All of this is as seen on pp. 73 – 79 in The Haitian Vodou Handbook by Kenaz Filan
The crossroads are the point where possibilities intersect, the point where we must make a choice. If we choose to travel down on path, we have also chosen not to travel on the other; traveling toward destination A takes us away from destination B. It is the place where travelers separate–and the place where they are introduced.
The cosmology of various African tribes has always placed great important on the crossroads and on the meeting points of heaven and Earth. For tribal Africans, the cross did not represent the crucifixion but the creation of the universe. When the Godhead created the world, she moved to the four corners of the universe, thereby creating a cross. The cross still symbolizes the creation and the communication between the two worlds, that of the spirits and the humans, in many western African traditions still practiced today. This emphasis survived the Middle Passage, and today in Haiti we go to the crossroads to meet Legba, the guardian of the gate.
At first glance, Legba looks like a unassuming old man. Accompanied only by his faithful dogs, he leans against his can for support as he limps down the road. With nothing to his name but shabby clothes, a corncob pipe, and a straw bag, you might mistake him for a beggar. But when you’re dealing with Legba, you must remember that appearances can be deceiving. The can he leans against is actually the poteau-mitan, the gateway between heaven and Earth by which the lwa enter ceremonies. He limps not because he is crippled but because his feet are in different worlds–the material kingdom and the land of spirit. He may seem frail, but he can bring the best-laid plans of kings and generals to nothing . . . or raise the poor and humble to heights they never thought possible.
Legba is the fist one saluted at any Vodou ceremony. Because he is the keeper of the gateway, no spirit can enter the peristyle without his permission.He is the one who facilitates communication with the spirit world. Houngans and mambos say that Legba knows all the languages of people and gods. He is the one who brings our messages to God and to the other lwa–and the one who brings their responses to us. In this he resembles the Greek Hermes, and like that Greek god, he can be a trickster. We must remember that Legba is the great communicator but also, the great miscommunicator. He is fond of riddles, paradox, and ambiguity. He allows us to speak with the gods, but he often plays tricks with their messages. He gives diviners a glimpse into the future–knowing full well they will misinterpret his statements. In yet another of the paradoxes so beloved by Legba, he governs both destiny and uncertainty.
Legba’s home is itself a crossroads, where various cultures and traditions have mingled for centuries. Long before the Yoruba and Fon peoples were brought together in chains to St. Domingue, they were trading, making war, and exchanging ideas, religious and otherwise. The crossroads guardian whom the Yoruba honored as Exu or Alegbara became Legba in Bein. Today he remains one of the most revered spirits in Benin. In downtown Cotonou, a gas station has gone up beside a famous shrine to Legba. At Station Legba, as the sign says, you can fuel up and leave a priest instructions to pray for you. (I have no doubt that Legba finds this endlessly amusing.)
In Haiti, images of St. Lazarus, the lame beggar who walks with a crutch are frequently used to symbolize Legba. Other houses will use lithographs of St. Peter, because Peter is seen as the guardian of the gates of heaven and is often pictures standing before a doorway and holding keys. Still other houses use St. Anthony of Padua (the patron saint of lost items), whereas in other houses you may see Legba represented by St. Jude, St. Christopher, St. Roch, or other saints who are pictured leaning against a staff. One can hardly be surprised that Legba would choose to wear multiple masks before his followers; it’s only par for the cour. Nor should we be surprised to find that some congregations honor him with yellow scarves, whereas others salute him with red and white and still others with red and black. Some swear that he is served on Wednesday, whereas others pay him homage on Tuesday and still others say Monday is his day. (You could ask him yourself–but don’t be surprised if he insists that you serve on him on a Thursday.)
Legba does not demand a lot o from those who serve him. An occasional cup of black coffee, some grilled corn or peanuts, and a little tobacco for his corncob pipe will make him happy. Other offerings he may like include cane syrup, palm oil, plantains, salt cod, yams, gin, rum, and cassava bread. To warm his old bones, you may want to add a liberal sprinkling of cayenne to his food. This can be given to him on whatever day you prefer, along with whatever else he may request. His needs are typically modest,if something bizarre. Our Legba has asked us to serve his beans with a chopstick. Not two chopsticks; just one.
You can use an image of St. Lazarus to represent Legba; these are readily available in most Haitian and Cuban botanicas. (In Cuba and Cuban-derived traditions, St. Lazarus represents Babalu Awy, a powerful spirit of healing and disease who is not served in Haiti but who is wildly popular in Cuba.) You may also use one of the other images referenced above or some other figure that calls to mind the crossroads. You can also represent him with a scarf of the appropriate color, or with his veve.
Before you honor any other lwa, you must honor Legba. This doesn’t have to be fancy, elaborate, or drawn-out. All you need do is sprinkle a few drops of cane syrup or some other drink of his choice ont he ground, give him a cup of coffee or some roasted corn, or even say “Legba, please open the door for me. You remember me: I gave you -insert offering- on -whatever day you fed Legba-.” When you do this, you ensure that he will open the door and let the other spiritus through. If you forget to do this, he will not bring your offerings to the other lwa until you’ve provided him with appropriate payment and respect.
