Posted: March 18th, 2023
Legba the Voodoo Spirit in Western and African Art
Voodoo is a religious practice with followers throughout the Caribbean region, particularly in Haiti and in parts of Africa where the religion spread through the introduction of the slave trade to the continent. Those who practice Haitian voodoo are called vodouists. They believe in a polytheistic system wherein each spirit, or loa sometimes spelled lwa, is responsible for one aspect of human experience (Holmes). Human beings cultivate a personal relationship with the loa and choose one particular spirit as the guiding force of their life. This is true except for the highest gods who were too busy to deign to give their attentions to mere mortals (Deren 55). Sometimes they are even granted conversation and communication with the gods if they are fortunate enough to receive permission to do so. Those who practiced Haitian voodoo did so with an unwavering devotion and a strict adherence to the traditions and rituals of the religion. The importance of the religion to the pre-colonial Haitians is innumerable and became even more so due to the oppression of the native people by white European colonizing nations. Artwork from the period shows depictions of the loa more than any other subject. Arguably the most important Voodoo god in the Haitian voodoo religion was Legba who was able to transverse both worlds to grant prayers, strengthen the resolve of the believer who had no individual power, and make like better because of the human belief.
Legba, or Papa Legba as he is most often familiarly referred, is the mediator between the human world and the loa gods. He is also called Legba Atibon, Atibon Legba, Eleggua and Ati-Gbon Legba depending upon the unique region and legends of the community (Theard). It is believed that he speaks all known human languages and it is through him that the humans get permission or are denied permission to communicate with their deities. His importance as the means by which mere mortals can converse with the gods is shown in his prevalence in Haitian artwork from the pre-colonial period. At a voodoo ceremony, the parishioners pray to Legba first of all things and ask him to open the gate to Vilokan, the spirit world. He will either allow them access and the ceremony will continue or he will refuse and the gate to Vilokan will remain barred. According to the religious stories of Haitian voodoo, because of his relationship between humans and the gods it was Legba who first introduced people to the voodoo customs and about the gods who ruled over them (Theard). At any voodoo temple, the entrance will have a specific place of worship where he must be honored before parishioners can enter. To honor him, believers put “sacks of tobacco, pipes, rum and his favorite foods are kept to please him” (Brewster). Some believers give him small gifts and toys. The humorous and mischievous side of Legba is equated with childhood and so it is supposed that anything that children enjoy, he himself will also be happy to receive (Papa). Most sacrifices and offerings are more expensive than those which are bestowed upon the worship sites of Papa Legba. Rather than jewels and gold, all Legba wants is hearty food, alcohol, and tobacco. His sacrificial demands serve to underline his relationship with the common people and to cement the idea that he is of them as well as being of the gods.
Besides his job as gatekeeper, Legba also had importance in his own powers, although what those powers were is dependent upon the region in which the voodoo was believed. In Africa, for example, he was believed to be the god of fertility and those who wanted children would pray and make offerings to him in order to procreate (Deren 300). He is associated with the sun and light, representing giving of life because people need the sun to grow crops and survive. Legba is able to transfer the power of Bondye, the primary god responsible for the whole of the universe and provides the universe with order and life, to the rest of humanity. This god is therefore symbolized by the sun. Crosses are also symbolic of Papa Legba because they also represent life, and reconnection, rebirth, and redirection of the life sources (Davies 625). The third item which is closely associated with Legba is the mirror because it was believed that he was responsible for “hold[ing] up the mirror of truth so that his followers [could] see themselves as they really [were] — and then try to make any improvements that [were] needed” (Fanthorpe 197-98). These three icons are integral to the Legba legend. Papa Legba is the most important god in rituals and is the first and the final god who is addressed in most voodoo ceremonies because he will be the one who determines if the humans may direct their requests to the other deities.
Papa Legba is one of the most prominent voodoo figures in the artwork of Haiti and other places where Haitian voodoo is practiced. He is nearly always depicted as an older man, which serves to equate him both with paternity and fatherhood, making him look fatherly or even grandfatherly. Often he is shown seated or carrying a can or walking with crutches. According to Kenaz Filan:
The cane he leans against is actually the poteaumitan, the gateway between heaven and Earth by which the lwa enter ceremonies. He limps not because he is crippled but because his feet are in different worlds — the material kingdom and the land of spirit. He may seem frail, but he can bring the best-laid plans of kings and generals to nothingâ€¦or raise the poor and the humble to heights they never thought possible (74).
