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Kristen Hileman's "Transformations of Esu"

Reprinted with permission of the author.

 

The vodun Esu’s power lies primarily in his unfixed and fluid nature. He is a god chiefly associated with trickery, ambivalence, communication and the crossroads, a fateful symbolic site where one’s journey might take any direction. Esu’s essential indeterminacy makes it difficult to produce a definitive account of the god’s abilities, attributes and incarnations. However, this two-part paper will attempt to outline and compare Esu’s qualities in both Western Africa (part one) and the “New World” (part two) by examining Esu’s many names, the places where he has been and is still worshipped, the myths and main associations of Esu, and finally the shrines, offerings and rituals devoted to the god. Many sources were used in this investigation including books about West African history and art, books focused on the practice of vodun in the New World, and works of literature concerned with connecting trickster figures (primarily Esu) to African-American literary criticism, as well as with establishing Esu as the source of satire particular to Black drama.1

Names and Places of Worship

For purposes of clarity, I will refer to the god discussed in this paper as Esu, unless quoting other sources or referring to the name of the god as it is used in a particular place where he is worshipped. Likewise, vodun will be used as the general term to refer to the religion (and associated phenomena) of West Africa and the Diaspora to whose pantheon Esu belongs. Still, it is illustrative to begin this discussion by listing some of the names which are used to invoke Esu, a god who not only has multiple incarnations in terms of geographic areas of worship, but who is conceptually thought of as infinite, with each individual devotee, as well as each vodun god having their own Esu to invoke as a messenger of fate.2 Esu’s worship originated with the Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria. In addition to calling him Esu, the Yoruba, especially of the coastal region, refer to him as Elegbara. Other related names are Elegba, Eshu, Edshu and Edju. Additionally, Agba refers to a specific Yoruba incarnation of Esu as “the Old One.”3 Furthermore, Femi Euba identifies specific descriptive names for Esu: Esu-orita (Esu of the crossroads), Esu-ona (Esu of the way) and Esu-oja (Esu of the market).4 From the Yoruba, the worship of Esu spread to the Fon of Dahomey, in what is now Benin, and here he is referred to as Legba.

In the “New World,” Esu’s names include Exu in Brazil, Echu-Elegua or Ellegua in Cuba and Papa Lebat or Papa La Bas in New Orleans. In Haiti, Esu is split into two incarnations, which will be considered in greater detail below: Papa Legba or Legba Atibon of the Rada lwa, or gods, and Kalfou/Carrefour of the Petwo lwa. Also in Haitian vodun, certain qualities of Esu are seen as related to the Gede, a group of gods connected to death, sexuality, mediation and humor.5 Additionally, Esu is syncretized with St. Michael, St. Peter and St. Martin de Porres.6 Further, in terms of Western mythology, Esu has his counterpart in the Greek god Hermes and the Roman god Mercury, who, like Esu, serve as messengers among the gods and between the gods and humans. Comparisons made between Esu and both the Christian Christ and devil figures are testaments to Esu’s indeterminate nature (reasons for these associations include Esu’s connection to the sun, the cross and his reputation for causing trouble). Donald Cosentino establishes the contemporary connection between Esu and an “Eshu type” of trickster-hero in African-American literature and film which extends from Briar Rabbit to Eddie Murphy.7 Finally, there are also female versions of the god which will be considered in a later discussion of Esu and gender.

As can be seen from the preceding list of names, Esu is worshipped in numerous places. The Yoruba were the first to worship Esu as one of their principal, primordial orisa, or deities. One of the original locations associated with Esu is Ife, both a legendary and actual Yoruba city in Southern Nigeria that is considered the homeland of the vodun gods and is also linked with the position of the sun.8 In his study of West African religion in the nineteenth century, Peter McKenzie identifies several locations of Esu cults, specifically in Awori-Egbado, Ibadan, Egba and Ketu. He cites a sacred grove in Iworo as the most famous site of Esu worship, but notes that the shrine at Iworo was destroyed in 1863 under a Governor Glover, marking a decline in the god’s cult there. McKenzie further writes that Esu was the chief god at Ondo during the mid-nineteenth century.9 Additionally, there were individual household shrines to Esu throughout the areas of the Yoruba peoples. In summary, the author suggests that because the nineteenth century was a time of war and uncertainty for the Yoruba people, “…this national orisa of the unexpected and unpredictable [Esu] must have been felt as a powerful and universal presence.”10 As stated above, the god Esu migrated to the Fon of Dahomey, where he was worshipped as Legba. One source of entry for Esu into Dahomey were raids by the Fon of neighboring areas to capture peoples for the slave trade during the eighteenth century.11 Esu/Legba worship continues today in Nigeria and Benin.

An estimated 11.3 million slaves were brought from Africa to the New World from 1440 to 1880. Approximately 4 million slaves were sent to Brazil, 2.5 million to Cuba, 4.1 million throughout the West Indies and 400,000 to 600,000 to North America, with additional numbers dying during the journey or “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic.12 Both Yoruba and Fon peoples were among the Africans brought to the New World as slaves, and, consequently their religious traditions fed into the hybrid cultures established by slaves in the Caribbean and South and North America. In turn, during the twentieth century, vodun practices and traditions were further dispersed as peoples from Brazil, the Caribbean and Cuba migrated to other countries and continents, including Argentina, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Canada, the United States and Europe.

