Ezili Dantor – A Deep Dive

Ezili Dantor by Jay Alexander

Terrifying. This is the adjective many have used to describe this fearsome lwa, the mother of Haiti and the Petwo nation. Mighty, fiery, and full of rage, Dantor inspires the kind of fear normally only produced by an irate IRS agent with an axe to grind, nothing to lose, and a bad case of boredom. Yet to her people she brings a love and protection rarely found elsewhere. If she loves you, Heaven help those who seek to hurt or destroy you.

Dantor’s first real appearance in possession was at a ceremony held in Bwa Kayiman, in northern Haiti, on August 14th, 1791; this was the very ceremony that would spark the Haitian Revolution and transform the face of the country, the world, and Vodou forever. Presided over by Dutty Boukman and Cecile Fatiman, a black pig was sacrificed at that ceremony, and the flames of revolution stoked under Dantor’s watchful eye; within a week 1800 plantations had been burned and the rage of the enslaved was unleashed across the country. And at the heart of all of this was Metres Ezili Dantor, a kind mother turned fierce revolutionary.

On the Surface

As I mentioned in my deep dive on Dantor’s sister, everything in Vodou has layers of meaning, from the rough, obvious, exoteric surface to deeper down into a more profound and wider understanding. Dantor is no different, and has at her heart a core concept, but we’ll get to that.

Ezili Dantor by Alex Saieh

Dantor is a black woman, not wealthy, who has what she has due to the sweat of her brow and the strength she has to keep what is hers–and she will keep what is hers (if Jolene came for Dantor’s man, Jolene would be served up as burgers at McDantor’s with a side of piklez and a banana flavored sékola). A woman like her in Haiti, in colonial times, would have been enslaved, or lower class, familiar with the struggles of life and the difficulty of scraping out an existence for herself and her family. She is fierce in everything she does, and comes armed with one or more daggers–in possession she can often be seen stomping or dancing about, daggers flashing in the light, and fury in her wide eyes. The spirits with which she runs are some of the most fiery women Vodou has to offer–Ezili Ge Wouj, Ezili Ke Nwa, Ezili Mapyang, and others. None of them come to play.

Motherhood is central to who she is, so, when represented with Catholic imagery, it is though Black Madonnas, such as Santa Barbara Africana or Our Lady of Czestochowa–both images with scars on their cheeks. In Vodou we call them twa mak, “three marks,” although there are generally only two in images. A memory of African scarification, perhaps, but in Dantor’s case they are the scars of triumph–the adage, “that which doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger,” applies here. And Dantor is strong.

Dantor Unleashed

With a bit of attention we can piece together Dantor’s story by examining the various iterations of this magnificent spirit as she appears across Haiti. We might categorize these roughly as Rada Dantor, Warrior Dantor, and Veteran Dantor. Why I chose these terms is going to get clearer soon.

Rada Dantor, perhaps. Artist unknown

Firstly, in the north of Haiti, there is a Rada version of Dantor; as such she is cooler, calmer, gentler—in other words, she is a shining example of the spirits we generally categorize as Rada. One might imagine her there in her northern home, shining in Rada white, caring for her child; an image of peaceful, Marian motherhood, and perhaps a memory of Mother Africa’s nurturing lands.

And yet, despite these halcyon days tending to her child, in relative contentment, this was the brutal age of slavery, colonial cruelty and butchery, and such barbarism was, mercifully, not fated to endure much longer. We might picture this sweet-as-the-morning Dantor looking out and seeing the suffering of people who looked like her. Horrified at the marks of whips and lashes across the backs of the innocent, gleaming in angry red stripes; aghast at the cries of mothers; shocked at the wailing of children…We can imagine the revulsion felt by the mother of mothers and then the fury that found its home within her. And her horror and shock gave way to that fury—fire rising in her belly, drinking in the pain and anguish of those who committed no crime, yet had their families destroyed, children torn away to be sold as chattel, bodies broken in merciless labor, and their dignity, freedom, and happiness sacrificed on the altar of European prosperity and greed.

And she wept bitter tears, then she got angry. And the colonial powers were about to find out what time it was.

She came to Bwa Kayiman on that August night, no longer clad in white, no longer full of the sweetness of a nursing mother, but now the unleashed rage of the Mother Who Protects, who flings the overturned car off her child, of the She-Bear who rends with tooth and claw all those who dare threaten her cubs. To Bwa Kayiman she came, in blood and fury, to unleash war upon the devils who held other humans as property.

Ogou Badagri may be a strategist, plotting and planning the movements of soldiers and supply lines towards ultimate victory. Ogou Feray may be a soldier, wielding a flashing blade until its light is dimmed with the blood of battlefield opponents, but this is Dantor riding to war. This is the rage of Woman riding out, not to play at the rules of “civilized” warfare, but to come forth with a razor blade smile, to feel bone crack beneath her fist, rend flesh with her teeth, to strike down those who would harm her children with the fury of one whose child was torn from her nourishing breast. This is Dantor coming to fight not for victory alone, but for revenge. And while victory would be welcomed, it’s a side-effect, an option, secondary to the goal of punishing those who so desperately deserved it.

