Category Archive: Clarifying Misconceptions

Dec. 4 – Feast Day of St. Barbara/Changó

Changó on his birthday throne at the Santería Chuch of the Orishas 2013.

Changó on his birthday throne at the Santería Chuch of the Orishas 2013.

For many elders in the Lucumí religion, feast days of the Catholic saints associated with the orishas were honored as days for that orisha in the year. Today is December 4th, the feast of Saint Barbara. As Saint Barbara is syncretized with the orisha Changó, many elders in Lucumí will honor today as “Chango’s Day”. It’s important to understand that in the strictest sense it isn’t Chango’s day, but some of the older folk in the religion hold on to their Catholic elements. (As do many Spiritists!)

So for today I say “Kawo Kabiosile Changó, babá mi. Modupue fun gbogbo iré!” as he rules our church, and I salute all children of Changó. May our father defend us always and bless us forever!

What’s the Difference Between Legba, Eleggua, Eshu and Exu?!

An artist's depiction of Eleggua as a young child.

An artist’s depiction of Eleggua as a young child.

There seems to be a big misconception in online communities about who Eleggua is, how he’s related to Papa Legba, or Eshu, or even Exu. All too often, our western minds see similarities and draw equivalences between these entities but doing so is a big mistake. After a friend asked me what the difference was between these spirits, I decided to contact my friends in two other African Diasporic religions: Hougan Matt (Bozanfe Bon Ougan) a Hougan Asogwe of Haitian Vodou and ConjureMan Ali (Tata Alufa Mavambo Ngobodi Nzila) a Tata of Brazilian Quimbanda, and asked them to share their scholarly expertise to the following questions. Answers are listed side by side and color coded with Houngan Matt’s answers in blue, ConjureMan Ali’s answers in red and Rev. Dr. E.’s answers in green.

Just to clarify, Legba is from Haitian Vodou, Eleggua/Eshu is from Santería Lucumi (and consequently Yoruba religion) and Exu is from Brazilian Quimbanda (and Umbanda). These are three different classes of spirits and he offer this information here for you to understand the difference between them.

Who are you and in which tradition do you participate?

Houngan Matt: Im Matt Deos, known either as Houngan Matt or by my ritual name Bozanfe Bon Oungan, and Im a Houngan Asogwe (senior ranking clergy initiate) of a traditionalist Haitian Vodou house known as Sosyete Nago (based in Boston, MA and Jacmel, Haiti, and run by my spiritual mother Manbo Maude/Antiola Bo Manbo)

ConjureMan Ali: I am ConjureMan Ali, a conjure doctor, djinn conjurer, and a Tata in the Afro-Brazilian tradition of Quimbanda

Rev. Dr. E.: I am Rev. Dr. E. or known by my initiatory name of Ekun Dayo. I am an olorisha (priest) crowned with Changó in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería (La Regla Lukumí). I am founder of the Santeria Church of the Orishas and a full time conjure doctor.

Who is Legba, Eleggua, Eshu, Exu?

Houngan Matt: (Regarding Legba) The Legba spirits, in Vodou, are a family of lwa who each are responsible for “opening the door” or initiating access to each section, or ritual division, of spirits that are served in our rites. Each nancion, or nation (a term used to distinguish groupings of lwa by their home culture or the people whose spirits they were before those people were brought to Haiti as slaves) has its own door-opening spirit referred to as a Legba. There are many such corresponding divisions of lwa, and each has their own Legba tasked with opening the door and allowing those spirits to pass. The Legbas are spirits of communication and contact, removers of barriers and openers of doors, who speak all languages and know all forms of communication.

In a fete, one of the Legba spirits is always among the first spirits sung for and invited to come to the party with us… but there’s a good deal of misconception out there about what this means. Contrary to internet-misinformation, when the priye ginen (our litany of prayer and song that blesses and begins all services) is complete, the first spirit we sing to is Hountor, the lwa of the drums, who translates our modern speech and song into the tonal language of the drums, the ancient spirit-speak us Creoles no longer shape with our mouths. Then, we sing into being Grand Chemin, the Great Road that bridges our place of ceremony and the land where the spirits reside… a great and golden road the lwa proceed down to come to our temple (and, often, also the poto mitan, the central axis of the temple which our spirits can ride).

Legba nan Rada, or Legba in the Rada Rite, is the first of the Legba spirits we serve, and his task is to open the gate on the Great Road, the doorway that allows the other spirits to come to our celebrations and rites. Without him, there wouldnt be a gap or a coming-together-place where our world and the world of the spirits could touch.

In Vodou’s language of visual symbols that convey meaning, the imagery used to represent the various Legba spirits always features the symbol of the Poto Mitan in some way or form as it is the doorway on the Great Road that Legba controls. For my lineage, the Rada Legba wears a saint known as Saint Anthony the Abbot (a jovial and well-fed man in brown robes, holding a staff, the poto mitan, and standing at a cave door, surrounded by animals such as pigs and chickens). Legba nan Petro, the Legba who opens to doorway for the hotter and rougher spirits of the Petro rite, wears the image of Saint Lazarus (typically an emaciated and sometimes bruised man walking by means of crutches, another symbolic stand-in for the Poto Mitan).

Even the nations that make up the components of the larger Rada and Petro rites also have their Legba figures (who may or may not be members of the Legba family of spirits… often times, Ogou Ossange, a wonded healer who is also always shown with crutches, can serve as the Legba nan Nago, or the Legba figure who opens the door for the Nago nation spirits, or the division that holds the spirits of the Nago people, who are now more widely known by the name of their language, Yoruba.)

