Eshu-Elegbara/Exu - The Horned One and The Devil

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Horned One and The Devil

The West African trickster spirit Eshu-Elegbara is Master of Roads. He determines whether someone’s path is clear or blocked with obstacles. “Path” is meant literally but also metaphorically. Eshu determines how easy or challenging an individual’s life will be. Devotion to Eshu-Elegbara was widespread; he is common to many West African pantheons. Because of this, Eshu-Elegbara exists in virtually all African-Diaspora traditions although, as befitting a trickster, his name, appearance, and personality is slightly different wherever he manifests. He is thus a lwa and an orisha.

In Brazil, Eshu-Elegbara evolved into Exu (pronounced “Eshu”), a special kind of spirit. The Exus are a category unto themselves: there are many Exus, or at least many individual aspects or manifestations of one Exu. He serves as a messenger and medium. This definition of Exu is common to Afro-Brazilian traditions but does not occur in other spiritual traditions such as Santeria, Vodou or Voodoo, where Eshu-Elegbara is known, respectively, as Elegba, Papa Legba, and Papa Labas.

Perceptions of Exu depend upon the spiritual convictions of the perceiver. Those with more purely African or Pagan orientations perceive Exu as dangerous and volatile but not inherently evil. He performs valuable services for people including healing, and he provides opportunities and good fortune.

Many possessing a strong Christian orientation, however, perceive Exu as evil or even as the devil. In Brazil, Exu is closely identified with the Christian devil; the two are sometimes perceived as synonymous. Like the Christian devil, Exu signals his appearance with the scent of sulphur and carries a pitchfork. (In Africa and elsewhere, Eshu-Elegbara carries a shepherd’s staff.) It can be impossible to distinguish statues of Exu from Satanic imagery.

Exu’s sacred colors are red and black: he is depicted as a red devil or a black one. He is usually envisioned as a naked, horned man, sometimes with a little beard, always with a perpetually erect phallus. Sometimes he has one cloven hoof; sometimes he just limps. Like the Christian conception of the devil, Exu is a smooth-talking man who hangs around crossroads.

In Brazil, Exu has a consort, Pomba Gira. She, too, is a road-opening spirit who shares many characteristics with Exu, including the sacred colors red and black. She is considered the matron saint of prostitutes, transvestites, the povertystricken, and the downtrodden. Pomba Gira is sometimes depicted as a beautiful, lascivious, horned woman. Like Exu, she sometimes also sports one cloven hoof.