On Exu. Clifford Low & Carol Dow

Seal of King Exu

Clifford Low's Commentary

One of my relatively recent fascinations is that of the darker aspects of the Yoruba based religions, such as Voudon, Hoodoo, Santeria, Candomble, Macumba, Quimbanda, and Umbanda. My interests began when I noticed some links between descriptions of depictions of highly diabolic mountain spirits revered by South American miners and the generally furtive descriptions of Santeria's darker Orishas. For those unfamiliar with Santeria, it is preoccupied with the worship of divine African beings known as Orishas, which are often depicted (for convenience) as christian saints. One of the darker beings, Eleggua (a dark messenger), is connected with Exu, (Ey-shoo), an Orisha depicted as Satan; ruling over vengeance, lust and money. Exu is worshipped in, in some traditions (as pictured below), by offerings of miniature iron pitchforks placed in vases of blood before a devil statuette.

What interested me most of all about Exu, is the fact that Santeros specialize in a particular Orisha, teaching a compatible student for decades, when they become a like specialist. Santeria is a few hundred years old, though it's roots go much farther, suggesting an undocumented and largely undiluted lineage of Satan oriented black magicians exists as a semi accepted part of Santeria. This is exceptional, when the fact of the weight of the Christian elements of Santeria is taken into account- a Christian would never accept a Satanist as one of his/her own, but apparently Santeria does for it's equivalent. Upon further research, Exu specialists appear to be the most reclusive faction of the religion, and few if any exist outside of Puerto Rico.

This appeared to be a bit of a dead end, since Santeria is an extremely xenophobic religion, and I don't have the genes to overcome that. A seemingly random occurence informed me that the other Yoruba based religions also revered Exu to varying degrees. The Brazilian-Yoruba religions have been very poorly documented, and then almost entirely for the anthropological community. It is within these religions which Exu worship is open and popular, and due (ironically) to the undeniable influence of Ceremonial Magick upon these traditions, has allowed an earthy philosophy reminiscent of some forms of American Satanism to flourish and parallel it at key points.

The characteristics of Exu and his female equivalent (or consort) Pomba Gira, reflects the weird patchwork many of the Brazilian groups stem from. Of course, Yoruban influence is prime, but undeniable influences have been Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Goetia. Umbanda in particular has a complicated heirarchy of enlightened masters/orishas who are also angels and demons. Summoning, invocation, and possession are each induced via ritual in worship. The attitude Umbanda has towards it's demons ("exus") is one of cautious respect, much like an association with a generous mafioso. I suspect this type of perspective on demons parallels attitudes towards demons medieval folk may have had, and helped create the climate during which the Lemegeton was written. There is a distinction between Orishas and Exus, but the line is hazy and varys between sect.

The article which had attracted my attention was a caption in a colorful photo-rich book on Mardis Gras and Rio. In the picture was an idol of Pomba Gira, a dark skinned voluptuous woman with horns, wearing tacky furs and sequins, heavy gold necklaces (nipples peering quite perkily from underneath), and a massive six pointed star as a pendant. She was described as the consort of Exu, and associated with the Whore of Babylon- but actively worshipped and represented during celebration, rather than hated or lampooned (what an idea!)

I had come close to giving up on finding material on Exu and Pomba Gira, when I found a translation of a ritual treatise "Pomba-Gira" in Morrigan's Magick here in NYC. Here is an excerpt from the introduction (which is by the translator, Carol Dow, though the book is by Teixeira Neto.) The remainder of the book is sectioned off into ritual instructions for bribing various aspects of Pomba-Gira into service, and reads like a crossbreed between Henri Gamache and a medieval grimoire.

Quimbanda Altar to Exu

Who Is Exu? (by Carol Dow)

Before any of these activities can take place, the initiates scratch invocational markings in the earth with a certain kind of chalk that includes pulverized herbs, and is sometimes imported from Africa, and present an offering, which may include a sacrificed black rooster, sugar cane liquor, lighted cigarettes and candles. They tender the offering to Exu, the male aspect of the Pomba-Gira. For it is believed that without calling upon Exu, the ceremony cannot take place.

This mysterious entity, who seems the pivotal figure around which Brazilian popular religion turns, is seen everywhere, from the niche outside the entrance to the terreiro, to effigies propped up at intersections, or displayed in prominent positions in the front windows of casas de santo, the stores where articles for rituals and spells are sold. Always painted red and black, sometimes sprouting horns from his head and an erected phallus, or if a Pomba-Gira, with breasts exposed, these statues leer brazenly at passersby. The male images occasionally are decked out in top hats and capes, or carry tridents, the females some times are dressed in billowing gypsy skirts and heavy jewelry. They look like representations of the Devil and his mistress, and some say they are. The word shu, from which the name derives, in the African language called Ioruba, means "darkness."

Since Umbandists believe that all that exists arises from the interaction of two opposite forces, they maintain that these forces permeate everything. Thus, when dealing with Exu, they conceive of two divisions, the male Exu, and the female Pomba-Gira, or Exu Woman. Innumerable Exus and Pombas-Giras exist because each represents a distinctive aspect of the entity's potency. Specific information about the significance and abilities of the Pombas-Giras constitute the main theme of Neto's book.

