The Lwa (the word is also often spelled Loa) are the secondary divinities of the Vodu religion as practiced in Haiti. The Lwa are also referred to as Les Mystères, Les Invisibles, Mistik, or, simply, Vodu. They are spirits of human or divine origin who were created by Bondye or Granmèt, the Supreme Being of Vodu in Haiti, to assist the living in their daily affairs. Indeed, as in most other African religious traditions, the Supreme Being withdrew from the world after having created it. Management of the world was left in the hands of spiritual entities—more particularly of the Lwa. However, God remains the ultimate arbitrator and supreme master of all things in the universe. This entry looks at the characteristics of the Lwa and how they are worshipped.
Describing the Lwa
There are more than 1,000 divinities, or Lwa, in Vodu. The Lwa are grouped in 17 pantheons, or nancbon, the better known ones being the Rada, the Petwo, Nago, Kongo, Juba, and Ibo pantheons. The Rada and Petwo pantheons are arguably the most important, in terms of both size and the role played by Rada and Petwo Lwa in Vodu. In fact, many of the other groups have been integrated into the Rada and the Petwo pantheons. For example, the Nago and the Juba Lwa are often thought of nowadays as Rada, whereas the Kongo and Ibo are commonly subsumed under the Petwo Lwa.
This fusion underscores the difficulty one may face when adhering to too strict a classification. There are constant overlaps between the different pantheons of Lwa. The same Lwa may appear as Rada and as Petwo. What seems to distinguish the Rada pantheon from the Petwo pantheon is, above all, the general character, attitude, or persona of the Lwa. Rada Lwa are often associated with a peaceful demeanor and benevolent attitude. However, this is not always the case. When displeased or offended, they may also turn out to be quite vindictive. In contrast, Petwo Lwa are commonly thought of as forceful, aggressive, and dangerous. Yet they may also be protective of the living and quite generous. Thus, one must resist the easy temptation of a simplistic classification.
Although the Lwa are quite numerous, there is a hierarchy among them, with some Lwa being held in special esteem by Vodu followers. This is the case, for instance, of the powerful Lwa Legba, the master and keeper of crossroads, without whom communication with the spirits is impossible and can never take place. Other Lwa of particular significance include spirits such as Agwe (also called Agwe Taroyo), the Lwa of the sea, and his female counterpart, Lasirèn; Danballa Wedo, and his wife, Ayida Wedo, who are represented as two snakes and stand for the power and eternity of life; Ezili Freda, known as the “Lwa of Love”; Loko, the spirit of trees and vegetation in general, and the patron of Mambos and Houngans and of the Vodu temple, the oumfò; Ogu, the symbol of strength and power; the Marassa, the sacred twins; Ayizan, the Lwa of market places and protector of merchants; and Azaka, the Lwa presiding over agricultural work and life. One must also mention the important Gede, the Lwa of death.
Although Lwa are frequently associated with natural elements—Danballa Wedo, Ayida Wedo, Agwe, Lasirèn, and Ezili Freda are classified as aquatic sprits, for example, and Ogu is the Lwa of fire—Lwa are nonetheless more commonly defined and identified in function of the character that they display. In addition to having their own distinct personality, Lwa, especially the main ones, have a specific day of the week, a favorite color, favorite foods, drinks, songs, and dances. As an example, Ogu's color is red, his day is Wednesday, his favorite sacrificial food is pork, and his favorite drink is rum. In contrast, Ezili Freda likes sky blue, perfumes, refined foods such as cakes and other delicacies, and champagne. Her day of the week is Thursday, the typical day of Rada Lwa.
Worshipping the Lwa
Given their high position in the Vodu ontological hierarchy, the Lwa play a major role in the lives of Vodu devotees. In fact, the relationship between the Lwa and the living is intense, demanding, and yet one that is reported to be quite fulfilling.
Human beings serve the Lwa, whom they love, respect, and fear. In fact, Vodu practitioners always, out of respect, use the prefix Papa (“father”), Manman (“mother”), or Metres (“mistress”), while referring to a Lwa. Danballa is never called Danballa, but Papa Danballa, and Ezili Freda is Metres Ezili Freda. In return for their devotion and piety, the living expect blessings, protection, and favors from the Lwa.
The intense nature of this relationship is made quite obvious during Vodu ceremonies, which are held for the Lwa. Such religious services take place within the confines of a Vodu temple, an oumfò, under the auspices of a Vodu priest (Houngan) or priestess (Mambo).
The central part of the perystil, the semi-open space usually located at the entrance of the oumfò, where public rituals actually take place, is occupied by a potomitan. The potomitan (which literally means “pillar in the middle”) is a pillar usually decorated with a beautiful spiralling snake, and connecting the ground to the ceiling. The Lwa are believed to ascend or descend through the potomitan, which is therefore seen as a magical axis. Given this, the potomitan plays a critical role during Vodu ceremonies. The potomitan is associated with the Lwa Danballa and with the Lwa Legba, the keeper of the crossroads.
Through appropriate songs, dances, the tracing of vèvè (spiritual drawings), prayers, and drumming, the Lwa are invited to join the living, partake in the ceremony, and accept whatever offerings or sacrifices that may be presented to them. Upon arriving, the Lwa will mount one of the attendees, often times the Houngan or Mambo presiding over the service, and through them the Lwa may communicate with the living. The living may also take advantage of the presence of a Lwa to ask questions or present requests. While mounted by a Lwa, a person finds themselves in a different state of consciousness and may be able to do things that defy common physical laws, such as climbing a tree feet up, eating pieces of broken glass, or walking in fire without sustaining any physical injury. While being mounted by a Lwa, a person is also believed to lose consciousness of themselves.
Marrying the Lwa
It is also common for Vodu followers, regardless of whether they have been initiated, to marry a Lwa as part of a ritual known as maya] mistik (“mystic marriage”). The whole affair is reminiscent of a wedding ceremony between two human beings because it involves special attires, a wedding cake, a wedding ring, and a priest. The purpose of mayaj mistik is to enter a special relationship with a Lwa, thus further securing their protection. One of the taboos associated with this type of marriage is sexual abstinence on the day of the Lwa to keep oneself receptive to messages from one's spiritual spouse, primarily through dreams, on that particular night.
People will often choose to marry their met tèt, that is, the Lwa who has been identified, either through divination or consultation with the spirits, to “walk” with that person. The personality of the devotee and of his or her mèt tèt is often quite similar. For example, a person whose mèt tèt is Ogu is expected to be brave, bold, and sometimes quick tempered. On the contrary, someone with Ezili Freda as their mèt tèt will be expected to be a bit frivolous and yet quite generous.
The dynamic relationship between the living and the Lwa underscores the depth and extent of the Vodu religion in Haiti because the Lwa are truly an intricate and constant part of the Voduists' consciousness and reality.
- Deren, M. (1972). The Divine Horsemen: The Vodu Gods of Haiti. New York: Delta.
- Desmangles, L. (1994). Faces of the Gods. Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Mazama, A. (2005). Vodu. In M. K. Asante, and A. Mazama (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Black Studies (pp. 468–471). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- McCarthy Brown, K. (1991). Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Métraux, A. (1958). Le Vaudou Hatien [Haitian Vodu]. Paris: Gallimard.
- Rigaux, M. (1953). La Tradition Voudoo et Voudoo Haitien: Son Temple, Ses Mystères, Sa Magie [Vodu Tradition and Haitian Vodu: Its Temple, Mysteries and Magic]. Paris: Editions Niclaus.