General characteristics of Vodou lwa

From The VODOU Page (

Vodou is often misunderstood as being polytheistic, syncretic, or animistic. These misconceptions will be cleared up as we discuss the characteristics of the lwa.

Vodouisants believe in one God, called Gran Met, or Great Master. This God is all powerful, all knowing, but regrettably he is considered to be sometimes distant and detached from human affairs. He is nevertheless ever present in the daily speech of Haitians, who never say, "See you tomorrow", without adding "if God wants".

The lwa are lesser entities, but more readily accessible. Aside from a generalized love for the children of Africa, the lwa require a mutual relationship with the worshipper. The lwa serve those who serve them. Lwa have well defined characteristics, including sacred numbers, colors, days, ceremonial foods, speech mannerisms, and ritual objects. A lwa, therefore, can be served by wearing clothes of the lwa's colors, making offerings of preferred foods, and observing sexual continence on days sacred to the lwa.

Many lwa are archetypal figures represented in many cultures. For example, Erzulie Freda is a love goddess comparable to Venus, Legba is a lwa of communication comparable to Hermes or Mercury. These correspondences, and sometimes pure coincidence, have led Haitians to see parallels between aspects of the lwa and images of Roman Catholic saints as they are represented in popular lithographs. During the days of French colonialism, when the majority of black people in Haiti were slaves who had been born in Africa, worship of the saints provided a convenient cover for the service of African gods and goddesses. Even the priere Guinea, a long prayer recited near the beginning of orthodox Vodou ceremonies, incorporates verses about the Virgin Mary and various saints.

This does not mean, however, that the lwa have been syncretized with the Catholic saints. No one confuses Ogoun Feraille with St. James the Greater, it is simply the image that is used. If St. James is invoked, he is considered different from Ogoun. Although the priere Guinea incorporates verses about Catholic entities, no one confuses a Vodou ceremony held in a peristyle with a Catholic service. John Murphy, in his book Santeria, proposes that symbiosis might be a more accurate term than syncretism.

Lwa are sometimes considered to reside in trees, stones, or rarely the bodies of animals. However, the lwa in the tree is not the lwa of the tree, and ceremonies conducted at the foot of the tree are directed at the lwa, not at any animistic principle of life energy pertaining to the tree.

Vodou lwa manifest their will through dreams, unusual incidents, and through the mechanism of trance possession. Possession is considered normal, natural, and desirable in the context of a Vodou ceremony and under certain other circumstances. It is comparable to the New Age phenomenon of "channeling". Lwa manifesting through possession sing, dance, tell jokes, heal the sick, and give advice.

What groups of lwa are recognized?

Note - this lesson contains ceremonial information on the Vodou previously unpublished, namely the ceremonial order of the lwa. This information is not secret, and I do not violate my vows of secrecy by revealing it. Anyone with the patience to sit through a sufficient number of ceremonies can learn this information.

In an orthodox Vodou ceremony, following the priere Guinea and the salutations to the assembly and the spiritual energy of the drums and drummers, the lwa are honored in order, much as the Four Evangelists are given in the order "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John". In turn, songs are offered for each lwa, and in particular cases, food offerings or animal sacrifices. An initiate must memorize this sequence as a part of his or her training, and a Houngan or Mambo of course must be able to observe this order when conducting a ceremony. A minimum of three songs are sung for each lwa, and each song is repeated a minimum of three times.

In the orthodox Vodou rite, there are three main groups of lwa, the Rada group, the Ghedes, and the Petro group.

The Rada lwa are primarily but not exclusively Dahomean in origin. Their general ceremonial color is white, with the qualification that individual lwa within this group may have their own colors. They are considered beneficent, and in some cases so ancient as to be detached and slow to act. The rhythms of the Rada lwa are beaten on tanbou kon, drums with wooden pegs holding the stretched hide over the drum head. The skin of the largest drum, the maman, is cow hide, the other of goatskin. The drums are beaten with sticks. This part of the ceremony is disciplined, concentrated, stately, and cerebral.

The Rada lwa, in ceremonial order, are as follows:

Legba, Marassa, Loco, Aizan, Damballah and Aida Wedo, Sobo, Badessy, Agassou, Silibo, Agwe and La Sirene, Erzulie, Bossu, Agarou, Azaka, the Ogoun group (Ogoun St. Jacques, Ossange, Ogoun Badagri, Ogoun Feraille, Ogoun Fer, Ogoun Shango, Ogoun Balindjo, Ogoun Balizage, OgounYemsen).

Following the Rada lwa, the Gede (pronounced gay-day) family including Baron and Maman Brigitte are honored. There is no particular order to the appearance of these lwa within their own group. Their ceremonial colors are violet and black. The Gede group is bawdy and lewd, and they provide comic relief following the intense and disciplined exertion of the Rada section. The Barons and Brigittes are most mystical, and can be counted upon to prophesy in the midst of the most lascivious dance steps. The Gedes are always willing to tell jokes and give advice.