The Ghede family, the spirits that are called at the end of every Vodou celebration, also have their own door keepers/Legbas of their group… and are also known for carrying a Baton Ghede, a walking stick that can alternately be a gentlemen’s cane or be placed between the spirit’s legs as the source of many embarrassing jokes… but which is also, in its way, the Poto Mitan and the road by which the spirits in the Ghede’s purview travel.

In Haitian Vodou, the Legbas are not Crossroads spirits; the way our rites work, the road by which the fiery Petro spirits are brought into the rites is conceptualized as being at a 90 degree angle to the cooler road by which the Rada lwa enter. When the Petro rites have begun, songs are sung for Dan (or Don) Petro (mythologized as the creater of the Petro system, but basically the Grand Chemin figure of the new cosmological angle of approach), then comes the Petro Legba, and after a few more spirits the rite reaches Kalfou, the lwa who is the crossroads made manifest (Kalfou is a creolization of the French Carrefour, literally crossroads). To us, the Legba figures are the keepers of gates and doors, languages and communication… not the crossroads, which we have as a different being entirely.

An artist's depiction of Exu Veludo, one of the Exus of Brazilian Quimbanda

An artist’s depiction of Exu Veludo, one of the Exus of Brazilian Quimbanda

ConjureMan Ali: (Regarding Exu) Exu, pronounced “Eshoo” in Quimbanda is not a singular entity, but a class of spirits that are connected to the Congo and Angolan cults of sorcery and necromancy that took root in Brazil after slaves were brought over by the Portuguese. It would be more accurate to view Exu as a title referring to a class of fiery spirits called upon in the Afro-Brazilian cults for matters of guidance and to work magic. Each Exu is unique and the personalities can vary drastically from one Exu to another. Regardless of the differences what is common is that Exu is a highly dangerous, fiery, and tricky spirit to work with. Exu is not an Orisha, or Lwa, but  are earthly guardians of the liminal who are both a force of nature as well as spirits of the dead.

Rev. Dr. E.: (Regarding Eleggua/Eshu) First we must distinguish between Eshu and Eleggua. Eshu (spelled Esu in traditional Yoruba with a little dot under the “s”) are a family of orishas more like natural forces. Eshus are found everywhere in the wild and each is different from the others. Eshus are wild and uncontrollable by nature. Messing with one without the proper respect will get you in big trouble quickly as it is the nature of Eshu to cause problems, test humanity and upset the balance of things. Babalawos are experts at working with an controlling Eshu for the betterment of humanity. They have the spiritual technology to tame Eshu.

Eleggua (or Elegba) – to contrast – is an orisha that can be considered to be the king of the Eshus. He is refined; civilized if you will. Eleggua is an orisha that has many roads each of which is called “Eshu” (to further confuse the issue). There is an Eleggua that wanders in the wilderness. There is an Eleggua that lives in the river. There is an Eleggua that lives on the road. There is an Eleggua that lives in the house. There are over a hundred different roads of Eleggua and each is different from the others, with different temperaments and different likes. There is one thing in common with all Elegguas – they are always honored first amongst the orishas whenever we have a ceremony.

Eleggua knows everything, witnesses everything and has the key to changing our destinies as humans: ebó (sacrifice). He is the one that can speak for all of the other orishas because he knows everything that’s going on. Eleggua is considered one of the warriors in our religion along with Ogun, Ochosi and Osun (as well as Erinle and Abata). He opens the road to all things and makes the spiritual connection of ache happen between humans, Olodumare, the orishas and the ancestors. Without Eleggua nothing would get where it is intended to go. Because of this we say you must always be in his graces or he’ll shut you down in no time.

Where does the worship of Legba/Eleggua/Exu originate?

Hougan Matt: (Regarding Legba) The Legba spirits are an intrinsic piece of the religion of the Fon people of Dahomey (and modern day Benin) whose cosmology forms the majority of Vodou’s metaphysical foundation. (Even the word Vodou comes from the Fon word meaning “spirit”; Lwa in turn is the Fon/Gbwe word for “lord”) Their religion continues in its homeland, now usually known as Beninois Vodou.

Among the Fon people, Legba is featured as being both the favorite and youngest son of Mawu/Lisa (the Creators/high gods), responsible for the writing (Fa, or destiny) of each man’s life. Within Dahomey, however, Fa is also a vodun (that word for “spirit”), to whom one goes in order to divine, and Legba is his servant. Legba plays a central role in Dahomean society, where it was necessary to divine, or consult Fa (through Legba) before one did anything and about all things. The Dahomean Legba is a young man, youngest son of the Creator deities, and combines ideas that when they reached Haiti would divide into the Legba family of spirits (as well as provide the foundation for the Ghede spirits as the Dahomean Legba changed from a younger man to an older grouping of men, and as the boundary between life and death was divided into multiple spirits instead of being held by their original gatekeeper. Fusing with Taino spirituality in Haiti, the trickster/healer/death aspects of Legba in Dahomey gave birth to the Ghede spirits who maintain the boundary between the living and the cemetery…. itself a crossroads where the living and the dead intersect, with their own crossroads keeper Met Cimitiere, sometimes seen as Petro and sometimes seen as within the Ghede family)

MANY pieces of the Dahomean Legba (the Root legba, if you will) changed with the combination of many different Kingdoms’ religions that happened in Haiti, on its plantations and as a result of the Revolution that made a single united Nation out of the many slaves who rebelled and forced their French overlords off the island in bloody revolt. Knowing there was no way “home” to their ancestral Africa, the new Haitians blended their religions together to keep them from being lost, and the many different manifestations/individual traditions of Haitian Vodou were born… but, in the process, many spirits took new aspects to their personalities and many new needs were filled by spirits who emerged. New Legba figures emerged to open the doors to spirits of new and different populations that took their place among the other spirits of the newly emergent and uniquely Haitian Vodou.