Sometimes he is shown with a straw hat, indicating that he is a laborer who works the fields as the Haitians do (Morris 196). Also, Papa Legba is often shown either smoking a pipe or doing labor such as watering crops or working fields. Near him are often shown dogs because these animals are associated closely with this god. Other versions of Legba like in Africa show him as young and sexually virile, often with a large phallus. This is indicative of his position as god of fertility. Sometimes he is given the appearance of both male and female genders (Papa). In this appearance, he also usually has a horned helmet, giving him a tough and even animalistic appearance. He is a god of the people and supports them both on the earth and in their conversations and communication with the world above this one. His importance is paramount to the religious people. Artistic works showing Legba can have him seeming benevolent, arrogant, angry, or appalled. Various artists each show the god in a different light because he encompasses so many different emotions. Just as humanity can behave with kindness or negativity so too Legba can be kind and good-natured or punish members of humanity for their actions.
During the time of colonization and the spread of western ideologies, people of Haiti and other colonized nations were encouraged to embrace the colonizers and the new culture. In modern Haiti nearly 80% of the population is Catholic and more identify themselves as some other form of Christianity. As is often the case in societies with blended cultures, the ideas of the Christians and those of the more traditional voodoo religion combined in Haitian voodoo. Often the figures of St. Peter who is the gatekeeper of the Christian religion and St. Lazarus from Christian mythology are used to represent Legba as well as their original Christian symbolism (St.). Legba is also compared to St. Michael in that both Michael and St. Peter are both tasked with protecting the homes of believers. In the article “Papa Legba,” writer Dawn Theard states that:
Voodoo practitioners place representations of Papa Legba beside the back and front doors of their home in order [to] protect: at the rear, similar to the function of St. Michael, Legba will keep evil from entering the home unchecked; at the front door, Legba is the keyholder, as is St. Peter, only admitting good fortune and visitors of honest intent.
Some also claim St. Anthony has a connection to Legba as he is the seeker of lost things and Legba is also in control of this area and in keeping things hidden should the person displease him in any way (Brewster). One of the components of the Papa Legba legend paints him as a trickster, a person who is capable of mischief and trickery. Legba can use his power to support humanity or he can make their lives more difficult by his conduct. It is best for those who believe in Haitian voodoo to abide by Papa Legba and to provide him offerings and honor or else face his wrath.
The elderly version of Legba has a secondary meaning to those people who suffered from the oppression of colonization and enslavement. People from Haiti were transported to other islands to work on plantations and other menial manual labor positions. Any population who suffers from empirical rule will have to face a complete alteration in their perception of the world and their place in it. They were also taken to Africa where Haitian voodoo spread to those new populations as well. Author Carole Davies writes in the book Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora that:
Papa Legba represents the Haitians who have slowly journeyed a long tiresome path far from home, Africa, and who have struggled and endured down the long cyclical path toward fulfilling their destiny back to their ancestral home, across the vertical line, by trying to feel, think, and behave according to the desires of the Lwa (626).
Since the spread of colonialism, this communicator between two worlds has taken on a religious and symbolic meaning as well. He not only stands for the delineation between Heaven and earth and the means by which people could hope for divine intervention, but then also as avatars for their own life struggles. It is not uncommon for populations who have achieved independence from colonizing nations to demand a return to traditional belief systems as a way of honoring their forefathers. Their new world will be a combination of the ancestors and the oppressors and the need for freedom which led to national independence. This is also the case for Haitians who were able to cast off the shackles of colonization and become their own sovereign nation once more.
Papa Legba means a great deal to the current practitioners of Haitian voodoo and meant a lot to their ancestors as well. He allows them to believe themselves completely associated and directly connected to beings with far greater power than mere humans could hope to aspire to. His powers allow them various gifts, from the ability to have children to the ability to grow the food that they eat. His capricious attitude forces them to honor him whenever they try to convene with the god. He is also the only god directly involved with the daily lives of the humans, unless other gods choose to do so. Haitian vodouists believe that without Papa Legba, they would not be able to survive let alone to better their living situations through prayer and the interactions of the gods.
Brewster, Robert. “Papa Legba, Head of the Gods in Voodoo.” Yahoo. Yahoo! Inc., 15 Mar. 2010. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. .
Davies, Carole Elizabeth. Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008. Print.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. New Paltz, NY: McPherson, 1983.
Fanthorpe, R. Lionel., and Patricia Fanthorpe. Mysteries and Secrets of Voodoo, Santeria and Obeah. Toronto: Dundurn, 2008. Print.
Filan, Kenaz. The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the LWA. Rochester, VT:
Destiny, 2007. Print.
Holmes, B.C. “Legba.” The Lwas. N.p., 12 Mar. 2002. Web. 9 Oct. 2012. .
Morris, Brian. Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction. New York: Cambridge UP,
“Papa Legba, Loa of Opportunities and Gatekeeper to the Spirit World.” Squidoo. Squidoo and LLC, n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. .
“St. Peter.” Catholic Online. Catholic Online, n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. .
Theard, Dawn. “Papa Legba.” Haunted America Tours. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. .
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