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            For hundreds of years, across a constantly expanding and retracting spectrum of religious reverence, Legba, and all spiritual-Divine beings whose worship is associated with him, has held a titular and vital role as, among others, the force that enables all divine and spiritual interactions. Papa Legba, in the expanded Haitian spiritual philosophy, is invoked at least before and after every Voodoo ritual, or ceremony.  Though the centuries have seen his position and stature changed, from mountain or sun God to priapistic Trickster, all the way to a feeble old man, he has been invoked and revered for centuries. His domain, like the Greek Hecate, are crossroads- the sites where the material and divine realms meet, and he enables each and every one of these meetings.

            His ubiquity across Haitian, and other, religious traditions, his innumerable representations, and respective symbolic virtues arise from a vast array of cultural import and significance ascribed to him. Legba provides his devotees with a wealth of spiritual value. His role in all ceremonial and religious practices within Haitian Voodoo, the changes his representation has undergone, and his unique historical and metaphysical function (, as a cosmic gate keeper), all culminate in a desire and veneration of a now far-gone spiritual and cultural heritage.

            This figure, venerated across the world, holds a unique place amongst the spiritual pantheon of Haitian Voodoo, in his role as the facilitator of divine communion. To understand fully, however, the value and role of this figure it is necessary to first examine his origins, as a distant creator, sun and fertility-god, and the significance of his role as a celestial polyglot, providing and sustaining spiritual practices.  The importance of Legba is manifold, his representation and reverence amongst Haitians, and all descendants of the ancient African religions which worship him, provides a cultural connection in addition to the religious ritual connotations this loa provides. He represents, through virtue of transmission across centuries, an anchor to a distant past, an anchor to a culture and pantheon, which remains accessible to us only through our active sustaining of Legba. His physical appearance, and divine qualities associated with him change, reflecting the status and evaluations of his congregation as a collective, altering the image and persona of the God to match their connection to his past.

             And though to the Haitian Legba is no longer, in part, the virile creator, or Sun-God progenitor, both his function and his presence and continued veneration, intimate his importance as not only a spiritual guide, but also a constant link between those peoples now scattered and divorced from their homelands and the extant metaphysical imprint of it within the ‘spiritual world’.   In his Gods of the Haitian Mountains, Harold Courlander provides this general depiction of the primordial Papa Legba.

Legba Se, or Legba Attibon… One of the most important of Haitian loa, generally the first invoked in any service. He is the protector of the gateway, the Crossroads, and the highway… In Africa, Legba was something of a mischief-maker, and assigned the part of a go-between who spoke to the vodouns on behalf of human petitioners. He was a linguist who knew how to talk to all the gods…”1

            We find here not only a representation of Legba as a linguist specializing in metaphysical interactions, but also a conflation with communication, the divine, and the physical world. Legba is both a spiritual figure, and in very much the same way a historical one. It is this notion of the history and original ‘state’, or origin as it were, of the divinity Legba (and through association, his related pantheons) with not only a divine, transcendental realm of spirits, but also a relic of spiritual and cultural lineage otherwise lost to the dust of time and diaspora. Ginen, a varied and catchall term for the transient spiritual plane, is conflated with African origins, cultural and historical as well as spiritual, though his temples have crumbled and kingdoms been consigned to history, a fragment of the might, splendor and heritage of that lost time are preserved within the metaphysical tapestry of Ginen. So far gone that once fertile and neigh-omnipotent beings have become shriveled and impotent, and so distant that our language is incapable of recalling it.

            In the introduction to his examination of the transmission, and variations of the God Legba, Donald Cosentino provides this summary. “Myths of Eshu Elegba, the trickster deity of the Yourba of Nigeria, have been borrowed by the Fon of Dahomey, and Later transported to Haiti, where they were personified by the Vodoun into the loa Papa Legba…”2 and later describes shared qualities of each interpretation of Legba, as they became conflated with their perspective religious traditions.