ConjureMan Ali: (Regarding Exu) Exu’s roots are found in the Angolan and Congo cults of Kalunga, Kadiempembe, and Pambujila. He emerges from a fusion of death, fire, and the crossroads. The descendent of these forces is then Exu who finds his home in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Quimbanda. It is important to note, that Exu exists only in South America, starting in Brazil and slowly expanding to neighboring countries, he is not found in any of the North American African Traditional Religions and has nothing to do with Lukumi, Vodou, Palo etc.

Eleggua in the traditional hand-molded cement head form in Santeria Lukumí (This is Eshu Alawana)

Eleggua in the traditional hand-molded cement head form in Santeria Lukumí (This is Eshu Alawana)

Rev. Dr. E.: (Regarding Eleggua/Eshu) Eleggua and Eshu’s roots are in the west african Yoruba people who lived in the area currently associated with southwestern Nigeria and Benin. They were universally revered throughout all of the tribes that spoke the Yoruban language. The slaves that were taken from the Yoruba lands and brought to Cuba brought the veneration of Eleggua/Eshu with them. The understanding of Eleggua as separate from Eshu evolved in Cuba within the Santeria religion. Eleggua and Eshu are seen as pretty much one and the same back in Africa and this may be due to the prominence of the Ifá sect of Babalawos in the motherland versus their late arrival in large numbers in Cuba. To be very clear, Eleggua is not found in Vodou (although the Lwa from the Nago Lwa are technically the same as the orishas, he isn’t worshipped in the same manner as we do), he is not found in New Orleans Voodoo although some modern-day practitioners are attempting to culturally appropriate him for their benefits, and he is not part of Palo Mayombe. He is an orisha, not a lwa, not a mpungo, and not a spirit of the dead.

Is there any ritual or initiatory requirement to work with Legba/Eleggua/Exu?

Houngan Matt (Bozanfe Bon Ougan) is a Houngan Asogwe of Haitian Vodou

Houngan Matt (Bozanfe Bon Ougan) is a Houngan Asogwe of Haitian Vodou

Houngan Matt: (Regarding Legba) Nope. 🙂 Well, almost. In terms of initiatory requirement, no… as the Legba spirits govern communication with the rest of the spirits, ALL people are seen as inherently having a connection with these Lwa (unlike the others, which may or may not be “with” a person and whose presence “with” a person must be determined by divination).

As all of us are born with an ability to serve those spirits we inherit or who seek to build relationships with us (those that pop up in that aforementioned divination) ALL of us have access to the Legba spirits, either for opening those doors and forging roads of communication and respect, or for working with the way we would any spirit we serve.

In terms of ritual requirements, yes… to work within Haitian Vodou requires keeping to Haitian Vodou’s ceremonial protocols, rules, and heirarchies. We are not a freeform religion, but one that has a very solid cosmological core and an associated body of traditional rites, songs, and methods of ritual. Not everyone needs to become an initiate to work with their spirits in our religion, but our religion is guided by its priests to maintain its lore and the integrity of its tradition and systems; in a similar vein, not all Catholics need to be priests, and certainly one does not need to be a priest to say the Rosary in home prayer… but for transmission of the faith, the services of the priesthood, and the offering of Mass, the clergy is required. Vodou is much the same in how it works and functions, and the faithful, while they are capable of small acts of service to their spirits at home, also understand that the faith is a community religion that requires the community of priests and laypeople alike in community celebrations to function at anything beyond its most basic level.

ConjureMan Ali is a Tata of Brazilian Quimbanda and founder of the House of Quimbanda church.

ConjureMan Ali is a Tata of Brazilian Quimbanda and founder of the House of Quimbanda church.

ConjureMan Ali: (Regarding Exu) Yes! Exu has a strong sense of respect and honor. In order to call upon Exu, there are set ways that they demand you approach them. It is also the safest way to work with them, for without the context of protection provided by following these well-worn roads, you risk burning yourself. It is like playing with fire. In Quimbanda, there are levels of involvement that one can participate it. Initiation is for those who are called to be priests and priestesses. Not everyone is called to that path. One can also be a licensed medium through a baptism ceremony, or licensa. In this case you can then safely work with your personal Exu and Pomba Gira. Finally, anyone can benefit from finding out which Exu or Pomba Gira form the spiritual court of your life through divination. This latter is only to find out about them and does not require any obligation nor do you need to get involved further. It is basically taking a look behind the curtain. For further involvement, you will need to look at licensa or initiation.

With licensa you take your personal Exu and Pomba Gira as your patron and work with them in a spiritualist or devotional context. You work with those spirits that walk with you and develop a relationship with them which has many benefits. Initiation however is a more intense path with much obligation and so is not meant for everyone. The initiated Tata or Yaya is granted the Keys to the Kingdom of Quimbanda and while the core of their spiritual court is their personal Exu and Pomba Gira, they will become a priest to the entire Kingdom with many spirits working with them. It is also the initiated Tata and Yaya who work as the sorcerers and sorceresses of the cult.

Without either licensa or initiation, calling upon Exu can be quite dangerous. There is a unique format to their rituals that is only taught through the guidance of a House or terreiro of Quimbanda. Without this format you aren’t calling Exu, you are simply opening yourself up to any spirit walking by to come into your life.

Rev. Dr. E. (Ekun Dayo Oní Changó) is an Olorisha in Santería (La Regla Lukumí) and founder of the Santería Church of the Orishas.

