papa legba

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The Lwa

The Lwa are organized are basically organized into three groups, defined by their characteristics as well as their similarities. There are also other sets of spirits such as the Ogou spirits of the Nago Nation but here we will be covering Rada, Petro, and Ghede.

Rada Lwa ~
The Rada lwa are seen as “cool”, stable, and beneficent; they are seen as gentle in comparison to other Lwa and in a way more orderly. Also, these set of Lwa are more forgiving and slower to anger(does not mean that you could mess with them and expect forgiving). They share similar traits and white is always an acceptable color when serving them. They are very clean Lwa and tidiness goes a long way with them, one should always be as clean as possible and best if dressed in white when serving them(women should have their hair tied back and covered with a white scarf as a sign of respect).

Petro Lwa ~
The Petro Lwa are considered to be more fierce, less forgiving than the Rada, and fast to act upon enemies. To difference of their counterpart, the Petro Lwa prefer you to wear bright and colorful clothing. Red being the dominant color for them and women usually wrap their head in a red scarf. Neatness is still a factor that shows respect to the Lwa, although they are not as uptight about it as Rada. If you make a promise to any Lwa, keep it because the Petro spirits will be unforgivingly harsh in comparison with the Rada. Remember, do not promise what you cannot give. The Petro are very engaging spirits, water is not a part of saluting Petro and they prefer strong drinks such as white rum.

Ghede Lwa ~
The Ghede are considered a family of Lwa, with Baron Semetye as their father and Maman Brijit as their mother. Ghede are outrageous and interesting spirits in Vodou. There are countless of them, the first male buried in the cemetary is a Baron and the first female a Brijit. The Ghede are usually served on the floor, not being next to Rada or Petro as they do not like “smell of the dead”. The Ghede are offered funerary flowers and they drink a rum in which 21 hot peppers have been soaked in. Ghede are sometimes seen as spirits that will help those having trouble conceiving, as they are linked with fertility.

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Down at the Crossroads | 8tracks 

If you’re ever in need of guidance go down to the crossroads at midnight. Bring some tobacco, matches, a loaf of bread and a small bottle of whiskey. Go to the crossroads draw this sigil in the dirt and state your problem. Papa Legba will help.

He usually appears as an old man with a cane wearing a broad brimmed hat and smoking a pipe. He doesn’t need the cane to walk but he carries it with him anyway. A dog happily trots along beside him and then sits at his feet.

Give Papa Legba the tobacco, matches, bread and whiskey but don’t say a word. He’ll probably put them in the pockets of his coat but sometimes he’ll give some of the bread to his dog and add some tobacco to his pipe. Don’t say anything until he asks you what you want.

If he can help you with your problem he will. If he can’t he’ll try to bargain. Don’t take the bargain. Smile. Nod your head and say “I hope you enjoy the tobacco, whiskey and bread” and walk away. Don’t look back. Don’t ever look back.

If you’re smart he’ll smile. If you fall for his trick, temptation or gamble then he’ll smirk. So if you’re ever in need guidance, go down to the crossroads at midnight but make sure you have your wits about you.

Beginning at the Beginning: Papa Legba

To talk about vodou, it’s a good idea to begin at the beginning. If an outsider to vodou knows the names of any Lwa, it is inevitably Legba [and maybe Gede, too]. No thanks to American Horror Story and their downright offensive portrayal of Him as a coked-up, red-eyed demon, Legba’s name has been all over pop culture lately, but Legba has been widely known outside of vodou for quite a long time.

Legba is the Lwa who holds the gates between our world and the world of the Lwa but, contrary to popular belief, this does not make Him the first Lwa called during a service. Legba is called after the Lwa of the drums, who sort of serves as translator, and Gran Chemin, the shining road which unfurls for the Lwa to walk down from Ginen to our world. After them, it is Legba’s turn and it is vitally important that He is sung for and welcomed at any service, as no Lwa can come through and no work can be done if He does not open the gates.

Legba is also really a family of Lwa, not just one. He [usually] only shows one ‘face’ or path at a time, but there are myriad Legba that do all sorts of different things..

The Legba that most people are familiar with is the Rada Legba, who opens the gates for the Rada Lwa and is the Lwa called at the beginning of the regleman/order of service. How He manifests as this ‘face’ depends on the lineage, but in the lineage I participate in, He comes down and hops or stumbles around, since He had problems with His legs, and eventually will seat Himself in a chair for as long as He is present.

