A brief explanation about the Lwas
Image by Lars Nissen at Pixabay
The Lwa can be considered to be the soul of Vodou. So, although themes like ritualistic are very interesting, perhaps nothing is more important for those who want to understand Vodou better than to understand the Lwa with a little more clarity.
The term Lwa, it is estimated to have come from the Yoruba Oluwa, which means "lord" or "master". Still, it is possible that it is a corruption of Fon lon (also lô, lò, loé and lwè) that is equivalent to “beyond”, “sky” and “ghost” *. Another possibility, not so widespread, is that it comes from the Yoruba Babalawo **. In any case, the two words already give strong indications of the meaning of the Lwa, who besides being mysteries of a spiritual world, exercise authority both in the cult and in the lives of the servants.
Maya Deren in her seminal work on Vodou explains that the Lwa are not merely spirits who are summoned or provoked. They are part of the Haitians' own physical constitution and can be inherited, as well as family traits ***. Therefore, these spirits are real and are present. Despite this, the relationship with the Lwa, of course, is not like the relationship with human beings and, therefore, is governed by special rules and presents several peculiarities.
As already said, the Lwa are intermediaries between God and humans. Therefore, many understand that they are like Angels or like Catholic Saints. They are beings that are not exactly Gods, but that are of a different nature or even superior to human nature. These spirits can show themselves in the world of humans but they would have "residency" elsewhere. Concordance about this location, however, is scarce. Sometimes it is understood that it is a mythical Africa, the legendary city of Ifé, sometimes an island under the sea and other times, more specifically, in a also mythical village.
Of course the nature of the Lwa also partially determines their "home". For example, marine Lwas are understood to also live at sea. While others inhabit caves, mountains, trees etc. In fact, although they are in this other world, the Lwa are apparently very present in the material world. There are even reports of Lwas that were sighted in a field or on a road, similar to apparitions of Saints in the Catholic world.
Since the Saints were introduced to the discussion, one of the most striking features of Vodou is its strong hybridization or syncretism. The Lwas are often associated with certain Catholic Saints, such as Ogou Feray, syncretized with Saint James or Papa Legba, with Saint Lazarus. The mechanisms by which this syncretism occurred are the subject of constant discussion and do not fall within the scope of this essay. It is suffice to comment that the motivation behind syncretism often appears not to be in common characteristics, but in certain elements of the images of the saints. For example, Saint Lazarus is probably associated with Papa Legba because of his crutches, and the Lwa, in turn, uses a cane.
However, syncretism should not be understood as something fragile or accessory. In fact, it is a phenomenon widely observed in Vodou and is closely connected to the mechanics of this religiosity. Some link this to a strong Congolese influence, marked by a characteristic fluidity. In any case, this syncretism is inseparable from Vodou, whatever its origin.
Sérgio Ferretti says that for Roberto Motta, syncretism cannot be a mere disguise or it would not have lasted as long. Thus, Ferretti states that Motta understands that syncretism is experienced with all its inconsistencies. Still, Ferretti also mentions that it is possible that syncretism is, in fact, a process of synthesis, where each one gains new contours ****.
The discussion about syncretism is complex. It must be understood that it is part of the formation process of Vodou and that it is certainly connected to all the dynamics of this spirituality. Thus, agreeing with Roberto Motta, it is better to accept syncretism sn his apparent inconsistencies.
The Lwa are mainly divided into three categories: Rada, Petwo and Ghede. In general we can state that: Rada spirits are understood as spirits that came from Africa and are usually more peaceful. The Petwo are spirits of Congolese origin, although it is also understood that they are the result of the suffering experienced by slaves in Haiti. Therefore, they are more agitated and aggressive. The Ghede are the Lwa associated with the dead and death (and, therefore, also with life, in yet another apparent contradiction that enriches Vodou). Despite the ominous theme, they are surprisingly popular as they are festive and subversive.
The Ghede are a particularly curious case because they encompass countless spirits of the dead. This creates some disagreement and difficulty in understanding and agreeing on their "hierarchy" in the spirit classes. Some authors and practitioners understand that they would be below the Ancestors in a measure of relevance within the Vodou cosmogony. Others do not differentiate them from the other Lwas.
The number of Lwas is incalculable. Because of the familiar link in Vodou and of the Ghede and of deified ancestors, new Lwas can always appear (it should alway be considered that the discussion about the role and nature of deified ancestors, biological ancestors and the dead is complex and without apparent consensus). Even if this did not happen, the number of spirits would already be enormous and with the variations from house to house and lineage to lineage, the job of cataloging these entities would be massive.
* ACKERMANN, GAUTIER & MOMPLASIR. Les Esprits du Vodou Haitien. 2011. Educa Vision Inc. Página 31
** GILLES, J. & GILLES, Y. Remembrance; Roots, Rituals and Reverence in Vodou. 2009. Página 38
***DEREN, M. Divine Horsemen: The living gods of Haiti. 1983. McPherson.
******* FERRETTI, S. Repensando o sincretismo. 2013. Arché Editora.