Boutey Gede and Bawon Samedi
In Haitian Vodou bottles represent many important facets of the religion as well as the culture. Bottles are containers by design and this literal function has been repurposed to embody many spiritual ideas. Bottles can serve as offerings to a specific deity, or Lwa, with whom one may closely identify. A bottle might instead represent a Wanga or Pwen, intended to communicate a certain message through the concentration of symbolic and spiritual power. In many instances a blending of these two ideas is what forms a truly meaningful bottle.
Elizabeth McAlister recounts her Haitian bottle experience in her article A Sorcerer’s Bottle: The Visual Art of Magic in Haiti. Here she explains her evolving relationship with the bottle she had commissioned by a Port-Au-Prince Boko, or Haitian spiritual expert. McAlister’s understanding of the bottle transitions from simply a breathtaking piece of custom art into the more spiritual representation of the bottle as a Travay maji or magic work. Besides the artistic appeal these bottles have come to represent so much more in the culture. The idea of a magic work is important to understanding what these bottles can tell us about Haitian Vodou. Work is inherently something someone gets paid to do. McAlister had her bottle commissioned, essentially paying for it to be produced. This represents the adaptation of Vodou to a capitalistic system. A Boko uses his or her spiritual expertise to concentrate power into a certain container that is then used for a specific purpose.
The purpose of each bottle will differ depending on the specific situation or person for whom the bottle is being prepared. Serving as Wanga the bottle may communicate a meaning of protection, beauty or wonder. Because of the expertise of the person creating the bottle there is a spiritual power associated with it. Bottles, enchanted by a Boko, may be used to bring luck, fortune or basically anything the commissioner sees useful in their life. This realistic application of spiritual power speaks to the pragmatism of Haitian Vodou. Another use for bottles in Vodou are as offerings to certain Lwa. In this polytheistic religion there are different Lwa for different aspects of everyday life. Bottles can be made to focus on a certain deity in order to solve certain life problems. There are also different families of Lwa; each bringing with it different characteristics that can be applied to real life situations through defining characteristics of a bottle.
These bottles are almost always made out of recycled materials for both convenience and symbolism. Haiti is literally used as a depository for much of America’s garbage. Because of Haiti’s poor economic health they have been historically forced to sell their land as dumps for foreign trash. The use of recycled materials in the creation of these powerful spiritual vessels speaks to both convenience and a larger cultural idea. Haiti is a country forged in wreckage and this idea manifests all throughout both Haitian culture and Vodou. Speaking to this point, my bottle is made entirely out of reclaimed, reused and repurposed materials. Not only was my intention to keep the price relatively low, I also wanted embodies the idea of someone else’s garbage being used to create a powerful piece of art.
My bottle is a blending of and offering bottle with the idea of Pwen or Wanga. The overarching family of spirits to whom I offered my bottle is Gede. This group of spirits is unlike any other in that they do not fall into the traditional categories of Vodou deities. Instead they create their own group or family that comes to represent a wide variety of things. Gede represents death, the afterlife, sexuality, and humor. Through crass verbiage, sexually suggestive actions and constant jest, Gede normalizes some of life’s most difficult subjects. Unlike other Lwa everyone has Gede as a part of his or her life because everyone dies and everyone is born.
My bottle is dedicated to Papa Gede and Bawon Samedi, two lwa in the Gede family. It is set in a graveyard alluding to the lwa’s representation of death and the cemetery respectively. The bottle itself represents Papa Gede and features a phallic spring and a half black skull, two features associated with Gede. Bawon Samedi is represented by the scarecrow figure standing in the graveyard holding a golden timepiece. This represents his affiliation with the cemetery and the impending presence of death. In terms of the bottle as a Pwen or concentration of spiritual meaning there are many overarching themes featured in the materials and preparation of the bottle. The bottle is draped in chains that cascade down the entire length of the structure. This speaks to the ancestral importance of slavery in Haiti’s history. One chain in specific is wrapped tightly around the neck of the bottle binding to the structure a pair of golden angel wings. This represents the manifestation of European iconography in Afro-Creole religion and the close association between slaves to owner power dynamic.
Inside the bottle there is an amalgam of scented, blue and green gel beads that represent the ocean and water in general. The ocean is integral in understanding how many Haitians view the afterlife. In both Haitian Vodou and Kongo cosmology water or the ocean represents the line between the world of the living and that of the dead. In creole the idea is referred to as an ba dlo which literally translates to “underneath the water” (McAlister 309). I decided to fill my bottle with aqua colored gel beads to symbolize the spirits of the dead as well as to represent Gede’s affiliation with death.
Bottles in Haitian Vodou are important symbols that help us understand the culture as a whole. With a majority of the population descending from slaves it is fitting that the bottle be bound by chains. The recycled materials help encapsulate the level of poverty as well as the way other countries view Haiti when considering how the United States uses it as a landfill. The Lwa to whom this bottle is dedicated represent death and sex an association that speaks volumes about Haitian culture. Because Haiti has such a violent past including the overwhelming hardship of slavery, the country’s history has a theme of death and sexual reproduction occurring simultaneously. These features are all elements of my bottle and all aid in understanding Vodou and Haitian Culture.
Elizabeth McAlister. “A Sorcerer’s Bottle: The Visual Art of Magic in Haiti” Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Ed. Donald J. Cosentino. LA: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.