• Eduardo Regis

A case study about Legba

Frater Vameri

Legba from Dahomey. Image obtained from https://aminoapps.com/c/realmagick/amp/item/the-law-series-papa-legba-the-gatekeeper/7eg2_xV1CNIp3rqddome5JGwa4GYX7drpx


Donald Cosentino spent a period studying Papa Legba in Haiti in the 1980s. His studies left him convinced that Papa Legba is a good mirror for Haitian syncretism. I would like to comment briefly on Cosentino's findings, so that we can also better understand Vodou.


Cosentino begins by saying that the Legba of the Fon is a guardian of the crossroads and that the God Mawu Lisa itself would have placed him as such, so that he would observe and report everything that happens in the world of men and Gods. In order for Legba to accomplish this task Mawu Lisa gave him an understanding of all languages, thus, he became the messenger par excellence, in addition to a mere "watchman".


Legba's ability to translate is even more powerful, as the author also comments on how Legba is understood to be the one who “translates” Fa's divination to men. Cosetinto presents us with two more points: It is with Fa (in his feminine manifestation) that Legba also demonstrates his sexual virility and because of this relationship he ends up being punished for always having an erect penis and never being sexually satisfied; Also, the Fon tell stories of Legba as a musician in a funeral procession. This procession ends up murdering three women and Legba has sex with their bodies. The story has other elements, but it is worth saying that Legba presents himself dancing like a man who copulates.


Cosentino draws attention to the fact that Legba's penis represents union. Now, the carnal union here acts as a symbol of the union of the invisible with the visible. It is, moreover, a fertilizing element, which in addition to copulating, also makes life grow. That is, it does not act as a mere union, but ensures that it is also productive.


Readers of our website and those familiar with Vodou should certainly not be recognizing Papa Legba of Haiti, old and tired. It is true that Papa Legba is the messenger and guardian of the gates and that, yes, even old, his cane and the Poteau-mitan present phallic correlations. However, we see in the Legba of the Fon elements of Ghedeh, especially regarding sexual appetite and dance. We can then establish a connection between this deity of the Fon and multiple elements of Haitian Vodou.


In any case, the differences between the Legbas are striking. Cosentino quotes Alfred Métraux who says that Haiti made Legba less a messenger and more a “doorman”. What Métraux seems to suggest then is that Legba's role in Haiti is one of lesser complexity. Like he exists only to "open the gates" and let things happen by themselves. Unlike the Fon Legba, Haitian Legba wouldn't go back and forth to tell things, but it would only control traffic. Cosentino says that Maya Deren and Métraux see Haitian Legba as a shadow of what Fon Legba is. Thus, Métraux makes Legba, Cosentino explains, an example of how African spirits “degraded” themselves in the new world.


Cosentino does not seem to conform to this view (and I also disagree with it) and, therefore, he quickly highlights that in Haiti a legion of Mambos and Houngans serve the Lwa. In an interview with Max Beauvoir, this Houngan clarifies a little bit about what happened to Legba. Beauvoir says that Legba has aged due to the long journey from Africa to the new world. Throughout this time, maintaining communication with Africa has proved to be a very tiring task. Still, Beauvoir says that Legba "lost" his sexual power since his fertility is African and Haiti is not Africa.


With that, Cosentino goes further and tells us that if Legba is no longer able to cross the worlds, because he is tired, then someone who can must rise and that someone is Carrefour (Kalfou) that presents himself as an opposition to Legba. It is Carrefour, in Cosentino's understanding, that encompasses the characteristics of chance and danger, because Legba is more on the side of the Lwa and Carrefour and is more on the side of Haiti (and all their difficulties). Thus, Carrefour is a young man full of energy. Cosentino claims that Papa Legba and Carrefour would be the two extremes of Esú of the Yoruba (Although we have focused here on the discussion of the Legba of the Fon, Cosentino also comments about Esú and how these figures mix. For more information, see Cosentino's article ).


The phallus and the sexual appetite, however, Cosentino says that, in fact, was inherited by the Ghedeh. He quotes Maya Deren who wisely perceived a lineage between them saying that Legba was connected to Carrefour, which in turn had connections with Ghedeh. However, quite properly, Cosentino teaches us that the Ghedeh are not restricted to this lineage, since they have characteristics that are not present in Papa Legba and Carrefour, such as deceit, trickery, gluttony etc. However, these characteristics of a cheater are found in the Esú Elegba of the Yoruba, which (in the stories) causes discord because he pleases so.


Cosentino's work uses the figure of Legba from the Fon and Esú to think (as in a case study) about the bricolage and hybridism typical of Haitian Vodou. The clarity with which Max Beauvoir presents explanations for such complex phenomena is striking. It is the difference between the academic view and the view from the practitioner, perhaps. Although formal study can help us understand several issues, Beauvoir reminds me that there is no substitute for living the religion.


Reference: Cosentino, D. Who Is That Fellow in the Many-Colored Cap? Transformations of Eshu in Old and New World Mythologies.The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 100, No. 397 (Jul. - Sep., 1987), pp. 261-275

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