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Religious Articles

Who Is Papa Legba?

Papa Legba is one of the most important and complex figures in Haitian Voodoo. He is the intermediary between the living and the dead, and he represents both wisdom and mischief. He is often portrayed as a trickster, and he can be both helpful and harmful. His role in Voodoo ceremonies is essential, and he is invoked before any other spirit.

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Papa Legba History /Origin

Papa Legba is believed to be an African spirit who was brought to Haiti by the slaves. He is associated with the Yoruba god Elegua, and he is also known as Legba Atibon, or St. Peter. In Haitian Voodoo, he is the guardian of the crossroads, and he is responsible for communication between the living and the dead. He is also the protector of children, and he is often invoked to help with problems such as illness or bad luck.

Papa Legba is a popular figure in Haitian and New Orleans voodoo. He is often portrayed as a elderly man with a crutch or cane, wearing a straw hat and smoking a pipe. He is said to be able to understand all languages, including that of animals. As the gatekeeper to the spirit world, he is said to be able to open and close the doors between the two realms.

Papa Legba is invoked at the beginning of all voodoo ceremonies, as he is seen as the intermediary between man and the spirit world. He can be petitioned for help in communicating with other spirits, and for understanding their messages. He is also said to be able to grant favors and wishes.

In Haitian voodoo, Papa Legba is associated with the Petro lwa (loa), and is said to be their leader. He is also syncretized with the Catholic saints St. Peter and St. Lazarus. In New Orleans voodoo, he is often syncretized with the folkloric figure of Baron Samedi.

Meaning of Lwa (Loa)

Lwa which is pronounced as lwah, also called loa or loi, are spirits in the African diasporic religion of Haitian Vodou. They have also been incorporated into some revivalist forms of Louisiana Voodoo. Many of the lwa derive their identities in part from deities venerated in the traditional religions of West Africa, especially those of the Fon and Yoruba.

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Lwa are not gods of any sort. Lwa are Spirits, each one is associated with different area’s of human life, or the human condition, along with the elements that make up our environment. There are Spirits associated with love, wealth, abundance, luck, for assistance in getting jobs, Spirits that are associated with parenting, protection, defense, life, fertility, healing and of course death, amongst others. There are Spirits associated with the land, farming, business, the sea, rivers, rocks, tree’s, mountains, clouds and rain. Each of these Spirits can work with us to improve any area of our own lives.

What is Haitian Vodou?

Haitian Vodou finds it’s roots in the religious culture of Africa.  During the slave trade, French and Spanish traders imported African slaves from areas throughout the African continent, with the greatest numbers of slaves coming from the Congo, Benin and Nigeria.  These African nationals, brought to the Island of Hispanola [which later was broken into Haiti and the Dominican Republic], soon began to share their practices with the Taino Indians, the native peoples of the Island.  The Congo had already begun the process of integrating Christianity with their own religious beliefs and customs, and the French and Spanish slave owners demanded that all slaves adopted the Catholic faith, at least outwardly.

It was the amalgamation of these cultures and the religious beliefs that birthed Haitian Vodou.   Haitian Vodou is a unique religion, but not a new religion.  Vodou is as old as Africa, with the ancient religion still being practiced in Benin, and throughout those areas of Africa which still celebrate the religions of Mami Wata and Fa.  The name Vodou comes from the Fon to whom the word Vodou simply means “Spirit” or “Divine Spirits”, and the use of this name really reflects the nature of Haitian Vodou.

Practitioners of Haitian Vodou, called Vodouisant, believe in one God, who we call Bondye, which is derived from the French Bonne Dieu, meaning Good God. Bondye is eternal, the creator of all that is, including all the Spirits that exist.  Bondye however is distant, running the universe after all is a fairly time consuming task, and one that requires a lot of attention.  However, Bondye does not wish to leave us without recourse, and so he gave us the Lwa, the Spirits of Haitian Vodou.

