Meet some of the over 1,000 spirits in the invisible spirit world of Vodou

Loa (aka lwa) are the primary spirits of Voodoo (also spelled Vodou). Vodou is a religion practiced in the Caribbean nation of Haiti. It is said to have been formed by descendants of African ethnic groups brought to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) as slaves. Vodou is, Brittanica says, a “worldview encompassing philosophy, medicine, justice, and religion.”

A fundamental principle of Voodoo is that everything consists of spirits. Humans are merely spirits who live in the visible world. In the invisible world, one finds lwa, myste, anvisib, zanj, and the spirits of ancestors and the deceased.  All of those spirits are said to live in a mythical land called Ginen. Loa are not gods themselves but are spirits created by God, who is called Bondye, to aid the living.

Spirit pantheons

There are over 1,000 lwa in vodou, grouped in 17 pantheons called nanchon. The most prominent pantheons of lwa are the Rada and Petwo. While many lwa appear in both the Rada and Petwo pantheons, there are distinctions.

Lwa in the Rada pantheon are characterized as peaceful and benevolent. Having said that, they can be vindictive if offended. On the one hand, lwa in the Petwo pantheon are described as forceful, aggressive and dangerous. On the other hand, they’re also protective of the living and generous.

Some of the prominent lwa

There’s no room to introduce you to over 1,000 lwa, but here are some lwa that are held in particularly high esteem.

Legba is the master and keeper of crossroads who makes communication with the spirits possible. Agwe, aka Agwe-Tawoyo, is the lwa of the sea. Lasiren is his female counterpart. Danbala Wedo and his wife Ayida Wedo are represented by two snakes and represent the power and eternity of life. Ezili Freda is known as the lwa of love. The lwa of trees and patron of the temple is Loko. The lwa of strength and power is Ogou. Marketplaces and merchants are protected by the lwa Aziyan. Azaka is the lwa who presides over agricultural work and life. Gede is the lwa of death.

Jasmine Nears/Flickr

Humans — themselves spirits in the visible world — serve the lwa. They love, respect, and fear the lwa. Humans show their love and respect for the lwa by referring to them as Papa (father), Manman (mother) or Metres (mistress). The lwa return humans’ love, respect and devotion by extending blessings, protection and favors.

Humans worship or venerate Vodou lwa in religious services led by a Vodou priest or priestess. The rituals involve songs, dances, spiritual drawings, prayers and drumming around a central “pillar in the middle” called a potomitan. During the ceremonies, adherents may enter a trance, during which they eat, drink, dance, give advice, perform medical cures, or perform special physical feats. It is said that these acts — while in that trance — demonstrate the bodily presence of the lwa in that person.

That pillar running from floor to ceiling is typically decorated with a spiraling snake. Lwa, it is said, climb or fall through the potomitan as if it were a “magical axis”. By songs, dances, drawings, prayers, and drumming, humans invite the lwa to join the living, to participate in the ceremony and to accept the sacrifices.

Mystic marriage

“A fundamental principle of voodoo is that everything consists of spirits. Humans are merely spirits who live in the visible world.”

Followers of Vodou may even marry an lwa in a maryaj mistik, a “mystic marriage.” The ceremony, which features special clothing, a wedding cake, and a wedding ring, establishes a special relationship between the human and the lwa: one of spiritual protection. But which lwa to marry? One may marry the met tet that was identified through consultation with the spirits as “walking” with that person.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

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– Believe It Or Not: Religion Might Lead To A Longer Life | Living 101

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