The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Presentations: Barbara Knott

Angel? Muse? Daimon? Duende!

Duende is a Spanish word for quickness. It is a word so fertile and so deeply rooted in Spanish culture that one cannot translate it simply. Duende dances in shoes whose heels and toes are studded with nails. It rides the sword of the matador into the neck of the bull. If that were all (and that is much), duende would be simply a matter of style, of finesse, of grace under pressure. But it is much more, and there is no single English equivalent for it. It is the heart’s flame that flares with courage and style in the face of danger; it is sexual drama in forms of art that drum and stamp and sing the deeps of human life; it is the inspired and flawless strumming of guitar strings, the deepthroated sounding of gut-felt emotion in a Dionysian scream or in a song. And it is present in softer tones, too: in a sudden shift of consciousness when a door opens out into the night, spilling light, and tree branches full of leaves shimmer close to one’s face, and thoughts become profound, as if one has sunk one’s mind into a pool of liquid gold.

That is how I felt it one evening when I had been reading poetry with my students. I no longer recall whose poetry it was; the mood is what remains. I was alone, exiting the building. At the moment when I opened the door to enter the dark evening, I became aware of my inwardness, now enhanced by a shifting of lights from all bright to brightness-held-by-darkness and bright-holding-dark. I could feel my eyes growing rounder, my skin turning taut, my heart quickening. This is the duende, I thought. And I knew I wanted always to keep that moment, as one wants to keep moments of sexual ecstasy and, indeed, all moments when one comes to one’s senses and the world becomes vividly alive.

This word duende first penetrated my consciousness in 1972 in Geneva, Switzerland, during a flamenco performance at a club where I watched the intense and serious interplay of man and woman, human and daimon, body and soul. I was acquainted with the idea of the daimon from the Greeks who described an entity halfway between gods and mortals assigned to humans as largely benevolent guardian spirits. This duende was not quite daimon. There was some question of its benevolence, some uncertainty about its intent. I knew about Jacob wrestling with his angel until the angel blessed him. I was looking at a drama that seemed to involve wrestling with a pagan angel of creativity and forcing it, by the power of engagement, to yield its blessing. I wondered what happens when the artist loses. And the answer came: Nothing. And then I realized how horrifying it is to have nothing happen in a performance.

From that experience, a flow of interest led me into Lorca’s poetry and plays. This notion of an artist struggling with the duende struck a chord in me that thrummed through the years, haunting me, holding my attraction to Spanish music and dance. Over time it became familiar (another word that, when used as a noun, refers to a personal spirit companion), until it could move spontaneously into my thoughts at evocative moments. The associations are rich and full of vitality.

Federico Garcia Lorca is the leading explorer of the meaning of duende (without the italicized spelling now because it easily crosses cultural boundaries). His writings on the subject are collected in a small book, In Search of Duende. In Lorca’s essay called “Play and Theory of the Duende,” he tells his audience how, during his school years, he attended at least a thousand lectures: “Hungry for air and sunlight, I used to grow so bored as to feel myself covered by a light film of ash about to turn into sneezing powder.” And then he makes a promise to his audience “never to let the terrible botfly of boredom into this room, stringing your heads together on the fine thread of sleep and putting tiny pins and needles in your eyes”(48). Without duende, he implies, there is a pall over life, a light film of ash. For Lorca, duende in its simplest form is the opposite of boredom. But it is more.

Duende is a force, a “mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains” says Goethe, referring to violin virtuoso Paganini’s work, (quoted in Lorca, 49). My intention is not to try to explain duende but to give a sense of it by amplification of its associations and meanings. I want to discuss duende as quickness with a Spanish flavor.

Any discussion of duende requires a look at its presence or absence in art. Here is some background given by Christopher Maurer in his introduction to Lorca’s book:

The notion of duende (from duen de casa, “master of the house”) came to [Lorca] from popular Spanish culture, where the duende is a playful hobgoblin, a household spirit fond of hiding things, breaking plates, causing noise, and making a general nuisance of himself. But Lorca was aware of another popular usage of the term. In Andalusia people say of certain toreros and flamenco artists that they have duende—an inexplicable power of attraction, the ability, on rare occasions, to send waves of emotion through those watching and listening to them (ix).

Maurer also offers this:

The duende is a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive, all that the performer is creating at a certain moment…. It manifests itself principally among musicians and poets of the spoken word, rather than among painters and architects, for it needs the trembling of the moment and then a long silence (viii).

We learn from him that duende manifests, blushes, bursts, trembles, and is silent. Do you notice as I do that with duende we’re in an erotic force field?