WORKING WITH LEGBA
Legba is not difficult to please. If you give him some spare change, some peanuts or candy, a bag in which he can keep his belongings, or a crutch to help him along this way, he would generally be satisfied. Of course, if he really does something special for you, you can reciprocate in kind: give him a nice statue or have a houngan/mambo prepare him a makeoute Legba–a special bag that contains his things and that he been activated by ceremonial means. We keep his things by the door–his St. Lazarus statue, his makoute Legba, his straw hat, and some toys and other things he’s collected along the way. If you can, you may want to keep a shrine to Legba by the door. He will guard the gate and bring you good fortune, while sending bad things elsewhere.
Before you ask Legba for any favors, remember the he has a keen sense of humor and loves taking you by surprise. When he comes through for you, it’s likely to be in a totally unexpected and surprising way. He may even make you feel like a fool on occasion. If this happens, th best thing to do is laugh with him and learn from the experience. Everyone’s ego can use a little deflating from time to time and Legba’s jokes are generally pointed in that direction. He’s often fond of concealing great wisdom in puns and verbal games–so you may want to contemplate his jokes and see what you can learn from them.
Another thing to keep in mind: Sometimes Legba may leave you asking, “What have I done to deserve this?” I can speak from personal experience here. In April of 1999, after an absence of some years, Legba reappeared in my dreams. He told me it was time I start studying Vodou seriously, and that I needed to travel to Haiti. I paid him little mind. I had a job and a steady relationship. Although neither was particularly satisfying, I wasn’t about to throw my career and my partner to the winds so that I travel to some far-off land, all because of a couple of dreams.
On May 8, my partner informed me she had fallen in love with one of her co-workers and she was moving in with him. On May 10, I came into work to find the office closed.
Needless to say, I was none too thrilled by these developments. Yet, as time went on, it became abundantly clear that I had been stagnating. My partner and I had been drifting apart for over a year. There had been problems at work for at least that long. I had talked about finding a more fulfilling jkob at a more stable firm, but I had never turned that discontent into action. I bitched about my problems, but I wouldn’t open the door for me; then when I hesitated, he pushed me through. Today, I am a houngan sipwen (the rank below asogwe). I also have a solid job at a much better company, and a more satisfying and emotionally fulfilling relationship. I have regained everything that I lost and more. At times, it was a rough trip, but I’m quite satisfied with the final destination and I recognize that I would not have arrived here had Legba not given me a swift kick.
If you feel you’re spinning your wheels and unable to get where you really want to be, Legba can help you out of your ut. Light a candle for him; give him some rum and peanuts and roast corn; sprinkling liberally with red peppers. Explains your problem to him, and ask him to remove the obstacles that are keeping you from your goals. ASk him for his help, and promise him that you’ll do something nice for him in return if he helps you out. Then get ready for some changes. (Needless to say, you shouldn’t go to Legba unless you really want those changes.)
If you have a hobby or a job that requires a great deal of manual dexterity, you can ask Legba to give you limber fingers. An old Fon legend describes how Mawu-Lisa (the highest god) told the other spirits that whoever could come before her and simultaneously play a gong, a bell, a drum, and a flute while dancing to their music would be chief of the gods. All the other gods attempted this and failed; only Legba succeeded. Throughout the American south, dice players and guitarist alike have “gone to the crossroads” to gain the skills that allow them to triumph at their trade.*
(*This is the source of the legend about bluesman Robert Johnson “selling his soul at the crossroads.” For more information on this ritual in African American hoodoo, see Catherine Yronwood’s “The Crossroads in Hoodoo Magic and the Ritual of Selling Yourselves to the Devil” at http://www.luckymojo.com/crossroads.html)
In Africa, Legba is a solar god; accordingly you should go to the crossroads before sunrise. Bring along any items required for your skill, if possible. (If you’re a pianist, you may have to content yourself with a carrying a portable keyboard or some sheet music.) Don’t forget a small bottle of cane syrup, a corncob pipe full of tobacco, and some pocket change. You can bring along other offerings if you’d like.
Sit down beside the crossroads. Don’t sit too close to the shoulder of the road lest you get struck by an errant car. If possible, you should be hidden from view entirely. Now take the cane syrup and pour it out on the ground. Say, “Legba, I come to the crossroads so that you can teach me to…” and then explain the skill you want to learn. Place the corncob pipe full of tobacco and pocket change ont he ground. Say, “Legba, so you will teach me to -insert skill-, I’ve brought you a pipe and some money.” Now as you wait for the sun to rise, sit there and practice your craft. Keep doing so until the sun rises. Take careful note of anyone you see passing on the road. One of them might be Legba, come to teach you… or just to bless you by his passing. After the sun has fully risen, you can go home. Leave the offerings there.