Secrecy is a huge thing in voodoo. This is actually a lot more important in the realm of voodoo than it is in paganism, which is why it’s so hard to find good information. Wait. What? I’m not saying that those pagans who live quiet lives won’t get the shit end of the stick if they come out. And I can understand the need for secrecy, as I’ve discussed time and again. The thing is that in voodoo the need for secrecy, I see, is far more deeply ingrained. They weren’t even allowed to think about their old religions when the slaves were brought to the New World, but they practiced it anyway. Going along with this, that is why you see that the lwa have correlations with the saints: it was a way to hide their religion in plain sight. And while in the old days, death for witches was assured, so too was death assured for the Haitian slaves that brought the ancient forms of voodoo over. But, while paganism is slowly coming out of the wood work, we can’t say quite the same for voodoo. Too long have they hidden beneath the mantle of being “silly” or “backwards” by the Western world. Now, we begin to see otherwise and we no longer see them as “silly” or “backwards.” Instead, we begin to respect.
And it’s now that you find more and more books about voodoo out. And it’s now that we begin to learn more and more about their religion. But, still, silence is one of the most important things that a practitioner can provide in their practice. And as we all know, I’m not a fan of secrets or hiding. I never have been and probably, never will be. So, while I don’t practice anything more than a vaguely voodoo-flavored practice, I can at least set this out there as a kind of compendium of sorts. Too many people ask questions and get contradictory answers. Or, they get half-assed answers that end up making my head explode when they share them with me. So, with the prodding of Legba (SHUT UP, OLD MAN; I’M DOING IT), I’ve decided to make a list of the lwa and where you will often find them. This will be an on-going project. The first step is to give some basic information about voodoo and the lwa, then name as many of the lwa as I can in another post. Some time later, we’ll come upon their attributes and after that, a list of offerings.
The following are a few things that need to be kept in mind when a polytheist is approaching the lwa.
They are not gods.
I’ve seen a lot of people who are approaching the lwa from a god-bothered or god-worshiping standpoint refer to them as “gods.” I believe there are quite a few websites that, when you do a Google-fu search for information, refer to them as “gods.” This is as far from the truth as humanly possible. These are beings or spirits. Yes, they have power, which we could equate with a level that a god that we may worship has. I’ve seen them work and I’ve felt them block things from me as well as work for me in some cases, but I can tell you, point-blank, that if you approach a lwa with the intention and feeling as though they are a god, you will be laughed at, at the best (I’m thinking of Legba here who is sniggering away at the thought that he is a god.), and ignored, at the worst. They will tell you, if you open communication, that they are not gods and they don’t want to be known as such.
In my working with them, I’ve come to view them as having been people. They are ancient people, but they are people just like you and me. The only difference between them and myself is that they were lifted up to another level of existence after death. This came with people turning to them for help, but it also came from the lives that they lived. Maybe they lived lives that were in tune with what they are now associated with – Legba, maybe, was a man who guarded a crossroads or a wise man who knew things and opened doors for others; the Baron Samedi was, possibly, a man who worked on being more in tune with the Deadz and kept them alive in his mind’s eye. After years of being turned to in this regard on a human level, it became natural to approach them after death. And it is through those years of aiding and helping, of still doing as they had once done in human life, that they eventually became lwa. As a very quick note: THIS IS ENTIRELY UPG. How you feel about it may differ and that’s fine, but this works for me (and I’ll get into why in a few minutes).
No, they don’t belong to a ‘pantheon.’
I’ve actually seen this, primarily, in either newbie people talking about them or on some websites. “They’re a pantheon of gods (sic).” This is not the case in any way, shape, or form. Just as they are not gods, we cannot assume that they belong to a “pantheon.” A pantheon has numerous definitions and while it may work to look at their groupings as such, this is not the case. One of the reasons I’m saying that looking to them as though they are a pantheon would, I feel, lead to the feeling that they are gods. And as I have already explained this is not the case.
Another reason why I want to be clear that they are not a part of a pantheon of spirits is because it is made clear in numerous books and outlets (of repute) that neither of these words works in classifying them. The reason being that they have their own classifications. In ignoring the Creole version of things is something that we should not do and, I feel, it takes away from the greatness that is the lwa. Do I think you should learn the language? It could help, but I don’t think it’s necessary to work with them.