In Lorca’s vision, Maurer says, there are four elements in duende: “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.” He distinguishes duende from two other personifications of artistic influence, angel (seen by Spaniards as “God-given grace and charm”) and muse (representing classical artistic norms). Duende is instead “a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that [quoting Lorca now] ‘ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head.’” Duende brings the artist face to face with death and “helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art.” It is an alternative style to technical virtuosity. And, most important, the artist does not simply surrender to the duende: “he or she has to battle it skillfully, ‘on the rim of the well,’ in ‘hand-to-hand combat.’” Finally, “To a higher degree than the muse or the angel, the duende seizes not only the performer but also the audience, creating conditions where art can be understood spontaneously with little, if any, conscious effort." (ix)

Duende is associated with transcendent moments, but not in the usual way we think of transcendence. What I am describing is not the abstraction from body and world, sought in Eastern meditation, that requires bringing the body to rest and ridding the mind of thought, but rather the inspiration that comes through moving body and mind fully forward into the world of things and images with a readiness for spellbinding action. The movement away from rational thought and distracting mental chatter is similar, but meditation moves through intuition toward abstraction, and art moves through the senses toward the concrete image and example. Poets, along with other artists, particularly those that employ movement and sound, as in flamenco dancing and what the Andalusians call deep song, seek images to embody feeling and thought. The arts are phenomenal and at their best, they allow the image to speak for itself, without the interpretation of the detached mind.

Let’s follow the Andalusian connection with Lorca, who was drawn to Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s research on deep song, an art form linking flamenco dancing back to Gypsies in Spain. He says, “The name deep song is given to a group of Andalusian songs whose genuine, perfect prototype is the Gypsy siguiriya” (2). He also tells us that Manuel de Falla accepts the historical thesis that gives the Gypsies an Indic origin.

According to the thesis, in the year 1400 the Gypsies, pursued by the hundred-thousand horsemen of the great Tamerlane, fled from India. Twenty years later these tribes appeared in different European cities and entered Spain with the Saracen armies then periodically arriving (from Egypt and Arabia) on our coasts. When they arrived in Andalusia the Gypsies combined ancient, indigenous elements with what they themselves brought, and gave what we now call deep song its definitive form. So it is to them we owe the creation of these songs, and of our soul. We owe the Gypsies the building of these lyrical channels through which all the pain, all the ritual gestures of the race can escape (6-7).

After looking further into what Lorca has to say about deep song and flamenco dancing, I will return to his reference to soul, pain, and ritual gestures that contribute to soul-making. First, a closer description of deep song:

Like the primitive Indian musical systems [it is based on], deep song is a stammer, a wavering emission of the voice, a marvelous buccal undulation that smashes the resonant cells of our tempered scale, eludes the cold, rigid staves of modern music, and makes the tightly closed flowers of the semi-tones blossom into a thousand petals…. Deep song is akin to the trilling of birds, the crowing of the rooster, and the natural music of forest and fountain. It is a very rare specimen of primitive song, the oldest in all Europe, and its notes carry the naked, spine-tingling emotion of the first Oriental races (3).

He presents an idea that is unusual in orthodox Western (and Eastern) religions: seeking transcendence in depth rather than height. Our direction is not upward and outward in gradually diminishing contact with body and earth, but downward and inward:

Notice, ladies and gentlemen, the transcendence of deep song, and how rightly our people called it “deep.” It is truly deep, deeper than all the wells and seas in the world, much deeper than the present heart that creates it or the voice that sings it, because it is almost infinite. It comes from remote races and crosses the graveyard of the years and the fronds of parched winds. It comes from the first sob and the first kiss” (10).

Flamenco dancing is a consequence of deep song, he says, an eighteenth century outcome of a more ancient tradition grafted by Gypsies onto the native stock of Spain. What about flamenco is specifically Western?

Spanish dance brings us both the perfume of the ancient religious dances of the East and the culture, serenity, and measure of the West, the world of criticism. The marvelous thing about Spanish dance is that here, as in cante jondo, there is room for personality, and thus for the contribution of the individual. There is room for modernity and for personal genius. A modern dancer from India, aside from her personal, human grace, dances as they have always danced and, generally speaking, follows eternal norms. A Spanish dancer or singer or torero does not simply resuscitate, he invents and creates a unique, inimitable art, which disappears after his death (64).

That individuality, that supreme readiness of body and mind to engage the duende and dance or sing or fight to the death, can be seen in the best performers of flamenco and of deep song. Lorca says, “The muse and angel come from outside us: the angel gives lights, and the muse gives forms … but one must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood” (51).

Turning briefly to Robin Totton, we learn in his book Song of the Outcasts that this awakening may be accomplished through the downwardness of the dance as can be seen in the constant drumming on the ground or stage with the feet (zapateado):

The dance uses the whole body, but it is largely generated by these drummed rhythms. To create its patterns, the dancer makes variations in the quality and intensity of sound by using the heel, the whole foot, the sole, and the point of the toe, as well as by scraping the sole in a brush-drum effect. All these movements tend toward a stamping downward. By the same token, there are no leaps, no upward movements of any sort … the downwardness of the dance also shows in the eyes, which are usually directed downward even when the face turns up ( 54).

Eyes directed downward suggest inwardness: “Any dance that is essentially solo is also introverted, since the dancer is not relating to anyone else. The downward direction of the eyes reinforces this, shutting the dancer inside herself” (Totten, 55).

