Who Is Papa Legba, the Vodou Link Between the Human and Spirit Worlds?

By: Tara Yarlagadda  | 

Papa Legba
A Papa Legba Vodou fetish at the entrance of a convent in Togoville, Togo, West Africa. Godong/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Lwa are spirits central to the practice of Haitian Vodou, and there is no more central lwa (also known as loa) than the iconic Papa Legba — a figure that stands as a mysterious link between the human and spirit worlds.

Papa Legba is "a shape-shifter and a bridge to the spirit world," says Kyrah Malika Daniels in an email interview. Daniels is an assistant professor of art history and African & African Diaspora Studies at Boston College, and has written extensively about Haitian Vodou.

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Haitian Vodou and Papa Legba

Before we can understand who Papa Legba is, we need to understand the Haitian practice of Vodou (also referred to as Vodoun or Vodun). "Vodou" is the commonly used spelling for the religion in official Haitian Creole and among scholars in general. The once-common spelling "Voodoo" is no longer used to avoid confusion with Louisiana Voodoo, which is a related but distinct set of religious practices, and to separate the tradition from any negative connotations that the term Voodoo has picked up over the years.

Papa Legba has his origins in the historic West African kingdom of Dahomey — a country known today as Benin. Enslaved people brought indigenous spiritual traditions with them from Dahomey to the Americas and the Caribbean, including knowledge of lwas like Papa Legba.

The Yorùbá people in Nigeria also worship a spirit, known as Esu or Elegba, who is similar to Papa Legba and such spirits can also be found in the cultures of Brazil and Cuba. "In Yorùbá traditions, Esu takes on a similar role [to Legba] as mediator between worlds," Daniels says.

But in Haiti, slaves transformed lwa like Papa Legba into the basis for the religion of Vodou, which centers around lwa and patron saints. Historically, Vodou served as both a spiritual practice and as a means for slaves to resist French colonialism. Today, Vodou also plays an important role in mental health and healing in Haiti.

"Vodou has been historically maligned because it is a liberatory tradition that empowered Haitians to gain their independence from the French," Daniels says.

Papa Legba
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

Raphael Hoermann is a lecturer in English literature at England's University of Central Lancashire who studies the Haitian Revolution and North and Black Atlantic narratives of slavery. He says, "Often Vodun ceremonies were outlawed under the slave regime" though he also adds that the exact impact of Vodou in the Haitian Revolution is somewhat disputed.

As the Haitian diaspora expanded across the globe, so, too, did Vodou among the Black diaspora in the U.S.

"In Haiti, Vodou is everywhere you go. In the U.S., it tends to be concentrated only in places where Haitians live in diaspora, such as Miami, New York City and Boston," Tamara L. Siuda says in an email interview. Siuda, also known as Mambo Chita Tann, is a priestess or "mambo" of Haitian Vodou and author of the booklet "Legba."

The practice of Vodou in Louisiana also has its origins in Haitian Vodou. As West African slaves and free Black individuals fled revolution in the French Caribbean, Vodou became integrated into local Catholicism in Louisiana.

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So, Who Is Papa Legba?

Papa Legba is often depicted as "an elder with a cane, but can also take on youthful appearances," according to Daniels.

"Lwa — the Vodou spirits, of which Papa Legba is one — are not gods but angels who serve Bondye "the good god," i.e., the Creator," Siuda says.

As Siuda further explains, "'Legba' is for us not a single spirit but an esko — an escort, or a group of spirits — all of whom have these qualities and can appear as different kinds of beings or be given different saints." Among the dozens of Legba spirits, practitioners refer to a handful as Papa Legba, though he most commonly appears as the spirit Legba Atibon or "Legba the Good Wood" according to Siuda.

Papa Legba
The Vodou symbol for the loa known as Papa Legba.
Bart Everson/Flickr (CC By 2.0)

"'Papa Legba' is a divinity of the crossroad, the threshold, between life and death, the world of the spirits and the living," Hoermann says.

Traditionally, Papa Legba has been referred to as the keeper or master of the crossroads in Haitian Vodou, though Daniels explains that he's more of a "bridge" to the spirit world. Instead, the literal embodiment of the crossroads is actually Papa Legba's cousin-slash-brother Kafou (also known as Kalfou or Carrefour).

Papa Legba's sometimes described in popular literature as a mischievous trickster, but Daniels says that's not really the case. "None of the lwa are purely malevolent or benevolent — they all share aspects of duality," Daniels says.

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Asking Papa Legba to "Open"

As spirits, lwa play a different role in Haitian Vodou than gods in other religions. "We don't pray to lwa, whether that's to Legba or any others," Siuda says.

However, Siuda says that practitioners of Haitian Vodou will often provide gifts or offerings to lwa, sing or "do other things in ceremony to attract their attention and to ask them to help us out with our problems."

According to Siuda, common offerings to Papa Legba include cane syrup, white rum, cornbread, mangoes, boiled peanuts, black coffee, bananas and plantains.

Due to Papa Legba's role as a bridge to the spirit world, "he is invoked at the beginning of most Vodou ceremonies to open the barrier to the world of the spirits so that they can take possession of the Vodouisants (or Vodou practitioners)," Hoermann says.

Siuda describes one of the ways practitioners often invoke Papa Legba during ceremonies, asking him to open the gates to the spirit world.

Papa Legba
Legba Vodou mounds mark the entrance to a Vodou village in Ouidah, Benin. The 'Legba' acts as a gatekeeper to guard away evil spirits from the village. Ouidah is Benin's Vodou heartland, and thought to be the spiritual birthplace of Vodou or Vodun, which was acknowledged as an official religion in Benin in 1989.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

"One of the most popular songs to Papa Legba literally asks him to open the gate so we can pass, which is a metaphor — the idea is that he will open up the realms of the unseen and of all possibilities to us so that we can proceed without obstacles," Siuda says.

Outside of ceremonies, practitioners can also light a candle and ask Papa Legba to personally intervene and provide help. "So yes, we do ask Legba to open the ways for us," Siuda says, adding that Legba "is approachable by anybody, even people who don't practice Vodou, so he can be asked to help at any time."

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Other Interpretations of Papa Legba

Syncretism refers to the melding of different religious traditions — a common occurrence in Haitian Vodou.

"The generally accepted opinion seems to be that the Vodun, like other Caribbean religions, is syncretic — it contains many disparate elements, West African and Christian," Hoermann says. Practitioners often represent Papa Legba in different forms, including as patron saints of Christianity, including Saint Peter, Saint Anthony and Saint Lazarus. This representation reflects the incorporation of local Christian figures into Haitian Vodou. "Most lwa in Haitian Vodou double as Christian saints," Hoermann says.

Due to his prominent role as the keeper of the crossroads, Papa Legba has appeared in other cultural contexts. According to Harry M. Hyatt's book "Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, Rootwork," the famous blues musician of the 1930s, Robert Johnson, was a practitioner of Vodou.

The famous legend touts that Johnson made a deal with a dark figure on a dark crossroads in the American South — perhaps with the Satanic devil — but due to his practice of Vodou, it's possible that Johnson went to the crossroads in search of answers and met with Papa Legba instead. Whether or not the mysterious dark figure in Johnson's song "Me and the Devil Blues" really is Papa Legba, the story shows how the image of Papa Legba has spread beyond Haiti to the Black diaspora around the world.

"Even in the blues, the crossroads play a large role. Robert Johnson song's "Me and Devil Blues" might be more about such an African diasporic trickster figure than the Christian devil," Hoermann says.

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