Oh, My Pop Culture Vodou: Loa Misrepresentation in American Horror Story: Coven, or Will the Real Papa Legba Please Stand Up?

AHS Coven VoodooI have been an avid fan and follower of American Horror Story since Season 1, and it’s been quite the ride watching the never-ending barrage of shocking and offensive moments that this show brings us. When I found out Season 3 was to be subtitled Coven, I was extra excited. I love witches! After all, I consider myself to more-or-less be one. It quickly became clear that American Horror Story: Coven was going to be rather different than Murder House (Season 1) and Asylum (Season 2). While still a psychosexual horror show, it was less The Shining and more Mean Girls with heavy occult influences. So I guess kind of like The Craft. That is loosely the plot of The Craft.

And you thought the Plastics were bad.

And you thought the Plastics were bad.

Coven had a lot of potential, but did a lot of things very wrong (like refer to the power of teleportation as “transmutation”). This post is not long enough to cover all those points, so I’ll focus on just one. Like I said, part of the charm of AHS is all the appallingly offensive scenes, but generally what’s offensive is some mix of gore and/or sex. However, as a pagan, there was something I found particularly offensive this season—the portrayal of the Vodou deity, Papa Legba.

Who’s Papa Legba, you ask? He’s a loa. What’s a loa? Oh, boy. Let’s start at the beginning. Voodoo. So you know Voodoo? Sure, like sticking needles into dolls to hurt your enemies! Not exactly. Now, I hope I’m wrong, but I’m guessing the average American viewer of AHS: Coven knows little to nothing that is actually accurate about African-diasporic religions, like Vodou, Santería, or Candomblé. (My fellow author, Stinekey, wrote a wonderful article about Voodoo and Princess and the Frog, which also clears up some misconceptions and provides a wealth of links to great resources to learn more. Check it out!) Let’s do a quick overview to make sure we’re all on the same page, kiddos.

Vodou, also spelled Vodoun, Vodun, or Voodoo, is a faith or collection of faiths based in the indigenous animistic and polytheistic religious traditions of West Africa. Bear with the spelling madness here; they’re all transcriptions from various foreign languages, many of which may not have traditional written forms at all. In this post, I will keep with what seems to be the most common academic conventions: “Vodou” is used for the Haitian form of the religion, “Vodun” is more often used in regards to the original African expressions of the religion,  and “Voodoo” is  most commonly used for Americanized versions of the religion, such as those currently found in Louisiana and New Orleans in particular. When a catch-all term is needed, I will go with the “Vodou” spelling. The Vodun home region I’m talking about exists in areas of modern-day countries like Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, and Benin. During the years of the slave trade, countless individuals of many African peoples from this region, like the Ewe, the Fon, the Dahomey, and the Yoruba, among others, were brought across the Atlantic to places like South and Central America and the Caribbean.

The European slave owners forbade the practice of the traditional African religions among the slaves, forcing at least nominal conversion to Catholicism. What happened next is one of the most ingenious human endeavors of all time in the realm of religion. The African peoples hid their gods in the guises of the Catholic saints that had been handed to them. “Um, sure, we’re praying to St. Patrick… not! This is Damballah!”

I guarantee you more people have prayed to Agwe than have ever prayed to St. Ulrich of Augsburg.

I guarantee you more people have prayed to Agwe than have ever prayed to St. Ulrich of Augsburg.

Through connections more related to iconography than story, the practitioners found correlation after correlation for their deities. Agwe, god of sea and sailors? Saint Ulrich of Augsburg, some bishop who is always painted holding a fish! Erzulie Freda, goddess of love? Our Lady of Sorrows, the Mater Dolorosa, whose heart is pierced by seven swords. That Damballah—St. Patrick pairing I mentioned? Damballah is a god associate with snakes, and St. Patrick is often painted with snakes (since he drove them out of Ireland, after all). And so forth.

