Saint: Moses with Ten Commandments or Serpent Staff; Saint Patrick

Colours: White, sometimes green

Dambala (also Danbala, Damballah, etc), portrayed most commonly as a great white serpent, is the father and king of the lwa. He is the great spirit of wisdom, peace, and purity; his purity is so great that when he comes in possession we lay him a white sheet and cover him with another, waved gently by those present to fan and cool him; he is hidden from the eyes of the profane. Due to his purity, we do not smoke around him, nor will he tolerate the presence of alcohol. Dambala is also considered wealthy in addition to being incredibly wise and peaceful. His role is so great that in some houses a fet is not permitted to continue if his presence isn’t made known through possession or, at least, a strong passe.

While he is portrayed as a snake, not any snake will do. Constrictors are associated with him–pythons specifically–and vipers and other forms of serpent are not. Confusion may arise here as the Kreyol word koulèv means ‘snake’, but is derived from the French word couleuvre, which is more specific and refers to smaller, non-venomous serpents, such as grass snakes and others in the Colubridae and Lamprophiidae families.

In heavily Catholic houses, Dambala is often considered the first thing created by Bondye (God), with all else being created through him, in a sort of Vodou semi-Arianism. In less Catholic milieus he is sometimes accorded the primacy of the Creator, his shed skin giving rise to all the waters of the world, and his 7,000 coils supporting the material world. In others he has been likened to the Holy Spirit.

Due to the snakes at his feet, Saint Patrick is frequently used to represent Dambala, but in our house (and others) we use images of Moses, whose associations with snakes run deep throughout his story. In many houses, he is celebrated on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Rooted in West Africa, Dambala is so old he predates speech, and is generally silent in possession. His foods are generally white, his offering par excellence being a white egg(s) on a mound of white flower. White rice, white bread, sirop d’orgeat (which is made of almonds, despite the name), clean water, and other white foods are well received by him. In Benin, the Temple of Pythons is still an active site, located in the city of Ouidah (from which the surname for some Dambalas, “Wedo” derives). There, the serpent spirit Dan links the worlds of men and the spirits, and many constrictors live within its walls.

As with many lwa, Dambala is essentially a family name, and there are many variations within this family, such as Dambala Wedo, Dambala Tokan, Dambala Kosi, Dambala Yenou, and so on.

Dambala has a deep relationship with another, feminine serpent spirit, Ayida. Depending on one’s house and lineage, they are spouses, or siblings, or two halves of a single whole, or something else. What is certain is that the two are profoundly connected.

Like the portrayal of Legba in American Horror Story, Dambala has been maligned also–in the Child’s Play horror franchise, the wise old serpent is the one called upon by Chucky to move his soul from body to body in an absolutely ridiculous slandering of his nature. This is why we can’t have nice things.