Ezili Dantor – Eklekta Creative

White became red; coolness became heat, water became fire.

War changes a person, or a spirit, and Dantor became a soldier, a Haitian Amazon come to avenge every murdered or suffering man, woman, and child, whose blood screamed out from the earth into the thick air of a Caribbean night. And with her, over thirteen years of terrible war, oppressed people came to stand in their own might, being no longer enslaved, but now Haitian. They ripped the white from the French flag and created the Haitian one out of the remaining blue and red–fittingly, many serve Dantor with these colours.

Now we can finally see what is at the heart of Dantor, the most defining quality of who she is. Just as her sister is Love, Dantor is Sacrifice, which is a way of saying love in action. All mothers sacrifice for their children, from birthing them in blood and pain and risk of death, to nurturing them to adulthood. So too do lovers–real lovers–sacrifice for each other through time, money, heartache, forgiveness, compromise, and putting each other first. We all sacrifice, be it a black pig at Bwa Kayiman or working on a day off, or skipping a meal so a loved one can eat; be it offering free time to write a blog post honoring a beloved spirit, or expressing our love through works of art that I’ve kindly been allowed to use here, or in uncounted other ways. Just so, we might well say that Dantor sacrificed her Rada youth, her tongue, and the smoothness of her cheek to change the world; a warrior Christ as a Black Woman; the Savior and Madonna in a single figure. And in that is her power, shared with every woman who looks like her, rises up, and says “enough of this bullshit, already.” And that is Dantor–power and change through sacrifice, without a moment of sullen regret.

Many stories come from this time, telling us how and why Dantor’s tongue was cut out. Which we tell and which we don’t aren’t important for what I am here writing today. What matters is this was visited upon Dantor-the-Warrior-Queen, and that because of this, the Dantor so many of are familiar with, who doesn’t speak, but utters her characteristic “kekekekeke” vocalization, is Dantor as a veteran of war, wounded perhaps, and scarred on her cheek, but alive and triumphant.

Dantor, then, is a lwa who tells us a story across both time and geography. We see her in her morning, as a loving mother, the Rada Dantor of the north. In her afternoon as a woman at war, moving across the country, carried with the sweep of revolution into battle and fire, the Petwo Dantor who still speaks. And in the evening as the veteran of the revolution, tongue gone and dagger in hand—the Mother of Haiti, a land she birthed in blood and pain as surely as every mother births her children the same way.

Boutey lwa for a Dantor continuum spirit, by Mahmuwd York Mabry

Understandably, the cooler, Rada Dantor remains primarily in the North from which she comes, and the further from that region she gets, the fiercer. Dantor’s story is told not just through time, but through physical distance—the earth remembers her, and the land which first saw her arrayed in fire and fury remembers her that way, while in the north, where once she nurtured children in softness and mercy, she is also remembered in the springtime of her maternal love. And in all this, Dantor is a continuum; depending on which lwa walk with us, where we are rooted, and where our lineage is found, we can still meet with her anywhere along the continuum of Herself–we can meet the kind mother, the fierce warrior, or the victorious queen. The story of Dantor IS the story of Haiti.

In the End…

In 2017, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, I sat with my kanzo-mates, part way through the ceremonial cycle that would make houngans and mambos of us. A little way off, we heard a commotion, and then a sudden shift in the air and the earth…and then the piercing kekekekekeke that pierced the still air. I remember the look of joyful anticipation on everyone’s face; we all knew it. She’s here! There are many lwa one might meet, but there is something profoundly sacred about sitting on the ground in Haiti, and hearing the mother of the country’s voice suddenly rise up and shatter the driving routine of recent hours.

When Dantor comes, she isn’t subtle. You know she’s there, her eyes wide, and you can’t help but love her, even if some part of you is a bit afraid of this force of nature that can topple European powers and bring armies to their knees. And she came to us all, looking us over with wide eyes, and personifying the very history of the land on which we sat, guests in this country, all of us.

Dantor is might, she is right, she is more than words can ever truly express.

Since that night her presence in my life has grown steadily; in my worst and my darkest moments, she is there, and if I slip towards foolish pride or arrogance she does a mean impersonation of an abuela with a sandal in her hand, spiritually speaking. I am grateful to her for her protection–she has been a guardian and a guide in so many ways, and in her strength often knows what I need better than I myself do. She’s cleared so many people, influences, and situations out of my life mercilessly, but always giving fair warning first–This is my child and my servant; do right by him or I’ll get the knife, and if you’re fortunate enough I’ll cut you from his life. Otherwise, I’ll just cut you.

There is no more loving, fierce, and protective mother one could have than Dantor; if she walks with you, no matter what pain you experience, or what hardship, you can know she will carry you through.

Bilolo Manman Dantor, bel fanm mwen…m renmen ou anpil e toujou.

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