Several sources relate colorful instances of Esu being worshipped today. For instance, Donald J. Cosentino conducted an interview with Puerto Rican santero priest, Ysamur Fores, living in Los Angeles, who among other means of recognizing Esu has named his computer “Eshu.” Rod Davis describes a lecture given by a m’ambo, or priestess, in New Orleans, Ava Kay Jones (who also states she is a Catholic), which begins with a traditional Yoruba chant to Elegba because the lecture is given on a Monday which is Elegba’s day. Davis further recounts his experiences in Oyotunji, South Carolina, a village founded by Serge King after he visited Ife, Nigeria and became a priest of Obatala in 1981. King returned to the United States, taking the title of Oba, and created Oyotunji as a village where Yoruba ritual could be practiced without the influence of Catholicism. While in Oyotunji, Davis witnessed rituals and shrines for Elegba. A final example are the shrines to Exu that Robert Farris Thompson describes in Brazil in 1961 and 1989 which will be described in more detail below.13

Fa

At this point, a look at the myths involving Esu may help to clarify the god’s power and position. A crucial aspect of Esu is he relationship to Fate or Fa. In short, Esu is the messenger or conduit by which people can learn their fates. However, Fa is a complex concept. Although people’s fates are pre-ordained in vodun, if they are able to learn them through Esu, and they must be in the god’s favor to do so, they might take action to change these fates. One way of looking at this is, as suggested by Melville J. Herskovits, to think of Esu as the personification of accident and unpredictability in a world ordered by destiny.14 Esu functions as a messenger of fate among the gods as well.

There are several versions of creation myths involving Esu and the concept of fate or Fa. One Yoruba story recounts how at a point in time humans stopped sacrificing to the gods and, therefore, the gods became hungry. Esu set out to remedy the problem by consulting Yemaya about a means to regain humankind’s goodwill. Yemaya told Esu that other gods had turned disease (the god Shankpanna) and lightening (the god Shango) loose on men to no consequence; so Esu had to find something that would be very good for humans and would make them want to continue living. Esu then consulted Orungan who tells him to collect a palm-nut for each of the sixteen gods who was hungry and then learn the meaning of each nut. Esu went to a grove of palm-trees where monkeys gave him the sixteen nuts he needed. The monkeys then told Esu that he must go around the world to sixteen places where he would hear sixteen sayings explaining the meaning of the nuts. Once he did this, Esu had to tell humankind what he had learned and only then would humans once again fear the gods. Esu carried out the journey, learning the power of divination, and upon his return let humanity know the will of the gods. When men realized that the gods would cause nothing but evil things to happen to them in the future and that they could only escape this fate by making offerings to the gods, they resumed their sacrifices.15 Esu then taught the power of divination to the god Orunmila or Ifa. At this point a subtle yet pertinent dialectic/contrast is set up between Esu, the messenger of fate whose actions can be swayed by appropriate sacrifices, representing chance or accident, and Ifa, the oracle of fate, representing certainty or destiny.

Fon myths further emphasize the power Esu has as the messenger of fate. The supreme god of the Fon is Mawu-Lisa, a god who is half-female and half-male. Mawu is the female component, and she is associated with the moon and night. While Lisa, the male component, is associated with the sun and day. Mawu-Lisa is the entity that determines the fate of humans. According to some stories, Mawu-Lisa writes down these fates in the Book of Fa. Legba is the seventh and youngest child of Mawu-Lisa. Mawu-Lisa divided the universe among the six older siblings of Legba. However, as a precaution against them combining against her, she gave each of these gods a different language that none of the others could understand, with the exception of Legba who understands all the languages, including that of Mawu-Lisa. In this way, Legba became the messenger between the Supreme Being and the gods, among the gods, and between man and the gods. Additionally, Legba is the only god who can read and interpret the book of fate or Fa and report back the activities of humans to the Supreme Being.16 With these roles, Legba gains primary importance and must be invoked before any communication can occur with the gods. Thus he receives a sacrifice at the beginning of all vodun ceremonies. Summarizing, Louis Gates recounts these words from a priest of Fa, as told to Melville Herskovits:

We bokono [priests] take three things for our Mawu. We take Mawu, or Fa, as the author of man and his destiny. We take Legba as the son, the brother, and the power of Mawu and as Mawu herself…Fa is the writing of Mawu, which was turned over to Legba to make man. Therefore, we say Fa is Mawu and Mawu is Fa.”17

Yet another Fon myth combines aspects of the Yoruba and Fon myths related above with a bit more geographic specificity. In this story two men, Koda and Chada, descended from the sky to earth, at a time when the world had been created but medicine and worship did not yet exist. Koda and Chada explained to humans that Mawu writes down Fa for every person and gives these writing to Legba each day. Koda and Chada admonished men that they must know their Fa everyday in order to know what course of actions to take and also to know their own god. In order to know Fa, humans must worship Legba. However with time, people forgot Legba’s importance in interpreting Fa. Consequently, three more men came to earth, Adjaka, Oku and Ogbena, at a place in Nigeria named Gisi, in order to remind men to worship Legba. They chose a man named Alaundje to spread the doctrine of Fa and Legba. Alaundje in turn taught a man named Djisa who went to Abomey and taught the people of Dahomey about Fa and Legba.18

Ase

In addition to Esu’s ability to interpret the languages of the gods and the Book of Fa, Esu also figuratively and literally holds the power of ase, ashe or oogun in his hands. In representations of the god, Esu often holds a single calabash, “twin gourds” or vials which contain ase.19 Various authors define ase in different ways, but all definitions involve the ideas of creative and transformative powers. Ase takes on further meaning for an Ifa priest named Ifatoogon from Ilobu quoted in Yoruba Sculpture in West Africa:

