Local Botánica By Jaclyn Dong and Holly Stallard

By Jaclyn Dong and Holly Stallard

The customs of voodoo are kept within the close-knit community of those who practice this faith. While reading Zora Neale Hurston’s book, Tell My Horse, we found it simply astounding that Hurston was able to penetrate this private community and receive first-hand accounts of their faith by being permitted to witness the performance of various ceremonies. For us to gain a personal understanding of voodoo, we embarked on a journey to visit a local botánica.

Upon entering one on a Wednesday afternoon, we thought we were alone. The owner, skeptical of our presence in his store, watched us from the doorway to see what we were up to. As we walked around the store to observe the products for sale, we found it difficult to know the purpose of each item, as most items did not have a description. When asking the owner what some items were used for, he would answer vaguely and hesitantly.

The products that we saw within the store were things a person would expect to see when entering a store selling religious items, including different types of candles, incense, ceramic figurines, scented oils and bags of herbs. When examining these products closer, they weren’t just ordinary items. The scented oils—to be applied after showering or bathing—are used to attract people or bring prosperity. Each candle had a different purpose and was used in a different ceremony. One that stood out was called the “Oriental Patchouly Candle,” which is to take one “back to the ancient world” in order to pray with “mystical knowledge, self-realization, emotional clarity, and wisdom of the ages.” Another object that jumped out at us was a bar of soap that had a black spider inside it. The purpose of the soap is to ward off enemies.

While studying the religion of voodoo, we discovered that it is a syncretic religion. The ceramic figurines demonstrated this blend of Christianity and African religions. Figurines of Africans dressed like Catholic saints with Christian symbols like crowns and halos were all over the botánica.