The 8 Most Important Voodoo Gods

Haitian mambos performing ritual

THONY BELIZAIRE  / Getty Images

The loa, or major divine beings of Voodoo, or Vodun, are spirits who serve as intermediaries between man and Bondye, the supreme Voodoo god. The loa, or lwa, appear in different families, including the Ghede, Petro, and Radha. They are typically considered lesser divine figures, with the supreme god being Bondye, the creator.

Enslaved people in Haiti and Louisiana syncretized their loa with Catholic saints, and many of the loa have corresponding figures in Catholicism. They are called upon in ritual by Voodoo mambos or houngan, and are presented with offerings of food and drink before they are petitioned for assistance. In some African traditional religions, the orishas are worked with, in addition to or instead of the loa. The orishas are the human form of spirits found in the Yoruba belief systems.

Did You Know?

  • The loa and orishas are the divine spirits found in Haitian Vodoun, New Orleans Voodoo, and a number of African traditional religions.
  • Offerings are typically made to the loa, which includes food and drink, and they are honored in ritual when the mambo or houngan calls them to the ceremony.
  • Each loa has a very specific set of demands that must be met before they will grant favors to petitioners.

Bondye

Bondye is the creator god found in the Voodoo religion, and the loa answer to him. The loa serve as intermediaries between man and Bondye, whose existence is far beyond human comprehension. Bondye is essentially unknowable to mankind, and doesn't meddle around in the affairs of mortals, so spiritual work is done with the loa instead.

Papa Legba

Legba fetish from Benin
Legba fetish from Benin. clara_cs / Getty Images 

Papa Legba is the loa associated with the crossroads, and he serves as an intermediary between man and the spirit world. Legba has evolved in numerous ways from his origins in Africa. In some places, he is seen as a fertility god, portrayed with a large erect phallus. In other customs, he is the trickster, or he may appear as a protector of children.

Papa Legba appears in many forms in New Orleans Voodoo and Haitian Vodou. Associated with the colors red and black, he is usually portrayed as an older man in a straw hat or old tattered clothing. Papa Legba walks with a cane, and is accompanied by a dog.

Maman Brigitte

In Haitian Voodoo, Maman Brigitte is a loa associated with death and the underworld. She is the consort of Baron Samedi, and is often represented by a black rooster.

There is a theory that Maman Brigitte could be descended from Brigid, the Celtic goddess of the hearth fires and domestic life; those who support this say she must have made her way to Haiti with Scottish and Irish indentured servants when they left their homelands. Supporting this concept, Maman Brigitte is often portrayed as a light-skinned woman with red hair.

Baron Samedi

Baron Samedi
VeraPetruk / Getty Images Plus

The husband of Maman Brigitte, Baron Samedi is the god of death, and is both respected and feared as the keeper of cemeteries. He often appears skeletal, wearing a top hat and formal tails, as well as dark glasses. In addition to being associated with death, he is also a god of resurrection—only Baron Samedi can welcome a soul to the realm of the dead.

He is known for outrageous and lewd behavior, swearing, and fornicating with women other than his wife. Baron Samedi is also the loa to call upon for work with ancestors long dead, and can cure any mortal wound—as long as the recipient is willing to pay his price. Baron Samedi is connected to powerful acts of magic, and is the leader of the Guede, the family of loa who work with the dead.

Erzulie

Offerings made to Erzulie
THONY BELIZAIRE / AFP / Getty Images

Erzulie, the goddess of beauty and love, is the epitome of femininity and womanhood. According to Haitian professor Leslie Desmangles, at Hartford's Trinity College, Erzulie:

... represents the cosmic womb in which divinity and humanity are conceived. She is the symbol of fecundity, the mother of the world who participates with the masculine forces in the creation and maintenance of the universe.

She appears in several different aspects, including Erzulie Dantòr and Mambo Erzulie Fréda Dahomey. Much like the Christian Lady of Sorrows, Erzulie often grieves for that which she cannot obtain, and sometimes leaves a ceremony weeping. She is sometimes depicted as a black Madonna, and other times as an upper class light-skinned mixed-race woman bedecked in fine clothing and expensive jewelry. She and her family of loa can be called upon for matters related to motherhood, and strong feminine sexuality.

Ogun

Festival honoring Ogun in Sao Paolo, Brazil
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Ogun is one of the orisha who come to Voodoo from the Yoruba belief system, and is a god associated with warriors, blacksmiths, and the wheels of justice. It's said that if you make a sacrifice of meat to Ogun, you'll be blessed with a successful hunt.

Practitioners of Haitian Vodou call upon Ogun for matters related to war and conflict, and make offerings of male animals — roosters and dogs in particular seem to be his favorite. He is symbolized by an iron knife or machete, and has a fondness for pretty women and good rum.

Damballah

In Haitian Vodou and New Orleans Voodoo, Damballah is one of the most important loa. He is the creator who helped the god Bondye make the cosmos, and is represented by a giant serpent. His coils shaped the heavens and earth, and he is the keeper of knowledge, wisdom, and healing magic. Interestingly, he is associated with Saint Patrick, who is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland. Erzulie is his consort.

Damballah moves between land and sea, and is a never ending force that represents the veneration of life. His female counterpart, Ayida-Weddo, forms the rainbow.

Oshun

Celebration of Oshun in Havana
 Adalberto Roque / Getty Images

One of the Orishas, Oshun is a goddess connected to rivers, streams, and water. She is associated with beauty and sexuality, as well as love and pleasure. Often found in the Yoruba and Ifa belief systems, she is worshiped by her followers who leave offerings at river banks. Oshun is tied to wealth, and those who petition her for assistance can find themselves blessed with bounty and abundance.

Oshun's colors include orange and golden yellow, as well as green and coral. Offerings to her can include fresh cinnamon, honey, and pumpkins. Many of her followers keep their altar to Oshun in the bedroom.

Sources

  • Beyer, Catherine. “African Diaspora Religions of the New World.” Learn Religions, Learn Religions, 25 June 2019, https://www.learnreligions.com/african-diaspora-religions-95713.
  • Desmangles, Leslie G. The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992. 
  • Noonan, Kerry. “Gran Brijit: Haitian Vodou Guardian of the Cemetery.”Goddesses in World Culture, Edited by Patricia Monaghan. Praeger, 2011: Santa Barbara, CA.
  • Watkins, Angela Denise. "Mambos, priestesses, and goddesses: spiritual healing through Vodou in black women's narratives of Haiti and New Orleans." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2014. https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7353&context=etd
  • Williams Evans, Freddi. Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans. Lafayette, LA: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2011.