“After Olodumare had created such things as death, disease, loss, fighting, paralysis, coughs, boils, blisters, elephantiasis, rashes of every description, guinea-worm, and deities of the hot temper, such as Shopanna and Shango, and after he had created such good things as money, wives, children, long life, and such deities as Oshun and Obatal, then Olodumare created Eshu’s power, ashe. He made Eshu’s power great enough to limit the wicked excesses of the demons, whose atrocities would have been limitless, if unchecked. And he made Eshu’s power such that Eshu could bring to men who dwell on earth the blessing of the deities of good things.”20

Ambiguity

While Ifatoogon associated Esu’s power with the good things of earth, it is important to remember that Esu is an ambivalent god in a religion that does not have a dualistic notion of good and evil. He is neither a savior nor a devil. A traditional Oriki Esu, or narrative praise poem for Esu, quoted by Henry Louis Gates elaborates the wide-ranging activities of Esu:

Ah yes!
Edju played many tricks
Edju made kindred people go to war;
Edju pawned the moon and carried off the sun:
Edju made the Gods strive against themselves.
But Edju is not evil.
He brought us the best there is;
He gave us the Ifa oracle;
He brought the sun.
But for Edju, the fields would be barren.21

In addition to the powers of interpretation and ase, Esu must have the ability to play the trickster, cause mischief and remain unpredictable in order to enforce his other powers. And as a messenger, he may be sent on both good and bad errands, provided that he receives proper sacrifices from the originator of the errand. The image of the crossroads is relevant here, for Esu’s actions may take any direction. As J. Omosade Awolalu suggests, the good, the bad and, most importantly, the unexpected in life are embodied and acknowledged in Esu, a god that is both respected and feared and for whom people should neither flee nor wait.”22

A tale, that occurs in African, Brazilian and Cuban Yoruba cultures, recounted by Henry Louis Gates further demonstrates how Esu can appear differently to different people, how he tests people through his mischief, and also how one must acknowledge the unexpected when making plans. In the story, two friends take a vow of lifelong friendship without making the proper sacrifice to Esu. One day while the friends are working in their fields, a splendidly dressed man on horseback rides between them. When the friends take a break for lunch they discuss what they have seen. However, the friend working on the left side of the fields insists that he saw a magnificent rider wearing a white hat, while the friend on the right side of fields is adamant about having seen an equally magnificent rider wearing a black hat. A terrible fight ensues. At this point, Esu, who had been the man on horseback, arrives and asks each man to explain why he is fighting. Each man does. Then, Esu announces that each man is right and holds up his hat, which is double-sided, white on the left and black on the right. Esu, revealing himself as a god, then chides the men for not recognizing him at the outset of their vow-making.23

Another area of Esu’s ambiguity is gender. Esu is at once the phallic god and also a god that has female embodiments and associations. Shrines to Esu in both Africa and the Americas often contain phallic elements. As is typical of Esu, there are varying stories about the priapic god. In one Fon story, Mawu-Lisa accuses Esu of having sexual relations with both a mother and a daughter. Legba denies the accusation, but when ordered to undress his penis is still erect. As a punishment Mawu-Legba orders that Esu’s penis shall always be erect and that he will never by sated. However, Legba is indifferent to this punishment and at once invites his sister Gbadu to fondle him in front of Mawu-Legba, claiming that such conduct is only suitable because of his condition.24 On the other hand, Robert Farris Thompson writes, giving only vague details, that Esu’s “…virility is a gift. The supreme god Olodumare so rewarded Eshu-Elegba because at a critical moment in the history of the world, he alone was wise enough to sacrifice to a higher force.”25 Regardless of it being a punishment or reward, Esu is certainly endowed with a super- sexual, phallo-centric appetite.

At the same time, Esu is associated with both semen and the placenta by the Yoruba26 and is often depicted as both male and female. Sculptural representations of the god include male and female figures paired or separate that often have the hair at the back of their heads styled into a long phallic or club shape, referred to as ogo Elegba (fig. 1). Alternately, Esu may be represented as a bisexual figure holding its breasts in its hands. This androgyny seems a function of the god’s indeterminate nature, as well as Esu’s ability to cross boundaries and access all worlds in his role as messenger/mediator.27

Esu’s feminine aspects are more concretely incarnated in specific female deities whose attributes make them counterparts to Esu. Suzanne Blier equates the Fon deity Minona (meaning mother) who is also called Aze (meaning sorcerer) to Legba as the goddess is both “nurturing and vengeful.” Blier further makes a connection between Minona/Aze and the Haitian lwa Ezili. Milo Rigaud identifies Erzulie (or the Virgin) as the name of the Haitian female counterpart to Legba. Finally, Richard Farris Thompson notes that Pomba-Gira is a female version of Exu in Brazil who specifically shares Exu’s connection to the crossroads.28

Crossroads and Cowries

Indeed, at this point a return to the crossroads imagery of Esu is appropriate. Both Esu’s phallo-centric and gender-bending sexuality relates to the concept of the god penetrating barriers and linking one world with the next. In a sense the liminal Esu, situated at the middle of the crossroads, is the union, bridge and threshold to the differing realms of gods and humans, as well as the intersection of chance and fate, unpredictability and order. Another physical attribute, the god’s limp, is evidence of Esu’s striding different worlds. The Yoruba believe that Esu walks with a limp because he has one foot in the world of the gods and the other in the world of humans.29

