The Lwa (also Loa) are the Spirits which are serve in Haitian Vodou. The Lwa were given to us to act as intermediaries between humans and Bondye (God). We don't worship the Lwa as god's, we serve them so that in turn they serve us. As for the origins of the Lwa themselves, the complexity of this can vary.
It's safe to say that the Lwa are ancestors. Some are older than others, such as Danballah Wedo, The Great Serpent who is considered to be the primordial creator of all life forms, and who also carries all of the ancestors on his back, therefore making him our first ancestor. Other examples of Lwa that were born as Spirits would include La Sirene and Met Agwe, the king and queen of the ocean, who ARE the seas themselves.
Next we have those that are ancient human ancestral spirits, which have been elevated to the Status of Lwa. Some of these include Papa Loko and Mambo Ayizan, who were the first Houngan and Mambo (vodou priest & priestess). Also included are Spirits like Erzulie Freda, Kouzen Azaka, San Jak Majeur & Ogou Feray. These are only a few that fall into this category.
Then there are the Lwa who were, in fact, Catholic Saints. We know from history that Vodouists had to sometimes disguise the Lwa by synchronizing them with Catholic Saints. However, not all of them were African Spirits undercover. Lwa, like Filomez (St. Philomena), Klemezin (St. Clair), St. Jude and St. Michael are a just a few Catholic Saints which have been elevated to the status of Lwa.
A nanchon (or nation) are a group of Spirits specific to a geographical area of West Africa, demonstrating where they originated. In Haiti, during the days of slavery, while performing their religious ceremonies, the slaves honored the ancestral Spirits of all the ethnic groups living on the plantation. Whether they were originally of the Fon of Dahomey, the Yoruba, or any other tribe, each group's Spirits are given their proper due, and were split into different nations, called nanchon. In the ceremony, each nanchon of Spirits were invoked and honored in their own turn. In turn this formed a hierarchy of Spirits that contributed directly to the present-day Vodou ritual in which the different Spirits are named and saluted in a specific order, according to their nanchon.
The "white" group known as the Rada are the first to be greeted. From Dahomey, they are the oldest Spirits of Vodou, first created by Bondye, and are known to be cooler in nature. Their holy day is Thursday. Well known Rada Spirits are as follows:
This is just a short list of the Rada Spirits.
Originating in Nigeria (in particular the Yoruba speaking tribes), these are the warriors of the Lwa and are associated with fire. Their color is typically red and their Holy day is Wednesday. Common Nago Spirits are as follows:
Ogou Ge Rouge
...and that's not all of them!
Everyone's favorite, the Petro are powerful and hot! Known for their aggressive and explosive personalities, they work fast and they don't play! Most of which are strictly Haitian, Maitress Erzulie Dantor (Queen of the Petr)o was the main Spirit responsible for giving Haiti its independence. Their Holy day is Tuesday and their colors tend to be fiery red. Some of the Petro are:
Grand Chemin Petro
Legba Nan Petro
Marassa Nan Petro
Danballah La Flambeau
Ti Jean Dantor/Petro
Erzulie Ge Rouge
Erzulie La Flambeau
The Gede are the Spirits of death, and are the last to come down at the end of the ceremony. They love their hot peppered rum and some are known to be quite the sharp dressers. Loud, obnoxious, and vulgar, they love to dance and tell dirty jokes, but are great fun! They are kind of like party crashers at the end of the ceremony! Above this, they are fierce protectors of children and can remove bad spirits and clear away evil work. They are also extremely good in healing work and in some cases can stop death. Their Holy day is Friday and their colors are purple, black, white. Here are some of the Gede served in Vodou:
Thats just the beginning of the guest list.
Different from how Catholics pray to the Saints, the Lwa are not just prayed to, they are served on a regular basis. Each having specific personalities and characteristics, they are living Spirits, thus separating themselves from the common archetype. By recognizing their likes and dislikes, sacred days, colors, symbols, songs and dances and also foods and drinks, the servitor is able to properly connect with the Lwa, therefore forging a mutual working relationship--a kind of give and receive partnership which becomes beneficial to all.
The process of figuring out which Spirits one serves can at times be complicated. When first starting out, it is always best to consult a competent Houngan or Mambo to learn how to do this properly. Just deciding to simply call on a Spirit at random could be a waste of time, and in some cases risky. They may simply ignore you and leave you with nothing in return, or in the case of some Spirits, can and may get very offended.
After your ancestors, the first Spirit that must be served is Papa Legba. Without Legba, we cannot gain access to the Lwa. Legba is first called to "open the way" to the Lwa. It is not possible to call on any of the Lwa without first properly asking Legba to open the gate to the world of the Spirits. This can leave you confused and disorientated, without any real connection.