Rev. Dr. E. (Ekun Dayo Oní Changó) is an Olorisha in Santería (La Regla Lukumí) and founder of the Santería Church of the Orishas.

Rev. Dr. E.: (Regarding Eleggua and Eshu) Yes and no. Anyone can give offerings of the heart or veneration to the orishas in nature. For Eleggua or Eshu this would be the places where he can be found: the side of the road, the wilderness, the cemetery, the edge of the river, the ocean, the crossroad, almost anywhere – but keep in mind that different Eshus and Elegguas are found in different places. But this is a personal offering made for yourself and you must act carefully as to not offer Eleggua or Eshu something that they wouldn’t like. Guidance of a godparent is probably the best idea in this situation.

It is highly improper and offensive to the orishas to act in the office of a priest or priestess doing work for others without being an Olorisha or a Babalawo. You don’t have the lineage to call upon if you aren’t initiated and as such do not have the support of the ancestors and even they come before Eleggua!

You need to be an Olorisha or a Babalawo to have received the ritual items and shrines of Eleggua or Eshu. This is a highly involved ritual and requires divination before going through it. It’s not something you receive because you want it. It’s something you do because divination says it’s part of your destiny and you need it. Once you have been ordained as an Olorisha or a Babalawo you can then divine with Eleggua’s shells, make ebó (sacrifice and rituals) to Eleggua and act as an intermediary between the general public and Eleggua or Eshu.

How can a person revere Legba/Eleggua/Exu and pay homage to him?

Saint Anthony the Abbot - an image used to depict Legba in Houngan Matt's lineage

Saint Anthony the Abbot – an image used to depict Legba in Houngan Matt’s lineage

Houngan Matt: (Regarding Legba) Easily! If a person is interested in establishing working relationships with their spirits through Vodou’s traditions and paradigm, the Legba spirits are going to be some of the lwa they’ll be speaking to most!

I recommend starting by reaching out to qualified initiate clergy for advice, or seeing if there is a House (initiate family of priests who offer community celebration of the lwa to the public in their area) that can help guide the new person (as well as make sure there are folks nearby who can help the new person if things go wrong or become unbalanced), but while that’s happening, the Rada Legba is immediately approachable (ESPECIALLY as a fantastic spirit too ask to help convey the new person to a reputable house!)

I recommend seeking out the image I spoke of before, of Saint Anthony the Abbot (this is not Saint Anthony of Padua, who holds the infant Jesus. Instead this is the staff holding monk standing before a cave, surrounded by happy animals, and the image can be found through a google image search and printed out) and possibly creating a small working altar (in a clean place outside one’s bedroom, or able to be screened from view if the bedroom is the only possibility) decorated in cloths of white, red, and brown (white for all Rada spirits, and Red and Brown are the colors of the Rada Legba in my lineage). The altar should also have a glass of cool, clean water, white candles, a crucifix (a strand of rosary beads works in a pinch) and a space for simple offerings such as flowers, fruits, florida water, or specific foods.

Catholic prayers are recited first, to give thanks and recognition to God and to ask him to bless the service, making sure only His clean spirits are allowed to enter. Typically these prayers are an Our Father, three Hail Mary’s, the Apostle’s Creed, the Confiteor, the Act of Contrition, and a Glory Be. Once those are said, offerings can be made and you can talk to Legba about your needs and check in with him; preferably once a week on either a Saturday or a Monday. Ideally you’d take some time to learn the saluting protocols and motions/choreography to salute a Rada lwa (instructions for a basic Rada style salute are available in an indepth article on my teaching blog, found here

Favoured offerings of the Rada Legba are red and white flowers, roasted root vegetables such as potato, yam, and sweet potato, cassava bread, and a mixture of pan toasted (but not popped) corn kernels and peanuts. The Rada Legba in my lineage takes poured offerings of white rum as his favoured beverage, and also likes material gifts of straw hats, pipes, and plain pipe tobacco.

Clergy guidance is strongly encouraged.

ConjureMan Ali: (Regarding Exu) We honor Exu, but we do not worship Exu. This is a very important distinction to make as God, or Nzambi, is the only figure that worship is given to. In Quimbanda, one does not give homage to Exu randomly, but has to find out which Exu specifically walks with you. Because there are countless Exu, you cannot simply decide to light a candle to one, or pray to him. This invites a great deal of trouble as it opens the door to all sorts of trickster and parasitic spirits. It is essential to first find out which Exu walks with you through the divination provided by an initiated medium or priest who can then instruct on how a proper relationship can be formed.

Rev. Dr. E.: (Regarding Eleggua and Eshu) No matter what you do it is important to understand that we do not worship Eleggua, we pay homage to him and work with him. We only worship God – Olodumare/Olorun/Olofi. One of the most effective ways to honor Eleggua in your day is to always ask for his blessing when passing his location in nature that you associate with him. So if you work with the Eleggua or Eshu that’s by the side of the river then make sure to say “Agbe mi Eleggua!” or “Bendición Elegguá!” when you pass the river’s edge. That way you show him continual gratitude and make sure he keeps your road open for you. Before you go making fruit offerings or such to Eleggua or Eshu it is imperative that you work with a godparent so that you can be sure you’re offering him the right things in the right ways and in the right places. It is more traditional to work through a diviner (an Olorisha or a Babalawo) to ascertain whether an offering or sacrifice is needed and specifically what kind (as determined in the reading). Only an Olorisha or Babalawo can do this for you.

