African deities are generally grouped as primary deities, secondary deities, and tertiary deities, the latter group including clan spirits, local divinities, and personal gods.
In the Dahomean Vodun pantheon, Mawu-Lisa (also spelled Mahu-Lisa, Mahou-Lissa, or Mahu-Lissa) is the first on the list of primary deities. In other words, in the hierarchy of powers, Mawu-Lisa comes at the top and assumes the role of commander-in-chief.
Mawu and Lisa are the creator couple of Heaven and Earth.
Mawu, the female principle, corresponds to the moon and is associated with night, fertility, motherhood, gentleness, forgiveness, rest, and joy, all characteristics that one sees in women.
Lisa, the male principle, corresponds to the sun and is associated with day, heat, work, power, war, strength, toughness, and intransigence, all things that characterize typical male persons.
Hence, Mawu and Lisa are the sky gods who absorb the nature of the Supreme Being or God Almighty in the Fon Cosmology.
Indeed, Mawu among the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin Republic) is the same spiritual principle or entity as Odoudouwa (also known as Olou Odawa) among the Nago and the Yoruba of Nigeria.
In the same vein, Lisa among the Fon corresponds to Obatala (also called Orisha N’la, Itchala, or Itchala Mon) among the Nago and the Yoruba.
These and many other similarities between the Dahomean Vodun and the Nigerian Orisha are so clearly discernible and striking that eminent Benin scholar, diplomat, and African traditional religion critic, Dr. Joseph Yai Olabiyi Babalola once suggested that one refer instead to this important religion as Orisha-Vodun.
Of course, one could well say Vodun-Orisha had there not been a need for alphabetical order in Babalola’s formulation of the compound word.
Mawu-Lisa, the Supreme Entity, is often seen as a complementary sexual pair that is merged into one force and referred to as Mawu, that is, God in a general sense among the Fon of Dahomey and the Ewe of Ghana and Togo. For example, to swear to God, the Fon people say N’xwlé Mawu (N’xwlé = I swear to and Mawu = God), and the Ewe of Ghana and Togo and the Mina of Togo
would say N’ta Mawu (N’ta = I swear to, Mawu = God). This Supreme Entity, Mawu among the Fon and the Ewe, is called Olodumare, Olorun, or Oluwa among the Nago and the Yoruba and is known as Bondye or Gran Met among the Haitians of the Caribbean Islands. Mawu is the Omnipotent Father whose commands all world creatures must obey at all times.
In his role as the patron saint of the universe and all things and creatures in it, Mawu-Lisa is surrounded by his children or creatures, that is, all Vodun who serve as intermediaries or emissaries between human beings and him. Indeed, the Vodun being the creatures or children of Mawu is clearly evidenced in the Fon saying, “Mawu wè do Vodun lè” (It is Mawu who created and owns all Vodun).
Some of Mawu-Lisa’s children and their respective roles, as delineated by Mawu-Lisa, are as follows:
Sakpata: the oldest child of Mawu, to whom the Earth was entrusted. He is the god of smallpox and the Vodun of wealth or prosperity. He is also known as Ayivodun (god of the Earth) or Ainon (proprietor of the Earth).
Heviosso or Hebiosso (also spelled Xêviosso or Xêbiosso): Mawu’s second child, who is in charge of the sky, thunder or lightning, and rain. He is the Vodun of Justice who punishes criminals and evil doers, as well as anything, including trees and animals, that is considered harmful, by striking them down, especially during rain. He is also known as Jivodun (Ji = sky; hence Vodun of the sky).
Xu or Tovodun, also known as Agbé or Avlékété: god of the Ocean.
Gu or Ogu: god of iron. Gu is considered the god of blacksmiths, warriors, and hunters. This god does not condone evildoing insofar as he kills accomplices of wrongdoing when he is appealed to. A famous phrase among the Fon of Dahomey is Yé da Gu do me (to call on Gu to deal with someone, or to send Gu onto somebody).
Aguê: the fifth child of Mawu, who is responsible for overseeing agriculture and the forests. This is the god that reigns over birds and all animals.
Jo: god of invisibility, the Vodun of the air.
Lègba: Mawu’s youngest son barely received any endowments because all had been divided up among his older siblings. This accounts for his jealous nature. He is, however, considered the town or country protector, but only on condition that offerings are regularly made to him. In other words, if not cared for, this god can be a destroyer, exemplifying thus the Good and Evil. Lègba is a professional agitator, provoker, aggressor, or instigator who is somehow against the deeds of the Providence. He is otherwise called a trickster god. To avoid falling into his trap or getting into his troubles, people regularly give him offerings.
Dan Ayido Huèdo or Dan Aidowèdo: god of the rainbow, fertility, and wealth. This is the god who serves as the link between Heaven and Earth.
Dan or Dangbé: the serpent-god, whose ancestors are pythons. He is famous among the Xwéda of Gléxwé or Ouidah, a historical city in Beninwhere the most sacred python temple is housed.
Tohossou: god of the waters and of monsters. He dwells in lagoons, rivers, and wells.
Hoho Vodun or Hohovi: god of the twins who are worshiped as well.
Kinnessi or Kinlinsi: goddess of witchcraft. Her home is believed to be in Abomey-Calavi, Benin.
Atinmèvodun or Lokovodun: god of the trees.
Zo Vodun: god of fire.
A Complex Idea
Among the Fon, Mawu-Lisa, the Creator God, is called by many names that not only express his omnipotence and omniscience, but also give him the highest reverence due to him. These names are:
- Mahu (The Unsurpassable, the Transcendental Force in comparison to whom none is bigger or higher)
- Gbèdoto (Creator and Owner of the Universe)
- Dada Sègbo (Greatest Spirit, King of the Kings)
- Sègbo Lisa (Greatest Spirit Lisa)
- Sèmèdo (Great Spirit, Maker of Humanity)
All in all, the concept of Mawu-Lisa is difficult to comprehend and is subject to all sorts of confusion, in the sense that when Mawu and Lisa are seen separately, which they occasionally are, it is only Lisa who becomes a separate deity that is worshiped.
Like all other Vodun, Lisa has shrines, priests, and priestesses, as well as rituals dedicated to him. Thus, the adepts of Lisa are known as Lisassi (wives of Lisa).
Conversely, there is no separate Vodun called Mawu, who is worshiped and has shrines, priests and priestesses, and rituals dedicated to her.
Likewise, there are no Vodunsi (adepts of the Vodun) known as Mawusi. People do bear the name Mawusi among the Fon, but it is pronounced differently as Mawusii (meaning “all power belongs to Mawu”).
However, when Mawu-Lisa is viewed as a two-in-one force, the entity becomes Mawu, not a deity, but the Supreme God. Hence, it is all the other Vodun or divinities who are worshiped in that they constantly intervene on behalf of human beings before Mawu-Lisa.
Their divine interventions, however, are within the strict limits of the power that Mawu-Lisa has conferred on each of these divinities in the domain that is exclusively reserved to them.
Each Vodun operates within the realm that Mawu-Lisa has carved for him or her. In other words, Mawu-Lisa delegates some of his power, as a division of labor, to the Vodun, his children, who exert their powers on all things and on humanity.
Scheub, Harold – A dictionary of African mythology : the mythmaker as storyteller
Molefi Kete Asante, Ana Mazama – Encyclopedia of African Religion
Knappert, Jan – African mythology : an encyclopedia of myth and legend
Monaghan, Patricia – New Book Of Goddesses & Heroines