After the Rada and Ghede groups remains the portion of the ceremony dedicated to the Petro lwa. These lwa are predominately of Kongo and Western Hemisphere origin. Their ceremonial color is red. They are considered fierce, protective, magical, and aggressive toward adversaries. The rhythms of the Petro lwa are beaten on tanbou fey, drums with cord and a hoop holding the stretched hide over the drum head. The drum heads are made exclusively of goatskin, and are beaten with the palms of the hands. This part of the ceremony is hot, fast-paced, and exciting.

The Petro lwa, in ceremonial order, are as follows:

Legba Petro, Marassa Petro, Wawangol, Ibo, Senegal, Kongo, Kaplaou, Kanga, Takya, Zoklimo, Simbi Dlo, Gran Simba, Carrefour, Cimitiere, Gran Bwa, Kongo Savanne, Erzulie Dantor (also known as Erzulie Zye-Wouj), Marinette, Don Petro, Ti-Jean Petro, Gros Point, Simbi Andezo, Simbi Makaya.

When the final three repetitions of the final song for Simbi Makaya are finished, the ceremony is over. Sometimes participants who are particularly enthusiastic will cotntinue to sing popular songs which, while they relate to the lwa, are not necessarily part of the ceremonial order. Such songs are very much a part of Haitian popular music, and artists such as Wawa, Azor, and groups such as Boukman Eksperyans and RAM have international followings. Once the participants are satisfied, the drums are laid flat on the ground, and the participants go to rest on banana stem mats until morning light.


Lwa who are not lwa, who are called 'dajb' instead

The Haitian Creole word djab is derived from the French word diable, meaning devil, but the term in the context of Haitian Vodou carries a different connotation.

Certain lwa are individualistic and unique, served by only one individual, sometimes a Houngan or Mambo, and considered to be almost that individual's personal property. These lwa do not fit easily into the orthodox Vodou liturgy, neither in the Rada nor in the Petro grouping. Such lwa, and even lwa more commonly served, such as Makaya lwa, are commonly referred to as djab, but here the translation would perhaps be more accurately given as "wild spirit".

The function of these djab is magical as opposed to religious. A djab is most frequently invoked by a Houngan, Mambo, or Bokor, on behalf of a client, to take aggressive action against a client's enemy or business competitor. A djab requires payment from the client for it's services, usually in the form of animal sacrifice on a regularly scheduled basis.

The congregation of a Houngan or Mambo who serves a djab is usually protected from possible acts of random aggression by the djab; generally by a garde, a magical shield effected by rubbing specially prepared dried herbs into shallow cuts ceremonially made in the individual's skin. The garde is often renewed annually at the time of the winter solstice, when each society holds a major gathering and prepares herbal baths and other mixtures.

The light scars of the garde form a pattern peculiar to the society, and can serve as an identifying mark for members. For example, I have on my upper left shoulder a garde conferred on me by Houngan Sauvert Joseph, who assisted at my initiation. At the annual gathering of his society, I received the garde of the djab Kita Maza, an affable but fiercely protective djab, and the form of the scar, a double cross similar in form to a tic-tic-toe board, is distinctive to Kita Maza and the society of Houngan Sauvert Joseph.

Djabs can also be specific to a particular place. In the limestone caves of Bode near Trouin in the south of Haiti, a djab named Met Set Joune, Master of the Seven Days, is believed to reside. Even if a Mambo, Houngan, or Bokor was to serve this djab in a peristyle located somewhere else, the limestone caves would remain the home of the djab.

Certain particularly amoral djabs can be invoked to drain the life energy of a person and effect their demise. When a djab is held responsible for a person's death, the Creole phrase is not "the djab killed the person", but instead, djab la manje moun nan, "the djab ate the person". This does not mean that the flesh of the person is eaten cannibalistically by the Houngan, Mambo, or Bokor who undergoes possession by the djab, merely that the djab has subsumed the person's life force.

An orthodox Houngan or Mambo is under oath never to do harm, therefore invocations of djabs are more frequently attempted by Bokors. However an orthodox Vodou clergyperson may invoke a djab and even direct it to kill a person, if the person is a murderer, a repeat thief, a repeat rapist, and so forth.

The Mambo Marinette invoked a female Petro lwa frequently referred to as a djab, Erzulie Dantor, and performed the sacrifice of a wild hog, at the ceremony of Bwa Caiman in 1794 which began the Haitian revolution. During the Haitian revolution, djabs were very important, and were believed to confer immunity to the bullets fired by the white French enslavers. Even the death of the majority of General LeClerc's expeditionary force due to yellow fever was regarded as the result of the work of djabs. Given that the ultimate destination of LeClerc was the North American continent, to re-establish control of the Louisiana Territory, United States citizens can acknowledge the rebel slaves of Haiti, and their djabs, for the fact that we are not Francophones today.