Updated: Jul 18, 2018
By Papa Pimenta
This article originally appeared in the Mystic Cup blog in 2011.
Exu is an enigma. Pronounced “Eshoo” in the Portuguese, these powerful entities are of an Afro-Brazilian origin born of the energies of fire and earth. The title Exu refers to both a Lordly Spirit of that name, as well as the elevated legions of deceased members of the cultus that return to “work” as Exus, also known as “Exu-Eguns.” Exu and the classification of “Exus” are entities born of the soil, heart, and Spirits of Brazil and those who came to her shores.
Portuguese deportees and enslaved Africans brought their “demons” and familiars with them and shared with other outside groups, such as native Brazilians and Latin American peoples. Exus exists within several African based traditions, including Quimbanda, Umbanda, Candomble, Batuque, Catimbo, and some lesser-known traditions. In a very real way Exu is the “God of Brazilian Witchcraft.”
His domains are the crossroads, forests, cemeteries, riverbanks, streets, beaches, the night, and other liminal spaces and times. Exu’s number is generally three, although some of the particular manifestations of the legions of Exus like may differ. In general the Exus like red palm oil, the colors red and black, roosters, cigars, various forms of hard liquors, chilies, coconuts, gunpowder, feathers, and are associated with the Trident. The Trident represents many mysteries; including past, present, and future as well as being a weapon to defeat enemies. One Exu in possession was asked about the trident, and his response was, “I use it to shovel the filth off of humanity.”
Exu is not: a demon, a Vodou Lwa, an Angel, a Devil, a “thought form”, or a Grimoiric spirit. Much has been made of syncretizing the various Exus with Grimoiric or Goetic entities but yet they remain their own separate Spirit beings. There is a similarity perhaps as well as a European connection through the spirits absorbed into Quimbanda from largely Portuguese deportees, many of whom had been accused of witchcraft in the Old World. This is not the Orixa of the same name, although there may be some deeper connection between the two as expected from spirits with African cultural roots known to be tricksters.
He is the Messenger of the Gods, a mighty warrior, a master magician, a trickster, a great seer, and a sort of “Astral Police.” Exu has the power to make you happy- or to destroy you. He does either with great facility. He continually loves to test the backbone of those who approach him. One of his main lessons to those who work with him is that of self-mastery. He continually challenges a person to improve themselves once they have invited him into their lives. He also has the ability to punish those that fail to develop good character and abuse his power to the detriment of their collective society. Exu is not an entity to be approached frivolously, with disrespect, or by those in poor mental health for obvious reasons. The "heat" can be too much.
It is believed in Quimbanda that every person has an Exu that walks with them from birth, and this is the one to be cultivated. In essence, one person’s Exu is not another person’s Exu necessarily although they are related and serve the same Master. Traditionally one’s Exu was determined by another Exu in possession or less commonly by Exu’s shells. When one calls upon Exu the one that comes is the one that walks with you. It is important to understand that there are legions of them, not just one specifically and they can all have different tastes.
It is not wise to call upon specific Exus without the mandate to do so, i.e. having been introduced formally. Exu is very big on introductions, respect, and the “right” to do certain types of work. He has been known to punish those who disrespect him or the way he asks for things to be done.
There are different threads of Quimbanda but all of them have some similarities. Exus are generally worked with written ponto riscados, with statues consecrated in a specific way, or with specialized consecrated pots. The modern thread in American "spiritual commercial culture" of dollies and weird painted clay heads is not traditional and generally not done by actual Quimbanda initiates. In short unless the object has been properly consecrated at the hands of an initiate using the right things- and even more importantly the specific Exu in question agrees to participate- then there is no power in it other than to take money from someone and place it in the hands of an inventor.
Exu’s origins remain deliberately mysterious much like the entity himself. In order to understand who or what Exu is, it is important to understand his genesis. In Quimbanda the supreme power is Nzambi the Creator. Some Exus in possession will literally refer to Nzambi as their highest authority. This illustrates a clear connection to Bantu culture in the past. In fact, Exu-Aluvaia is more akin to an Nkisi or Mpungo of Kongo traditions than to an Orisa of Yoruban traditions. Many histories, songs, and oral traditions refer to many of the Exus as “Nganga”, which can refer to a Priest or a pot of medicine in Bantu dialects such as Kimbundu and KiKongo. The entity tends to be very transactional in nature and not always freely approachable, yet another commonality with Kongo-related entities.
This story of origin from the Quimbanda Creation Myth in Na Gira do Exu by Mario dos Ventos gives many clues as to the nature of Exu:
…Nzambi decided to create a being capable of travelling the Universe, and to mediate between space and matter. Nzambi concentrated power on one spot and Exu-Aluvaia was born. Nzambi then gave Exu-Aluvaia seven gifts.
The first was, “So that you can travel freely, to places where I can not always be, I give you the key that opens the limits between one space and another, between light and darkness, between hot and cold.
The second, “I give you free will to choose between good and evil.”
The third, “You shall have knowledge of all things, be able to remember all the things you see and hear from this day forward, so you will be able to enrich your wisdom from your own experience and that of others.”
The fourth, “I grant you the power to bring forth changes in the matter I have created.”
The fifth, “You shall be able to see through time, to be able to know both the past and future of all beings, but not your own future…”
The sixth, “You shall possess the intelligence to understand all creatures, high, low, and in-between.”
The seventh, “I give you the power to multiply yourself, to create similar spiritual beings as yourself but lower in powers and facilities.”
Let’s meet an Exu, one of the many Generals of the Legions of Exus:
Exu Pimenta, “Exu Hot Pepper”
Exu Pimenta is the chief alchemist among the Exus. He is an expert in the areas of herbalism, alchemy, chemistry, and transformations. He is especially skilled in the arts of powders, healing, and works of love. His colors are a hot red with black and green, and his appearance is generally that of a young handsome dark-skinned man wearing bright red. He also may appear as a Caboclo in red, similar to a Native Brazilian. He prefers offerings of cachaça (Brazilian cane liquor), whiskey, rum, marafo, (sparkling wine), beer, palm oil, hot peppers and cigars. His sacred items include tridents, herbs, roots, sticks, metals, gunpowder, and medicine bags. When he is present, it is said the spirit exudes the smell of burning gunpowder like a vapor.
Legend has it that this Exu was once a powerful Nganga, born of the union of a Native Brazilian and an enslaved Nganga from Kongo. It is said his potions and powders can powerfully cure someone- or kill them dead just as easily. He is a wise, fiercely protective and an excellent guide for those he chooses to walk with. However, like many Exus he can be quite unpredictable and tends to be a loner spiritually. He works on occasion with Exu Curadô and Exu Malé
In summary, Exu represents that deepest center-point within us, our “Dark Side,” if you will. Mastery of one’s shadow self can result in great things and spiritual evolution. On the other hand, allowing one’s darker desires to dominate the will and self can be quite destructive. Exu represents the principle of freedom from slavery of all kinds. Exu is not a spirit of peace, rather one of war, revenge, and justice. Exu always expects to be paid promptly for the work he does and treated with respect. In return, he is one of the most powerful allies one can have.