First among the loa in precedence is Legba, affectionately called Papa by vodunists, who implore him, “Papa Legba, Remove the barrier for me.”… That same service is preformed by Eshu and Legba in Yourba and Fon tradition. Both deities presided at crossroads, regulating traffic between the visible and invisible worlds…”3 His progression from there splinters, he is commonly mischievous and sexually virile in the Yourba traditions. And is considered ‘Chief of all Gods’, according to one Dahomey myth, purporting his skill as musician and communicator.4

            Traditionally associated with St.Peter, the Haitian Papa Legba is generally equated with whichever saint is appropriately enfeebled, no longer virile or daunting Legba is now dressed in rags, enfeebled and walking with a stick. Years of wandering in the diasporaic exile termed gallot (גלות) by the Jews; meaning both exiled from homeland and culture, has clearly had its effect on Legba. His feeble, wizened state betrays his status, one of the old gods; he has been deflated and aged by time. And though no longer virile, present and powerful, his presence and veneration provides a means of interacting directly with the past.

            That being said, while he is a connection to a past it is an ancient, and distant past, he is aged and withered and his contemporaries, other spirits, gods or loa, are wholly gone from the comprehendible realm of practice, ancient and decrepit Legba is all that remains of it. The loa contacted, and communed with provide their own spiritual insight, and many of them like Legba can be traced back to high ranking divinities in other traditions long past. “…Many of the Loa are ancient deities, sib-founders, and ancestors who loom out of a misty, half forgotten past… They are the decisive bonds which holds the people of Haiti to Africa.”5  And though not a definite rule within the diverse world of Haitian, to say nothing of the varied West African traditions as a whole(s), religious expression; Legba alone exists, or at least fulfills the purpose of, tethering past and present. As a Metaphysical linguist he has a ‘leg ‘ in each world, and is now the only force capable of fostering divine transmission, and interactions with the otherwise alien and unintelligible powers. Returning again to the Judaic expressions of exile, I do not think it is inappropriate to view Papa Legba as a Haitian expression of religious and cultural alienation and longing. His physical, anthropomorphic traits inform the same sense of melancholy and nostalgic longing for something consigned to the past as is evoked in the lamentation of the destruction of the temple and exile from Jerusalem of Psalms. Cosentino also refers to the melancholic status of Legba within Haitian culture, presenting an “Elegiac” and “Melancholy.” Vodoun Lyric.

            “Kandio Legba, You are an old spirit

            And old man from Dahomey

            Walking in the public roads.

            Legba, You are an old spirit

            An innocent spirit, an African spirit.

            You are old, an old spirit from Aradda.

            Since the beginning of the world

            You have been guardian of the entrances.

            Legba, you are very old. (Laguerre 1980:51)”6

To refer to Legba as a singular entity, as I have been doing, is to fail to adequately encapsulate the role the divinity plays in the various cultures that revere him. Among a few of his appellations, and emanations recorded in Haitian religious practice include “Legba Grand Chimin, Legba Ibo, Legba Keye, Legba Mait, Legba Petro and Legba se-Attibon.” 7 And if we include in this the variation produced through different geographical religious developments, Legba can be seen as a nearly ubiquitous presence.As mentioned previously, all ritual practice requires the permission and complaisance of Legba. He opens the gate, and translates the transmission of transcendent experience, and thus all ceremonies or rituals open, close, and rely wholly on communion with Legba. He makes these interactions, not only intelligible, but possible.

As a cosmic polyglot, Legba is able to assess and translate the rituals, as they are devoted to him. The rituals, songs, dances and myriad pieces of the vodou ritual function, in this way, as an attempt to issue our messages, Legba translates and provides an intelligible stream of transmission. The ceremonies do not involve any passage into a new material place, but provides a direct, and intelligible link for communication between our material world and Ginen, the overlapping spiritual realm.

