Lwa (loas) are spiritual beings of the Haitian religion vodou (voodoo), regarded as "different aspects of one cosmic Principle" (Desmangles, p. 98). Lwa are thought to be present in nature (trees, rivers, mountains, etc.). They are connected to human activities (healing, fighting, farming) and aspects of nature (thunder, rain, storm). Lwa are believed to have the power to influence human destiny. They can materialize in a human body by "possessing" or "mounting" people (monte chwal). "Serving the lwa" is the centripetal religious practice of vodou. The relationship between lwa and human beings is based on the concept of reciprocity. Human beings must honor them in order to avoid punishment and misfortune. Apart from Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, lwa are also worshiped in parts of the United States (e.g., Louisiana). In West Africa (in particular, Benin) they are called "vodun" (vodu).
ETYMOLOGY AND CATEGORIZATION
The term lwa is translated as "spirits," "deities," or "gods," but no term corresponds to the whole notion. They are also called in Kreyol mistè (mysterie), espri (spirit), anj (angel) or, rarely, dye (god). According to most scholars the term lwa derives from a Fon language, though some (e.g., Desmangles) affiliate lwa with the French word loi (law); neither derivation, however, can be verified.
Lwa show similarities with orishas (orixás), the principle divine beings of the Cuban religion Regla de Ocha (Santería) and the Brazilian religion Candomblé, who are also worshiped in the Orisha religion in Trinidad and Tobago. The analogy developed partly because of a common West African origin and partly because of a similar "translation" process during slavery. While Vodou is based mainly on Ewe and Fon elements with some Yoruba influences, Regla de Ocha and Candomblé are based mainly on Yoruba traditions with various other influences. The translatability of Yoruba religious concepts into Ewe and Fon and vice versa facilitated the process of fusion and syncretism (Kubik, p. 30).
Most lwa have derived from African deities, but some others from nature spirits or even from human beings (after death), in particular, Maroons, former enslaved people who successfully fled into freedom. Lwa are represented as Catholic saints with whom they have in common the function as intermediary between God (Bondye) and human beings. The adaptation of Catholic iconography was a form a resistance against oppression, an active possession of the images by African spirits and ancestors. Joan Dayan argues that the forced conversion "might well have goaded the amorphous Dahomean nature spirits into the powerful, anthropomorphized embodiments we now call lwa" (p. 244). Despite the iconography, lwa and saints are separate beings of two different systems.
There exists an infinite number of lwa. They are categorized in families (nanchons), each with its own characteristics (rites, music, songs, dances, offerings, and other attributes). Of the seventeen nanchons, Rada, Kongo, and Petro are the most significant. Sometimes the nanchons are sorted into just two branches, Rada and Petro. Some scholars interpret the nanchons with reference to ethnic origins. Rada derives from Arada, the name of a kingdom in Dahomey, West Africa, during the colonial time. These lwa are also called lwa-Ginen or the good spirits. Nago, which comprise Yoruba spirits, are sometimes seen as part of Rada. Lwa of the Kongo family are identified with the West African Bakongo region. Petro are Creole lwa, seen sometimes as derived from Dom Pedro, a mythical leader of a Maroon rebellion in the late eighteenth century (Desmangles). While Rada are characterized as good and harmonious, Petro are seen as aggressive, envious, and bitter. They played a crucial role in the slave uprisings of 1791 and the establishment of Haiti in 1804.
Despite this classification it is not possible to bifurcate them dualistically. Every lwa has multiple aspects; even both genders are united in every lwa. Many Rada lwa have Kongo or Petro counterparts that express different aspects of their identity. According to Alfred Métraux it is not important to which nanchon a lwa belongs because the nanchon signifies the various characteristics that are shared by all lwa (p. 77).
PANTHEON OF LWA
Each lwa has a specific field of responsibility and a variety of traits (speech pattern, body movements, character, preferences in food and clothes), some ambivalent.
Legba opens the gates and guards the crossroads. He is dressed in red and is honored with Rada rites. He is represented as Saint Peter (as guardian of the heaven), as Saint Lazarus (as an old man leaning on a crutch) or as Saint Anthony. In Cuba and Brazil, Legba parallels Eshú (Exu).
Dambala, Legba's opponent, also belongs to the Rada family though he appears in other rites too. His color is white and he is identified by snakelike movements. Dambala is regarded as good and wise. His Catholic image is Saint Patrick. In Rada he characterizes the healing power of the wise old men, while in Petro he demonstrates his violent and aggressive side. His female aspect is called Ayida, who is sometimes called Dambala's consort.
Ogou (Ogun in Cuba, Ogum in Brazil) derives from a Yoruba deity, in the Nago nanchon. He is a blacksmith and warrior. His color is red. Saint James or Saint Joseph is his Catholic image.
Erzulie is the only major female lwa, part of the Rada nanchon. Her colors are blue and pink. She does not parallel a Yoruba deity though she is associated with love, beauty, and grace similar to Oshún in Cuba and Brazil. Erzili Freda is a mother figure similar to Yemaja, whereas the dagger-wielding Erzili Dantò, who belongs to the Petro family, carries similarity to Oya/Yansa.
Baron Samdi is the superior of the Gédés, the lwa of the dead in Haiti, who according to legend represent a West African ethnic group that was conquered by the royal family of Abomey and sold to slave traders. Baron Samdi is also called Baron Cimetière (Baron of Cemetery) or Baron La Croix (Baron of the Cross). He has no Catholic parallel. Often portrayed wearing black clothes and a top hat, he is honored in both Rada and Petro rites. In material form he behaves obscenely and provocatively.
The twins Marassa (parallels Ibeji in Brazil and Cuba) are identified with the Catholic saints Cosmas and Damian. They appear in all rites. Often portrayed as children, they are very powerful because of their dual existence.
Other important lwa are Azaka, Agwe, and Simbi.
Barnes, Sandra T., ed. Africa's Ogun: Old World and New. 2nd exp. ed. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick, ed. Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.
Blier, Suzanne P. African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Cosentino, Donald J., ed. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.
Dayan, Joan. Haiti, History, and the Gods. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1953; New Paltz, NY: McPherson, 1983.
Hurbon, Laënnec. Voodoo: Search for the Spirit. Translated by Lory Frankel. New York and London: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
Hurbon, Laënnec. Religions et lien social: L'église et l'état moderne en Haïti. Paris: Cerf, 2004.
Kubik, Gerhard. "West African and African-American Concepts of Vodu and Òrì’à." In Ay BōBō: African-Caribbean Religions. Part 2: Voodoo, edited by Manfred Kremser, 17-34. Vienna: WUV-Universitätsverlag, 1996.
Métraux, Alfred. Le vaudou haïtien . Paris: Gallimard, 1998.
Bettina E. Schmidt