Richard Farris Thompson recounts a myth that directly associates Esu with both the crossroads and another symbol that commonly appears on shrines and statues of the god – cowry shells. Esu came to earth as a full-grown child with his calabash, asking the rich to bring food to the crossroads so that the poor can eat. When the wealthy proved reluctant to carry out the god’s command, Esu threw stones at their homes that caused the houses to burn. At this point, the rich brought out their extra food to the crossroads in generous amounts. Aje Shaluga, the god of money, also arrived bringing an offering of cowry coins, which Esu took and turned into a cape for himself. Thus, people refer to Esu as, “Lord of Riches, King of Coin.” When this cape is used on an altar to Esu it is called obara owo eyo, meaning “rain-of-money” or “torrent-of coin.”30 On the other hand, Henry Louis Gates explains that Esu earned the epithet, “he [who] controls the largest number of cowry shells,” because of his association with the process of divination and the device of “divination seeds.”31

Laterite

Another important association is between Esu and laterite, i.e. soil that is generated when rocks decompose; this is a reddish soil in tropical regions. The most fundamental, common and, perhaps, oldest physical representation of Esu is laterite sculpted into a rough mound or pillar, called a yangi. Another Yoruba creation myth describes Esu as a primordial form, created when Olorun, or air, combined with Orisanla, or water, to make a mound of reddish mud and rock. Olorun then breathed over the mound, giving life to Esu. An alternate Yoruba myth relates Esu’s mocking of the lame god Obaluaiye. Upset, Obaluaiye learns how to cause smallpox and uses his new ability on Esu. Esu turns himself into a pillar of laterite in order to conceal the scars of the disease. Yet another story, roughly retold by Femi Euba tells how Esu in the form of a pillar of laterite was hacked in many pieces. The fragments of the laterite Esu then became his representatives. This last story suggests the multiplicity of the god, specifically the idea that an individual Esu exists for each of those that call upon him.32

Other Attributes

There are some additional attributes and symbols associated with the god that should be noted. In terms of his powers, Esu is said to have many abilities that enable him to confuse or trick people such as the power to become invisible and change into forms such as birds, humans or the wind. He can break locks, and cause people to fall asleep or lose their way. In physical representations of Esu, the god might appear with a flute or whistle to indicate his role as “herald” of the gods.33 Esu, as well as other vodun gods, is associated with both the snake and clubs. Esu is also, at times, depicted with a double mouth, again indicating his indeterminate nature.34

Shrines, Sacrifices and Offerings (fig. 2, 3, 4)

The first part of this examination of Esu will close with a survey of shrines, sacrifices and offerings to the god at various times and locations, primarily in Africa. Many of Esu’s associations discussed above manifest themselves in the offering and outfitting of his shrines. Peter McKenzie sites several descriptions of shrines, altars and sacrifices from Western missionaries in Yorubaland during the nineteenth century. The descriptions bear out the presence of basic mounds of mud/laterite, as well as simple granite stones placed in front of each household in such towns as Badgery and Ondo. In some instances, the mud piles were formed into a more representational human shape, decorated with cowries and sometimes dyed blue. A more complex shrine was the famous Iwori shrine, where Esu was represented by a, “…large conical mud pile sheltered by a hut shrine, with an approach flanked by two rows of hanging garlands. The elegbara was shielded from profane view by cloths of different colours.” McKenzie describes libations of palm oil being made to shrines. On a more extreme level, he relates accounts of human sacrifice to Esu for which “slaves of Elegbara” were sent to Iworo from other towns. While waiting for the sacrifice, these people acted as attendants to the shrine and were segregated from other townspeople, as it was inauspicious to associate with them. McKenzie writes that the slaves, “appeared to accept their fate and, filled with dread at the power of the Elegbara, did not attempt to escape.”35

More contemporary accounts of African shrines to Esu also describe mounds of laterite or pieces of laterite or rock, i.e. yangi, stuck into the ground at thresholds, crossroads and market entrances. Basic laterite mounds to Esu may be shaped into human form and embellished with horns embedded in the head, or a knife or club placed in the hand. An earthenware pot with a hole in its middle turned upside down is also a representation of Esu. Palm oil, epo, libations are typical and are supposed to “cool” Esu. However, palm-kernel oil, adin, is highly offensive to the god. Other offerings include blood, cowries, half-kobo, maize, beans, black fowls, he-goats and dogs. The latter are especially important to Esu because they roam the shrines and physically digest the other sacrifices left to the god. Devotees to Esu wear black or maroon beads.36

Shrines to Esu in New Orleans and Oyotunji, South Carolina both include laterite formed into cones, again with cowry shell embellishments. Offerings to Esu in these places include gin, blood, chicken feathers, a goat’s head, bananas, red candles, beer cans and gum wrappers. An Afro-Brazilian shrine documented in 1961 is formed from a mound of clay embedded with ram horns, a wooden phallus and cowries and placed on a cement cylinder anointed with medicines and indigo. Here, kola nuts and fresh water are offered to appease and cool Exu. Alternately, at a Brazilian shrine circa 1989, the image of Exu was doused with alcohol and set on fire to awaken the god. In both Brazil and Haiti, Exu and Legba are also represented on cruciform metal staffs and sculpture.37 Mounds of earth are evidently common to worship of Esu in both Africa and the “New World,” as are emblems of the crossroads. Additionally, cowries, sacrifices of chickens, and libations of palm oil, water or blood designed to cool the god’s temperament appear as offerings to Esu in most locations.