And back to Lorca, in summary:

The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet,’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation (Lorca, 49).

Of the flamenco dancer, he says, “She must fill a dead, gray space with a living, clear, trembling arabesque, one which can be vividly remembered” (63). He gives us an example from the theater as well: “Eleonora Duse, possessed by duende … looked for plays that had failed so she could make them triumph thanks to her own inventions …” (54).

That returns us to the promise Lorca made to his audience, quoted above. To perform in such a way, whether as dancer or poet, actor or lecturer, is to dispel boredom by opening up and vitalizing the moments of contact between performer and audience.

Earlier in my discussion, Lorca attributed to the Gypsies not only the creation of deep song but also of Spanish soul. Duende is associated with soul rather than spirit, if we take the meaning of spirit to refer to bodilessness. Spirit belongs to Eastern traditions of transcendence that focus away from the earth, which, with all its creation, is seen as an illusion, and to the monotheistic religions of the Middle East that migrated to the West, in which this earth together with this life in the body is seen as a proving ground for assignment to another world. Soul, according to a long tradition of artistic treatment, is connected with the body: that is, it exists in tandem with body, has density like the body, experiences suffering and ecstasy in the body and may be changed or built up by those experiences.

John Keats, in a letter to his brother George (21 April 1819), introduced the concept of soul-making. He wanted to call the world the “vale of soul-making,” suggesting that we change our way of thinking about life as a “vale of tears” and look at the usefulness of suffering. He distinguishes soul from intelligence:

There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions--but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself .... Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?

In his view, humans are born not with soul but with potential for soul that requires for its fulfillment active participation in the joys and sufferings of the world. In art, the challenge of soul-making can be seen as the challenge of wrestling duende.

Archetypal psychologist Thomas Moore, renown for his publications on soul and soul-making, says, “We are driven from a place beneath awareness, and what drives us—it has been called angel, daimon, animus, duende—hurls us toward our identity and our place in time and space.” He refers to poet W. B. Yeats who “saw that the daimon, the inner presence that is full of power and the ultimate source of our real creativity, is an antithetical self, an opposite, a spirit that is brought to a host precisely and utterly different from itself, so that we often feel both conflict and resource in relation to the spirit that makes us passionate” (Original Self, 56-7).

Finally, a discussion of duende inevitably leads us to consider death. Far from being the opposite of death, duende embraces and encompasses death in life.

Rilke tells us, “Death is the side of life that is turned away from us and out of our light’s reach: we must try to achieve the greatest consciousness of our existence that would be at home in both of these unlimited realms and inexhaustibly nourished by both” (121).

And Lorca reminds us,

Spain is the only country where death is a national spectacle, the only one where death sounds long trumpet blasts at the coming of spring, and Spanish art is always ruled by a shrewd duende who makes it different and inventive (Lorca, 60).

The interplay between life and death embodied in duende can be visualized by imagining two circles overlapping at their edges sufficiently to form an almond shape where the struggle that is also a dance and a song takes place. That shape is called a mandorla. The symbol is ancient. It suggests a way of reconciling all oppositions: spirit and nature, good and evil, heaven and hell, male and female, active and passive, light and dark, time and space, creative and receptive, outer and inner, up and down, deep and shallow, limited and unlimited, right and left, straight and curved, rest and motion, sound and silence, the quick and the dead.

NASA Photo at

This website will introduce you to a world class flamenco performance group in Atlanta.

Calo Gitano

See also this link to an article on Calo Gitano and Vino Libro, the venue where they perform on first Saturday evenings each month.

Searching for International Atlanta

To see YouTube clips from the film Dawn in Granada, which presents the life and work of flamenco master Manuel Maya, known as "Manolete" after the great matador, Google YouTube and enter Dawn in Granada 4. You will see him doing a class with his daughter Judea, and if you link to related videos, you will hear deep song being performed by another father-daughter pair, all part of Maya's gypsy family of singers and dancers. Get hold of the film (made for TV) if you can. It's a remarkable introduction to flamenco, deep song, and duende.

Another exciting flamenco experience can be yours at YouTube: enter Latcho Drom España Flamenco 1. Latcho Drom is a movie made by a gypsy about the gypsy journey from India to Spain. It is excellent, and it is available on video if not DVD.

Works Cited

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats (2nd ed.) , edited by M. B. Forman. London: Oxford University Press, 1935.

Hollis, James. Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up. New York: Gotham Books, 2005.

Lorca, Federico Garcia. In Search of Duende, edited by Christopher Maurer and translated by Maurer et al. New York: New Directions, 1998.

Moore, Thomas. Original Self (Perennial ed.). New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters on Life: New Prose Translations, edited and translated by Ulrich Baer. New York: The Modern Library, 2005.

Totten, Robin. Song of the Outcasts: An Introduction to Flamenco. Cambridge: Amadeus Press, 2003.

Copyright ©2008 Barbara Knott · All Rights Reserved
Contact the Webmaster