At first, it is difficult to decipher what Exu really represents. Perhaps this is because of Umbandists' belief in secrecy and penchant for obscuring meaning beneath multilayers of symbolism. Some believers will tell you that the Exus have no morality, that they work equally for good or evil, that they are the servants of the orixas, and do their dirty work for them. Others are convinced that the notion of servitude reflects the master/slave social structure. They hold that by calling the Exus servants, the practitioners really mean that the Exus have no use for the orixas, which they consider as symbols of the oppressor, since they are syncretized with the Roman Catholic saints. Still others maintain that Exu is the intermediary between the gods and humankind, the messenger of both good and evil.

So at the beginning of a ceremony, the faithful offer to him first so that he will not disrupt the proceedings, and furthermore will carry their petitions to the gods. It is believed that if one sacrifices to him well, he will be fairly disposed to plead human causes before the gods.

On a deeper level, the fact that Exu is this universal agent of magic implies much more. Exu is the point of communication between the sacred and the profane, and as such, can be likened to the Greek god, Hermes, also known as Mercury (Roman), Thoth (Egyptian), and Odin (Norse). He intercedes between the people and what they consider to be their spiritual roots-an idealized Africa, or another dimension of the cosmos.

Exu is also the symbol of equilibrium-the axis of stability between humans and gods. Contrastingly, as the embodiment of equilibrium, by nature he is always in motion. One can liken him to a runner on a rocky road-always in danger of falling from one side to another, but completely steady at the point where both feet leave the ground and travel through the air. Although his behavior sometimes may seem vulgar, his essence is dextrous and clever.

In this role, many perceive him as a prankster-a kind of Brazilian Loki, the mischief-maker of Nordic myth. But his tricks are playful, not mean. He toys with human sensibilities and upsets the status quo because he represents the necessary power of disorder which must occur occasionally for one to be able rebuild on more solid ground. In this sense, he is comparable to the Tarot card, the Tower.

An expression in Portuguese that cogently translates this concept is grau de sandice, "grain of insanity." Exu represents the kernel of madness that sparks all creativity. He embodies physical, mental, and spiritual fertility because he typifies the creative impulse. Thus he often is depicted with sexual organs exposed and aroused.

The priestess in Serge Bramly's book on Macumba (Macumba: The Teachings of Maria-Jose, Mother of the Gods, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1977, pp. 195-96), aptly sums up the point:

"People weren't made to be machines. Part of us is madness, a necessary madness Exu is the master of-this is the most creative part of us. It is the space of our evolution. Without Exu what would our lives be? Nothing but a monotonous repetition of passionless acts."

This is why Exu performs everything in reverse, and why his worshippers often ask him to do the opposite of what they desire. Exu teaches that blind obedience to authority or to whatever the established order of things may be is wrong, and that ritual often obscures meaning. He reminds his congregation that they should always be ready to reinterpret reality from a fresh point of view, or else a situation can stagnate.

Exu's dwelling is at the crossroads, which symbolizes his aspect as the great communicator and expander of horizons. He stirs up action. The crossroads are where people and ideas meet, pass, and are exchanged. Things happen at crossroads: spaces open up and close down; new directions are taken. Thus, Exu is known as the ruler of intelligence, sagacity, and wisdom. For deep down, his precinct is the ground. He guards the sacred, fathomless well of knowledge, and as such, is often likened to St. Peter.

Because he is omniscient, he is privy to the mysteries of life and death. Thus, he also presides over the buzios, a form of divination that uses cowrie shells. The three prongs of the trident he carries symbolize past, present, future; positive, negative, neutral.

He also is linked with Omulu and Ogum, because he is familiar with all life's secrets, including those of pestilence, disease and death, and how to make and use weapons, which are often agents of death.

In a broader sense, Exu is perceived as the interlocutor of the gods because although he may associate with them, he is not one of them. Each orixa works within a specific domain, but Exu is at home in all their abodes, and moves freely among them. Expressed from another point of view, each orixa embodies one or another of Exu's characteristics, but none is wholely like him. Umbandists honor Exu because without his essence the orixas could not manifest their powers.

As a result, Exu cannot be equated with an orixa. Whatever he represents to you depends on your personal interpretation. If you believe him to be the agent of evil, surely he will rise to the occasion. If you think he is good, he will behave benevolently. If you see him as a neutral agent, again this chameleon will satisfy your expectation. Whatever Exu, or his female counterpart, Pomba-Gira, symbolize, is very much up to you. After you read this book, perhaps you will decide.

The pages that follow explain the significance of Exu's female aspect, who is known as Pomba-Gira. The translator's footnotes at the end of the book explain details not addressed in the text. It is hoped that the pronunciation guide in the appendix will help with the words in Portuguese, which is not an easy language to learn to pronounce.

The author describes Pomba-Gira's many aspects and details the rituals performed in her honor. Remember that the language of Umbanda is symbolic, and that much of what the author expresses in concrete, almost simplistic terms is meant to be interpreted on a symbolic level, as has been explained in this introduction.