Since 2000 BC, people have hauled boats on carts through town for festivals led by questionable kings. The Ancient Greeks honored Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, the Romans called in the New Year with their version of the same god, Bacchus, and the Teutons honored their fertility goddess, Nerthus. During the times of slavery, it was a slave who headed the ship, worshipped as King for the day, in an act that turned the world upside down in much the same way revelers do now during the Mardi Gras parades. From as early as 1135, this ship became known as the Blauwe Schuit, the Blue Barge, and it became filled with marginally criminal refugees who had banded together as a Guild, normally the standard of ethical conduct and workmanship for a particular trade, and let loose in an otherwise unacceptably sinful and raucous celebration.
By the end of the Middle Ages, there was another use for such a ship.
In 1517 Luther nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. He, like other protagonists of the Reformation, doubted the value of good deeds as a ticket to heaven. The insane, together with the cripples and beggars to whom one could also demonstrate one’s brotherly love, thus lost their religious worth. From being necessary, they now became undesirable. They began to be cast out.
The number of prisons grew, and workhouses were introduced, where the mentally ill were shut up alongside thieves, beggars and those unwilling to work.--16th Century Paintings, by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen
Around this time, Hieronymous Bosch painted his famous Ship of Fools, and a mythology grew up surrounding it of ships like that one, floating down all the major rivers, carrying the mad, the impoverished, and the unwanted from shore to shore, always rejected and pushed back out to sea. Foucault used that image, and the records of a few incidents in the Germany of the 1400s which gave credence to that mythology, to explore the idea of the liquid form of madness, the mind adrift, the man outcast and lost in the “moving chaos” of the unknown territory beyond the established boundaries of civilization. And Foucault had, of course, his own understanding of what was to be called “mad--” in his writings, he often pointed out that what was crazy to one person, in his society, was old hat to another, in a society far, far away. For example, in the preface to his book The Order of Things, he writes:
"This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that."
Which leads us back again to the ancient practice of drawing a ship through town--on wheels--led by those who are usually not heard from, not listened to, even, often, not looked at. On that ship, on that day, they are kings and queens, and they may be happy, and wealthy, and wise. The custom is a reminder that all that we see as solid and normal is, in fact, fluid and changing, both in time and space. What we find ridiculous and hideous now, for example (slavery included), was not to be questioned once upon a time. And the burkatells us something about the role of space (the boundaries of a culture). And now modern physics tells us that solid matter itself is not solid at all, and that much of what we see, we have simply decided to see, our culture and upbringing have taught us to see--and it may not be there at all. I’ve written here before about the passing gorillas we miss when it’s been implied that their presence is unimportant. So, this one day of the year--couldn’t it be more?
During World War II, Hendrik Nicolaas Wekrman established the journal The Blue Barge with three other friends. They printed, among other things, tales from Martin Buber’s Legend of Baal-Shem, illustrated by Werkman, as a direct act of resistance and a source of inspiration to those suffering under the Nazi regime. For his efforts--his artistic efforts--Werkman was executed by firing squad April 10, 1945.
The Legends of Baal-Shem includes an entire section entitled “Ecstasy,” in which it is said: “In ecstasy all that is past and that is future draws near to the present. Time shrinks, the line between the eternities disappears, only the moment lives, and the moment is eternity. In its undivided light appears all that was and all that will be, simple and composed. It is there as a heart-beat is there, and becomes perceptible like it.” Here, ecstasy is paradise, and those that insist on the renunciation of joys in this world also will not enjoy them in the next--is that not the renunciation of paradise? and so the mad who are lost in the fevers of ecstasy are closer to god than we are....
The Blue Ship, then, symbolizes all that we do not understand but which brings joy; unbridled passion, the creative instinct, the explosion of insight in a moment of thinking “outside the box.” It is also rebellion, revolution: it is hope where hope seems lost, and joy where joy has been forbidden. It is the creative act, opening a door where once there was a wall.
In this Blue Ship, Agwe stands at the helm, steering the wheeled ship through time. From somewhere underneath his collar, the stairs rise up to enter the castle of his hat, where a princess waits, and where we get the first hint that he might be facing the wrong way, as the ship’s masthead is holding her torch in the opposite direction. On the other side of the ship, Erzulie lovingly faces the direction her husband suggests, but her eyes slide to take note of the wise owl that pulls them via a ribbon of clouds, the other way.
Center stage is the Tree of Life, the Tree of Enlightenment, the Germanic Yggdrasil, which holds heaven and earth together. It is the crossroads between the living and the ancestors, between the devotee and the Voodoo Loa; it is the seat of Legba, who must be called on first before any other deity can be contacted.
Agwe’s boat is made, filled with treasures, and pulled on wheels through town and all the way to the water’s edge, where it is offered to him and his wife, Erzulie. I have talked about them here many times before, so I won’t repeat myself, but here I am remembering that Erzulie herself requires, on her sacred days, that we forget the logic of economics and the limits of poverty, sprinkling expensive perfume on the ground, cooking lavish meals, wearing and offering finery and jewels. She requires that we take the time to make ourselves beautiful, to make our offerings beautiful, to remember that each motion and act is an art, more of an art than the finished product, and that it matters to take the time to make something gorgeous.
Her generosity is so natural that one is caught up in her exuberant innocence, believing, with her, that all is good, is simple, is full-blown. It is in order to feel this that the serviteur indulges her extravagant demands, for if what is so difficult for him is so normal for her, that very fact confirms the existence of a world in which his difficulties do not occur... He conceives of Erzulie as fabulously rich, and he neither inquires into nor explains the sources of this limitless wealth, as if by such disinterest he becomes himself freed from concern with sources and means. He shares her impatience with economies, with calculation...Erzulie moves in an atmosphere of infinite luxury, a perfume of refinement, which, from the first moment of her arrival, pervades the very air of the peristyle, and becomes a general expansiveness in which all anxieties, all urgencies vanish. The tempo of movements becomes more leisurely, tensions dissolve and the voices soften, losing whatever aggressive or strident tones they may have had. One has the impression that a fresh, cooling breeze has sprung up somewhere and that the heat has become less intense, less oppressive. --Maya Deren
Erzulie turns the world upside-down in this way: she brings ease and luxury and peace through the sheer, innocent expectation of them. And she rides away on this little blue ship, where we don’t internalize the order and logic of society, where we are not limited by time or space, and where we can go in many directions at once and never be lost.