Haitian and other New World Associations

Many of Esu’s African attributes are found in the god’s worship in the Americas and the Caribbean. In Haitian vodun worship, the Fon Legba, from whom Papa Legba takes his name, is perhaps more recognizable than the Yoruba Esu. This distinction is somewhat problematic, however, as Esu and Legba share many of the same qualities, which also extend to the Haitian lwa. For instance, Legba continues to be of primary importance as the first god invoked in ritual ceremonies, retaining his African messenger function of opening up paths of communication to the spirit world.

Still, Roland Pierre recognized a stronger Fon influence on Haitian vodun. He attributed this to the fact that there were a significant number of “qualified people and exiled priests from Dahomey who were deported as slaves to the Antilles,” and that these Dahomeans had a “will to power” which allowed them to “impose their religious domination on the other ethnic groups” brought to Haiti as slaves. Pierre further speculated that the “Dahomean religious architecture” provided an over-riding structure in which to integrate the “religious conceptions brought to America” by a number of African peoples including Bantus, Sudanese, Achanti, Ewe, Haoussa, Peuhls, Ouoloffs and Yorubas.39 If Pierre’s observations are correct, the ability of the remnants of the Dahomean religion in Haiti to co-opt influences from other religious practices parallels the Fon’s incorporation of deities, such as the Yoruba Esu, from conquered peoples in Africa. Regardless of whether this parallel can be conclusively proven, in the integration of the various African traditions and beliefs brought to the New World, as well as under the influence of French colonial Catholicism, significant transformations in the character of Legba occurred.

Legba and Kalfou

As mentioned in the first part of this paper, the deity Esu has (at least) two aspects in Haitian worship – Legba (also Papa Legba or Legba Atibon) and Kalfou (or Carrefour). Legba, whose name is exactly that of the Fon deity, is among the Rada lwa, or gods, who are associated with benevolent, intimate day-to-day protection of their devotees. Donald Consentino noted that this Rada version of Legba seems to be more of a fragile doorman than the powerful African keeper of the crossroads. In Haiti, Papa Legba is depicted as an old man whose symbols are the crutch or walking stick, and a straw bag. Here Legba’s crutch is a debilitating exaggeration of the African deities’ spiritual limp caused from striding between spirit and earthly worlds. In ceremonies Legba’s “horse,” i.e. the devotee who will become possessed by the lwa, is further outfitted in blue jeans, work shirt, straw hat and “Eshu pipe.” Legba’s age and modest attributes contrast not only with the virile Esu with his lavish cape of cowries, but with the youthful Marasa, or twins, Haitian figures who now join Legba at the transitional point of the crossroads and, like Legba, are invoked at the beginning of a vodun service.39 Consentino suggested that the journey from Africa to the New World aged the god, citing the following vodun verse:

Kandio Legba, you are an old spirit An old man from Dahomey Walking in the public roads. Legba, you are an old spirit, An innocent spirit, an African spirit. You are old, an old spirit from Arada. Since the beginning of the world You have been the guardian of the entrances. Legba, you are very old.

This depiction of Legba emphasizes the physical, mental and spiritual distance traveled by Africans brought to Haiti as slaves, equating innocence with Africa and a sort of world-weariness with the incarnation of the lwa in Haiti. Scholars have alternately taken the physical decrepitude of the Haitian Legba as a sign of the “degradation,” or fading of the African roots of vodun, a “fossilization” which preserves the traditional roots within a New World structure, or a “recombination” of the god’s past attributes with influences specific to the Haitian experience.40

Legba facilitates ceremonies and worship by acting as a channel to the realm of the Haitian lwa, a mythical city known as Ville-aux-Camps, and by interpreting the many languages of the lwa for their devotees, much like his African counterpart. A Haitian invocation of Legba places him in the role of divine gatekeeper

Atibo Legba, open the gates (to Ville-aux-Camps) for me Papa Legba, open the gates so that I might enter When I will go (to Ville-aux-Camps) I will salute the loas Vodun Lega, open the gates for me, When I will go in, I will thank the loas.41

As in African practice, Haitain vodun requires that practitioners communicate daily with the spirit world and specific lwa for guidance, and Legba, even in his weakened physical state, remains at the pivotal crossroads of this communication.42

Kalfou, who seems to be analogous to Carrefour, is the Petwo counterpart of Legba. The Petwo deities are far more fiery and severe than the Rada, representing the power of foreigners and outsiders as expropriated by Haitian vodun. Karen McCarthy Brown wrote: “the Petro lwa represent an effort to expropriate the power of slaveholding…and to use that power against itself.”43 In the Haitian “wheel” of cosmic time, described by Robert Farris Thompson, Legba Atibon surrenders his daytime position at the crossroads to Kalfou Legba-Petwo once the sun sets. Kalfou then rules the crossroads at night, giving up his place to yet another lwa, Kadja-Bosou, at dawn. Indeed, the French version of Kalfou’s name, “Mait Carrefour” translates to “Master of the Crossroads.” Carrefour, in contrast to Legba, is a vigorous lwa that takes the form of a strong man in the prime of his life. Carrefour’s body is a physical manifestation of the cross as he holds his powerful arms straight out to the sides. Misfortune and the negative aspects of fate, once totally encompassed in the complex ambiguity of the African Esu, are emodied in the darker Petwo figure of Carrefour rather than Papa Legba.

