“We used to know we were stronger than the devil”- Amiri Baraka
We used to know we weren’t the devil either. I woke this morning with this quote from poet Amiri Baraka on my mind. The award winning poet, playwright, and visionary passed over into the realm of the ancestors Thursday January 9th. I remember seeing him (as much as a 4 year old can remember anything) at an interactive play he staged about the Underground Railroad. He was controversial and sometimes confrontational like Voodoo’s gatekeeper Papa Legba. Legba has received a lot of attention of late, because of his truly outrageous depiction on the popular television show American Horror Story: Coven. It’s ironic that the show took so many episodes to introduce this iconic character because in the religion of Voodoo, Papa Legba always comes first.
Not a Cocaine Snorting Devil
The portrayal of Papa Legba in this week’s episode of American Horror Story: Covenleft a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, or should I say, up their noses. May I state now unequivocally as both an anthropologist and a Voodoo priestess that there is no association between Legba and drugs that I have ever come across in my over twenty years of practice and study. This week’s episode, in addition to having this ancient honored deity disrespectfully portrayed as a drug sniffing control freak, also shows him as a baby stealing, soul sucking devil. I wrote a few weeks ago that I predicted bad things for the introduction of this character, but this is beyond everyone’s lowest expectations. The buzz I have been seeing online is that people are done, that this is beyond offensive. It’s also just plain wrong. The show, in addition to falsely equating Legba with the Devil, seems to have collapsed his character with that of the Voodoo Lwa Baron Samedi, traditionally depicted with a Top Hat and images of the dead, as he is the ruler of the cemetery. The reality is that Legba is the wise teacher, the communicator between the worlds. I like to call him the gentle guiding paternal influence we all wish we had.
In Haitian Vodou the Lwa Legba is the gatekeeper: he is petitioned to open the way to the other realms. Leah Gordon’s beautiful work The Book of Vodou talks in detail about this keeper of the crossroads. He is the “powerful spirit of communication between all spheres of life and death. The cross is his symbol, because it is at the apex of this cross that heaven and earth intersect.”
Crescent City’s Papa Lebas
In my book Voodoo and Afro-Caribbean Paganism, I talk about the unique manifestation of Legba in New Orleans. Papa Lebas or Lebat receives his name from the missionary Father Jean Baptiste Lebat. In the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth century Lebat was responsible for trying to eradicate Voodoo from the area. In typical Voodoo fashion he is given the responsibility for the opposite function he performed in the physical world.” People would pray before the start of their services to Papa Lebat to allow the ritual to take place without intervention of the authorities. This fusion or Louisiana Gumbo of traditions is a common practice in the area.
Colors: Red and Black
Sacred Place: Crossroads, Doorways
Ritual Numbers: 3 or sometimes 21 (which is similar to Eleggua in Santeria/Lucumi)
Offerings: Coffee, Rum, Cigars, Keys, Cane
Images: Crossroads veve, Catholic images of St. Anthony, St. Peter
You can hear a truly moving version of the Legba Chant by Boukman Eksperyanshere.
Trying to learn more about this. Anyone want to help find more articles?
Elegba is the divine messenger - the one who carries the prayers or messages between everyone - he speaks all languages and can travel anywhere. He also happens to carry out all the duties of handling “luck”, “chance” or circumstance - so you can avoid some situations or find yourself in them.
The ability to control delivering messages, or misunderstandings, the ability to arrange things to happen for better… or worse, is a very powerful position. It is this role as the one who tests people by giving them a chance to play themselves out, that some choose to interpret as “the Devil”.
Elegba’s way of understanding is direct experience. As the one who can go everywhere, be anything, he is about experiencing things to learn (in contrast to say, Obatala, who deduces/comprehends them with deep thought). Which is why the imagery of Elegba is all contradictions - a child, an old man, candy and toys (childhood, innocence), liquor, cigars and sex (adulthood, adult pleasures) - to “speak all languages”, he has experienced all things from every viewpoint.
It is also why when you hear the stories about Elegba, it is about personally experiencing things - making mistakes, learning to do better. Sometimes he is warning another person (who usually doesn’t listen and has to learn the hard way) sometimes he plays the fool in order to show everyone what the results will be. Sometimes he sets up situations where people can see how limited, subjective or biased their thinking was.
Elegba’s trickery is often a demonstration about how much folks are trapped by greed, ego, and social conditioning - not about any form of rebellion. The “chaos” is simply that the cause and effect chain Elegba operates in is too big for most people to see - it appears like “chaos” because they can’t understand it.
Elegba stands at every threshold, every gate, every crossroads - Elegba stands at the point of potential transformation. As much as new experiences teach you new things, it also makes you into a new person. Elegba stands at the door to see what kind of person you are stepping in, and what kind of person you make yourself into when you step across.
Elegba also delivers you to what is at the end of that road when you walk it.
The mindset of people who assume that responsibility for your own actions is “evil” says a lot about those folks right there.