The Trickster: The Final Installment: Stories

african

West Africa’s God of Messages, Sex and Deceit

by Erik Davis
Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring, 1991

Of all European pagan deities, Hermes is the one most closely aligned with Eshu. Like Hermes, Eshu is the divine messenger, and relays information between the gods and between humans and the gods. A small, very dark man, he walks with a large staff, and is often sucking on a pipe, candies, or his fingers. He the “roadmaker;” he “sets the affairs of the earth in order,…is so swift that he can be the messenger for many,…[and] can circle the earth in an instant.” Eshu’s caprice, quickness, and agility of body and mind are all characteristics he shares with Hermes, perhaps reflecting the perennial spiritual characteristics of communication.

Because Eshu is the messenger, in orisha rituals (today performed from Nigeria to Rio to Montreal) one must “feed” or call him first, before any other gods are invoked. For the Fon people, the primacy of Eshu (whom they call Legba) comes about through his linguistic ability, his proficiency at communicating. In the beginning, Mawu, the female aspect of Mawu-Lisa, the androgynous high god of the Fon, gives her seven children different realms to rule—earth, sea, animals—and gives them a language separate from her own. But she allows Legba, her youngest and most spoiled child, to remain with her and to act as a relayer of information to her children.

So Legba knows all the languages known to his brothers, and he knows the language Mawu speaks, too. Legba is Mawu’s linguist. If one of the brothers wishes to speak, he must give the message to Legba, for none knows any longer how to address himself to Mawu-Lisa. That is why Legba is everywhere.

Legba knows the cosmic language as well as the earthly language. This is why humans must ritually acknowledge him before any other god. In our monotheisms, God’s information is distant, except for the occasional prophet, and the rest of us are lost in babble and books. But Legba is always traversing that region of babble, and embodies the hope and the peril of a more open channel: hope, because he allows us to speak with the gods and for them to speak with us; and peril, because he tends to play tricks with the information he has, to keep us perpetually aware that he oversees the network of exchange. His nickname is Aflakete, which means “I have tricked you.”

In many tales, Legba both causes and solves a power play among the orisha, and he does so by conveying information. In one, Sagbata, the lord of earth, and Hevioso, the lord of sky, are perpetually besting one another, though Hevioso is generally agreed to be superior. Legba lies and tells Mawu that there is no water in the sky, which allows Hevioso to cut off the rain, causing a horrible draught. Then Legba goes to Sagbata and tells him to build a huge fire on earth, which he does. Mawu becomes afraid that the flames will burn even heaven, and she orders Hevioso to make it rain, reducing his prominence and tentatively reconciling the brothers. Among the tales of the Yoruba gods, Eshu similarly propels the narratives of jealousy and power by occupying certain privileged places where he gives ideas and information—not the whole story, but just enough to make the story happen. At one point, Shango the thunder god asks him, “Why don’t you speak straightforwardly?” “I never do,” Eshu responds. “I like to make people think.”

Perhaps the most famous Yoruba story about Eshu concerns two inseparable friends who swore undying fidelity to one another but neglect to acknowledge Eshu. These two friends work on adjacent fields. One day Eshu walks on the dividing line between their fields, wearing a cap that is black on one side and red (or white) on the other. He saunters between the fields, exchanging pleasantries with both men. Afterwards, the two friends got to talking about the man with the cap, and fall to violent quarreling about the color of the man’s hat, calling each other blind and crazy. The neighbors gather about, and then Eshu arrives and stops the fight. The friends explain their disagreement, an Eshu shows them the two-sided hat—all this to chastise the friends for not putting him first in their doings. The lesson of the tale is obvious, but just as interesting is where it places the god. Moving along the seam between two different worldviews, he confuses communication, reveals the ambiguity of knowledge, and plays with perspective.

So Eshu is a master of exchange, or crossed purposes, of crossed speech. This is why his shrines are found both at crossroads and at the market, for he is master of such networks of desire. For example, he uses his magician’s knowledge to make serpents that bite people on the way to the market, and then sells them the cure.

