The myth and legend of Papa Legba
The most popular Vodou deity and gatekeeper to the spirit world
Papa Legba is one of the loa, a group of spirits associated with daily life, in the Haitian Vodou religion and voodoo belief system. He is probably one of the best known and most loved deities in African spirituality and is thought to stand between man and the spirit world. He is known as Lord of the Roads, God of the Crossroads, and the great communicator. He is known to have the gift of all speech, being able to talk in any human language.
Legba is often depicted as an older man with a cane, dressed in tattered rags, smoking a pipe and wearing a straw hat, often with his dog by his side. He is associated with crossroads, gateways, locks, and doors and, as such, can be asked for help by his worshippers in their bid to find new paths, different roads, and opportunities. He can help to remove obstacles that lay in a person’s way, but he has also been portrayed as a trickster and one to be wary of.
The history of Papa Legba
Papa Legba originated with the Fon people of Dahomey (Benin) in Africa. Many Africans were captured and brought to North America to be used as slaves. They brought with them their spiritual beliefs and practices, although these had to be kept hidden from their slave-masters. Amongst them was the view that the world was created by the supreme being, Bondye, or ‘good god.’ His children were the loa and came from different families, including the Petro, Ghede, and Radha.
Papa Legba became popular with enslaved people in Haiti, the Caribbean, and the American colonies as the gatekeeper between worlds. Only through him could people reach the loa and ultimately Bondye. He held the power to allow communication with the spirit world, and only through him could it be achieved. As well as having the gift of language, he was known as a protector of children, a fertility god, and a warrior. Legba also taught humans how to interpret oracles and is known to protect prophets.
Papa Legba has been likened to St Peter in the Christian religion as he is the gatekeeper to heaven and holds the keys to heaven and hell. He is also known by other names in different parts of the world. In Cuba, the crossroads deity is known as Elegua, and in Surinam in Brazil, the spirit is more commonly known as Exu.
Worshipping the Vodou spirit
Legba shares the messages and wisdom of the loa. People can ask for his help and the aid of the other spirits with offerings, petitions, and prayers. Papa Legba is said to be the one who takes these prayers to the other loa. He must be honored first during any ceremony as it is he who will open the door to communication with the spirits. Offerings to him include coffee, cane syrup, alcohol, tobacco, and candy.
Papa Legba, open the door
Your children await
Open the door Papa Legba
So that I may pass
When I return, I will thank the loa
He must also be thanked after communicating with the spirits so that he closes the door to the spirit world. Legba is also the god of travel, and Haitians often call on him before embarking on a long journey. As guardian of the crossroads, Legba warns of the dangers of evil spirits that may lurk in places where the veil is thin.
Although once banned, Vodou is now a recognized religion in Haiti even though its practices remain shrouded in mystery.
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