Voodoo is a religion and a magical practice (depending on who you ask) that originated in the Caribbean Islands and Louisiana, U.S. In this article we look at the basics of Voodoo spirits – known as the Loa. AND how to respectfully approach them no matter your tradition.
There are two major forms of Voodoo. Louisiana or New Orleans Voodoo which originated in Louisiana and most often includes the use of magic. And Vodou which has roots in Haiti and is most often considered a religion. For our intents and purposes, we will heavily focus on Louisiana (New Orleans) Voodoo in this post. Vodou and Voodoo arose from the days when the African slaves were brought to the New World against their will. They were forced to adapt their captors’ religions, yet they didn’t give up their own. Voodoo and Vodou grew out of their will to survive and keep their home customs.
Voodoo is a mix of a couple systems, including Catholicism, indigenous African beliefs, Native American and European. It involves the veneration of Saints and the Loa (Voodoo spirits) and the use of folk magic (called Hoodoo or rootwork). The term “Voodoo” comes from the term Vodou which translates to “God” or “spirit”, which came from Benin, Africa.
One of the cornerstones of Voodoo is the Loa. A Loa is a Voodoo spirit that aids the practitioner in life, including with success, sexuality, spirituality, protection, healing and even in death. I liken the Loa to angels or guardians. The Loa are divided into groups or “nations” known as Nanchons. Some are easier to approach and work with than others. Each and every one MUST be approached with a humble respect and working knowledge.
Sycretization is the blending (or disguise) of one religious belief/custom with another. In the Voodoo tradition, the African slaves brought to Louisiana and the Caribbean against their will were forced to adapt their captors’ religions – one of which was Catholicism. The people were too strong to let their indigenous beliefs go completely, otherwise Voodoo wouldn’t be a modern religion or practice. When you work with the Loa, you’ll notice many of them are syncretized with a Catholic Saint. For example, Papa Legba is also portrayed as Saint Lazarus or Saint Anthony. Erzuli Dantor is the Black Madonna, etc. You can work with their Saint forms, as well.
The Nanchons of Loa are families of Voodoo spirits, some originating in Africa and others in the New World. We will describe them briefly below.
The Rada nanchon is considered the “cool” Voodoo spirit family. The Loas within this nanchon are strong spirits and are mostly benevolent to their followers. The Rada nanchon includes Papa Legba, Marassa, Ezili Freda, and Lasiren. The Rada nanchon are the first to be called upon during ritual and are the oldest Loa from Africa.
Petro: (also seen as Petwo). These Voodoo spirits have roots in Haiti. Some say the nanchon is derived from the mythical character Dom Pedro, who was a well-known rebel. The Voodoo spirits of the Petro nanchon are wilder and more apt to mischief and malevolence. One must understand the origins of the Petro Loa in that they came forth to guard and protect the African slaves brought to Haiti against their will. For this reason, they are known as the “hot” Loa and may act fiery and war-like. Voodoo spirits in the Petro nanchon include Met Kalfu and Ezili Dantor.
The Ghede Loa are made up of spirits who have lived human lives before. They are Voodoo spirits that watch over the graveyards and the dead. They often are boisterous and have wild party-like personalities. The Barons lead this nanchon including Baron Samedi, Kriminel, and Maman Brigitte.
There are other families of Voodoo Spirits that we won’t detail here including Igbo and Kongo, both heavily revered in Haiti. In addition, the New Orleans Voodoo tradition works with some spirits that might not have a traditional Nanchon (family) including Marie Laveau, Dr. John, and Black Hawk.
Papa Ghede is the Loa or Voodoo spirit of death. He is feared by the other Loa. Guarding spirits as they cross into the spirit realm is Papa Ghede’s responsibility and he does it with a laugh and a smoke. Papa Ghede is often pictured smoking a cigar, wearing sunglasses, and donning a big smile. His personality is jovial and whacky. In addition to being the Voodoo spirit of death and graveyards, he is a spirit of sexuality.
In Michelle Belanger’s Haunted Experiences: Encounters with the Otherworldly, she tells an intriguing story about a trip to New Orleans. The moment she steps off the bus in the French Quarter, she gets the feeling she’s being followed. Michelle notices someone is following her – a tall black man with a top hat and sunglasses who smells of cigar smoke and rum. The man following her is the Voodoo spirit Papa Ghede. Michelle left him an offering of cigars and rum before she left New Orleans, and consequently, upon re-visiting never saw him again.
Many of us would be frightened if followed by a Voodoo spirit of death, but maybe we shouldn’t be. These spirits, like Papa Ghede, guide us to the afterlife. But, sometimes, they may reach out to those they feel they could teach. I believe this is why witches outside the constructs of the Voodoo tradition are sometimes approached by the Loa. Because we have one foot in this world and one foot in the spirit world, it’s common for witches to see spirits from the Voodoo tradition and beyond.
As a “trickster and a destroyer of life”, Met Kalfu is probably not the first Loa to seek assistance from. Unless you study and/or have been initiated into the Voodoo tradition and or you have roots in Haiti, I recommend approaching the Loa from the Rada nanchon long before you approach the Petro Loa. In short, Met Kalfu is no Voodoo spirit for a witch to summon haphazardly.
Papa Legba is a Loa in the Rada nanchon. While he’s known to be a jokester, he is also benevolent. He is the son of two major Voodoo spirits: Dangabala Wedo and Ayida Wedo. Legba is the mediator between the Loa and the Great Master Spirit (God), as well as between us and the Loa. Every traditional Voodoo ritual invites Legba into the circle first, as he opens the gates at the crossroads for the others to come through. When he appears, Papa Legba manifests as an old man with a cane, sometimes guarded by a dog, wearing a straw hat and smoking a pipe.
An introductory song may go something like this:
Legba, open the gates for me
So that I may go through
Upon my return I shall greet the Lwa
Voodoo Legba open the gate for me
So that I may come in.
Papa Legba is the guardian of the crossroads between the spirit world and the human world. He bridges the gap between God and humans, in many ways similar to Jesus Christ. Therefore, Papa Legba is a well-known Voodoo spirit to call upon when opening and closing rituals.
If you plan to invite the Loa into your rituals or work with them in your witchcraft, do thorough research first. Know exactly which nanchon and Loa you’re working with and what their traits are, whether benevolent or mischievous. Know what offerings they prefer and colors. Set up an altar to honor that particular Loa with their colors and offerings before ever calling on them to aid you. You must show respect and reverence to call on the Voodoo spirits. If you’re just beginning to work with the Loa, start with Papa Legba as he is the gate-opener and one of the “cool” loa.
Again, respect is key, particularly if you’re coming from another tradition and have no African or Caribbean roots. You wouldn’t talk to Michael the archangel with disrespect, would you? So don’t “play” around with the Voodoo Spirits – they’re as powerful as the archangels.
Other than research, planning is important when working with the Loa. As mentioned before, each Loa has preferred colors, offerings, and prayers. If you know a Voodoo priest or priestess, ask them for their advice on rituals. Read books. Take a trip to New Orleans and learn from a vodoun himself. Educate yourself.
Familiarize yourself with the Voodoo culture. If you don’t understand the history of Voodoo/Vodou, then the Loa will not respect or understand you. It would be like asking the White Buffalo Calf woman to aid your workings when you know nothing about the indigenous tribe who honors her. Be respectful and put in the time and effort.
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