Thompson remarked on the similarities of Legba and Kalfou’s vèvès, the cosmograms drawn on the ground in flour with cornmeal and other materials and used to call on lwa during Haitian vodun ceremonies. Both are based on a symbol representing the crossroads (as is the vèvè of the Marasa); however, Thompson observed that Legba has a “Dahomeanizing”-type vèvè, where Kalfou’s is “Kongoized” (fig. 5, 6). Visually, this dichotomy refers to the emphasis on the two main axes of Legba’s vèvè, indicating the main “power lines” of the cardinal directions, which in Fon mythology outline the four directions that Mawu traveled when she fashioned the universe,44 versus curvilinear lines that intersect the main cross in Kalfou’s vèvè. Thompson’s comparison seems to indicate that the different physical embodiments of Esu in Haiti are a function of various African influences, with Legba’s vèvè bearing out the strong Dahomean influence identified by Pierre .45 While Cosentino emphasized that Carrefour does not have a direct African antecedent, clearly pre-existing characteristics of the Dahomean Legba and, in Thompson’s as well as Richard Morris’ analysis, Kongo religious forms have shaped this New World lwa.46

The Ghede

One of the most striking differences between the Haitain Legba and the African forms of the god is the aged Papa Legba’s lack of “tricksterism” and robust sexuality. Karen McCarthy Brown speculates: “For a people so brutally cut off from their ancestral roots, tricksterism may have been unbearable in the spirit responsible for communication between humans and their protective spirits.”47 Even Carrefour, despite his more vigorous form and his relation to ill-chance, is not associated with mischief and promiscuity. A third group, the Ghede (which at times refers to numerous spirits who are distinct from the lwa and at others is the name of just one such figure), instead, take on qualities of mischievous humor and sexuality, as well as seem to share the African Esu/Legba’s defining aspect of ambiguity. Maya Deren wrote specifically of Ghede, God of the Dead, as inhabiting a crossroads that is the inverse of Papa Legba’s position. In contrast to the Haitian Legba, whose symbolic color is white and who is invoked at the beginning of a vodun ceremony, Ghede’s color is black and he is called on at the end of a ceremony. While Legba acts as the passage to the “life source” that is the world of the lwa, Ghede represents the transition between life and the “cosmic cemetary of souls” also located in the spirit realm. Both life and death intersect in Ghede. Thus Ghede’s overt sexuality, and his association with the phallus, is coupled with his darker attributes, including his connection to the grave. Indeed, Ghede is represented by both phallic and cross shapes, like the African Esu (fig. 7). Further, Ghede has a reputation for stirring up trouble, and seems to take on the trickster role of Esu. At the same time, Ghede is also considered a healer and protector of children. Interestingly, the colors of Ghede are maroon and black, the same color as the beads worn by Yoruba devotees to Esu (see discussion of “Shrines, Sacrifices and Offerings” in part one). The overlap of qualities between Ghede and the African Esu/Legba are many, and suggest that this group of Haitian spirits are yet another New World permutation of Esu, and the complex observations and responses to life which the deity manifests.48

Catholic “Correspondences”

Another transformative influence on the practice of vodun in Haitit was colonial Catholicism. The French colonial church in Haiti imposed strict limitations on vodun, restricting all practices that were connected to Africa, such as the beating of drums. The Code Noir of 1685 required that all slaves be baptized as Catholics within eight days of arriving in Haiti. Both Leslie Gerald Desmangles and Roland Pierre argued that the result of these impositions by the Catholic church was not so much an adoption of Catholic practices and symbols, but a practical layering of Catholic symbols on top of vodun worship. In other words, practitioners of vodun developed a system of correspondences between their lwa and cosmology and Catholic saints and symbols in order to create a “Catholic cloak,” or “white mask” to put over their “black skin”.49

Specific correspondences can be found in the worship of Legba, in Haiti. For instance, Legba is associated with St. Peter, the saint who stands at the gates of heaven, just as Legba resides at the gate to the Ville-aux-Camps. St. Lazarus, with his rags and sores, is also connected to the impoverished Haitian incarnation of Legba.50 From Desmangles point of view, in this correspondence, the vodun devotees are not worshipping St. Peter or St. Lazarus, rather they are worshipping an African based deity under the cover of a Catholic symbol. The vehicles for this correspondence are chromolithographs of the saints, which are used as visual representations of the lwa.

Similarly, the cross is first and foremost a vodun symbol, although it corresponds to a Catholic symbol. As has been shown above, the cross is at the heart of Legba’s vèvè. Furthermore, the cross acts as diagram of the vodun conception of the cosmic universe in which the world of man is separated horizontally from the world of the lwa with a vertical axis acting as a means of communication and mediation between the two. Legba facilitates communication at the intersection of these axes. This cruciform scheme of interaction between the spiritual and the earthly is also manifest in the design of Haitian peristyles, or temples, in which the poteau mitan, or central vertical pole (which is associated with Legba), “crosses” the horizon of the floor and serves as a physical channel of communication between men and lwa. Like Thompson with his characterization of Legba’s “Dahomeanizing”-type vèvè, Desmangles emphasized that the Haitian use and interpretation of the cross shape is directly related to the Dahomean conception of the cosmic universe rather than the Catholic meanings behind the symbol.51 Thus while Westerners may recognize the crosses used in vodun (such as the those featured in The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou sculpted by Haitian artist Georges Liataud which include figures of Legba and/or Kalfou), as representing the Christian crucifixion, there is a preceding African based meaning to the symbol (fig. 8, 9, 10).