Now at first glance, Vodou cosmology can seem mind-bogglingly complex, but it can be oversimplified to this basic picture: the distant creator God (often Bondye or Bon Dieu—literally, “Good God”), and then innumerable other spirit beings, generally called loa. The loa, also very commonly spelled lwa, are the active spirit agents of Vodou, a very broad category that is not easily translatable. Deities, gods, angels, or just generic spirits—these are all possible analogies or appellations for the beings known as the loa. Since Bondye is beyond reach, it is to the loa that prayers, offerings, and sacrifices are made.

At the beginning of every ritual, a certain special loa is invoked: Papa Legba. Legba is Lord of the Crossroads, Opener of Doors, Gatekeeper, so he opens the channels of communication between the world of humans and the world of the loa. This role as facilitator is not unlike picking up the phone and dialing the operator to get connected to whomever you want to speak to. Believers revere him with affection and utmost respect, and he’s usually perceived as an old man with a cane or walking stick and a straw hat. In Haitian Vodou, Papa Legba was hidden in images of St. Lazarus, whose crutch represented his characteristic cane/walking stick, or St. Peter, due to the Keeper of the Keys motif.

So who showed up in AHS: Coven with the name of Papa Legba?

This guy.

This guy.

This top-hat wearing, coke snorting, demon-eyed Jack Sparrow-cousin burst on the scene all fire and brimstone… literally. Coven’s Legba was more some Lord of Hell than a Vodou divinity. Rather than gatekeeper between the human world and the spirit world in general, this Legba was connected with travel to a very different destination: Hell. He shared other things in common with Satan, such as accepting baby sacrifices in exchange for eternal life and youth. What do I say to this? Rude! One of the oldest tricks in the book is to take your enemies’ gods and make them demons. Even the word “demon” comes from the Greek daimon/daemon, a word that originally described a broad category of spirit beings (not unlike the loa!) that were not at all inherently evil, but could have any range of moral alignments (also not unlike the loa), and in fact were frequently benevolent. Vodou is, unfortunately, particularly prone to this sort of demonization, because many of its practices seem especially different from those typically found in the Abrahamic religions commonly practiced in the West.

So much was wrong with this Papa Legba, it’s hard to find a place to start. First off, Lord of Hell? In Vodou, Hell, as depicted/explained/understood by Christianity, is not even a thing. The afterlife is not so cut and dry, and eternal reward or punishment is not really in the Vodou mindset. The spirits of the dead transition to the other world, but remain around to be venerated and even prayed to. The distinction between spirits of the dead and the loa is not always clear, and some loa appear to have originally been the souls of departed humans, particularly in the Guede family of loa. Just as incorrect and even more damaging is the overall presentation of Papa Legba. This character doesn’t even look like Papa Legba! His iconography is much more drawn from the likes of loa like Baron Samedi, chief of the Guede loa. It is Baron Samedi and his compatriots who like the dark clothes, the painted face, the skulls, the top hats and tuxedo jackets, and who have a penchant for less than savory behavior. (Sound familiar? Think Dr. Facilier, “the Shadowman”, from The Princess and the Frog—his whole look and ambiance was totally inspired by Baron Samedi.)

Like I mentioned before, Papa Legba is treated with great respect and affection; people revere him for his key position as gatekeeper as well as his overall wisdom and power. There are already plenty of loa with not-so-nice reputations within Vodou itself that the AHS writers could have picked from to create their villain; for starters, the aforementioned Baron Samedi. Even infamous Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier would draw inspiration from Baron Samedi in constructing his public persona. If the writers had wanted to stick with a crossroads motif, there’s even a dark aspect to Legba, an evil twin if you will: Kalfu, a dark, mysterious, and much feared figure. To take a divinity as cherished and revered as Papa Legba and build such an evil character around him is, frankly, inexcusable. I think the appropriate course of action would have been to use a character already considered bad news by the tradition itself, or even create an entirely new character. TV shows, after all, are works of fiction anyway.

