Continuity and Change in Caribbean Voodoo Practices: Hurston’s Tell of My Horse

Tell of My HorseThe Course

Foundations of Caribbean Culture and Society (Spring 2011)

Using Hurston’s seminal text Tell My Horse (1938) to gain understanding of voodoo culture and ritual in Haiti and Jamaica, Professor Kistler’s class compared past Caribbean voodoo practices with current ones by conducting research at local botánticas in Central Florida.

View a video of their findings or read their blog posts.

About Ashley Kistler, Ph.D.

A cultural and linguistic anthropologist who specializes in Maya kinship, gender, and ethnohistory, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ashley Kistler teaches classes on Latin America and the Caribbean.

Voodoo Culture in Central Florida

By Ashley Kistler

My class, Foundations of Latin American and Caribbean Culture and Society, explored Hurston’s representation of voodoo culture in the Caribbean in her work, Tell My Horse. Students delivered in-class presentations on the themes of her work as well as an evening presentation open to the Rollins community relating Hurston’s work on voodoo to the practice of voodoo religion in Central Florida today.  Doing so, students explored the role of continuity and change in voodoo practice over time.

To relate Hurston’s work to life in Central Florida, students visited local botánicas, stores that sell candles, oils, and statues used in voodoo religious rites and in the practice of santería.  When possible, they interviewed customers and employees at these botánicas as well as local voodoo practitioners about the beliefs and practices of voodoo religion today.  In short blog posts, students then related Hurston’s work to their experiences with voodoo in Central Florida.

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.

San Lacaro Botánica by Chris Jainandan and Pascal Wirth

By Chris Jainandan and Pascal Wirth

On Wednesday, March 30, we visited the San Lacaro Botánica located in Winter Park, Florida. This botánica was located just about 10 minutes from Rollins’ campus, and it was surprising to know that there was one within such close proximity.

The botánica itself was not very large, but contained a variety of items used in the santería religion. Surprisingly, there were literally hundreds of different candles, potions, and oils that were sold, which could have been used for a variety of tasks. The candles could have been used for anything from gaining financial prosperity, to making someone fall in love, and even to killing people! Also, it was surprising to see the number of oils that were sold, which had similar purposes to the candles. Another thing which we found interesting was that there was a huge freezer inside the store, but it contained only eggs and coconuts. We later found out that these were items used in religious practices, although the significance for using these items is not known to us.

The atmosphere of the botánica was unique because it contained so many unusual items which are not readily sold in other stores. These items related to Hurston’s descriptions because we read how candles and other items are used in voodoo for religious purposes. There were no other shoppers at the time whom we could interview, but the shop owners were nice enough to explain how to use the candles and potions.

All in all, visiting the botánica was a very unique and interesting experience because it allowed us to see part of another culture and the significance of candles in that particular religion. We also thought that the store would have been more unusual considering what we know about voodoo and santería, but all in all seemed not too out of the ordinary.

Local Botánica by Ray Estavillo

By Ray Estavillo

My trip to the botánica was very different from what I expected. I found more similarities between Catholicism and this religion than I thought was possible. Still, being a Christian it was very foreign to me. There were many of the same symbols, but often for an altered purpose or with a different explanation.

The part that stuck out the most to me was the purpose of the store itself: to sell different herbs and concoctions called “potions.” I am not familiar with using herbs as part of my beliefs or ceremonies. While our culture uses medicine and science, they have a liquid or powder for every need and situation in life. I did not try the effectiveness of them, but there must be something to at least some of these herbs for the religion to continue to thrive in the Latin world today.

When I first walked in it was obvious that the store clerks knew it was my first time in a botánica, and they may have been wondering what I was doing. Still, they were welcoming and willing to answer a few quick questions from me. I mostly asked about the various powders and herbs on the walls and their purpose. To my Western eye, they appear to be a very superstitious people, but also a dedicated people.

Botánica Obatala by Ashley Taylor and Charles Ward

By Ashley Taylor and Charles Ward

For our visit we went to a botánica located off Bumby Road.  The botánica was located in a small shopping plaza right next to a Haitian BBQ restaurant. The windows were covered with black and you could not see inside the botánica. The door to the shop had a poster with a saint on it in bright colors.

When we entered the shop, two store clerks working behind the counter were quietly talking in Spanish and tending to some plants. We proceeded to ask the African-American man behind the counter about the kind of products they sell and their purposes. Unfortunately, the man refused and told us he did not have the time to speak to us. This caused a little bit of a panic for the two of us, so we tried to quickly look around the store and take in the atmosphere before possibly getting kicked out.

We noticed bottled scents, oils, and perfumes all with a small explanation of what their purposes were. One was a romantic potion that seemingly made the person who smelled the potion fall in love with you. Another potion was used to provide luck, specifically for gamblers.

Behind the counter, we spotted pill bottles that were filled with what seemed to be herbal remedies. On the top shelves were miniature and medium-sized statues of religious saints.  Near the back of the room were two long, skinny swords that had an intricate handle made out of woven fabric.

We believe that the poster of the saint on the front door of the botánica was there in order to ward off evil spirits.  This is very similar to chapter four in Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse when the locals put chalk on their front doors to prevent duppies from entering their houses.  As Haitian and Jamaican people worship things that are in their natural, unprocessed state, herbs are offered to specific saints as a show of worship and appreciation.  The same worship of natural entities can be found throughout Tell My Horse, as they worship the sun, water, and other natural sources.