Each lwa is separated into nachons, which is the Creole word for nations. These nations are divided up via certain characteristics. Each lwa that displays these specific characteristics are placed within one of the five, main nachons, although there is a good deal of cross-over. I will name the different nachons and point out where to look up for more information in a forthcoming post.
No, you don’t worship them.
There is a very different feeling to what you do with the lwa versus what you do with your gods. It doesn’t matter what phrase you utilize when your with your gods, but the one you will find from a lot of Vodouisants (and me) is “service.” You are in service to the lwa. You are not revering them. You are not worshiping them. You are not getting down on your knees and singing their praises. You are not doing any of these things because you are in service to the lwa. Specifically, this means that, in regards to definitions, I am going to chose this one specifically: “the providing or a provider of accommodation and activities required by the public.” Only instead of “the public” we should change that to “the lwa.”
There is a working theory that the gods require our attention for whatever reason. (I’ve read in books, fiction though, that a god loses all its ability to manifest in this world when they lose followers.) In likewise, we can say the same of the lwa. However, the thing with the lwa is that they do not require more than a little bit here and there. Case in point: Legba only requires a daily dose of coffee and maybe some Mounds bars for me to continue to feel his presence in my home. (He also likes pennies. Lots and lots of pennies have made it into his dish in recent months.) The Baron and Papa Ghede are kind of in my life, but all they require is that I go to a cemetery now and then and pay attention to the Deadz therein. This isn’t always the case, depending on the type of relationship that may end up cultivated with a lwa. The thing is that it will never be required that the servitude being offered is more than you can give, whilst with a god, they may ask that you work on things that will take years and years before completion manifests.
In a sort of odd way, the lwa are more about the here and now whereas the gods are more about the long-term.
Catholicism is part and parcel.
One of the largest problems that I’ve found has been that working with them means that I have had to become more passingly aware of Catholic saints. As I mentioned above, each lwa has at least one representation that is a Catholic saint, although there can be many different saints associated with same lwa. For example, Legba is associated with St. Peter, St. Lazarus, and St. Anthony. Is it necessary to know the saints to know the lwa? Absolutely not. I eschew all of the Christian and Catholic trappings commonly found in voodoo practices. This was my own choice, but mostly stems from having decided that I didn’t want to be influenced, in any aspect, from a Christian perspective. While I understand that it was the survival of their religion that was at stake so many years ago and admire the ingenuity of these people, I cannot abide by the Christian images in my house. Too often I confuse myself and honestly, I know that none of the gods and spirits that I work with would appreciate the Catholic influence.
However, in so doing, I sometimes feel that I’m losing parts of what I want to know. Without being able to see Legba as St. Lazarus, surrounding by dogs and using a crutch, I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on a crucial part to who he is. Be that as it may, when you begin learning about the lwa, most websites will tell you the saints that each spirit is associated with. And because it is the natural order of the religion as done in societies, I will also be giving the associations of the saints that I can find. The reason I mention that getting to know the lwa means that you’ll get a little stuck getting to know Catholic saints is because…
Yep. They believe in ONE god.
This deity is known as Bondye. This term is derived from the French term, bon Deiu. (Source: Wiki.) Bondye is thought of as a supreme creator deity. He is remote. He is beyond our understanding. In similar, we can see the correlation between the good god of the Vodou faith with the one from some current Christian faiths. Since Bondye is so remote, it is not to him that we turn when we need help. It is via the lwa that the will of Bondye is done.
Now, from a polytheistic standpoint, this belief in a single god can be problematic. I can think of at least three polytheists who have had difficult times reconciling the Christian-influenced, single-deity belief of Vodou and Santeria when it became more prominent in their lives. I still know of others who just don’t question it: they’ll ask for assistance from Legba, but also turn to St. Anthony as well as other gods that are crossroads or liminal in nature. They don’t sweat the finer points and to be honest, nor do I. It can be difficult to wrap your polytheistic mindset around the idea of a single deity, but how one correlates it into practice is neither here nor there.
All that matters is that when you turn to the lwa, it is done with respect and kindness. Most of the lwa are fun and laid back, although they have moments of “uptightness.” (Such as Legba pushing and prodding until this was written, for fuck’s sake.) The perception of different viewpoints doesn’t really matter so much. It’s not the larger world view that we need to pay attention to when a lwa approaches or if you offer yourself to the lwa. All that matters is that you do so with respect, kindness, and intent. Everything else will, eventually, fall into place.