Who Is Papa Legba? History and Legends

Legba fetish from Benin
Legba fetish from Benin.

clara_cs / Getty Images 

In the Haitian Vodou religion and voodoo belief system, Papa Legba is one of the loa. Associated with the crossroads, he serves as an intermediary between man and the spirit world. Because of his gift of elocution, he is a being with strong influence over communication and speech.

Did You Know?

  • Papa Legba is associated with the crossroads, gates, and doors.
  • Offerings to Legba can include alcohol, tobacco, and candy.
  • His origins were in the Dahomey kingdom, but Legba came to North America as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.

History of Papa Legba

Believed to have originated in the kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin, Papa Legba is one of the best known figures in African spirituality. The practices of Vodun come from an indigenous belief system found in West Africa. When the people of Africa were captured, enslaved, and brought to North America, they brought with them many of their gods and spirits, including Legba. Because slave owners were worried about potential rebellion, they often separated enslaved people from the same area.

By mixing people from different regions and language groups, they could use the communication barrier to discourage or even prevent revolt. However, many of the deities were similar, and so enslaved people from different parts of Africa soon found commonalities in their spiritual beliefs and practices, which they were forced to keep hidden.

Papa Legba soon found a home in the religious structures of enslaved people in Haiti and the Caribbean, as well as in the American colonies. Author Denise Alvarado says Legba:

...stands at a spiritual crossroads and grants or denies permission to speak with the spirits of Guinee, and is believed to speak all human languages. He is always the first, and the last spirit invoked in any ceremony because his permission is needed for any communication between mortals and the loa—he opens and closes the doorway to the spirit world.

Over time, after African syncretic practices blended with Catholicism in the new world, Legba became associated with several saints, including Saint Peter, Saint Anthony, and Saint Lazarus.

In the Haitian religion of Vodou, Legba is seen as the intermediary between mortal men and the loa, or lwa. The loa are a group of spirits responsible for various aspects of daily life, and they are the children of a supreme creator, Bondye. They are divided into families, such as the Ghede and Ogou, and practitioners develop relationships with them through offerings, petitions, and prayers. Often, Papa Legba is the one who carries these prayers to the loa.

Mythology and Worship

Statue of Legba as fertility god
Statue of Legba as fertility god. Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images Plus 

Legba has evolved in numerous ways from his origins in Africa, where he is sometimes viewed as a fertility god or a trickster; he many be depicted as both male and female, sometimes with a large erect phallus. In other areas, he is a protector of children or a healer, and can grant forgiveness for crimes against others. Variants of Legba exist in many places including Brazil, Trinidad, and Cuba.

Papa Legba appears in many forms in New Orleans Voodoo and Haitian Vodou. He is typically depicted as an older man, sometimes wearing a straw hat or old tattered clothing, walking with a cane, and accompanied by a dog. He's associated with the colors black and red.

Legba is strongly associated with crossroads magic, and is referenced in a number of early twentieth-century blues tunes from the area of the Mississippi Delta. Famed bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have met a spirit at the crossroads, and offered him his soul in exchange for musical success. Although eventually the story was twisted to say Johnson met the Devil, musical folklorists believe that tale is rooted in racist ideology; instead, Johnson met Legba at the crossroads, where he had gone seeking guidance and wisdom.

Papa Legba is a master communicator, who is said to speak the languages of all human beings; he then translates petitions and delivers them to the loa. He is a teacher and warrior, but also a trickster deity. Legba is a remover of obstacles, and can be consulted to help find new, positive opportunities, thanks to his ability to open doors and new roads.

Magical Connections

Veve for Papa Legba
Veve for Papa Legba. james74 / Getty Images Plus 

If you have problems moving forward with your life — you're stuck at the crossroads — Legba is the one to reach out to. He does expect payment, however, in exchange for his assistance. Typical offerings might include candy, such as chocolate and other candy, alcohol — particularly dark rum, and pipe tobacco or cigars.

Legba, like the other loa, is represented by a veve, a symbol that includes a number of interlocked keys and a cane. He can be summoned with proper offerings and a chant; one of the most popular is:

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.

Most people who work with Legba are those who have been initiated into New Orleans Voodoo, Haitian Vodou, Santeria, or one of the many other African diasporic traditional religions. There are very specific ways of contacting Legba, many of which are initiatory traditions with protocol that must be followed. By working under the tutelage of a houngan or mambo, a devotee participates in ceremonies and rituals to form a relationship with Legba and the loa. Some practitioners of Hoodoo and other African traditional religions develop these connections via personal devotion with dedicated altars and appropriate offerings to the spirits.

Papa Legba has made many appearances in pop culture. He shows up briefly in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and plays a part in Terry Pratchett's Witches Abroad. He is a recurring character in the television series American Horror Story, where he is inaccurately portrayed as demanding the sacrifice of a human infant.

Sources

  • Alvarado, Denise M. “Papa Legba and Other Spirits of the Crossroads.” Exemplore, 6 June 2019, https://exemplore.com/magic/papalegba.
  • Beyer, Catherine. “African Diaspora Religions of the New World.” Learn Religions, Learn Religions, 25 June 2019, https://www.learnreligions.com/african-diaspora-religions-95713.
  • “Papa Legba.” Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers RSS, http://www.readersandrootworkers.org/wiki/Papa_Legba.
  • “Papa Legba.” Hoodoo, 28 Dec. 2015, http://www.blog.hoodoo-conjure.com/papa-legba/.
  • “What's the Difference Between Legba, Eleggua, Eshu and Exu?!” Santeria Church of the Orishas, 28 Feb. 2013, http://santeriachurch.org/whats-the-difference-between-legba-eleggua-eshu-and-exu/.