When pagan gods are mentioned, it’s fair to say that some pantheons are rather better known than others. Most people in the western world are fairly familiar with the likes of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades from the Greek pantheon; Odin, Thor and Loki from the Norse Aesir; and the Egyptian deities Ra, Isis and Set. However, few can name even one of the pagan gods of the Chinese, the Japanese or the native tribes of North and South America, Australasia or Africa. The Loa, for instance, are West African deities, transplanted through slavery to the Caribbean and the New World in the 17th century. They are best known as the gods of the Voodoo or Voudon religion, called upon to raise zombies by black magic practitioners in any number of horror B-movies. Both the Loa and Voudon in general are, however, at best misunderstood and at worst misrepresented by the mainstream – largely because so little is known about it in comparison to other faiths. Also, make no mistake, Voudon is very much a living, breathing religion in many parts of the world and the Loa are regarded by those who follow this faith as all too real. So be careful when you speak of the Loa, lest you call down their attention upon you…
A belief in the holiness and energy of sacred places is fundamental to the Voudon religion, as is the pursuit of peace, prosperity and happiness. But there is also undeniably a darker side to Voudon. Bokors are Voodoo priests for hire who are said to ‘serve the loa with both hands’, meaning that they can both practice the black arts and benevolent magic. Their darker arts include the creation of zombies and the creation of ‘ouangas’, talismans that house evil spirits. Bokors are featured in many Haitian tales and are often associated with the creation of zombies by the use of a deadening brew or potion, usually containing non-fatal poisons. This potion makes the drinker appear to be dead and thus they are often buried. Days later, the bokor will return for the ‘corpse’ and force it to do his bidding, for example manual labour, in a manner akin to mind control. The person is, however, fully alive but in a detached state, whereby he cannot control what he says or does; at this point, when the person has been ‘reanimated’ from the grave, or at least is moving about working for the bokor, they can be termed ‘zombies’. However, some zombie legends dispense with this more rational explanation, and have the bokor raise zombies from dead bodies whose souls have departed.
To offset the villainy of bokors, Voudon also has more benevolent priests known as houngan, who are healers and root workers. They work with the Loa, often in an attempt to undo the harm which has been wrought by malevolent bokors. One of the interesting things about the spirits who make up this pantheon is the fact that they often seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to certain Catholic saints. This is perhaps a legacy of the spread of Christianity in parts of the world in which Voudon later took route but, if you ask a houngan, he is likely to tell you that it is simply proof that ultimately all religions lead to the same sacred goal. Damballa, for instance, is associated with Moses and is often pictured dressed in white robes and wielding a staff. He is the father of the other Loa, and the most powerful and important member of this pantheon. He also appears as a huge green-and-black snake sometimes and in either form, man or serpent, he is known for having voracious sexual appetites. Walking the world in mortal form he has married many women, and sleeps with all of them every Thursday. As you might expect, festivals and rites held in Damballa’s honour are therefore sensual, lively and energetic.
Of the other Loa, the most famous is probably ‘ol’ uncle skeleton’ himself, Baron Samedi. Outfitted with sunglasses, a stylish white shirt and an undertaker’s swallowtail coat, wearing silver jewellery and a top hat, the Baron loves to entertain children and frighten the living daylights out of adults. Of all the Loa, only Baron Samedi never disguises himself. He is always Saturday’s lord, always dressed for a party, always ready to live unlife to the fullest. His entourage, the ghede – the dead, who are ghosts, zombies and revered ancestors – usually trail along in his wake. Baron Samedi is often complemented by Papa Legba, keeper of the spirit gate and watcher of the crossroads. No one enters the mythic realms without Legba’s permission and he is associated with the Catholic saints Peter, Lazarus and Anthony, as well as the colour red. Wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat and attended by his dog, Legba can speak and understand any mortal language.
The rival of Papa Legba and darkest of all the Loa is Papa Shango, god of initiation, justice and royalty. He is the lord of thunder and the priest-king of the Loa. Dressed in red and white he mercilessly hunts liars and thieves with a stone axe made by his friend and colleague Ogoun. Unlike many gods in other religions, Shango sees no problem with inserting himself into the great events of the mortal world – he’s been a vigilante, a prizefighter and a revolutionary. The Loa are each individual beings with their own personal likes and dislikes, distinct sacred rhythms, songs, dances, ritual symbols, and special modes of service. Whilst to westerners the Loa may seem quaint it is a very different matter in Haiti, New Orleans, West Africa and any number of other places where these spirits crowd the sultry night and are to be respected and feared. Take care to pay the Loa their due if you are ever in any of these spots – if you don’t, you may find yourself turned into a zombie by the spell of a bokor!