One of these is not like the others.

One of these is not like the others.

In the pagan community, there is a constant and ever-evolving dialogue going on amongst each other and ourselves about just who and what the gods of the various pagan traditions truly are. A general consensus is not forthcoming, and likely never will be. But one thing all pagans can agree on is that the gods are certainly not playthings that can be taken and disrespectfully twisted into grotesque misrepresentations of themselves for cheap entertainment. American Horror Story is a show known for its lack of tact and good sense, but I thought this was a new low. The theme for the upcoming Season 4 is still unannounced, but I’m praying that it keeps a healthy distance from religion.

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24 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Vodou: Loa Misrepresentation in American Horror Story: Coven, or Will the Real Papa Legba Please Stand Up?

  1. Oh, thank the loa you cleared this up! Papa Legba is one of my favorite loa and Lance Reddick is a favorite actor, so after the initial “Ooooooo!”-squeal moment, I had to admit … I was a little confused. “The Princess and the Frog” was the first thing that came to my mind. I’m not even a practitioner of Voodoo, but continually offended by Hollywood’s misuse of the religion.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! And thanks for your support; it’s crazy the way Voodoo/Vodou is portrayed in TV and movies as this diabolic cult. I can’t believe it keeps happening over and over again. When will they learn?? and it’s just bad research to make a Papa Legba character who is visually/aesthetically Baron Samedi! at least the connection between Dr. Facilier/the Shadowman in “The Princess and the Frog” and Baron Samedi and the Guede loa kind of made sense (even if it was still painted Voodoo in a pretty nasty light)

      • Marie Laveau also wasn’t a boker (evil magician) I found this harsh cast of her offensive.

    • Aw thank YOU!! I was looking for a pic that had a good number of Papa Legba’s attributes (crossroads, dogs, walking stick, the color red, straw hat, etc) and found your beautiful image. sorry I was unable to find the proper person to credit! thanks for sharing your talent!

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  3. I think he looked like Baron Samdi, not Papa Legba. It would have been proper to use Kalfu because he’s also a lord of the crossroads of sorts. I was offended by this interpretation of Legba.

    • He totally looked like Baron Samedi, right down to the top hat with skulls! This was not Papa Legba at all, very offensive. I read about Kalfu in my research and he would have been a much more appropriate loa to use for this character. thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Thank you very much for enlightening me about all the mistakes in the portrayal of Papa Legba. (And please pardon my bad english.) I don’t have much of a clue of Voodoo and related religions but even I sensed it must be something wrong with this AHS character.

    • thanks for reading and replying! i’m glad you liked the post and learned for it; there is so much bad information about Vodou/Voodoo and it’s always portrayed so negatively on TV and movies, I wanted to try to make sure people were getting some good facts too!

  5. Thank you for this wealth of knowledge, I knew something was off about the Voodoo religion right off the bat on American Horror Story, not because I know anything about it, I must admit I am quite ignorant of it, but this article has inspired me to learn more because I have a vast amount of respect for all Pagan religions, and I absolutely despise how Christianity subverted everything that was sacred and pure. I myself don’t have any religion, but I respect every religion there is, even Christianity, even though I don’t like Christianity. But Paganism and everything about it fascinates me, and I love all Pagan ideologies. Anyway I knew something was off, because Christianity played a big part on Coven, and I noticed stuff other things where off about the Witches and stuff like that, so I just knew that things where off when they introduced Papa Legba, I must say I have lost respect for that show, why should Christianity get all the spotlight, that religion is marred in blood, and it shits over everything, and it seeks to control people, rather than liberate them, and by extension liberate their souls and the very essence of what makes a person unique and what makes them who they are, whereas Pagan religions are much more spiritual and they seek to free a persons soul, and free their minds, and free everything about them, Pagan religions are more about love and they see death as a beautiful thing, and death is celebrated rather than mourned, the persons life is celebrated, and their soul leaving this world is celebrated. Anyway enough waffling from me, I am going to certainly study up on Voodoo, time to get some books. Thank you so much for this post. Peace, love and happiness -Lobo.