The Fon have a wonderful way of imagining Legba’s mastery of crossings. Mawu tells the gods that whoever can come before her and simultaneously play a gong, a bell, a drum, and a flute while dancing to their music would be chief of the gods. All the macho gods attempt and fail, but Legba succeeds, not just demonstrating his agility, but his ability to maintain a balance of crossed or contrary forms and forces (and incidentally providing a window into the unique genius of African music and rhythm). Legba dances not only to the beat of a different drummer, but to the beats of many different drummers at the same time.

Garbling the Book of Fate

The Legba of the Fon cannot be correlated exactly with the Eshu of the Yoruba. For the Yoruba, Eshu can be a nastier, more malevolent being, though he still delights in contradictions, and, to a lesser extent, sex. Where there is confusion or arguments, he is there. The violence and lawlessness of Eshu’s desire is demonstrated in an a tale related by Robert Farris Thompson about Eshu-Yangi, the father of all Eshu. (Like most orisha, Eshu exists in a countless multiplicity of individual aspects.) Eshu’s mother offers him a bounty of fish and fowl, and Eshu eats it all, and, not sated, eats his mother as well. But Eshu’s father — in this tale Orunmila, the god of divination — is ready for his hungry son when he came for papa with slavering jaws agape. Orunmila hacks Eshu into little bits, which fall all over the earth, becoming individual shards of laterite stone. Orunmila catches the remaining spirit of Eshu, and to placate his father, Eshu promises that all the stones will become Eshu’s representatives. All Orunmila has to do is bless the stones, and they will do his mystic bidding. Eshu then coughs up his mother.

In this tale of cosmic give-and-take, reminiscent of the ancient Gnostic notion of the “shards” or “sparks” separated from the deity, Eshu demonstrates both his generosity and his caprice. For the Yoruba, Eshu is the god who has access to ashé (literally meaning “so be it”), the immanent (but morally neutral) power of creation which the supreme being gives to the earth, and which can be possessed by some people.

Eshu receives ashé when all the gods journey to the supreme god to find out who is the next most powerful. Each brings a huge sacrifice, carrying it on his or her head. But Eshu consults the oracle before he goes, and finds that all he needs to bring is a bright red feather set upright on his forehead. When the supreme being sees this he grants Eshu the power of ashé, because Eshu had shown his unwillingness to carry burdens, as well as his sensitivity to the power of information. (To this day, Eshu figurines often have a large phallic plume or nail on the head.) As Thompson says, Eshu shows us that one must “cultivate the art of recognizing significant communications…or else the lessons of the crossroads—the point where doors open or close, where persons have to make decisions that may forever effect their lives—will be lost.”

Of course, these moments of crisis, of significant communication, are oracular moments, and it is appropriate that Eshu has a subtle and complex relationship with the Yoruba (and, subsequently, Fon) system of divination, Ifa. The process of the divination itself is eerily similar to that of the I Ching: The babalawo, or diviner of the Yoruba, Eshu is the god who has access to ashé (literally meaning “so be it”), the immanent (but morally neutral) power of creation which the supreme being gives to the earth, and which can be possessed by some people.

Eshu receives ashé when all the gods journey to the supreme god to find out who is the next most powerful. Each brings a huge sacrifice, carrying it on his or her head. But Eshu consults the oracle before he goes, and finds that all he needs to bring is a bright red feather set upright on his forehead. When the supreme being sees this he grants Eshu the power of ashé, because Eshu had shown his unwillingness to carry burdens, as well as his sensitivity to the power of information. (To this day, Eshu figurines often have a large phallic plume or nail on the head.) As Thompson says, Eshu shows us that one must “cultivate the art of recognizing significant communications…or else the lessons of the crossroads—the point where doors open or close, where persons have to make decisions that may forever effect their lives—will be lost.”