Some of the safest offerings you can give Eleggua or Eshu are toasted corn, smoked fish, rum and cigars. These are his favorite items no matter what road you happen to be working with. Keep in mind, however, that Eleggua (as with all the orishas) becomes accustomed to the way you treat him. If you break your pattern or change the way you’ve been treating him he will become upset and block up your paths. Many people work with Eleggua every monday by pouring out a tiny libation of cool water and praying to him, but the first monday you miss that routine will be the day that Eleggua really trips you up. So keep that in mind before you start setting up a steady pattern of veneration. Again, work with a godparent for optimal results.

What advice or feedback to you have for people who mistakenly try to draw parallels between or equate Legba with Eleggua, Eshu, or Exu?

Houngan Matt: DONT! The Legba spirits all stem from the Fon people, who are not the same as the nations who carry those other spirits in their own distinct religions. Legba is NOT Eshu any more than the Virgin Mary is Quan Yin; the powers come from separate religions that maintain very separate and distinct cosmological and metaphysical functions.

Even where there may be SOME passing similarity between the spirits (much like the Virgin Mary and Quan Yin are both known in their respective religions as Merciful) the differences in the religions are vast… attempting to blend the systems or cherry pick between them is a deep insult to the spirits who are accustomed to being carried within their traditions (which, over the centuries, THEY have created and guided in their evolutions). Just as Quan Yin would probably herself be horrified to be invoked in a service featuring a divine son’s blood and flesh being offered to a congregation in the form of Catholic Communion, the different spirits known as Legba, Exu, Eshu, and Ellegua would be deeply unhappy at the resulting dissonance of forcing them into boxes where they do not belong.

Im often asked why they seem to serve similar function (which I gotta say after all of my reading they really DONT) but why us priests involved in the different traditions have little heart attacks when people cherrypick and mix… and my best example is modern math and Physics.

We’ve all heard about Quantum Physics, a series of mathematical equations and theories that seek to explain how the world works at its smallest possible level.

We’ve also all heard about Newtonian and Einsteinian systems of Physics, which are mathematical equations and theories that seek to explain how the universe functions on a grand scale of light, distance, speed, and gravity.

Both systems work…. until they’re mixed. The equations are incompatible, the math cannot be justified, and instead of any answers that make sense the equations produce nothing but meaningless garbage.

With our religions, I recommend keeping the same separateness and approaching each as *what it is* instead of trying to shove them into places where they do not belong. Just as in physics, attempting to place Exu in a Vodou paradigm or lifting a Legba spirit out of his home (or worse, calling Ellegua Legba and insisting Legba works through a concrete head that may or may not have been made by it’s own system’s priests) is bound to fail and practically guaranteed to make very unhappy spirits.

When it comes to the spirits that govern not only our communication skills but out ability to maintain relationships with ALL the other spirits of their respective systems, upsetting these guys or trying to make them work as something they’re not is just a UNIVERSALLY bad idea.

A person CAN work multiple systems when properly guided by initiates, but just like our example of Quantum versus Einsteinian physics, those systems need to be kept separate and worked on their own time, NEVER blended.

ConjureMan Ali: Simply put; don’t. Exu is not an orisha, he is not a lwa, he is not a mpungo, he is a being all himself. Furthermore, Exu is from Brazil and he has nothing to do with the African Traditional Religions more commonly known here in North America. Exu is a very territorial spirit who is HUGE on respect, trying to force-fit him into your own preconceived notions, or misconceptions will only anger him and cause trouble.

If you truly are interested in Exu and feel called, then don’t approach with the arrogance that you are entitled to his power. Instead learn about him properly from an initiated Tata or Yaya and house/terreiro and follow the proper paths of working with him. To give an analogy, if you were traveling to a foreign country that spoke a different language and you approached a very important official and demanded that they serve you and they better speak English, how do you think they’d respond? You’d be lucky if you got away with a crossed look. Just as you’d try to learn a bit of the local language, learn the proper customs and protocol, so too must you with Exu. Don’t think you can buy some “Exu poppet” or “Pomba Gira Oil” and you’ll be able to work with them.

Rev. Dr. E.: Just don’t! To people who try to draw parallels between Legba, Eleggua/Eshu and Exu I say “Please remove your European lenses!” Just because things may have similar traits does not mean they are the same being. Chango throws lightning and so, too, does Zeus but they are not the same spirit/god/entity. When you try to draw parallels and create false equivalencies between spirits of different cultures and religions what you’re really doing is simplifying for your convenience (and laziness). Take the time to understand the differences between the cultures. Follow the proper channels and protocols of each culture and religion to honor the spirits therein, and to respect the sacrifice the ancestors made to preserve these traditions in the face of slavery.

If you’re going to work with the orishas, then do so through the religion THEY passed down to us, not in an invention you created out of European traditions and techniques. Keep things separate because they ARE different and they ARE separate from one another. If we painted everything in the same light the whole world would be a boring shade of grey. 

Learn More About The Contributing Authors

A special thanks to Houngan Matt and ConjureMan Ali for contributing to this article. We have all agreed to share this article across our three blogs in the spirit of sharing and education. If you are interested in learning more about Haitian Vodou or Afro-Brazilian Quimbanda visit their respective web sites listed below:

Houngan Matt’s Vodou Blog

ConjureMan Ali’s House of Quimbanda


SAFE Alert – Cultural Appropriation of Lucumí Religion by Non-Initiates

A self-proclaimed Obeah woman created this "Hoodoo Bones" reading tray. The tray utilizes a symbol from Brazilian Kimbanda in the center for Exu (who she claims is the same Eshu from Yoruban religion - which he isn't). The orishas have nothing to do with hoodoo.

