Erzulie Dantor (also written as Erzuli or Ezili Danto) is a Haitian lwa, a deity honored in the Vodou religion that was brought to Haiti by Dahomean people of coastal West Africa. She is the patroness of women, especially single mothers and Lesbians. Erzulie Dantor is usually shown in classic mother-and-child representations associated with Jesus and Mary in Byzantine iconography. The image itself is both an icon in the traditional artistic sense, and the goddess it represents is an icon (as an important cultural representation and charismatic personality) in Vodou and LGBTQ communities.
The image of Erzulie Dantor is based on the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Catholic Poland’s most sacred relic and a national symbol. Haitians were exposed to images of the Black Madonna by Polish soldiers who fought alongside African Haitians against their French oppressors in the Haitian Revolution.
The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is an icon in Eastern Orthodox Byzantine style rather than typical Western Roman Catholic Renaissance portraiture (Byzantine: two-dimensional and stylized. Western: three-dimensional, using sfumato and chiaroscuro techniques, more closely approximating real life). Mother and Child in the Polish national symbol are dark in color. Mary has two scars on her right cheek, and Baby Jesus carries a book.
Erzulie Dantor and her child are similar to the Black Madonna (Erzulie’s child, however, is her daughter, Anais) : Erzulie is dark in color, has two scars on her right cheek, and Anais carries a book.
The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is portrayed in two ways. The first is as a picture painted on a wooden board. Madonna and child are uncrowned, and Mary’s gold-trimmed robe is has a fleur-de-lis print. The second portrayal has the wooden picture with a shiny metal overlay covering everything but the faces and hands of the Madonna and the Christ Child. The overlay shows them with jeweled gold crowns, held in place by little angels, mother and child bedecked in jeweled robes. Erzulie Dantor combines elements of the two, along with features reflecting Haitian nationalist iconography. Mother and daughter wear crowns of gold and jewels. Large white halos encircle their crowned heads, and a few white stars circle the halos. Their gold-trimmed robes are solid blue (Ersulie) and solid red (Anais), the colors of the Haitian flag. The fleur-de-lis pattern, a symbol of France, is absent. There are no angels, and the yellow background has a wood-grain pattern.
Haitian imagery of Erzulie Dantor-as-icon is remarkably uniform across the Vodou community. The Catholic Church in Haiti recognizes the image as that of Saint Barbara Africana rather than Mary or Erzulie Dantor. As mentioned earlier, Vodou practitioners claim that the child in the picture is not Jesus, but is rather Erzulie Dantor’s daughter Anais (alternate spelling: Anayiz), her interpreter. In Cuban Santería-Lukumí religion, Erzulie Dantor may be associated with the ocha (Yoruba deity, Spanish spelling) Chango, the masculine God-King of Thunder, because of Chango’s association with Saint Barbara. As Santa Barbara, she may also be associated with the Brazilian Candomblé orixá (Yoruba deity, Portuguese spelling) of Storms, Oya.
Legends of Erzulie Dantor
Haitian tradition holds that the revolution against the French began when their beloved lwa, Erzulie Dantor, spoke through one of her female mediums and rallied the oppressed majority of African descent to rise up against their masters. That same priestess who manifested Erzulie Dantor had her tongue cut out. According to one account, it was while she was tortured after being captured by the French. Another account says her own people cut out her tongue to keep her from revealing secrets to the enemy should she be captured. As a result, Erzulie Dantor does not usually speak in coherent language when she is embodied in her children during the ecstasy of lwa-trance.
When Vodou mediums manifest Erzulie Dantor, they may vomit blood. There are two interpretations for her blood-vomiting. The first is that Erzulie the Liberator was stabbed seven times during the Haitian Revolution, and spat blood at her attackers in response. The second relates to a legend that the goddess was once a woman who sold black pigs (a local Haitian breed) in a Port-au-Prince marketplace, and was murdered by a man who stabbed her seven times. Another connection between Erzulie Dantor and pigs is food. Her mediums may demand griyo (fried pork) to eat, as well as cane liquor and unfiltered cigarettes, when they are in the trance state.
LGBTQ Identities and Protectors Among the Lwas
Recognized as the patroness of Lesbians as well as independent women in general, Erzulie Dantor’s orientation is not fixed within the theology of the Vodou community. She is seen as heterosexual because she bore a child and has male husbands, bisexual because she also marries women, and homosexual because she can be seen as a same-sex loving woman who has sex with men for the sole purpose of bearing children. As a lwa, she engages in spiritual marriages with Vodou practitioners, both male and female. Her mediums include both as well.
Her more refined and pampered sister, Erzulie Freda, is the patroness of Gay men. Erzulie Freda is pale, bejeweled, surrounded by heart-shape medals, and a sword pierces her heart, much like Our Lady of Sorrows in Roman Catholic iconography. Some practitioners feel that it is Erzulie Dantor who chooses which men will become effeminate homosexuals.
Erzulie Dantor and her sister are not the only lwa associated with the LGBTQ community. Other lwa are gender variant and same-sex loving, such as effeminate male dandy Gede Nibo, one of the guardian spirits of the cemetery/crossroads, a healer who favors purple and is honored in a praise-song as having a “cinnamon butt-hole.” Acknowledgement that homosexuals have lwa protectors in Vodou attracts LGBTQ Haitians to the community and to the religion. Gay manbos (priestesses) and oungans (priests) open their own ounfos (temples). There are Vodou ounfos in Port-au-Prince with Gay congregations.
Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. University of California, 2001.
Connor, Randy. “Rainbow’s Children: Diversity of Gender and Sexuality in African-Diasporic Spiritual Traditions” in Fragments of Bone by Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2005, pp. 143-166.
Galembo, Phyllis. Vodou: Visions and Voices of Haiti. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2005.