and white. But when you say someone is dead, you say “alguien está muerto,” a simple sentence, which when read this way removes much of the significance of death, as if it were simply a state that someone were passing through, as Leonora suggests above. There is a similar linguistic construct in Spanish when one speaks of the state of dreaming: where in English you dream of someone, in Spanish you dream with them: soñar con. I dreamt with her last night; there was a mystical meeting of our other selves in another place.

Papa Legba reigns over such meetings and crossings as the gate-keeper at any ceremony or attempt to communicate with the loa or the ancestors. He keeps this you from confusing with that you in your day-to-day activities, but he can allow this you to become conscious of that you, to borrow from or give to that you if you (and he) so desired. He can also reach into the ether, call up your dead relative and allow you a conversation outside of time. If we wanted to translate that experience into more scientifically acceptable phrasing, we could say that somewhere in your memory, you had a full model of that person (his perspective-paradigm) , and, given the proper mindset, you could actually converse with that model. That person’s energy, his spirit, exists in whole form across the memories of many people, and why shouldn’t we have the focus and commitment necessary to learning how to call up that energy and speak to it?

There is obviously something of love involved in that exercise, and love is of course attached to the sensation of ecstasy, and ecstasy is what is called up when the drumming of the voodoo ceremony starts and the swaying begins and turns to dancing. Legba is called upon in the midst of that ecstasy; in an ecstasy of love and full-force commitment to the event, we are able to do anything, especially escape the limitations of our meager perceptive blinders.

When I get on the subway, my mind is flooded with faces, words, sounds, the emotions of others. Out of necessity, my conscious mind ignores most of that information—my subconscious files it away without even asking ‘me’ if that’s ok, without ‘me’ even noticing. But if I decide to loosen the perceptive hold of that subconscious, to let go of the ego (my sense of me) that serves as the organizational structure of expectation and understandable experience that my subconscious works through, then I can have access to all the things that are happening around me that I don’t even realize I’m not seeing (recall the easily-missed gorillas here)—if I can somehow handle the overload.

For example, in Fringeology, Volk talks about the MRIs run on the brains of people at the peak of meditation, and how they show that during that peak the brain’s sense of spatial placement—you, there; me, here; person, thing, etc— is completely shut off. All things, to the brain at that moment, are one. He gave the example of a subject named Robert, whose scans showed the same details as those found in the scans of the brains of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns:

“Looking over the SPECT scan, Newberg could see that the areas of Robert’s brain associated with judging distances, angles, and depths—in short, his position in space—had gone whisper-quiet. During normal consciousness, this area—the posterior superior parietal lobe—lights up on a SPECT scan with the furious red of active blood flow. This part of our brain has a lot of work to do. It keeps us from running into walls and missing the chairs we intend to sit in. Even when we’re still, in fact, this area of the brain remains active: always aware of which parts of our body are in contact with the chair, and which are floating in space; how far away the water glass sits on the table, and how high. But in Robert, during the peak of his meditation, the blazing red turned cool green and blue. The suggestion was obvious: Robert felt himself become one with the universe because the part of his brain that tells him where his body begins and the objects around him end pretty much shut down.”

But here’s where it’s taken even further than that by scientist Michael Persinger: once you’ve learned to shut down your ego—your sense of self-as-opposed-to-other— you can, as I suggested above, move into the minds of others and hear them “speak.” MRIs show that you can experience the world as that other person:

“Working with an under-the-radar psychic named Sean Harribance, Persinger claims to have found a pattern of brain activity that correlates with psychic functioning. ‘Here’s the really exciting part,’ he says. ‘Here’s the wow. When Harribance has actually gotten correct information, his brain state corresponds demonstrably with that of the person he’s reading.’”

Going back to the sense of oneness and peace and union with a higher power all reflected in the MRIs of the monks and nuns and Robert, Volk says:

“The sensations these practitioners report aren’t delusion; they are the self-directed workings of the human mind, like a horse put under harness. And even more important, these positive changes in brain function, if practiced enough, transform our baseline mental states in incredibly healthy ways. The amount of scientific research into the neurological effects of prayer and meditation is still small, but it is growing quickly. And what we’re finding is that short-term changes in our consciousness, during contemplative practice, produce long-term, positive neurological effects. People tend to think of their personalities and ways of being as somehow fixed. And in science, these traits and flaws alike have been linked to brain function. But as Waldman put it to me, ‘The whole notion that our brains are hardwired for much of anything is wrong. The name of the game is neuroplasticity.’”