A self-proclaimed Obeah woman created this “Hoodoo Bones” reading tray. The tray utilizes a symbol from Brazilian Kimbanda in the center for Exu (who she claims is the same Eshu/Eleggua from Yoruban religion – which he isn’t). The orishas have nothing to do with hoodoo.

A popular phenomenon we’ve witnessed with the incredible amount of information available on the internet about Lucumí religion, is the cultural appropriation of Lucumí and Yoruban ritual elements by online merchants, Neo-Pagans and Eclectic Magical Workers claiming to be practicing hoodoo, voodoo, rootwork or obeah all at once. This phenomenon seems to be very prominent amongst professional workers who are peddling their services online, or more commonly with individuals selling “magical products” like oils, baths, incense, soaps, mojos, pakets, or even statues and sculptures made to look like orishas. This is not only completely out of alignment with traditional Santería Lucumí practice but it is very dangerous for spiritual reasons outlined below.

In this article we hope to demonstrate some of the examples the members of SAFE (Santeros Against Fraud and Exploitation) have seen in the community and online, and empower the reader to effectively distinguish between traditional, real Santería Lucumí practice and illegitimate, non-traditional worship being peddled for money and little more.

Cultural Appropriation – “I’ll Take That!”

Before we can really discuss the examples of cultural appropriation we’ve witnessed online we first need to explore what cultural appropriation really is. Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, when asked to give a succinct definition of cultural appropriation, described it as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” and further explained “This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

In our article we are mainly concerned with the religious symbols and sacred objects. One of the things to keep in mind is that there are two elements to appropriation: lack of permission and symbols being taken from someone else’s culture. In the orisha traditions, permission is granted through initiation, and culture is transmitted and preserved through participation in the tradition, or through cultural immersion in the religion and its practices.

In the examples we cite you’ll see the names of Yoruban/Lucumí orishas being used, symbolism from their shrines, colors, numbers, even magical practices from other areas of Africa all being dumped together to make things “even more African” in an effort to create an illusion of legitimacy (though the people who bear the cultural origins of these different images, symbols and spirits were often warring enemies and never intermingled their religious practices).

Why is Cultural Appropriation So Harmful?

An "Orisha Box" sold by an online vendor claiming it to be a portable altar to the orisha Oshun. Appropriation of orisha colors, numbers and no cultural context is another way vendors make money by stealing cultural symbols.

An “Orisha Box” sold by a vendor claiming it to be a portable altar to the orisha Oshun. Appropriation of orisha colors, symbols and numbers with no cultural context is another way vendors make money through cultural appropriation. Oshun is not worshipped in this manner in Lukumí nor Yoruba practice.

Cultural Appropriation is harmful for several reasons. First, it harms people because it is a colonialist objectification of ancient traditions. A minority people who have suffered the scourge of colonialism have a damaged sense of ancestry, have had their lands and power stripped away from them and have often been ripped away from their traditional religious practices. Their traditions are the last thing they can truly own when their land is gone, their families destroyed and their power stripped away. When a dominant culture comes along and objectifies indigenous practices so that they become a costume, a fad, a decorating motif or the flavor of the month, the culture of the oppressed minority is ridiculed and seen as a simple object that can be shuffled about, traded or purchased for money. It is the final blow to a minority oppressed people’s soul.

Secondly, these religious traditions were preserved for centuries by disciplined adherents to the faith, through hurdles to participation like intensive study and initiatory requirements, as well as keeping inner secrets guarded by the priesthood. Many ancestors died to preserve these traditions even in the face of slavery and persecution. For an outsider to come along and start wearing the false vestments of religious authority because they think an orisha is “pretty” or because “they love her” is insulting to the ancestors and reduces the ancient religious secret practices of that people to a mockery.

Third, cultural appropriation can lead to people of the dominant culture assuming they have privilege and the right to practice minority indigenous religious practices in which they have not been trained or duly initiated. This can result in them tampering with energies, deities, spiritualities, entities, spirits and forces they are not ready to deal with. Simply put, when a person dresses a fierce indigenous spirit in a warm-fuzzy, culturally objectified, “rounded-corners for your protection” colonialist attitude, she’ll find herself tampering with a force that will unbalance her life in no time.

Often those in the majority mindset will apply their cultural values to the situation to justify their attitude. Sayings like “The gods are love and they understand I am coming from the right place”, “She chose me to worship her” or “If we didn’t worship these Gods they’d probably disappear” are a perfect example of a privileged approach to indigenous culture and are hallmarks of cultural appropriation. (If you truly appreciated that orisha or those traditions you’d go to a culture bearer who worships in the manner that preserved that spirit’s practice and learn they way the orisha likes to be worshipped instead of assuming your way is right.)

Blending Hoodoo, Voodoo (Vodou), Santería, Palo, Obeah and Other African-Diasporic Traditions

An "orisha spirit doll" sold by a vendor claiming it will allow the owner to petition the orisha Oya and gain blessings of prosperity.

An “orisha spirit doll” sold by a vendor claiming it will allow the owner to petition the orisha Oya and gain blessings of prosperity. Oya is not worshiped in this manner, only spirits of the dead are housed in dolls in Lukumí practice.

A common red flag warning you that a practitioner is culturally appropriating without formal training or without respect for the individual traditions he or she is borrowing, is when you see someone blending multiple spiritual paths into one practice. These are each separate and distinct spiritual paths that have nothing to do with one another. (Read our article on the difference between Hoodoo, Voodoo and Santeria.) As was previously mentioned the tribes from where these practices originate were often mortal enemies and at war with one another in Africa and would not blend their traditions nor cross their practices. Even Vodou which does include elements from Fon, Ewe, Yoruba and Congo people (who often warred with one another) has a fixed “reglement” or traditional order that is followed in their religious practices, and it is not a free-for-all religion. Simply put, these are distinct practices and religious traditions. Someone can certainly be initiated in multiple traditions but is rare to find anyone who is initiated in more than two of them.

