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  • Writer's pictureVoodoo Vixen

Papa Legba: Voodoo God of the Spiritual Crossroads

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

Papa Legba is one of the Lwa in the religions of Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo. He is one of the divine spirits or lesser gods under the creator god Bondye. While Bondye is unknowable, these lesser gods can be called upon to help Voodoo practitioners effect change in the world around them.

Papa Legba is arguably the most important of the Lwa as he is the gatekeeper that allows humanity to communicate with the divine and the dead.

He should be called upon at the start of every ceremony to open the doors between the mundane world and the supernatural and be called on at the end of every ceremony to close the gates and prevent anything unwanted from slipping through.

He is also known to make deals with mankind, opening up opportunities and possibilities for a price.

Papa Legba drawing old man smoking cigar
Papa Legba Drawing, Old Man Smoking a Cigar

Gatekeeper of the Crossroads

In many religions, crossroads are seen as liminal places where the spiritual world and physical world can meet. In folk religions and magcal practices, rituals are often conducted in liminal spaces where the veil between worlds is weakest.

In Voodoo, Papa Legba stands as the guardian of the crossroads and his permission must be sought to gain access to the spirits on the other side. This includes both the other Loa (or Lwa) and the Spirits in the Guinee (the afterlife).

For this reason, Papa Legba is usually invoked at the start and conclusion of all Voodoo ceremonies. He can speak all human languages and enables communication between men and what exists beyond the veil.

Invocation of Papa Legba

While there are many methods for involving Papa Legba, the chant below is popular:

Papa Legba, open the gate for me, Papa Legba open the gate for me, Open the gate for me, Papa Legba, that I may pass, When I return I will thank the loa.

But experienced practitioners of Voodoo will have regular contact with the Lwa and will have developed personal rituals to call on him when needed.

Closing the Gateway

Papa Legba should also be called upon at the end of all rituals to close the gateway. Otherwise, there is no telling what could slip through. As an extension of this, Papa Legbe can prevent spirits from occupying a human body, which should not be able to enter without his permission. He is often called on in spirit exorcisms.

Like most Voodoo Lwa, Papa Legba has been syncretized with a number of Catholic saints, specifically Saint Peter, Saint Lazarus, and Saint Anthony.

Include a short ritual invoking the assistance of Papa Legba at the start of all Voodoo ceremonies, and thank the Lwa at the end of all ceremonies to ensure the success of all rituals and that your sacred space remains clean and free of unwanted supernatural energies.

Papa Legba and Kalfou

While Papa Legba is the guardian of the corssroads, the embodiment of the crossroads is his brother Kalfou. He is sometimes considered as apsect of Papa Legba but is depicted as a red-colored demon. He is often blamed one bad luck and negative forces are allowed to cross from the other worlds into this one.

Note on the Vodoo Lwa

In Voodoo, the various Lwa are divided into various "nations", and there are believed to be 17 different nations. While these may initially have related to the origins of the spirit in Africa, these nations are now more about their areas of domain and the characteristics of their powers.

The most well-known spirit nations are the Wangol, Ginen, Kongo, Nago, Ibol, Rada, and Petwo. As an example of the differences between these groups, teh Rada are considered sweet tempered and benevolent, while the Petwo are considered more violent and unpredictable. Kalfou is often considered the Petwo embodiment of Papa Legba. The Lwa himself is considered one of the Rada.

Differing representation of Papa Legba
Various depictions of Papa Legba

Deal Maker

While Papa Legba offers access to other spirits and the opportunity to speak to the dead, he can also be called on for help. Since he is the controller of crossroads and gateways, he is often called on to open up a new path when all the ways forward seem blocked or a person feels stuck.

While he is depicted as a Lwa that can offer advice, he is also a trickster, and he is the type to offer guidance that can be interpreted in a number of different ways. It is just as easy to misunderstand him as to follow the right path forward.

He requires payment for all his services, but usually minor things. He enjoys candy, especially chocolate, alcohol, especially dark rum, cigars and tobacco, and even sparkling water (these are all common offersing in Haitian vodou).

But the bigger the ask, the higher the cost. Many believe that the blues musician Robert Johnson made a deal with Papa Legba for incredible musical talent and success, but that he sold his soul to the spirit as the price. In 1938, at the age of 27, his payment came due, and he died in mysterious and violent circumstances.

Many people note the number of talented musicians that have died at the age of 27, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. They suggest a connection between this type of gift from the Lwa and when the payment will come due.

Include offerings to Papa Legba on your altar in the form of chocolate, alcohol, tobacco, or even sparkling water. When you ask him for guidance, look out for signs in the world around you in the following days. Lwa will often communicate their messages through repeated signs.

Papa Legba appears at the crossroads
Papa Legba appears at the Crossroads

Symbology of Papa Legba

In Voodoo, Papa Legba is usually portrayed as an older man supported by a cane and using a wide-brimmed straw hat and old and tattered clothing (not unlike the way the Norse god Odin presents himself when wandering the world). This is probably part of his trickster profile.

Those who call on Papa Legba without sufficient knowledge or respect could be fooled by his humble appearance and treat him with disrespect. He is a reminder to treat all people with respect, no matter how humble they may seem.

The god can also appear as a young and virile man. He is a shapeshifter who can appear in any form he chooses.

He is usually accompanied by a dog, and the bark of a dog that cannot be seen can be a sign of Papa Legba. Dogs are sacred to him, and practitioners of Voodoo know to respect dogs, even in the street, and feed them.

He is associated with the colours red and black, and his veve if often drawn in these colors. In Voodoo religions a veve is a geometric drawing to represent the Lwa that a practitioner will draw, usually in an ephermal substance such as sand or chalk, as part of their process of calling the attention of the Lwa. The veve of Papa Legba combines his distinctive cane with a number of interlocking keys, recognizing him as a gatekeeper.

It is worth noting that Voodoo practitioners would not describe their interaction with the Lwa as worship. Rather they try to capture the attention of the spirits and coax them to led their aod through offerigs and exchange.

In Voodoo beliefs, how you act in the world influences your energy, and this influences what you attract and what you receive in life. Always be careful with the energy you are sharing, and not only when you are at your altar.

Voodoo Veve of Papa Legba
Voodoo Veve of Papa Legba

African Fertility God

Before being translated to the Americas in Haitian Vodou, Papa Legba seems to have been a fertility deity. In Benin (the Kingdom of Dahomey), Nigeria (the Yoruba people), and Toto, he is depicted with an erect phallus. Nevertheless, he is still associated with crossroads, with his shrines usually located at the entrance to the village.

He is also believed to be related to the Orixa Esu, who is an enforcer of natural and divine laws and repsonible for maintaining orderliness.

These connections may suggest that Papa Legba is also a protector deity, ensuring the prosperity and fertility of the community. This could also explain why he is often called on specifically to protect children.

In Haitian vodou it is common to light a candle for Papa Legba to call on him to protect as space and open gateways to happiness and prosperity.

Some Voodoo practitioners include symbols of Papa Legba at the entrance to their home as a form of protection.

Papa Legba in Pop Culture

Just as a fun fact, Papa Legba has most recently been represented in popular culture on American Horror Story. He makes a deal with Marie Laveu to give her immortality. In return she must sacrifice an innocent soul to him each year. There is no basis for this kind of human sacrifice in Haitian vodou.

Papa Legba also inspired the Crossroad Blues episode in season two of Supernatural. In the episode a spirit or demon of the crossroads makes a deal with a blues singer for fame and talent. While the demon that shows up in the show is female, the use of "hell hounds" to retrieve the souls given in payment is a clear reference to Papa Legba.

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