Because Eshu is the ties between cosmic pattern and daily life, it is obvious why he would be associated with divination. Like the kabbalistic Tree of Life, Ifa is described as having “roads,” “pathways,” or “courses,” resonant linkages of images and meanings — obviously Eshu’s bag. For the Fon, whose system of Fa divination is very similar to the Yoruba’s Ifa, Fa is destiny, the pattern of the day, the individual and the cosmos. Each person has an individual Fa, just as each person has an individual Legba. Because Legba is the only god who knows the “alphabet of Mawu,” he is “sent by Mawu to bring to each individual his Fa, for it is necessary that a man should know the writing which Mawu has used to create him.”

Sometime before Ifa existed, a Yoruba myth goes, a declining human race had stopped sacrificing to their gods, and the gods were hungry. So Eshu decided to give humans something that would make them want to live. He journeyed to a palm tree, and there the monkeys gave him sixteen palm nuts and told him to go around the world so that he might hear “sixteen saying in each of the sixteen places.” He did so, and then gave the knowledge to men through Ifa, the “sixteen places” being the sixteen primary odu and the sixteen palm nuts. This myth again demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between man and gods; it is said that without Eshu, the gods would always go hungry, for he tricks men into disastrous defiance so that they will then need to sacrifice to win back the gods’ favor. But it also emphasizes Eshu’s character as a mediator and a speedy messenger, who places himself between different perspectives and collects messages.

Legba’s relationship with Fa, and Eshu’s with Ifa, shows an extremely subtle and lively understanding of divination and destiny. Eshu gives the world Ifa, and on the babalawo ‘s divining tray, twin Eshu statues stare out at each other (again, like Hermes, Eshu is linked to twins). But he is not Ifa’s master. In one Fon tale, Fa, the god of divination and fate, sneaks into Legba’s home and sleeps with his wife. Legba asks her why and she says that his penis wasn’t big enough for her. Challenged, Legba eats an enormous amount of food and swears to have sex with her until she tires, all the while calling out “the path of destiny is large, large like a large penis.” Legba then made Fa stay in the house, while Legba takes his wife and hits the road,vowing that he will always be first, and “will always be ready to fuck.”

As Pelton writes, “Fa keeps a certain dominion over destiny, or inner space, but Legba’s elasticity gives him mastery over destiny’s paths…Legba can roam as he chooses, going in and out to bring men to their destiny, but never ceasing to widen the path for them.” By knowing the whole system, Eshu can escape, slipping through the cracks of fate. Eshu’s Ifa odu is the seventeenth, the first one outside the system.

Why is Eshu/Legba linked to divination? Because, paradoxically, freedom is tied to divination, if only for the simple fact that oracles must always be interpreted, its messages decoded. As Eshu makes abundantly clear, such decodings are always ambiguous and partial. The literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose Signifying Monkey uses Eshu to establish a model of African-American textual analysis, says that at the crossroads “there is no direct access, or contact, with truth or meaning, because Eshu governs understanding.” And Eshu is a tricky governor, whose pathways of information are always surrounded by the mud of ambiguity.

New Wordly Wisdom

When the orisha were smuggled to the New World on slave ships, they changed their character as the concrete situations of their followers changed. Mixed together, cut off from traditional structures, surrounded by Christianity and the whip, New World Africans now had different spiritual needs. The world’s most vibrant form of syncretism emerged, where Catholic saints and the orisha blended into one another, and the worldly wisdom of West Africa continued disguised in song, drum, and celebration. Eshu himself went through many changes, and while different geographical groups of African descendents took him in opposite directions, all of his varied faces nonetheless further extend his peculiar multivalent being.

In Brazil, Exu—as his name is written in Portuguese—become a darker being. In condomble, Brazilian orisha worship, Exu rules over sexual intercourse and is still served before any other god is invoked. But this is not so much to open up a divine communications channel as to placate the irascible deity and make sure that he does not spread confusion.