We’ve witnessed hoodoo spiritual supply shops selling “La Sirene/Yemaya” Oil, when these are two distinct and different spiritual forces from different tribes in Africa that never saw eye to eye.

We’ve seen “orisha spirit dolls” which are essentially rag dolls like the doll babies made in hoodoo, but in the colors of various orishas. The vendors claim they can be used to help the owner obtain blessings, money, protection, etc. There is no way to know what these dolls contain, neither in terms of physical components, nor in the spirits that might decide to reside therein. Without proper consecration, a doll is just a house for some spirit … any spirit … certainly not the orishas. And any spirit would be happy to receive the worship and attention the owner of this doll would give it.

We’ve seen online merchants selling a “Pomba Gira paquet (paket)” when pakets come from Haitian Vodou (where Pomba Gira is NOT worshipped) and Pomba Gira comes from Brazilian Kimbanda where pakets are not constructed nor used in her worship (not to mention that Pomba Gira is a CLASS of spirits and you need to specify which Pomba Gira you are working with). Pomba Gira would not be amused, nor would any initiated Vodowizan.

A "Pomba Gira" spirit paket sold by a vendor with no training in Brazilian Kimbanda. Pakets come from Vodou not Kimbanda.

A “Pomba Gira” spirit paket sold by a vendor with no training in Brazilian Kimbanda. Pakets come from Haitian Vodou not Kimbanda, and Pomba Gira is a class of spirits, not one specific spirit. This is typical of fraudulent tradition crossing.

We’ve seen Etsy shops selling Palo trazos/firmas (sacred symbols of Palo Mayombe) when they are not initiated into Palo. We’ve even seen people selling Palo Trazos/Firmas drawn on cardboard like some kind of amulet to bring you money, protection or luck (even though trazos are drawn in the moment with chalk on the floor and are unique each time they are drawn and used . They are an instruction set to a spirit and without a nganga (pot) or a lucero they mean nothing.) Any palero would laugh at the illogic of this practice.

We even saw a YouTube video of an invented divination system called “hoodoo bone reading” that utilized orisha color symbolism and names from Santería practices but had Kimbanda pontos riscados dawn on a dish along with various random tokens representing different forces in a person’s life, and then tried to pass it off as Obeah divination. Which is it, Hoodoo, Santería, Kimbanda or Obeah? The answer is that it’s none of the above.

This mish-mosh of practices is a sad attempt to lend legitimacy to a fraudulent practice by adding more “mystically foreign” elements to the mix. It’s the attitude of “OH! Add that in there too … it will seem more spooky and exotic, thus POWERFUL!” Not only is this shoddy spiritual craftsmanship but it also causes those who may be sincerely interested in learning these traditions great confusion.

In the short time we’ve been online our church has received messages and questions from many people. We’ve had to explain to people that buying a catholic saint statue of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre does not mean you have received the orisha Oshun. That there is no such thing as palo “elekes”. That a hoodoo spell does not call upon the orisha Eleggua. That Yemaya cannot be contained in a mojo bag. And that you can’t buy a Fimo clay head made to LOOK like Eleggua online and think you actually have received anything of Eleggua.

This kind of fraud has to stop, and it is important that we call it out when we see it. People are scammed out of thousands of dollars falling for these tricks. We at SAFE are doing our part to inform the public about non-traditional practice but also about what IS traditional. Knowledge of how things are traditionally done is more important than anything, and will help the public stay away from these snake oil vendors.

Emulating Orisha Imagery in Statuary


An “Eleggua” head made of red clay sold by an online vendor. Only an ordained Olorisha or Babalawo can construct such an item, and it would never be made of clay. This vendor has no initiations in Lukumí or Ifá. (Image updated to show the actual object sold online)

Another common example of cultural appropriation with online vendors is the proliferation of “Eleggua” statues being sold online. Elegguá’s shrine traditionally takes the form either of a single stone, or a cement head-shaped shrine into which have been placed cowries. Each Eleggua should be unique to the individual, containing items as divined through diloggún or Ifá, and proper to the camino (road) for that individual. Eleggua is always made of durable construction (like cement or a rock) not clay, nor polymer clay (Fimo or Sculpey) . Elegguá’s shrine must then be washed and consecrated in a long ceremony by initiated olorishas or a babalawo, and then fed animal sacrifice or it isn’t anything. Remember – no blood, no orisha.

We have witnessed red and black polymer clay sculpted heads being sold online with keys, feathers and cowries being jammed into the sculture. We’ve seen Eleggua-like heads sculpted out of play-doh, or red clay (claimed to have been hand-harvested from the great lakes region). We’ve even seen spirit bottles and mojo bags being made “for Eleggua” and sold as if they have anything at all to do with Eleggua. At best these are pretty crafts or art items, but they are most certainly NOT legitimate nor authentic Lucumí nor Yoruban shrines for the orisha Eleggua/Elegba.