    • you’re welcome! thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Unfortunately, there is sooo much misinformation and horrible representation of these religions in media, i wanted to try and set the record straight a little bit. I find Vodou and the similar orisha traditions (like Santeria/Lukumi and Candomble) so fascinating and beautiful. Their cosmologies make a lot of sense in my opinion! Please do read up, I always encourage further study!

    • Speaking as a Christian, I can tell you there was very little in American Horror Story: The Coven. So I wouldn’t blame blame that for the misrepresentation of Papa Legba.

      I’m not saying that to condemn American horror Story. I happen to like horror/fantasy stories and I can appreciate it for what it is, and the world it’s trying to portray. And I’ll admit to having a fascination for mystical stuff although I wouldn’t take up the religion and think opening yourself up to it (beyond pure interest) can be dangerous. I’ve seen enough possessed people who got that way through dabbling with the occulto know the dangers there.

      I knew very little about vodou/voodoo. But I have heard of Baron Samedi, and I wondered why that name was not used. I thought maybe they were related, or different name for the same enitity. So I did a bit of research today… and yeah I can see why people would be offended. Sure I’m a Christian, but I don’t think misrepresenting other religions is the way to go in sharing my own faith.

      I doubt that’s the case here though. I think maybe they thought since Papa Legba is the doorkeeper to the otherworld to go with him. I’m not saying I agree. Samedi is pretty mainstream if even I’ve heard of him.

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  7. I love AHS and after finishing Coven, I wanted to learn more about Papa Legba – it lead me here! Thank you for a good read – I’ve learnt something today and can see why this would be offensive.

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  12. Thank you for informing me! My brother practices Wiccen and I think Voodoo (though he doesn’t like to admit it because of how horribly it’s portrayed in the media, and everyone in our family besides myself would hate it) and I thought this was an amazing thing to share 🙂 You should do an article on Wiccen to explain that, too.

  13. It’s 2am in the morning, I can’t sleep, and for no reason Papa Legba (the song by Talking Heads) pops into my head. This led me eventually to your article, which I found really interesting and informative. Of course it’s now 3am and still wide awake but definitely wiser with regards to the nuances of Vodou – thanks!

  14. No, papa Legba is in fact the gatekeeper to hell. The Catholic and Santeria religion disguise this saint as something to pray to but in actually we’re praying to something more evil than we could ever imagine. I am Latina as well and my mothers side of the family messes with Santeria. I did my own research and was really surprised with what I found.

  15. I feel it’s important to point out that as a pagan you should know that the African slaves were not the first people to hide their beliefs under the guise of the dominate belief system. As much as they so love to deny it much of the Christ mythology is taken directly from Ancient Egyption mythology. Early Christians were persecuted by the dominate pagans and in order to practice their faith they hid it under pagan celebrations, Jesus Christ was not born on or even near Yule but the birth of a savioir who would bring life to a dead world fits in nicely with Yule celebrations and I’m not even going to start on the Osiris/Christ similarties. I’ve always felt that in many ways the African slaves were taking back what was theirs to begin with, given that Africans are the second oldest known people (Indiginous Australians are the oldest known people).
    I admit that I assumed Papa Legba was simply a misrepresented death diety similar to Kali. I must give AHS: Coven some credit in that without their inaccurate portrayal of Papa Legba I would never have done any real reading on him as I am more attracted to Hecate.
    What I did think they got right was the distrust and disagreement between Western witchcraft and African witchcraft/Vodou. I’ve “watched” countless arguments play out on message bords over things like blood magick and who is stronger.
    But honestly what did you expect from mainstream Hollywood? And a country dominated by a religion which turns anything not Christian into an instrument of evil?

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