Papa Legba is perhaps the best-known Voodoo spirit outside of the religion. If you’ve watched American Horror Story, banish all thoughts of their representation from your mind! Suffice it to say, it was wrong.
I’ve talked about Papa Legba before in relation to the crossroads. But a subscriber asked for extra information so I collected more about this powerful loa.
Update: I’m not a practitioner so this post is intended for information only. If you want to know more, I suggest you find a practitioner and ask for their guidance.
Who is Papa Legba?
Many Voodoo/Vodou spirits find their counterparts in Christian theology. Papa Legba acts as the equivalent of St Peter, St Lazarus, and St Anthony of Padua. In African religions, he’s the guardian of the crossroads. In both Vodou (Haiti) and Voodoo (Louisiana), he works between the spirit world and the living. Some believe he speaks all human languages. As a figure in charge of communication with spirits, he guards the door to the spirit world.
According to Gerdès Fleurant, “[w]ithout him, nothing can be done. No ceremony can take place. He is the one who opens the gates of the universe.”
While other crossroads spirits are rowdy (across various traditions), Papa Legba is mostly a kindly spirit. But be warned; he has a mischievous streak and doesn’t suffer fools. If he thinks you’re too pompous, he’ll teach you a lesson. So be respectful if you approach him and don’t call on him lightly.
Why do people petition Papa Legba?
As the loa of crossroads and communication, he’s the one to petition if things are impeding your progress.
Some sources link Papa Legba with St Peter. St Peter is often depicted holding keys which reflects Papa Legba’s role as a gatekeeper. St Peter, if you know your Christian theology, guards the gates of heaven. So he’s a pretty useful saint to keep around.
Many sources describe ways to honour him, such as burning a yellow or white candle on Mondays. I’ve also found sources that describe his colours as red and black. It just goes to show that you shouldn’t believe everything you read online. That’s why it’s best to consult practitioners if you want to learn more.
Leave candy or spare change at a nearby crossroads or beside your doorstep. He’s apparently also fond of cigars and rum.
Speaking of assistance, one tale involves the blues legend, Fats Domino. He learned to play the piano and played in clubs around New Orleans. For his second single, he released “Hey! La Bas Boogie”. Based on “Eh La Bas”, a popular Cajun jazz standard, its ‘”Eh! La Bas!” call-and-repeat chorus seemingly honoured Papa Legba.
The song didn’t chart but Domino became famous nonetheless. Perhaps Papa Legba appreciated the gesture.
The Old Man at the Crossroads
As the loa of the crossroads, Papa Legba is commonly associated with the infamous ‘deal with the Devil’. Yet the practice of making deals at crossroads isn’t entirely unjustified.
In the Congo, the tradition required people to take an oath standing on a cross scratched on the ground. The horizontal line represents this world, halfway between the lands of the gods and the dead. The vertical line represents the gods at the top, the dead and the bottom, and man halfway between. Standing on the cross puts the oath taker between the worlds, asking the gods and the dead to bear witness.
In Hoodoo, practitioners use powder to draw an X inside a circle.
The crossroads becomes the place where seekers might find the spirit world if they care to look. This applies in other traditions too, including English folklore. In these tales, the crossroads becomes a liminal place between the worlds.
Last time I talked about the crossroads, we talked about the famous tale of Robert Johnson. According to the story, the Devil taught the legendary guitarist to play. The truth is somewhat more prosaic. He simply visited the crossroads, took a lesson from Papa Legba, and practised hard.
And that ultimately makes sense. Any desire you make on a magical level must be supported by practical action. You don’t get something for nothing and there’s always a price to pay.
Seek wiser help if you want to approach Papa Legba
Be reverent, remember his favourite things, and respect his wisdom. But like I said at the beginning, if you want to know more, find a wise practitioner to learn from. It’s best to get their guidance and support before you approach the loa.
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Fleurant, Gerdès (1996) Dancing Spirits: Rhythms and Rituals of Haitian Vodun, the Rada Rite, London: Greenwood Press.
Gordon, Leah (2000) The Book of Vodou, Barron’s Educational Series (aff link).
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