Eshu’s emphasis on trickery and vengeance made him an ideal orisha for slaves, who imagined him as the saint of revenge against the whites. Under these conditions, his more malevolent aspects were emphasized, as his various aspects were multiplied to cover a range of nasty magical acts. In umbanda, the urban, highly eclectic revision of condomble that relies heavily on nineteenth-century spiritualism, Exu quite simply becomes the devil.vowing that he will always be first, and will always be ready to fuck.”

In Haiti, where the orisha are known as the loa and the practice is known as voudun, Legba went through drastic changes. He is still lord of the crossroads, the grand chemin, whose channel between earth and the gods is contained in the ritual house’s peristyle, or poteau-Legba. The crossroads is seen in Legba’s vévé (a complex cosmic diagram drawn with white flour that represents the loa). But in Haiti Legba has become an old, withered peasant, bent and crippled on his cane. In her superb Divine Horsemen, the American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren tells how terrible and twisted the possessions performed by Legba are. In Haiti Deren describes a Legba who comes full circle, like the answer to the riddle of the sphinx, no longer the virile child of the morning but the impotent old man of evening. He is still the omniscient observer—as one Haitian told Deren, “We do no see him, he sees us. All those who say the truth, he is there, he hears. All those who speak evil, He is there, he listens.” But his omniscience has become the knowledge of death.

As with Brazil, the Haitian Legba is known for his magic. One prayer goes “Sondé miroir, O Legba,” which means literally “fathom the mirror” and figuratively “uncover the secrets.”  As with most Haitian loa, Legba has two main aspects: a Rada and a Petro, the Petro being darker and more frightening. Legba’s Petro aspect is called Carrefour, the crossroads, and he is lord of black magic, linked to Ghédé and Baron Samedi, the fearsome baddies of death and the grave. Legba’s sacrifice is a white cock whose neck is twisted; Carrefour gets a black cock who is set on fire and allowed to run around in agony. While Legba’s vévé emphasizes the four distinct cardinal points of the metaphysical axis, Carrefour’s emphasizes all the wayward points in between. But Carrefour’s magic is for man to use, to ward of demons or run the risks of invoking and using them. Wisely, the West African tradition puts the onus on man, not some transcendent deity; as Deren points out, it is man who makes magic, not the loa.

In Haiti and Cuba, Legba is not the devil, but is syncretized with other saints, particularly St. Anthony, St. Lazarus (who is old and walks with a cane), and, sometimes St. Peter, the gate-keeper. Again, these correspondences are not fixed in stone, but seem to mutate as the context of the world changes. This ability to adapt shows the deeply pragmatic wisdom of orisha worship, for, as esotericists know, all great magicians are revisionists, not classicists. But for all his different aspects, forms, and Christian names, some followers of the orisha insist on the central unity of the Trickster figure. Molly Ahye insists there is no difference between Haiti’s Legba and the Trinidadian/Brazilian Eshu:

Eshu is Legba, Eshu-Elegbara. Legba is a contraction. Eshu is the connection, the spiritual connection between man and divinity….Eshu is a mirror of us. He embodies all the forces, positive and negative. Eshu is the one who guards the secrets. He whose neck is twisted; Carrefour gets a black cock who is set on fire and allowed to run around in agony. While Legba’s vévé emphasizes the four distinct cardinal points of the metaphysical axis, Carrefour’s emphasizes all the wayward points in between. But Carrefour’s magic is for man to use, to ward of demons or run the risks of invoking and using them. Wisely, the West African tradition puts the onus on man, not some transcendent deity; as Deren points out, it is man who makes magic, not the loa.

A Little Legba in Us All

As is probably apparent, I feel that in Eshu/Legba we meet one of the world’s most impressive gods. His lawlessness and tricks not only keep us on our toes, but point us towards the most creative components of destiny, the free zones of fate. In him, the Trickster becomes a kind of metaphysical principle. While never losing touch with the ground, he wanders perpetually, in search of information or sex. For Pelton, Legba embodies Jung’s synchronicity, and for Henry Louis Gates, he is the Logos. But Eshu is also the being of the network, of the immanent language of connection.