(Please note, the image that was originally in this article depicting the Fimo clay Eleggua heads with keys, duck feathers, beads and crystals stuck in them has been removed because the online merchant who made them claimed ownership of the image. Per the request of Denise Alvarado – proprietor of –  and out of respect for her copyright ownership of the images of her Eleggua heads, we have removed the images but hold to our article’s point that this is an example of cultural appropriation since she is not an initiated orisha priestess in Lucumi, Ifá, Brazilian Candomblé nor any of the traditions that worships Eleggua in a clay head form, and has no right to make nor sell these things and claim they are Eleggua. While this artist has added a caveat to her website stating these are not made by a babalawo and are not presented as ritual items, her product descriptions and powers she ascribes to the articles clearly indicates that she is selling these sculptures as if they were sacred and ritually prepared including item descriptions saying they were “created within sacred space”. This is misleading at best.)

Non-Ordained, Non-Initiated People Acting as Priesthood

The other example we’ve seen are people acting as priesthood by working with clients, offering readings, leading public rituals, performing spells, selling items and shrines dedicated to Lucumí/Yoruban orishas when they have no ordination or initiation within the Lucumi or Yoruban traditions. To be very clear, before a person can work for clients on the behalf of the orishas, offer readings where the orishas speak, lead public rituals for the orishas, perform ebó or spells that petition the orishas, or construct/consecrate shrines for the orishas within the Lucumí or Yoruba traditions, you MUST BE AN ORDAINED PRIEST (Olorisha or Babalawo). Even within these traditions there are further limitations. (You cannot give a shrine or item of an orisha away if you have not received it first, etc.)

An online vendor sold these Palo Firmas drawn on cardboard as magical charms. The vendor has no initiation in Palo and these firmas are worthless without a nganga and palo initiation.

An online vendor sold these Palo Firmas drawn on cardboard as magical charms. The vendor has no initiation in Palo and these firmas are worthless without a nganga and palo initiation.

This problem is becoming a quite rampant within the neo-pagan community. Neo-paganism is a valid and distinct religion but it is not Lukumi nor Yoruban religious practice. While they may feel they have the right to worship our orishas, our orishas have made it very clear the manner in which they want to be propitiated and worshipped. This is contained within Odu (the signs of our divination system), preserved by ancestors who gave their lives through slavery and persecution to retain their native practices, and perpetuated into modern-day by contemporary practitioners who continue and carry on the manner of worship taught by our elders. It is incredibly insensitive and offensive for someone outside of our religion to think they have the authority to run a ritual to one of our orishas when they have not been properly initiated in our manners. It is a huge example of cultural appropriation.

Neo-Pagan priests and priestess are running amok claiming to be a “Priestsess of Oshun and Yemaya” or “a daughter of Oya and Ogun” when they have never been through kariocha nor been initiated into Ifá. Even in our religious practice we do not know who are spiritual parentage is until itá (the life reading performed three days after initiation). This creates a shadow culture to our traditional Lucumí/Yoruban practice where people think they can go to a pagan priest to work with the orishas or that they can go give offerings to any orisha in nature while singing pagan songs. While I am sure they have good intentions and are coming from a place of genuine interest and heart, I ask them a very poignant and important question. “If you love the orishas so much, why don’t you learn the way that orisha wants to be worshipped, from the people who preserved that tradition for centuries?”

Typically when these folks are challenged they’ll take one of two roads. The first direction are the folks who claim that “this is how I was taught by my family / mom / grandmother, etc.” (It’s interesting to note that no one ever claims their father or their grandfather taught them these things.) They claim to have been taught to make Haitian-Brazilian-Hoodoo items by family, or that they were taught that the orishas were part of Voodoo, or that “this is they way I was shown it was done”. No one in the USA even knew (or cared) about Pomba Gira until the 21st century and suddenly people are claiming they had family traditions that worked with her (although they have no ancestry in Brazil). Or some even claim to come from a family lineage of Chalcedonian witches – from ancient Chacedon in Turkey, who never worked with the orishas, pomba gira, the lwa, etc. Anyone who has a real root in these traditions would never condone that these practices be mingled.

"Crowned Eleggua" statues made of polymer clay (Fimo) with keys and random items added in. Eleggua must be made of a durable material like stone or concrete and customized through divination. These were sold online by - image has been removed by the request of Denise Alvarado as she holds the copyright for the photo.

“Crowned Eleggua” statues made of polymer clay (Fimo) with keys and random items added in. Eleggua must be made of a durable material like stone or concrete and customized through divination. These were sold online by – image has been removed by the request of Denise Alvarado as she holds the copyright for the photo.

The second road people usually take is to claim these practices as “their own private spirituality” and “how dare you question me or make me have to explain myself” for doing what they do. Well simply put, we as actual initiated priests and priestesses who entered igbodú (the sacred room), who wen through initiation, who paid our dues and sacrificed our lives for the orishas, are the culture bearers of this religion. We practice it as the priests who initiated us practiced it. We have verifiable lineages that are a testament to our initiation, to the preservation of our culture and to the perseverance of our ancestors in the face of adversity. We honor their sacrifice by practicing our religions the way they did – not by inventing stuff because “we feel we have the right to”.

To those who are appropriating our religions, If someone steps up to call you out on your own “inventions” then don’t be offended when they call you exactly what you are… an inventor. Fly your inventor flag with pride and let people know “Hey this is my own mish-mosh I invented and it’s pretty and I like it”. That’s fine. But don’t try to pass yourself off like some kind of authority … neither by family lineage nor by self-rigteousness.

To the public… ask questions about everything! If it’s boasts a lot and claims to be something authentic, do some research before you buy it. Ask around and see what others think of their practice. Ask outside of their sphere of influence so you can get an honest, unbiased opinion before hiring one of these individuals and always ask for credentials. A true santero or babalawo can tell you where they come from with specific names, dates and places, not veiled mysterious stories about family traditions, grandmothers or divine intercession.

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