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The Loa (also Lwa or L'wha) are the spirits of Haitian Vodou. They are also referred to as Mystères and the Invisibles, in which are intermediaries between Bondye (Bon Dieu, or good god)—the Creator, who is distant from the world—and humanity. Unlike saints or angels however, they are not simply prayed to, they are served. They are each distinct beings with their own personal likes and dislikes, distinct sacred rhythms, songs, dances, ritual symbols, and special modes of service. Contrary to popular belief, the loa are not deities in and of themselves; they are intermediaries for a distant Bondye.
As a way to keep their European masters from interfering, and to appease the authorities who prevented them from practising their own religions, the African slaves in Haiti syncretised the Loa with the Roman Catholic saints - so Vodoun altars will frequently have images of Catholic figures displayed. For example, Papa Legba is alternately St. Peter or St. Lazarus, Ayizan is Saint Clare, and so on. Syncretism also works the other way in Haitian Vodou and many Catholic saints have become Loa in their own right, most notably Philomena, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Jude, and John the Baptist.
In a ritual the Loa are summoned by the Houngan (Priest), Mambo (Priestess) or Bokor (Sorcerers) to take part in the service, receive offerings, and grant requests. The Loa arrive in the peristyle (ritual space) by mounting (possessing) a horse (ritualist) - who is said to be "ridden." This can be quite a violent occurrence as the participant can flail about or convulse before falling to the ground, but some Loa, such as Ayizan, will mount their horses very quietly.
Certain Loa display very distinctive behaviour by which they can be recognized, specific phrases, and specific actions. As soon as a Loa is recognized, the symbols appropriate to them will be given to them. For example Erzulie Freda will be given a mirror and a comb, fine cloth or jewelry; Legba will be given his cane, straw hat and pipe; Baron Samedi will be given his top hat, sunglasses and a cigar.
Once the Loa have arrived, fed, been served, and possibly given help or advice, they leave the peristyle. Contrary to the Western perception of possession, a Loa has no need to remain in the horse (possessed ritualist). Certain Loa can become obstinate, for example the Ghede are notorious for wanting just one more smoke, or one more drink, but it is the job of the Houngan or Mambo to keep the spirits in line while ensuring they are adequately provided for.
Nanchons of Loa
The Rada loa are generally the older, more beneficent spirits, and are associated with the gods of Africa. They include Legba, Loko, Ayizan, Anaisa Pye, Dhamballah Wedo and Ayida-Weddo, Erzulie Freda, La Sirène, and Agwé. Their traditional colour is white (as opposed to the specific colours of individual Loa).
The Petro loa are generally the more fiery, occasionally aggressive and warlike Loa, and are associated with Haiti and the New World. They include Ezili Dantor, Marinette, and Met Kalfu (Maitre Carrefour, "Master Crossroads"). Their traditional colour is red.
The Ghede are the spirits of the dead. They are traditionally led by the Barons (La Croix, Samedi, Cimitière, Kriminel), and Maman Brigitte. The Ghede as a family are loud, rude (although rarely to the point of real insult), sexual, and usually a lot of fun. As those who have lived already, they have nothing to fear, and frequently will display how far past consequence and feeling they are when they come through in a service - eating glass, raw chillis, and anointing their sensitive areas with chilli rum for example. Their traditional colours are black and purple.
List of Loa
A selection of Loa follows: