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Printed in Hamburg in the 1880s, this poster of a snake charmer gave rise to the common image of the loa Mami Wata.
Printed in Hamburg in the 1880s, this poster of a snake charmer gave rise to the common image of the lwa Mami Wata.

Lwa are the spirits of Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo.[1]:229 They are intermediaries between Bondye (from French Bon Dieu, meaning "good God") — the Supreme 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 lwa are not deities in and of themselves; they are intermediaries for, and dependent on, a distant Bondye or god.[1]:219


The word lwa comes from Yoruba olúwa (meaning "lord" or "god").[2][3][4]


The enslaved Fon and Ewe in Haiti and Louisiana syncretized the lwa with the Catholic saints—vodoun altars will frequently display images of Catholic saints. For example, Papa Legba is syncretized with Saint Peter or Lazarus of Bethany.[5]

Syncretism also works the other way in Haitian Vodou and many Catholic saints have become lwa in their own right, most notably Philomena, the archangel Michael, Jude the Apostle, and John the Baptist.


In a ritual the lwa are called down by the houngan (priest), mambo (priestess), or the bokor and the caplata (sorcerers and witches) to take part in the service, receive offerings, and grant requests. The lwa arrive in the peristyle (ritual space) by mounting (possessing) a horse (ritualist) in Creole referred as "Chwal"—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,[5]:62 but some lwa, such as Ayizan, will mount their "horses" very quietly.

Certain lwa display very distinctive behavior by which they can be recognized, specific phrases, and specific actions. As soon as a lwa is recognized, the symbols appropriate to them will be given to them. For example, Erzulie Freda will be given a glass of pink champagne, she is sprinkled with her perfumes, fine gifts of food will be presented to her or she even puts on her jewelry; Legba will be given his cane, straw hat, and pipe; Baron Samedi will often fall flat on the floor and the vodousants around him will dress him and prepare him as they do in a morgue with cotton in his nose.

Sculpture of the loa Legba, who serves as the intermediary between the loa and humanity. Legba often appears as an old man, but in Benin, Nigeria and Togo, he is typically young and often horned and phallic.
Sculpture of the lwa Legba, who serves as the intermediary between the lwa and humanity. Legba often appears as an old man, but in Benin, Nigeria and Togo, he is typically young and often horned and phallic.

Once the lwa have arrived, fed, been served, and possibly given help or advice, they leave the peristyle. Certain lwa can become obstinate, for example the Guédé 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.


There are many families or "nanchon" (from "nations") of lwa: Rada (also Radha), Petwo (also Pethro, Petwo), Nago, Kongo, and Gede among others.

Rada Lwa[edit]

The Rada lwa are generally older, as many of these spirits come from Africa and the kingdom of Dahomey. The rada lwa are mainly water spirits and many of the rada lwa are served with a water. The Rada are "Cool" in the sense they are less aggressive than the Petro. They include Legba, Loko, Ayizan, Damballa Wedo and Ayida-Weddo, Maîtresse Mambo Erzulie Fréda Dahomey, La Sirène, and Agwé. Many of these spirits are served with white, sometimes in conjunction with another color. For example, Damballa may take white and green in some Vodou houses, or just white in others. Freda may take white and pink in one house, or pink and light blue in another. However, as a rule of thumb, white is a color appropriate to all the Rada.

Petwo Lwa[edit]

The Petwo lwa are generally the more fiery, occasionally aggressive and warlike lwa, 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. As with the Rada, additional colors may be associated with individual Petwo. Dantor will be served with red, but in different houses may additionally take navy blue, green, or gold.

Kongo Lwa[edit]

Originating from the Congo region, these lwa include the many Simbi lwa. It also includes Marinette, a fierce and much feared female lwa.

Nago Lwa[edit]

Originating from Yorubaland, this nation includes many of the Ogoun lwa, most of whom use 'Ogou' as a sort of family name. Examples include Ogou Feray, a martial soldier lwa; Ogou Bdagris, a wiser general; Ogou Panama, often viewed as a pilot (and an example of how lwa can subdivide as the world changes); and Ogou Balendjo, who serves on the ship of the Rada ocean lwa Agwe.

Gede Lwa[edit]

The Gede are the spirits of the unclaimed or unremembered dead, thus categorized separately from one's remembered ancestors. They are traditionally led by the Barons (La Croix, Samedi, Cimitière, Kriminel), and Maman Brigitte. The Gede 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 colors are black and purple. They are known for the banda, a dance they perform that mimics sexual intercourse.

Various Lwa[edit]

In other media[edit]

An adapted depiction of Loa appears in the second season of the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe television series Cloak & Dagger, as Papa Ledga, Baron Samedi and D'Spayre.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Anthony B. Pinn. "The African American Religious Experience in America" Greenwood Press, 2005.
  2. ^ Ramsey, Kate (2014). The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti. University of Chicago Press. p. 19. ISBN 9780226703817.
  3. ^ Anderson, Jeffrey (2015). The Voodoo Encyclopedia: Magic, Ritual, and Religion. ABC-CLIO. p. 166. ISBN 9781610692090.
  4. ^ Condon, Nancy; Mufwene, Salikoko (1993). Africanisms in Afro-American Language Varieties. University of Georgia Press. p. 148. ISBN 9780820314655.
  5. ^ a b Filan, Kenaz (2006). The Haitian Vodou Handbook: Protocols for Riding with the Lwa. Inner Traditions/Bear. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-59477-995-4.

External links[edit]