            Ginen, the fluid realm Legba provides communion with, is metaphorically identified with Africa, and as previously noted a shared religious origin. Courlander describes the metaphysical interaction between practitioners and this abstract spiritual realm as “…In Africa, in the island below the sea, or below the water…”8, and goes on to state those mounted by loa are sometimes said to speak in ‘ African languages'.  Legba the gatekeeper and linguist provide the link to this realm, translating divine and material.  Ginen is more than a spirit world, as previously described it represents a portion of a now lost pantheon, Ginen has preserved in time a snapshot of what used to be. Legba's ubiquity arises from his role in ritual and mythology, but more than this, represents a connection to a lineage and cultural heritage consigned to the past, and to Gods otherwise lost to time. In religious and cosmological terms Ginen is much like the biblical concept of a firmament, a divine barrier between the material world and the divine, giving shape and boundaries to our definitions of the perspective realities. The Ginen unlocked by Legba, however, also provides a connection to the mythological Africa, wherein the loa first became manifest and worshipped.

            The issue of Mounting presents an interesting parallel; the horse provides a physical body and thus experientially understandable form for an abstract spiritual entity, an exchange made possible through Legba's rending the gate, and providing meaningful divine communion. These Loa, Legba included, are still beyond the scope of our rational minds to comprehend, necessitating Legba’s roll as gate keeper and informing the symbolic linguistics of metaphysical communication, and as such each horse takes on certain costume or theatrical elements, not to create or fulfill the role of whichever loa mounts him, but to communicate better through an esoteric-symbolical lexicon.

            Much in the same, the primordial Papa Legba of Haitian vodou has been mounted by the Haitian religious populace, and in-fact any populace, who in turn apply and alter his symbolic and aesthetic ‘appearance’, a process which is un-involved but just as telling and important. Just as the Judeo-Christian God, through formless, perfect and monistic is supplanted with anthropomorphized traits, not meant to be literally extrapolated but representing a myriad of mystical religious symbolism and meaning, the Haitian personification of Papa Legba represent a cultural valuation, and assessment of the antiquity of their African heritage.  Though tattered and reduced, and by all accounts wholly gone from our world, some un-altered piece of it is preserved within the fabric of the spiritual realm, wherein the old gods and ancestor spirits dwell, save Legba who in all traditions wanders endlessly through worlds.

            Though beyond the scope of an in-depth analysis, Thomas F. Marvins essay Children of Legba: Musicians at the crossroads in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man provides a great deal of depth and insight into the cultural significance of Legba, as a uniting force providing a connection to roots and origins forbidden or otherwise absent from the practitioners life. “Providing a bridge between the earthly and spiritual planes, a crossroads where living and dead, human and vodoun, past, present, and future meet.”9  Though he is deflated and stature, Legba presents a connection to a culture and spiritual realm shared, venerated and thus sustained by his unending connection and communion with his followers. Legba is the only God left, though withered and displaced from his former glory, which can still communicate with his followers. He is the only means of returning to, and thus sustaining of, a forgotten and otherwise lost spiritual epoch.



1 Courlander, Harold. "God of the Haitian Mountains." Journal of Negro History 29.3 (1944): 365

2 Cosentino, Donald. "Transformations of Eshu in Old and New World Mythologies." The Journal of American Folklore 100.397 (1987): 261

3 ibid

4 Marvin, Thomas F. "Musicians of Legba: Musicians at the Crossroads in Ralph

5 Courlander, Harold. "God of the Haitian Mountains." Journal of Negro History 29.3 (1944): 342

6 Cosentino, Donald. "Transformations of Eshu in Old and New World Mythologies." The Journal of American Folklore 100.397 (1987): 280

 7 Courlander, Harold. "God of the Haitian Mountains." Journal of Negro History 29.3 (1944): 339-72. Web.

 

8 Courlander, Harold. "God of the Haitian Mountains." Journal of Negro History 29.3 (1944): 339-72. Web.

9 Marvin, Thomas F. "Musicians of Legba: Musicians at the Crossroads in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man." American Literature 68.3 (1996):588