Voodoo is a religion relatively unknown to outsiders. Perpetually shrouded in mystery, the small, diasporic religion of African origins is more often associated with devil-worship and witchcraft than it is recognized as a religion in its own right. But those who dismiss vodouisants and their traditions as sorcerers or satanists are woefully unaware of the religion’s rich culture and folklore. The voodoo pantheon’s lwa (or “spirits”) represent centuries of intercultural mixing, creativity, and spiritual resilience. But voodoo and its deities have been undermined and misunderstood for far too long. It is time to make some introductions.
The Structure of the Voodoo Pantheon
Contrary to popular opinion, voodoo has nothing to do with devil-worship. It cannot be categorized as a mere form of anti-Christian satanic witchcraft; it is a folk religion in its own right and a very mistreated one at that. Voodoo originated in Haiti, where the ancient African religions and spiritual practices of the enslaved people collided with French Catholicism.
Followers of the voodoo tradition, much like Christians, believe in one supreme creator god, known as Bondye (meaning “good god” in Haitian Creole). This may come as a surprise given the plethora of lwa in the voodoo pantheon and their ubiquitous depictions in the rituals and iconography of voodoo. The outward image of voodoo as a seemingly pantheistic religion is somewhat misleading, but the lwa are not in fact gods. They should, instead, be understood as supernatural beings serving as mediators between humanity and God. As is the case with many African religions, monotheism predominates.
But, unlike Yahweh, Bondye is thought to be so distant and transcendent that s/he is beyond human cognizance. Moreover, the quotidian foibles of mortals are not any concern of Bondye’s– prayers and spiritual rituals are carried out solely between humans and the lwa. Since mere mortals are simply unable to communicate with Bondye, the lwa must serve their vital role as intermediaries between humanity and the highest power of the universe.
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The Christian God was forced upon the ancestors of Haitian vodouisants when African peoples were taken from their homes and enslaved in the New World. In Haiti (then the French colony of Saint-Domingue), African traditions intermingled with Catholicism to facilitate the birth of a unique and dynamic diasporic religion: voodoo.
Enslaved African transplants in Haiti needed, at least, to keep up an outward appearance of submitting to the Christianity imposed on them by the colonial authorities. But in reality, they remained steadfastly faithful to their own native religions and spiritual practices, so they disguised the lwa as Catholic saints in their rituals and iconography. For this reason, many elements of Catholic worship, such as the use of candles, bells, and images of the saints, are still part of voodoo, and the lwa have syncretic associations with Catholic saints.
Voodoo Worship and Ritual
Owing to Bondye’s aloofness, voodoo ceremonies focus solely on the lwa. It is the lwa that vodouisants pray to and only the lwa who may intervene in humans’ worldly concerns. Unlike Bondye, they are also known to manifest through possession of a human host. Possession in voodoo (unlike in many other religions) is not a negative phenomenon. Rather, it is seen as humanity’s primary means of communicating with the divine. Through possession, it is believed that the lwa can communicate with the worshippers, heal them, guide them, and manifest the will of Bondye through them.
While the lwa can enter the human body, they are also thought to manifest in all realms of nature; in the trees, in the mountains, water, air, and fire. But the lwa preside over different realms and are associated with various human activities such as agriculture, war, love, sex, and death. The lwa are thought to collaborate in their creation of the structure of the natural world, and of time and space. They take control of each individual’s life, from their birth to their death.
The lwa can be called upon by reciting prayers or making a sacrifice of food, drink or an animal—most often a chicken, goat, pig, or bull, depending on the lwa in question’s preference. The ritual of “feeding” the spirits is an incredibly important tradition in Haitian voodoo, and is practiced both at home and communally within the congregation. Different lwa are believed to favor different food and drink; for example, Legba is known to enjoy flame-grilled foods such as meats, tubers, and vegetables, Maman Brigitte prefers a nice dark rum spiked with hot chili peppers, whilst Damballah is somewhat picky- favoring only white foodstuffs such as eggs.
It is believed that the lwa can be counted in their thousands, and some exist completely unknown to humans. There are hundreds of recorded lwa of various levels of rank, but the most prominent of them hold enormous importance in the voodoo pantheon.
Legba: The Guardian Lwa of the Crossroads
Perhaps the most famous, and certainly one of the most important lwa in the voodoo pantheon is Legba (or Papa Legba). Nicknamed “the Trickster”, he is thought to be a mischievous but powerful lwa. Legba represents change; he can be called upon to help those suffering from stagnancy or a difficult decision. Legba even has the power to deceive fate itself.
Such is his importance; he is considered a figurehead for all the other lwa. He must be invoked first at the beginning of every ritual since he is thought to be the channel through which the other spirits can be contacted (and, indeed, the channel through which the other lwa can commune with humans). Legba is the gatekeeper between the mortal and supernatural worlds and has the power to either grant or refuse humans the means to contact the spirits.
Much like the figure of Prometheus in Greek mythology, Legba is believed to have stolen the secrets of divinity and passed them on to humanity. His gatekeeper status has afforded him the fitting association with Saint Peter, the keeper to the gates of Heaven.
