Vodou is a religion that combined Catholicism and African spirituality out of necessity. During the slave trade, Africans were forced to adopt Catholic beliefs because their owners feared that their religions could be used to communicate and fuel rebellion. However, the slaves were unwilling to give up their spirituality, so they found Catholic saints that looked similar to their spirits and combined them. To this day every spirit, or lwa, has Catholic imagery that they are associated with. Vodou uses everyday objects to symbolize their spirits and to communicate with the other side.
Bottles in vodou are not just vessels for liquids and inanimate objects; they are a way to communicate with the lwa. Bottles can become sacred objects through the use of combining symbolic images and objects in and on the bottle. There are several different ways uses that a bottle can have in the context of vodou; a pwen, a wanga, or an homage to a particular lwa. A pwen, or charm, is used to aid the bottle’s owner in some aspect of their lives, such as romance, money, or family. A wanga is similar to a pwen but is slightly more sinister and usually made by a boko, or a supernatural expert who not only heals but also enacts revenge. Wangas often contain zonbis, or spirits of the dead, who will do the work of finding romance, money, etc for the owner, instead of just drawing upon symbols to make it happen. Bottles that are dedicated to a particular spirit are visual representations of the lwa. The lwa’s colors, the things that they like, and what they represent are shown in and on the bottle.
This bottle is a pwen that draws on the spirit Ezili. Ezili is a group of female spirits that represent womanhood in all of its aspects. Ezili’s three main forms are Danto, Freda, and Lasyrenn. Danto is a strong, single mother who represents the struggles that women face, especially in Haiti. Freda represents the upper class and the desire for upper class luxuries, such as perfumes, jewelry, and most importantly, love. Love is not something that Haitian women feel like they can achieve because they often have to marry to stay alive, so it is considered a luxury. Mama Lola said “Poor people don’t have no true love. They just have affiliation,” (Brown 247). Lasyrenn is seen as a mermaid and whale, she symbolizes the desire to go back to Ginen, or Africa, and she is quite seductive. The bottle is a luck pwen that draws in luck surrounding health, love, strength and success.
The bottle contains orange incense, pearl and diamond beads, and water. The orange incense represents Florida Water, a popular, cheap scent in Haiti; Florida Water is often used on altars to Ezili Danto. The pearls and diamonds are representative of Ezili Freda who enjoys the finer things in life as well as the desire for success. The water is to represent Lasyrenn who lives in the water. The outside of the bottle is wrapped in gauze to symbolize health. Gold wishbone charms are intertwined throughout the gauze to draw in luck surrounding the different aspects of the bottle. Pins are attached to the top of the bottle to keep the luck stuck close by and to keep bad luck away. The bottle is then wrapped with blue ribbon, Ezili’s color; the ribbon catches light in a similar way to water which further draws on Lasyrenn, ribbon is also an affordable way to add decoration and beauty to simple objects which is for Danto and Freda. Mirrors are glued on to the outside of the bottle on all four sides; the four directions are symbolic or the four quarters of the world and it is extremely important in Vodou. The mirrors are reflective so they can draw in luck as well as reflect bad energy away. The reflection is also an important symbol in Vodou because the ocean separates the world of the living from the spirits; reflection in Vodou symbolizes the connection between the two worlds. Lastly, the bottle is tied with twine in a crossed pattern. This represents the crossroads between the living and the spirit worlds; it also binds up the different aspects of the bottle together so that they are cohesive and working together.
Charms in Haiti are made to be practical; they are a way for Vodou practitioners to bring luck into their lives. Using pwens is likely derived not only from the African roots that Vodou has, but also from the oppressed culture of Haiti. Luck would be in short supply in a culture developed around slavery. Pwens are a way to ensure that the owner of the pwen gets at least a small upper hand.
Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley, CA: U of
California, 2001. Print.
McAlister, Elizabeth. “A Sorcerer’s Bottle: The Visual Art of Magic in Haiti.” Sacred Arts of
Haitian Vodou. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 305-21. Print.