How the Devil Came to Wear Papa Limba’s Hat

“Oh, well, then,” he raised his eyebrow, “here’s a story. The Devil—that’s me—was known to hang out at crossroads, it’s true, just waiting to steal someone’s soul. But the soul of a musician? Please, those things are so easy to come by I don’t have to get out of bed to get them.

“Yes, I was known to hang out at crossroads. The thing most people don’t know is that I’m not the only one. Papa Limba walks Highway 61 more often than I, has for years.

“I met him at the crossroads once, and he said to me ‘Scratch, in Memphis, my people know me and in New Orleans, my people know me, but here in the Delta, they all go to church.’

“And I said, ‘That’s too bad, Papa Limba, but maybe that just means you should spend more time in the cities and leave the country folks to me.’

“Papa Limba leaned hard on his cane, and looked up at me.

“’Yeah, I considered that,’ he said. Sometimes he had what sounded like a French accent, and sometimes his accent sounded so country and sometimes you couldn’t recognize where he was from. ‘But that’s not going to work. Just because my people don’t know me no more don’t mean I don’t know my people.’

“I shrugged. I have time. And no desire to fight old men.  I turned away from him to head on down the road when I heard this noise, like rain on hard ground, and I looked down to see beads, tiny blue beads, rolling around me. I couldn’t help myself. I had to count them.

“I had to count them,” he said, leaning hard on the ‘had,’ “and as I was squatting there separating the ones I had numbered from the ones I had not yet counted, Papa Limba ran his sharp knife down my back, grabbed a hold of my skin and flipped his wrists so hard it popped me right out of my skin. I kept counting, but faster now, obviously. I wanted to save my skin, but first things first.

“Papa Limba took off his clothes, folded them nicely and set them carefully on the ground. I was almost done. He then shook out my skin like pants fresh from the dryer and stepped right into me, put my skin on like a suit. And I was done counting. I stood and looked at him, looking back at me with my own handsome face, my tail already flipping behind him in contentment. My tail whipping behind me in anger.

“’So, that’s it,’ I said. ‘You’ll be me.’

“’When it suits me,’ he said. ‘When I need to be.’

“’Fair enough,” I said, and I grabbed his beautiful old top hat right off the pile of his clothes and put it on my own head. He tried to hook me with his cane, but in my other hand, I still had all of those tiny beads and I spilled them at him, this time, and my fresh skin still knew that the count had to happen, and so Papa Limba dropped to his… my… his knees and our hands began the sort.

“Meanwhile, I headed off south towards Vicksburg, itching a little as my new skin came in, but enjoying the shade of my new hat.”


6 thoughts on “How the Devil Came to Wear Papa Limba’s Hat

  1. Yeah. This whole thing really appeals to my nerd-girl side, because this name change seems to be such an interesting indicator of how knowledge gets passed on and morphed.

    So, obviously, the “Papa” part indicates that this name has either been Francofized or Hispanized before becoming Ango-ized. And the close ties between Louisiana and Haiti would suggest that this is how Legba came into New Orleans–he came from Haiti before the Louisiana Purchase.

    But then there was the Haitian Revolution and we know how that goes. Haiti is basically isolated. So, Haitian voodoo grows its way. Louisiana voodoo grows its way. And Papa Legba’s name, over the generations, morphs.

    I’m not 100% sure on the timeline of this, but it seems pretty clear that, by the time New Orleans voodoo in the 19th century was really cooking, with Marie Laveau, he was called Papa Limba, Papa Leba, or Papa Lebat. He’s apparently only returned to being “Papa Legba” as New Orleans voodoo came back into contact with other Voudon derived religions.

    But it’s not clear to me exactly when that shift happened. Just sometime in the 20th century.

    19th century Louisianans certainly linked him to the devil, too. I saw sources quoting them as saying “Limba is the Devil.”

    So, I thought that’d be fun to play around with.

  2. That’s very interesting, and there is no hint of the Legba/Limba shift in the “Papa Legba” Wikipedia article, but Limba is covered in the “Louisiana Voodoo” article.

  3. It does make you wonder how people draw the line between “he was called something slightly different” and “those fools are just saying his name wrong.”

  4. If enough fools say your name wrong enough times, that becomes a “variation” (or even the only name for you that anyone knows), especially if you aren’t around to set the record straight. Just ask that dude whose name wasn’t Jesus.

Comments are closed.