From the drum, to Gran Chemin who leads the way to Papa Legba. Legba is the Spirit of communication and speaks all human languages. Known as Legba Atibon, Papa Legba, Legba Ti Yanyan, Vye Legba, Legba Zaou, and Legba Nan Petro. For the most part we simply call him Legba. He holds the key to the spirit world, and opens the gate so that we may communicate with the Lwa when called. Papa Legba not only opens the door to the invisible world of the spirits, but he also opens the way for us, removing all obstacles that we may achieve our goals. Legba is like the wise grandfather. He is wise, humble and kind, and can answer all questions.
Supreme Chief of Haitian Vodou, Ati Max Beauvoir, describes Legba as such "The Divinity that represents Humility and Communication. So humble and benevolent is Papa Legba, that He never needs sacrifices of pigs, bulls, or big fiesta to be done in His honor. He is happy with the modest cup of coffee, a fistful of grilled or roasted corn or peanuts, some tobacco that he smokes in a noticeably simple pipe made of little bamboo and corncob. He goes constantly throughout the 'great road of Life,' that is why He is also called 'Met Gran Chemen' or the Master of the Road. He stops here and there at the entrances of every Hounfo, just the time to distribute graciously His thoughtful advises to Houngans and Mambos."
Altars to Legba are typically erected indoors near the entrance of the home or at the entrance to the temple room. Correspondences for Legba are :
Saint: St. Lazarus
Holy Day: Monday in some houses, but in our house he is served on Thursday.
Colors: purple & yellow
Animals: dogs; Legba is accompanied by his spirit dogs
Objects: keys, crutches, cane, djakout Legba, corn cob pipe, tobacco, cigars, loose change.
Candles: yellow and purple (the 7-day type)
Drink: vodka or klairin
Foods: coffee (sweetened) toasted corn nuts, peanuts, cui, sliced broiled plantain, salted fish, sweet potato,
sugar cane syrup, small white plate with half sugar on one side and other half coffee.
When beginning your service to Legba, make sure you have a glass of cool water on his altar and a lit white candle in one hand, and another cup of fresh water in the other hand. Offer them to the East, West, North, and South (creating a crossroads). Begin with your opening prayers (one Our Father, three Hail Marys, one Apostle's Creed). Now focus all your attention on Legba, concentrating as hard as you can. When ready call to him three times with the following invocation:
"Papa Legba open the door for me, Atibon Legba open the door for me. Open the gate for me Papa so I can
pass; When I return, I will thank the Lwa."
Now pour three small portions of water on the ground, pouring right, left, then center in front of his altar. Now you may place any offerings you have for him. Remember always offer everything East, West, North, South, FIRST, before placing them before him. Now you can sit and spend some time with Legba. Talk to him like you would an elder. It's best in the beginning not to ask for too much, allowing time for the relationship to develop. Pray for a stronger and growing relationship with him. Express to him your goals and ask him to remove any obstacles that stand in your way. Tell him that you are giving him these offerings so that he will help you, and don't forget to thank him in advance as well as for the blessings he's already done for you.
Legba always has a 7 day candle burning on his altar at all times. I use the glass encased 7 day candles because they are safe and they'll last until the next week when its time to serve Legba again. On Thursdays I refresh his water and replace the coffee/sugar on his plate. This is something I learned from my mother, that can be maintained to ensure obstacles are cleared while achieving my goals.
Allow the candles to burn themselves out completely. The next day take any food offerings (you can leave the sugar/coffee grounds) and place them in a paper bag and leave them at the base of a tree, in some brush, or in a wooded area where they won't be found.
After establishing your relationship with Papa Legba, you'll find that other Spirits will start making themselves known to you. This can often occur in your dreams. These subtle introductions will be your first clues as to which Spirits may or may not be a part of your esko. As I said before, you don't simply pick through a list of spirits and decide which ones you want to start serving. It is important to know which of the Spirits walk with you. These spirits, anywhere from a few to 7 or more, form what is known as ones individual esko or escort. Especially for an non-initiate, you are expected to learn which spirits are closest to you. Consulting a Houngan and Mambo can help reveal which Spirits walk with you. These are the spirits that already know you and some, like your Met Tet (master of your head), have been with you since birth.
Your Met Tet is your most important Spirit, and will be the one you are closest to. Learning their identity is traditionally divined during the Lave Tet (head washing) ceremony. Other times your Met Tet may reveal itself to you during a Fet (feast), by coming down and claiming you. This is usually your first possession and even if the Spirit doesn't completely mount you, they may simply "pass over" you, signifying their ownership. Other times simply observing your own qualities, attractions, likes and dislikes, can give you clues to who your Met Tet might be. When you're ready, a Lave Tet is the first step to properly learning how to serve the correct Spirits.
It takes discipline and commitment to develop a strong working relationship with the Spirits. Over time your relationship will grow stronger and stronger and you will learn to trust the spirits that are with you. Take care of the Spirits and they will take care of you.