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Eshu is a deity worshiped in West Africa, the Caribbean, and South America (particularly Brazil). To his followers, he is the god of choice and change. He goes by many names, being known in different places (by people of different faiths) as Exu, Eleggua, Esu, Kalfu, Elegbara, Elegba, Legba, and Eleda. The mayhem and creative tumult which accompanied the conquest and development of the new world spread his worship far beyond the lands of the Yoruba and the Gbe (the area around the gulf of Benin) where he was first venerated. To the Yoruba he was a powerful and beautiful young man with magnificent endowments, however, his appearance varies from place to place. In Louisiana, as “Papa Legba” he is a wise old black man with a staff (who loves toys). In Haiti, as Kalfu, he frequently takes the form of red demon. He is imagined as a red youth with a trident by Umbanda practitioners in Brazil.
Perhaps Eshu’s protean nature has been responsible for his success in many different religions and faiths. These multifarious guises certainly suit his nature, for Eshu is a trickster and a shapeshifter. When the Supreme Being, Olodumare, apportioned power to the respective gods and spirits, it* asked each one where they would go. The various deities answered in accordance with their nature: one said “the air,” another answered “the sea,” some asked to be allowed into the human heart, while others clamored for battle and war. Only Eshu had the intelligence and temerity to answer “I want to go wherever I will.” His insightful answer meant that there is no place he is denied. He speaks all languages of both gods and mortals and is free to break any rule.
Eshu’s symbols are the crossroad, the gate, the key, the trident, and the door. He is associated with the colors red and black. Sometimes he is shown with a red feather or a nail in his forehead. He is in charge of divine communication and must be called on first if one wishes to have contact with the numinous. Eshu’s voodoo manifestation, Papa Legba is very specifically a gatekeeper to the spirit world. In Brazilian Cantabile, Eleggua controls all doors and must be appeased so that he doesn’t open up your home to outsiders. His fluid, omnipresent nature is most apparent in stories from the Yoruba and Gbe faiths of Africa. To his African worshipers, he is the deity of traveling, fate, fortune (and misfortune), and of death. His harsh lessons were one of the few true paths to illumination and positive spiritual transfiguration for the Yoruba and the Gbe.
My favorite story about Eshu illustrates his nature as clearly as it can be explained (and reveals a great truth about humankind). Eshu painted half of his body black and half red. Half of his garments were crimson, and half were pure black. Thus attired, he walked down a street running through the lands of his followers. Half of his people saw him as a powerful red deity, while the other half saw him as a beautiful black god. Soon the worshipers were arguing about what they had seen, then they were fighting, and finally the machetes came out and they were killing each other. Neighbors hacked apart former neighbors in a holy war about the nature of their god.
Appropriately the myth has two endings. In one, Eshu returned to his followers and showed them what he had done. His lesson was a harsh but effective way of teaching humans that their beliefs are dependent on their perspective. His worshipers learned that failure to keep an open mind can lead to violence and tragedy. In the second version of the myth, he looked down on the carnage he had caused and laughed at how easily humans are led astray. Then he turned his back and went elsewhere, leaving his followers to their slaughter.
(*Olodumare, the supreme being of the Yoruba religion, stands beyond and above gender.)