Baron Samedi: Head of the Death Lwa
Baron Samedi is the most powerful lwa of death, and head of the Gede; the spirits of the dead. A fittingly macabre-looking lwa, he is dressed like a corpse prepared for traditional Haitian burial: head-to-toe in black, a top hat, and often portrayed with dark sunglasses and a skeletal face.
Never shy and retiring, Baron Samedi is notoriously foul-mouthed, cracking filthy jokes, swearing, and indulging in the hedonistic pleasures of tobacco and rum. He is married to another powerful death lwa by the name of Maman Brigitte, but he does not let that ruin his fun- he is still known to chase after mortal women.
Though death needn’t be a sombre affair with the voodoo lwa, don’t be fooled; Baron Samedi is still thought to possess incredible power, he can cure any illness, block curses, and has even been known to perform resurrections. Vodouisants may call on Baron Samedi when they or their loved ones are gravely ill and suspect that their time on earth is drawing to a close. When each mortal’s time does come, however, Baron Samedi will be there to greet them and guide them on their passage into the next world.
Maman Brigitte: Lwa of Death and Healing
Maman Brigitte is fairly unique in the voodoo pantheon, being the only lwa whose roots do not extend back to Africa, instead, Maman Brigitte’s roots can be located in Ireland. She is associated with Saint Brigid of Kildare, and like her Catholic counterpart, she is thought to be a powerful healer and protector, particularly of women. Maman Brigitte is also associated with the Celtic Pagan goddess Brigid (thought to be the pre-Christian forebear of Saint Brigid). Voodoo’s adoption of a Celtic saint/deity is most likely due to the presence of Celtic indentured servants, predominantly from Ireland and Scotland, in the Caribbean during the colonization of Haiti. It seems that the Celtic indentured servants may have shared some of their beliefs and traditions with the enslaved Africans with whom they lived alongside.
Like her husband, Maman Brigitte is believed to be capable of curing any illness unless, of course, she decides to alleviate the mortal’s suffering by claiming them for the afterlife instead. Protective and nurturing, Maman Brigitte is often called upon by mortal women, especially mothers and pregnant women, to help keep them safe and ease the pain of childbirth. She is also sometimes called upon by women to protect them from physical harm and abuse. Her reputation for wrathful punishment of wrongdoers is legendary.
On account of her Irish origins, Maman Brigitte is portrayed as milky-skinned and red-headed. She is said to dress provocatively and exude a kind of ambivalent sexuality that is simultaneously beautiful, powerful, and terrifying.
Damballah: The Primordial Father Lwa
Damballah is another of the most important lwa in the voodoo pantheon. Said to be the first lwa created by Bondye, Damballah is thought to have been a primordial father of earthly life and creation. He is depicted as an enormous white serpent and thought to have shed his skin to form the mountains and valleys of the earth and shaped the heavens with the coils of his body.
Damballah resides between the earth and sea, in constant movement, roaming the landscape of his making. He is syncretized with Saint Patrick– somewhat ironically, given Saint Patrick’s history with snakes.
Erzulie: The Lwa Family of Beauty and Womanhood
Erzulie (also known as Ezili) is a slightly different concept of lwa, not an individual but a family of water-dwelling lwa that represent femininity, beauty, and sensuality in their numerous aspects. The two most prominent Erzulies are Ezili Dantor and Ezili Freda.
Ezili Freda is believed to be a somewhat vain and flirtatious spirit, presiding over sensuality and romantic love. She is generally depicted as a beautiful woman with black or brown skin, bedecked with jewelry and adorned with a crown of luscious hair. Ezili Freda enjoys a scandalous existence, keeping the company of three lovers within the lwa pantheon; Damballah, Ogou, and Gédé Nibo. She does not, however, limit her sexual exploits to the other lwa. Like Baron Samedi (amongst several other lwa) Ezili Freda also likes to romance and seduce humans. In fact, she is known to have a fondness for human lovers, both male and female.
The Erzulie are generally thought to favor women and feminine bodies, choosing most often to bless and possess women and masisi (queer and/or feminine men). This is a perfect example of voodoo’s notably liberal approach to gender expression and queer sexual orientations. Feminine and ostensibly queer lwa are known to favor and protect people who share the same traits as them.
Ezili Dantor: Head of the Erzulie Lwa, Patron of Haiti
Ezili Dantor, meanwhile, is the head of the Erzulie family. She is most often depicted as a regal woman with two scars on her cheek and is syncretized with the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Associated with motherhood and protection, Ezili Dantor is especially revered in Haiti because she is thought to have been one of the guiding spiritual forces supporting the rebels in the Haitian Revolution. The warrior mother lwa is thought to have possessed a mambo (priestess) named Cécile Fatiman at a historically famed ceremony at Bois Caïman. Attended by a number of prominent rebel leaders, including Jean François, Georges Biassou, and Jeannot Bullet, that ceremony served as the catalyst that sparked the beginning of the revolution that would liberate the people of Haiti. Ezili Dantor, thus, became the patron lwa of Haiti.