Vodou bottles typically act as vessels or containers for a person’s zonbi or for a person’s nanm. A zonbi is a part of someone’s soul that is captured, contained, and made to work; a zonbi is not killed by God’s hands. A nanm is the soul that everyone has and can be captured before or after death; some parents in the provinces contain their child’s nanm in a bottle when they leave for school in Port-au-Prince to magically protect them from harm. In Haiti, there is a boko – a Haitian expert in supernatural forces that works for either revenge or healing. Traditionally the boko would have been called a sorcerer by anthropologists. The boko creates a wanga, or work of magic, with what is typically an empty alcohol bottle. These bottles contain multiple meanings, symbolisms, and connections to the culture that created it. They are, in a sense, maps of books of these cultures, their values, and what practices and spirits are important to them.
Certain colors on bottles can refer to something specific, like the black, red and white bottles that are primarily associated with the Petwo rite. The colors refer to the Petwo Iwa’s hot and fiery nature and their willingness to work. These specific spirits are invoked by lighting gunfire, cracking whips, and pouring liquor klerin as opposed to rum. Typically, the boko will decorate the bottle with symbolic materials, like magnets to attract people one wants in his/her life, or mirrors to deflect those who are unwanted.
Bottles are a combination of religious tradition and cultural knowledge. The relationship between the owner and the bottle is said to be one of secrecy and knowledge. Bottles speak visually about the cultures that created them and their significance. By clothing the outside of the bottle, one can keep secret the contents inside. Vodou is constantly recreating itself with new material, taking what it can use visually.
Bottles are often used in altars to honor specific spirits; however, they are also used to convey concepts or ideas. My particular bottle recognizes Earth and all of its energy, always changing and evolving and moving, but never being destroyed. The painted flowers recognizes Earth itself, and the many red tones symbolize vulnerability, magic, sunrises, sunsets, and the giving of life. This further symbolizes the concept that the wilderness is alive within us and will never die, can never die.
Vodou practices are a conglomeration of the religions and cultures that have passed through. They are not absolutely specific to any geographical place, even though Vodou is typically associated with Haiti. There are practitioners from Los Angeles to New Orleans, and the practices continue to evolve and be shaped by the years that pass and the cultures Vodou is practiced in.