Since the store manager would not grant us an interview, we were unable to hear about the specific rituals and intricate details of voodoo culture. Voodoo is a syncretic religion that ties in with Christianity. As a result, some of the saints that we observed in the botánica are found in the bible. From our observations, it can be determined that voodoo is a religion that uses lots of objects and natural entities for rituals.

Local Botánica by Erin Wareham and Katie Murphy

By Erin Wareham and Katie Murphy

Last Tuesday, March 29, we visited a local botánica in Orlando.  The shop was very small, and the aisles were very narrow.  There was a woman behind the counter who greeted us. Immediately we noticed the overwhelming aroma of the candles and oils. There were statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe scattered around the store.  We asked the owner what her best-selling product has been lately, and she told us it was the incense sticks.  The incense holders were elaborate and extremely ornate.

The most interesting item we found in the store was the “Love Spell Kit.” For only $20 you can make someone fall in love with you. There were also good luck and jinx removal kits. We were particularly interested in the Asafetida gum, which cost $6 for a pack.

We also asked the owner how many customers she had on average per day.  She explained that there were not more than 25 per day, but that her customers were loyal and continued to return weekly. It was interesting to see the many different facets of voodoo and santería religions. Before this visit we didn’t know these stores were scattered around Orlando.

San Lacaro Botánica by Robert Crowley, Alfred Alessi, and Skyler Russell

By Robert Crowley, Alfred Alessi, and Skyler Russell

We visited the San Lacaro Botánica which is located off of Semoran Road. The botánica is placed in a shady-looking shopping corner and the windows outside are covered so you cannot see the inside.

As I entered the shop, I first encountered murals and sculptures of a religious nature. There was Mary, Jesus, werewolves, animals, crosses, and many others that deal with religion. Next to the sculptures were tubes of paint and aerosol sprays with descriptions of its use, including “death spray,” “holy spray,” “controlling spray,” and many more.

Looking for more new stuff, I found healing herbs for certain everyday issues. The herbs healed PMS, sinuses, parasites, and more. The lady who worked in the store did not speak a lick of English and I spoke Spanish with her in order to learn what the certain things meant. We were the only people in the shop besides the owner, and at the end we all bought Hispanic ice cream which was delicious.

This relates to Zora Neal Hurston because she’s from central Florida where this botánica is located. Also, all of the items in the botánica were from the religion voodoo which is a large part of the book.

Botánica 7 Potancias and Botánica Obatala by Melanie Roth

By Melanie Roth

My experience visiting the botánicas was very interesting. I was only able to go to one because the other one I went to had gone out of business. I originally found an address for a botánica on South Orange Ave. called Botánica 7 Potancias. When we got there, it was empty and we asked someone passing by about the store. They explained that it recently went out of business but to ask the psychic down the road what it was all about. We then went to the psychic that was nearby and asked her about botánicas. She got really mad and said to stay away from those because they are affiliated with witchcraft, so we left. I thought her negative and serious reaction to the botánicas was very surprising to me because I view psychics as practicing a sort of mysterious witchcraft.

The botánica that I actually got to go in and experience was Botánica Obatala on North Bumby Ave. I walked in and got a very strange look from the salesman like I wasn’t wanted in there, so I felt very awkward and creeped out. There were many different products displayed in the store. There were these necklaces that I later learned were called talismans. They are usually made from hand-woven and braided hemp. The charms were strung on by natural fibres such as silk and wool. Included on the necklaces were an assortment of rock crystals, stones, skeleton keys, animal feet such as rabbit, and even bones. Too scared to ask the salesman about the necklaces and their importance, I went back and looked them up. I found that the talisman is used to provide whoever is wearing it with supernatural powers or protection. I then realized that these talismen are used in many different religions. For example, in Christianity one wears a cross while in Judaism people wear the Star of David. All of these talismans provide protection, success, or even healing.

Even though my trip to the botánicas was short, I learned a lot. It was very interesting to see how seriously people take these shops and the belief of witchcraft. I can’t really relate my experience to Zora Neale Hurston’s, as she was able to truly see these acts of voodoo in full use while I was only able to browse the products.

San Lacaro Botánica by James Libutti

By James Libutti

On Tuesday, March 29, I visited the San Lacaro Botánica by myself. The botánica is located right off of Semoran Blvd. The actual appearance of the botánica is a bit sketchy and, to be honest, I was a tad concerned when I saw it. It is in a shopping center which was a good sign, but the windows were totally covered so nobody could see inside.

As I entered, I was taken aback by all of the strange things inside. To make matters worse, the people who worked there did not speak any English whatsoever. I tried my best to communicate in Spanish, however, as I could not understand much they said, I could only ask a couple of questions.

All around the shop I noticed a lot of small sculptures and paintings. The majority of them were related in some way or another to religion. Near the paintings were painting and general art supplies such as spray cans, tubes of paint, and types of brushes. The spray cans had strange names and some were foreboding. The one I remember clearly was called Death Spray, which freaked me out.

The next thing I found was a section where they had various herbs for sale. It seemed like they had an herb for everything; an herb to cure your everyday problems and then herbs to cure things such as parasites and PMS. Zora Neale Hurston talked about various aspects of voodoo and I remember her talking about various herbs that they used to heal ailments. It seemed as though I was in a different world in the botánica, and these people were very sure that these herbs and things would actually heal them. I am sure in some cases that some of the herbs probably contain some of the ingredients in everyday medicine, such as antihistamines.

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