Conclusion

In summary, in Haiti the complexity and potency of Esu as sexualized, trickster at the crossroads seems to have been mitigated, with the division of the god’s main aspects into the two deities Legba and Kalfou, following the Haitian scheme of Rada and Petwo lwa, and the Ghede spirit(s). In Legba and Kalfou, Esu retains his function as facilitator of ritual and communication, and his association with the transitional space of the crossroads. The Haitian Legba and Kalfou are far less ambiguous figures than the African versions of the deity, taking the respective shapes of a benevolent old man watching the crossroads during the day and a more foreboding and vigorous man keeping watch at night. The Ghede, although not directly linked to an African antecedent, does seem to manifest the African Esu’s ambiguity, sexuality and mischievous behavior. The transformation of Esu into these three forms seems to have been a consequence of slavery during which peoples from many parts of Africa were brought to the New World where their religious practices blended and took on new expressions under a regime of oppression and persecution. The extreme restrictions placed on the practice of vodun by the colonial Catholic Church further created a system of correspondences in which the lwa and symbols of vodun were layered over with Catholic imagery to allow worship without persecution. These correspondences extended to the worship of Legba, whose role as spiritual gatekeeper and connection to the cross, translated into primary associations with St. Peter and the Christian cross. It is worth noting that the transformations of Esu in other areas of the New World were not necessarily the same as in Haiti. Roger Bastide observed that in Brazil, Exu was seen as, “the liberator of the slaves and as enemy of the enslaver.” Furthermore, Thompson observed shrines to Exu in Brazil, which have prominent phallic elements and are associated with the settling of disputes as Exu is still seen as the instigator of arguments.52

As Cosentino concisely stated: “Gods are derived from matter that can be neither created nor destroyed, only endlessly transformed.” 53 The transformations of Esu are multi-faceted and likely unending. Returning to the first part of this paper, an initial transformation of the god can be traced from Yorubaland to Dahomey, in which the Fon co-opted the Yoruba Esu into their own cosmology as Legba. This transformation is then multiplied with Esu’s incarnations in the New World, as outlined in part two of this paper. Specifically in Haiti, the roles and even the physique of Legba proper shrink in comparison to the African Esu. However, the Haitian Legba is supplemented or joined by Kalfou, Ghede and even the Marasa, entities which are themselves iterations and expansions of Esu. This persistence of the main aspects of Esu – his connection to mediation, ambiguity, trickery and sexuality - in one or numerous new forms indicates a fundamental continuum in vodun world-views (including a consistent recognition of the importance of daily communication between the world of men and gods and the vagaries of fate) despite the geographic and historical differences of devotees’ experiences.

Notes Part I

1. For literary perspectives of Esu see: Euba, Femi. Archetypes, Imprecators, and Victims of Fate: Origins and Developments of Satire in Black Drama. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. and Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

2. See page 36 in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Henry Louis Gates quotes the Yoruba sayings that, “Esu’s One, infinitely multiplied” and Esu is considered, “infinite in number, or Orisirisi Esu….”

3. McKenzie, Peter. Hail Orisha! A Phenomenology of a West African Religion in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. New York: Brill, 1997, pages 43-44.

4. See Euba, Femi. Archetypes, Imprecators, and Victims of Fate: Origins and Developments of Satire in Black Drama. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989, page 18.

5. See Karen McCarthy Brown’s article Systematic Remembering, Systematic Forgetting in Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, edited by Susan Barnes, 2nd edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997, page 84.

6. Davis, Rod. American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1998, page 364.

7. See Donald J. Cosentino’s article Repossession in Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, edited by Susan Barnes, 2nd edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997, for a discussion of “Eshu type” hero in contrast to “Ogun type” heroes such as John Henry, Stagolee and High John de Conquer, page 312.

8. Rigaud, Milo. Secrets of Voodoo. New York: Pocket Books, 1971, pages 29 – 30.

9. See McKenzie’s Hail Orisha! A Phenomenology of a West African Religion in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. New York: Brill, 1997, pages 43-44 and 468 – 470.

10. ibid. page 64.

11. Blier, Suzanne Preston. African Vodun. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995, page 23.

12. Rod Davis quotes these figures from Hugh Thomas’ book The Slave Trade in American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1998, page 7.

13. See Consentino’s Repossession in Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, edited by Susan Barnes, 2nd edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997, pages 296-297; Rod Davis, in American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1998, pages 33 and 177; and Richard Farris Thompson Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993, pages 174-176 and The Three Warriors: Atlantic Altars of Esu, Ogun and Osoosi. in The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts. editors: Rowland Abiodun, Henry J. Drewal and John Pemberton III. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994, pages 225 –228.

14. Herskovits, Melville J. The Backgrounds of African Art. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1967, pages 39-40.

15. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 14.

16. The myths recounted here combine aspects from Melville J. Herskovits. The Backgrounds of African Art. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1967, page 39 and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, pages 23-24.

17. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 25.

18. ibid., pages 27 –28.

19. Fagg, William, John Pemberton 3rd, and Bryce Holcombe, editor. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, page 92 and Richard Farris Thompson, The Three Warriors: Atlantic Altars of Esu, Ogun and Osoosi in The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts. Editors: Rowland Abiodun, Henry J. Drewal and John Pemberton III. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994, page 227.

