Date: Sun, 16 Jul 1995 21:27:51 -0700 (PDT)
From: Bob Corbett <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: H35: List of the major lwa
This is just a short list of some of the major lwa of Voodoo. It reflects quite a few different sources, but the major source has been Maya Deren's The Divine Horsemen. For any who want a much much longer list, I have one. In 1990 I gave an assignment to my class in Haitian Voodoo to find and write about various lwa. Then a work study student compiled the results of all these assignments for my files. I just found this long file when I was rummaging around in my files.
It is about 30 pages long, has not been edited and doesn't contain any sources, just descriptions of lwa, most of whom I have never heard. If anyone wants this long list of descriptions of obscure lwa, I'll happily pass it on to you, but I won't bother to share it with the entire mailing list.
Legba is one of the most important loa in Haitian Voodoo. He is the
first called in a service, so that he can open the gates to the spirit
world, enabling communication with other loa. No loa dares show itself
without Legba's permission. He controls the crossing over from one world
to the other. Legba is also known to hold the
key of the spiritual
world, and for this reason is identified with the Christian St. Peter.
He is a small crooked lovable old man who uses a small pipe with little tobacco, and carries bits of food in his macoute sack. He has sores on his body and when he mounts someone the person's limbs are twisted and horrible to see.
Legba is twined with his Petro opposite, Kalfu, who also controls the crossroads. Actually, were it not for him the world would be more rational, a better place. But, not unlike Pandora in Greek religion and myth, Kalfu controls the evil forces of the spirit world. He allows the crossing of bad luck, deliberate destruction, misfortune, injustice.
Kalfu controls the in-between points of the crossroads, the off-center points. Legba controls the positive spirits of the day; Kalfu controls the malevolent spirits of the night.
When Kalfu mounts a person everyone at the service stops speaking because he allows evil loa to come to the ceremony. He claims that most of the important loa know him and he collaborates with them. Kalfu says that some people claim he is a demon but he denies this. A respected loa though he is not liked much, he is the grand master of charms and sorceries and is closely associated with black magic.
Ghede is an awesome figure in black, controlling the eternal crossroad which everyone must someday pass over--the crossing from life to death. His symbol is the cross upon a tomb. Ghede is to the underworld or afterlife what Legba is to life--he who controls access.
Ghede is also the spirit of eroticism, which is beyond good and evil since it is inevitable. Ghede is neither delighted by eroticism, and certainly not shamed by it. If anything he is amused by the universal presence of eroticism and humans' constant need to pretend that it is other than what it is.
When Ghede mounts someone he often singles out people who pretend to be aloof from eroticism. He ridicules them, embarrasses them, exposes them (in more ways than one). He is especially hard on whites since they often have the puritanical sexual attitudes of western culture.
Loa of sexuality, he is enamored of women, makes constant use of obscene words and songs, and performs lewd dances. When someone is mounted by Ghede and dressed in black coat, top hat and sun glasses, Ghede performs the banda dance, a gyrating dance in which one imitates the movements of copulation.
Ghede is a clown, an interrupter, a coarse fellow. He is much loved because his appearance always brings laughter and joy, singing and dancing, though much of it is lude. He loves cigarettes and is often seen smoking two at a time. He is neither good nor evil, but is amused by humans and that's why he jokes around so much. He is usually the last to appear at a ceremony.
Ghede is also often called BARON SAMEDI. In this aspect he is DEATH. He is the keeper of the cemetery and the primary contact with the dead. Anyone who would seek contact with the dead must first solicit Ghede/Baron Samedi in the same way that Legba is contacted to cross over to the spirit world. He is the loa of death and resurrection. But he is history too. As keeper of the cemetery he has intimate contact with the dead. He knows what their plans were, what's going on in families, what the connections of things are, and is quite generous with his information. Even when he is clowning or performing his erotic antics, if one can pull him aside and ask him a serious question he will give a serious and reliable answer.
Another of Ghede's great powers is as the protector of children. He does not like to see children die. They need a full life. Thus he is the loa to go to when seeking help for a sick child. He has the power over zombies and decides whether or not people can be changed into animals. Any such black magic Voodoo must seek the help of Baron Samedi/Ghede.
Lastly, since Ghede is the lord of death, he is also the final last resort for healing since he must decide whether to accept the sick person into the dead or allow them to recover.