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How to Summon Papa Legba

Papa Legba is one of the lwa of Haitian Vodou, and has nothing to do with the hoodoo/conjure/rootwork tradition. Legba is the lwa who opens the gate to the rest of the lwa, and is one of the most accessible spirits in Vodou. That doesn’t mean you are able to summon him or compel him to appear to you.

If you believe you need to summon or speak to Legba, your best option is to find a reputable houngan or mambo to make the connection for you. They may perform a reading to find out if Legba has anything to say to you, or may be able to call him down in possession to speak to you. (Only asogwe can do this, and it is expensive as it requires the assistance of multiple members of a house.)

You can also attend a fèt (Vodou party/celebration for the lwa) and speak to Legba when he comes down in possession. You need to share his attention with the other people attending the fèt, but as it’s a religious ceremony there isn’t a cost associated with it (although it is polite to make a donation to the house).

Vodou is a religion of community, and an uninitiated person with no connection to Vodou cannot call Legba. However, Legba might decide to call them into Vodou. If you believe this is happening to you, you should read this and follow the advice.

Below is a young Vodou initiate in Benin draws strength from embracing the fetish of the divine messenger Legba, who wears a straw skirt like the dancers.

HENNING CHRISTOPH /ULLSTEIN BILD/GETTY IMAGES
Who Is Papa Legba, History, Origin and how did papa legba die?
Who Is Papa Legba, History, Origin and how did papa legba die?

Papa Legba Appearance

Papa Legba is usually depicted as a old man with a cane, or a young boy. He is sometimes portrayed as a dog or a horse. He is always shown with a cigar, and he is often dressed in red and black.

Papa Legba Symbols

The most important symbol of Papa Legba is the crossroads. This represents his role as the intermediary between the living and the dead. Other symbols associated with Papa Legba include cigars, canes, dogs, and horses.

Papa Legba Offerings

Papa Legba is traditionally offered tobacco, cigars, rum, and food. He is also sometimes given offerings of money or animals.

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Papa Legba Rituals

Rituals involving Papa Legba usually involve invoking him at a crossroads. This can be done by lighting a candle and saying a prayer, or by leaving an offering at the crossroads. Papa Legba is also invoked in Voodoo ceremonies, and he is often the first spirit to be called.

Some believe about Papa Legba

1. He usually appears as an old man on a crutch or with his leg bandaged because he was once crippled. Since death cannot die, Papa Legba acts as guardian of cemeteries too.

2. Voodoo practitioners believe that through Papa Legba one can contact their ancestors and spirits of the other world to gain favors from them – such as protection, fertility and prosperity (he has been linked to Santa Claus). Papa Legba is also considered a psychopomp , someone who ushers souls into the afterlife.

3. Papa Legba can tap into knowledge from other realms, and this enables him to tell the future. As such, when approached for divination he is often depicted holding a ouanga bag . Papa Legba’s favorite tool is an axe which symbolizes death and destruction (he uses it during storms).

4. Papa Legba presides over cemeteries and appears with a machete or hammer in hand. He wears large rings on his fingers that jingle when he walks and traditional images of Papa Legba show him wearing a black hat, smoking a cigar and carrying his cane.

5. Papa Legba is always shown with one foot in the grave, one at the door of his house, and accompanied by a black dog. Papa Legba is usually paired with Maman Brigitte , his female counterpart.

6. Papa Legba can appear as either an old man on crutches or as an invisible spirit who strikes people dumb (the dumbness is said to last until Papa Legba grants them their voice).

7. Papa Legba’s number is 5, which symbolizes change and upheaval – on this basis some voodoo practitioners believe that Papa Legba can grant or prevent divorces . Some Haitian families hang up coral rocks outside of their homes in order to keep Papa Legba content with their family matters – so he doesn’t curse them through magic spells.

8. Papa Legba is also called Papa Lebga , Papa Légbá , Papa Lebgaw and Papa Ligba. His equivalent in Louisiana Voodoo is Papa Guédé .

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