20. Fagg, William, John Pemberton 3rd, and Bryce Holcombe, editor. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, page 92.

21. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 1.

22. Awolalu, J. Omosade. Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites. London: Longman Group Limited, 1979, pages 28-30.

23. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, pages 33-35.

24. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 27.

25. Thompson, Richard Farris. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993, page 176.

26. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 36.

27. ibid.

28. For discussions of female deities associated with Esu see Suzanne Preston Blier’s article Vodun: West African Roots of Voudou in Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. edited by Donald J. Cosentino. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995, page 83; Milo Rigaud. Secrets of Voodoo. New York: Pocket Books, 1971, page 62; and Richard Farris Thompson. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993, page 180.

29. For discussion of Esu’s liminality as expressed in terms of gender and lameness, see Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, pages 6, 27; William Fagg, John Pemberton 3rd, and Bryce Holcombe, editor. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, page 92; and Richard Farris Thompson, The Three Warriors: Atlantic Altars of Esu, Ogun and Osoosi in The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts. editors: Rowland Abiodun, Henry J. Drewal and John Pemberton III. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994, page 27.

30. Thompson, Richard Farris. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993, page 177-78.

31. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 15.

32. For myths relating Esu to laterite see Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 36; Richard Farris Thompson. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993, page 174; and Femi Euba. Archetypes, Imprecators, and Victims of Fate: Origins and Developments of Satire in Black Drama. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989, page 18.

33. Fagg, William, John Pemberton 3rd, and Bryce Holcombe, editor. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, page 92.

34. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 7.

35. McKenzie, Peter. Hail Orisha! A Phenomenology of a West African Religion in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. New York: Brill, 1997, especially pages 142 and 424.

36. Both Femi Euba. Archetypes, Imprecators, and Victims of Fate: Origins and Developments of Satire in Black Drama. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989, pages 27, 37-40 and J. Omosade Awolalu. Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites. London: Longman Group Limited, 1979, pages 29-30, 163-166 treat the subject of shrines and sacrifices.

37. For visual representations of Esu in the New World see Rod Davis. American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1998, pages 45, 191-197; Richard Farris Thompson’s Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993, pages 174 – 176; and Randall Morris. The Style of His Hand: The Iron Art of Georges Liautaud. in Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Donald J. Cosentino, editor. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.

Notes Part II

38. Pierre, Roland. Caribbean Relgion: The Voodoo Case. Sociological Analysis. 1977, 38:1, page 28.

39. Houlberg, Marilyn. Magique Marasa: The Ritual Cosmos of Twins and Other Sacred Children in Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Donald J. Cosentino, editor. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995, pages 268-269.

40. Consentino, Donald. Who is that Fellow in the Many-colored Cap? Journal of American Folklore. July 1987, v. 100: no. 397. The aging of Legba is discussed in pages 265 – 67.

41. Desmangles, Leslie Gerald. African Interpretations of the Christian Cross in Vodun. Sociological Analysis. 1977, 38, 1, page 16.

42. Deren, Maya. The Corpse on the Crossroads. Parabola. Fall 1993. page 77.

43. Brown, Karen McCarthy. Systematic Remembering, Systematic Forgetting in Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, edited by Susan Barnes, 2nd edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997, page 84.

44. Desmangles, Leslie Gerald. African Interpretations of the Christian Cross in Vodun. Sociological Analysis. 1977, 38, 1, page 18.

45. Thompson, Richard Farris. From the Isle Beneath the Sea: Haiti’s Africanizing Vodou Art. in Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Donald J. Cosentino, editor. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995, pages 103-104.

46. Consentino, Donald. Who is that Fellow in the Many-colored Cap? Journal of American Folklore. July 1987, v. 100: no. 397, and Richard Morris. The Style of his Hand: The Iron Art of George Liautaud in The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Donald J. Cosentino, editor. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995, page 389.

47. Brown, Karen McCarthy. Systematic Remembering, Systematic Forgetting in Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, edited by Susan Barnes, 2nd edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997, page 84.

48. Both Cosentino and Deren discuss the Ghede in relationship to Legba and the symbolism of the cross. See Who is that Fellow in the Many-colored Cap? Journal of American Folklore. July 1987, v. 100: no. 397 and The Corpse on the Crossroads. Parabola. Fall 1993.

49. See Roland Pierre’s Caribbean Relgion: The Voodoo Case. Sociological Analysis. 1977, 38:1, p. 29 and Leslie Gerald Desmangles’ African Interpretations of the Christian Cross in Vodun. Sociological Analysis. 1977, 38, 1.

50. Consentino, Donald. Who is that Fellow in the Many-colored Cap? Journal of American Folklore. July 1987, v. 100: no. 397, page 266.

51. Desmangles, Leslie Gerald. African Interpretations of the Christian Cross in Vodun. Sociological Analysis. 1977, 38, 1 pages 20-22.

52. Roger Bastide is quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 31. For discussion of Exu altars and relation to disputes see Richard Farris Thompson’s Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993, page 174, and his The Three Warriors: Atlantic Altars of Esu, Ogun and Osoosi in The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts. Editors: Rowland Abiodun, Henry J. Drewal and John Pemberton III. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994, page 228.

53. Consentino, Donald. Who is that Fellow in the Many-colored Cap? Journal of American Folklore. July 1987, v. 100: no. 397, page 274.

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