Zaka is a gentle simple farmer, and greatly respected by the peasants
since he is, like them, a hard worker. He is usually barefoot, carries a
macoute sack and wears a straw hat. He is addressed as
cousin and by
nature is suspicious, out for profit, fond of quibbling, and has a fear
and hatred of town folk. His vocal stylization consists of the almost
unintelligible sounds of a goat. He is known for the gossip he spreads
and for his girl chasing. He is young and likes to play when not
Zaka, the loa of agriculture, is generally known as the brother of Ghede. For this reason Ghede often come to the ceremonies for Zaka when Zaka has mounted someone.
Zaka controls the fields, and like the farmers themselves, he is very watchful of detail. He notes who is treating whom in what manner. Who is flirting with whom, who says what to whom etc. When he mounts someone he often spills out all the local gossip to the embarrassment and amusement of all.
There are interesting similarities between the sophisticated Ghede and the more bumbling Azacca, as though a younger less sophisticated brother were imitating a more secure older brother. Like Ghede, Zaka loves his food. But, unlike Ghede he is rude and voracious in his eating habits, often running away to hide with him food and eat it quickly.
Known as the serpent, he is one of the most popular loa. Dumballah is benevolent, innocent, a loving father. He doesn't communicate well, as though his wisdom we too aloof for us.
Dumballah is the snake. He plunges into a basin of water which is built for him, or climbs up into a tree. Again, as the snake he is rather uncommunicative, but a loving quiet presence. He does not communicate exact messages, but seems to radiate a comforting presence which sends a general spirit of optimism into all people present. When Dumballah mounts someone the special offering to him is the egg, which he crushes with his teeth.
He and his wife, Aida-Wedo, are often shown as two snakes. People possessed by him dart their tongues in and out, slither along the ground, and climb trees, or roof beams, falling like a boa. He is known to whistle because he has no speech, and he is the bringer of rain, a necessity for good crops.
The female counterpart of Dumballah, his mate, is Ayida. She is the rainbow. Together they are the unitary forces of human sexuality.
Sovereign of the sea. Under his jurisdiction come not only all the flora and fauna of the sea, but all ships which sail on the sea. His symbols are tiny boats, brightly painted oars and shells. He likes military uniforms and gunfire.
The service for Agwe is quite different from others since it is on the sea itself. A barque is prepared with all sorts of Agwe's favorite foods, including champagne. This barque is then floated over the top of where it is believed the sacred underwater world exists. If the barque sinks, then Agwe has accepted the sacrifice and will protect the water interests of those who have prepared the sacrifice. Were the barque to float back into shore, then the service has been refused and a different manner of placating Agwe would have to be devised.
Ague is one of the three husbands of Erzulie.
Ogoun is the traditional warrior figure in Dahomehan religion. He is quite similar to the spirit Zeus in Greek religion/mythology. As such Ogoun is mighty, powerful, triumphal. In more recent time Ogoun has taken on a new face which is not quite related to his African roots. This is the crafty and powerful political leader. This political warrior points to where struggle is in modern Haiti.
He gives strength through prophecy and magic. It is Ogoun who is said to have planted the idea, led and given power to the slaves for the revolution and consequent freedom of 1804. He is called now to help people obtain a government more responsible to their needs.
Ogoun comes to mount people in various aspects of his character, and the people are quite familiar with each of them. Some of these aspects are: Ogoun the wounded warrior. Here he assumes a Christ-figure pose which the people know well from their Christian associations. As Ogoun Feraille he gives strength to the servitors by slapping them on the thighs or back. As Ogoun Badagris he may lift a person up and carry him or her around to indicate his special attention and patronage. To all the aspects of Ogoun there is the dominant theme of power and militancy.
His possessions can sometimes be violent. Those mounted by him are known
to wash their hands in flaming rum without suffering from it later. They
dress up in red wave a sabre or machete, chew a cigar and demand rum in
an old phrase
Gren mwe fret (my testicles are cold).
Often this rum is poured on the ground then lit and the fumes pervade the peristyle. The sword, or much more commonly, the machete is his weapon and he often does strange feats of poking himself with it, or even sticking the handle in the ground, then mounting the blade without piercing his skin.
Ogoun is identified with St. Jacques, the warrior general, and is often in the guise of a revolutionary war general.
Voodoo has a most special place for Erzulie, the loa of beauty, the loa who is so uniquely human since she is the differentiating force between human and all other creation. She is the ability to conceptualize, to dream, and the artistic ability to create. She is the most beautiful and sensuous lady in the Voodoo pantheon, respected and wealthy; wears her hair long; is jealous and requires her lovers to dedicate a room for her ritual lovemaking.