There is Legba nan Petro, who is the Legba that opens the gates for the hotter Lwa of the Petro/Petwo nayson and He is often considered younger and more mobile, though He also has trouble with His legs and, in my lineage, is saluted with a pair of crutches. If He comes down, He will sometimes use them, or He will also hop around on one leg. In this ‘face’, He is often represented with St. Lazarus, a saint pictured having His legs covered in sores.

There are also Legbas who have specific attributes. Vye Vye/Old Old Legba is just what His name implies–very old. Legba Atibon is an older Legba who is considered very reliable and dependable. Legba Avadra is sort of the epitome of the wanderer with His bag on His shoulder. Almost every nayson of Lwa has a Legba–there’s Legba nan Ibo, Legba nan Kongo, and on. The only real exception is the Gede–they do their own door-opening in a different way because they are dead–but that is a topic for another time.

Since Legba essentially rules communication and the gate, everyone has Him [as opposed to other Lwa, who either walk with individuals or not]. He is one of the Lwa who shows up most often for people who are either new to vodou or whom the Lwa are trying to have come join the community because of this. If someone wants to be involved with vodou, Legba–along with ancestors–is the Lwa to pray to so that He opens the gates for that to happen and brings the opportunities to the surface, if vodou is where that person is meant to be. Anyone can offer prayers to Him and light a white candle for His guidance.

Beyond His gatekeeper duties, Legba is also a bit of a trickster but not really in a ‘ha ha funny’ sort of way. Most of His ‘tricks’ involve learning hard lessons in rather swift and potentially uncomfortable ways, rather than making you, or perhaps anyone but Him, laugh. He can also be notoriously temperamental and easily offended. There’s a great story in Mama Lola about what happened when Legba was forgotten accidentally–He showed up embodied at a fete, threw a temper tantrum on the ground, and refused to move or let the party continue until He got what He deemed was a proper apology, complete with His favorite foods and lots of songs and praise. There’s also much more unpleasant stories told, like a person who had asked for Legba to help her find a new job. He got her a job and she didn’t pay Him–in two weeks, that job had let her go, her partner left her, her spirits went silent, and her landlord raised her rent.

Lesson there? Don’t piss off Legba. He can work fast when He wants to, but when He is upset/offended/angry? He moves like lightening. Don’t piss off Legba. When He slams the gate shut, it stays shut until He decides to open it again, if He does at all. No Lwa will cross Him when He decides that things are not right, and He can be hard to appease if the offense is serious.

The biggest misconception about Legba is that He is the same divinity as Eleggua, Exu, and any other trickster divinity that deals in doorways. He is most assuredly not, and that’s a thing that will get you an angsty, unhappy Legba. Conflating Him with Eleggua is a pretty popular thing, but even though They have similar functions, They are worlds apart. Legba doesn’t take the same things as Eleggua does [He notably doesn’t really enjoy candy that much] and His general feel is very different. Being a child of Eleggua who has been notably stupid in the past, I learned this lesson the hard and made Eleggua roll His eyes hard when I showed up with a Lazarus candle.

The second biggest misconception about Him is born from this conflation of Legba and Eleggua: Legba does not rule the crossroads. He sometimes shows up there since gates can be similar to crossroads, but crossroads belong to a specific separate Lwa named Met Kalfou, the actual embodiment of the crossroads. Kalfou is often considered a hotter version of Legba, but Kalfou is separate and distinct and not a member of the Legba family.

Interestingly, I have not spoken to Legba much myself. I propitiate Him, but He doesn’t seem to need or desire to speak me and I haven’t needed to speak with Him much myself. This isn’t entirely unusual, but it’s curious in it’s own way. It may have something to do with the fact that Gede showed up for me first [often the other way people get yanked into vodou..], but Legba is quiet for me now. I have no idea if that will change in the future or after kanzo or if He’s just going to be satisfied as long as I treat Him right, but that’s where it’s at for now.

Those are the broad strokes about Legba as I know them. If you have specific questions or want to hear more about something, don’t be afraid to speak up–sometimes I don’t know what to write about if I’m not speaking directly about my own personal stuff, but I know I need to write.