So, the drums roll, you dance, your ego loses its hold over you and a communion with all things—plants, rocks, animals, the dead, the gods and goddesses of our mythologies, our loved ones who are far far away— becomes possible as your own specific traits and beliefs fall away. Don’t forget the ecstasy, because it’s key: love is key. And in this drawing, love is offered up with the pairing of the Hoopoe and the Nightingale, two birds with storied histories in several religious and folk traditions of leading the way to such unions of ecstasy; in the Sufi tradition, the Hoopoe leads all the birds of the universe to realize that they, together, make up the lord of the birds, God. In Aristophanes’ comedy, The Birds, the Hoopoe and his wife the nightingale guide the humans in their desire to create a realm of reality (somewhere between earth and the heavens) where they can live free of the political bickering and bloody sacrificial nonsense of normal human society.

And in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale, a small bird living deep in the forest becomes a favorite of the Royal Court and a source of fame for that Court world-wide. As a result of that fame, an automated nightingale is made as a gift to the Emperor, as a tribute to the real thing. At the moment of its arrival, the real bird disappears, and the people find that they are very happy with the automated one anyway, as its song is always the same, comforting in its familiarity, a song they themselves can learn and sing to themselves. One day, the emperor falls ill, and lies on his deathbed; a new emperor is chosen in preparation. The castle and courts are silent; mats are rolled out so that no disturbance should reach his room. No one comes to wind up his bird, and in the silence, the Emperor faces the harsh skeleton of Death and the whispering voices of all his deeds, all that has gone wrong and all that has been lost. He cries out in agony.

“Suddenly, through the window came a burst of song. It was the little live nightingale, who sat outside on a spray. He had heard the emperor’s plight, and had come to sing of comfort and hope. As he sang, the phantoms grew pale, and still more pale, and the blood flowed quicker and quicker through the emperor’s feeble body. Even Death listened, and said, ‘Go on, little nightingale, go on!!’
‘But,’ said the little nightingale, ‘will you give back that sword, that banner, that emperor’s crown?’
And Death gave back these treasures for a song.”

It’s the real—not automated—bird-song that brings the dying Emperor back to life, convinces Death himself to leave him be. Being alive, not being automatic (even though what’s known and expected is comfortable and makes us, in a comfortable sense, happy) is how we stay alive. The surprise of the song, the chance, the pure joy that creates it, the love for the listener—these things bring life where routine, blind expectation, and an authoritarian insistence on one, carefully-swept pathway in life, brings death. And in the tale, the Emperor rises from his bed and continues his reign.

The Adonis plant, shown taking over the living side of the drawing, was created, according to Greek mythology, by the mingling of Aphrodite’s tears and the blood of her great love Adonis; it sprung up when the gods, moved by her immense grief at his death and her refusal to let his corpse go, agreed to allow Adonis to live half of the year on earth, and for her to follow him into the Netherworld for the other half. And again, love conquers any form of separation.

I am planning to model my puppet for Clive and Peter’s challenge on Papa Legba, but have not yet decided how I want to model his double existence as an old man and a young man (or even dead/alive); the maquette I made before split his face down the middle; here, the one rises up from the other. I don’t think I will use either method, but I do now have an idea… more on that soon, hopefully.

**Note: Legba is often shown with his companion dog, and here his dog takes the form of the constellation Canis Major, with its prominent star, Sirius. For the ancient Egyptians, this was the the star that rose for the beginning of spring and the floods—floods which replenished the soil, to make new life possible. It therefore represented Isis, protector of the dead and goddess of children, as it disappears for the 70 days that she went to the underworld to bring her brother Osiris back to life. For the Greeks, its rise signaled the dog-days of summer, when you might be ‘star-struck’ or crazy from the heat, as the dogs apparently were. The Polynesians, though, saw it as the main star of a Great Bird constellation (recall Legba’s association with birds as well), Manu, signifying the beginning of winter; so, the constellation is a mark of resurrection, of flooding and regrowth, of summer if you look from here and winter if you look from there—a dog to some and a bird to others. All issues, of course, of perception.

This one was also a present, for Gabriel. :)

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