Erzulie is not a loa of elemental forces, but of ideal dreams, hopes and aspirations. As such she is the most loved loa of all.
She is fabulously rich, and, when she mounts someone the first act is always to accomplish her elaborate toilette. The very best of things which the houngan or mambo has are reserved for Erzulie. She will bathe, using soap from a fresh wrapper if possible. She will dress in silks with fresh flowers and other signs of her femininity and specialness.
She is the mistress of coquetry. She may simply visit with her servants, or may eat or drink with great delicacy. She loves to dance and is the most graceful of all the loa. She loves men, will dance with them, kiss and caress them, often in an embarrassing manner.
Voodoo does not have a woman as loa of fertility. Fertility is regarded as a unified principle, equally held by male and female forces. Thus Dumballah is united to his Ayida. Agwe has his counterpart in La Sirene; the Marasa, the twins, are contradictory and complementary forces of nature and so on.
Erzulie wears three wedding bands since she has been (or is) wedded to Dumballah, Ogoun and Agwe. She has often flirted with Zaka, but she has completely dismissed his more course brother Ghede as unworthy. However, Erzulie is always in charge and may take any serviteur present as her lover for the day if she chooses.
However, the visit of Erzulie is never fully satisfying. In the end she always begins to weep. The world is just too much for her. At first people try to comfort her with more delicate food or drink or other gifts, but her tears continue to flow. It is this tearful and sad side of her that allows the women to accept her in her haughty ways. She is, in the end, one who suffers the burden of the world's sorrows.
Despite her flirtations and loving ways, Erzulie is a virgin. She is the complete converse of the crude sexuality of Papa Ghede. She is not a virgin in the physical sense, but in the sense that her love transcends the earth, it is a love of higher forces. She is closely associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary and her symbol is the heart, usually one broken with an arrow in much the same way as a dominant Catholic portrait of Mary.
Gran Bwa lives in the deep forest where the vegetation is wild. He is the protector of wildlife, and doesn't like to be seen. He eats fruits and vegetables all day in the woods and when called in a ceremony, he is usually not hungry but the people always have food for him anyway. He is the loa who must be called upon before one is ordained into Voodoo priesthood.
He is the spirit of vegetation, the guardian of sanctuaries and is associated with trees. Loco has an extensive knowledge of the pharmaceutical uses of herbs. It is said that houngans and mambos receive their knowledge him. He gives healing properties to leaves, and is the loa of healing and patron of the herb doctors who always invoke him before undertaking a treatment. Offerings to Loko are placed in straw bags which are then hung in trees' branches.
He is known for his good judgment, and often during conflicts he is called in to be judge. He has an intolerance of injustice, and it has been said that he transforms into the wind and listens to people without them knowing he is there.
He is the guardian of the fountains and marshes and cannot live without the freshness of water. His Voodoo rituals are held near springs. He is a knowledgeable loa because he spends a lot of time learning about the nature of illnesses of supernatural origin and how to treat them. As part of Ogoun's army he is the chief of the coast guard and goes wherever he pleases. He is the Petro loa of the coast; one of the most respected members of the Petro family. But, because of his gentle nature, he also belongs to the Rada family. Sometimes when neglected by serviteurs and gnawed by hunger, he can be cruel.
He lives in springs and rivers. Children who go to fetch water at springs run the risk--particularly if they are fair-skinned--of being kidnapped to work for him under the water for a few years, gifting them with second sight for their trouble.
These two loa are marine divinities, so closely linked that they are
always worshipped together and celebrated in the same songs. Some
people say the Whale is the mother of the Siren, others that he is her
husband; others say the names are used for one and the same loa. Popular
opinion says the Siren is married to Agwe. When Siren turns up in a
sanctuary, the person possessed by her appears simply in the role of a
young coquette most careful of her looks, and speaking in French, often
offending the peasant serviteurs. Both the Siren and the Whale are
He is a black magic Petro loa depicted as a dwarf with one foot. Even though Ti-Jean-Petro has a French name, his roots can be traced to Africa. He is easily comparable to a spirit who roamed the bush, and was also depicted as having only one leg. Ti-Jean-Petro often protects and assists black magic sorcerers. He is also recognized under the names of Petro-e-rouge, Ti-Jean-pied-fin, Prince Zandor, and Ti-Jean-Zandor. He has a violent and passionate nature that becomes apparent when he mounts people.