Saturday, November 5, 2016

The spirit world

I am not a religious person, but I am aware of the importance belief has in the lives of people, and the comfort it can bring. I'm also aware of the very human need to petition something beyond our earthly selves when we are in need. You might call me a superstitious atheist.

If you are offended by my cavalier approach to religion, you might want to stop reading now. But please understand I have no intention to comment on your own personal faith or beliefs.

So given all that, I am now living in the city of New Orleans, a city where magic, folklore, superstition and a melange of creativity and culture has long given rise to a healthy practice of paying respect to the spiritual elements. The Other World seems present everywhere you look, from our famous Cities of the Dead cemeteries to the ghosts of the French Quarter, from the ritualized evocation of Catholic saints to the gris-gris of Caribbean voudou, and the practice of Hoodoo and Santeria.

Doll left at a tomb in St. Roch cemetery on All Souls' Day
New Orleans is full of shops catering to these needs. There are some well-established voodoo and spiritualist shops in the French Quarter - some of them more serious than others. You can buy cheap souvenir "voodoo" dolls in any tourist shop, and there are psychics and seers established in store-fronts in all neighborhoods.

A veve, or voudou drawing on a Bywater House. This is for Papa Legba
I'm writing a short story about a character who has to fight a voodoo jinx, so I am interested in how people put these beliefs into practice. Here in my neighborhood, there is The Island of Salvation, a botanica - or shop that sells products used in spiritualist rituals - operated by Sallie Ann Glassman, a noted woman who is an initiated Voudou priestess. The shop is in a complex that includes a food co-op and fitness center, and it's very popular with the kind of young white people that settled into the Marigny and Bywater after Hurricane Katrina.

An altar to Marie Laveau at Island of Salvation
But there are places to go in other neighborhoods that aren't so touristy. In the Treme, a little corner store is called Carmel Sons Botanica.  Every time I've been over there, it hasn't been open.

The other day I visited F & F Botanica Shop, a little storefront right across the street from the headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Here, the walls of the shop are lined with shelves holding spiritual candles - tall glass containers filled with enough wax to burn seven days. I am fond of these candles, having first encountered them in Los Angeles, in Latino botanica shops. They are imprinted with the images of saints or with the incantations of ritual. Do you want good luck? Do you want to keep the cops away? Make that man love you? Get that job? There are candles to burn for those who need that extra help from the Other World.

Offerings left in the chapel at St. Roch cemetery
At F & F, I spoke to Tanya, who suggested for general good fortune, she would advise someone to burn a candle called "Horn of Plenty," because, as she said, "what you are looking for is prosperity and abundance."  Another useful candle is  one named "Do as I wish" - which, she said, although it's sometimes used to attract a lover, it's also used to help strengthen one's hand while negotiating and navigating one's way in life. "And this one's purple," she said, "a very powerful color." Throughout our conversation, she called me "my baby" and "sweetheart." That's just the way folks talk down here.

Tarot cards
Both Sallie Ann and Tanya suggested candles should be "dressed" or drizzled inside with a little oil - olive oil is good - and sprinkled with herbs. Candles should be allowed to burn for seven days without extinguishing, if possible, although if you're nervous about leaving them unattended, Tanya suggested placing a non-flammable object on top of the to smother out the flame instead of blowing them out; and re-lighting them upon your return.

Magical waters at F & F
You can find other functional magic, including floor wash, aerosol spray, and also bottles of cologne water. One of the most favored colognes is Florida Water, which was introduced to the United States in 1808. It's scented with orange oil, lavender and clove, and its name may refer to the fabled Fountain of Youth, sought by Ponce de Leon in Florida in the 16th Century. Tanya rubbed her hands with this before our conversation.

While I was at F & F another customer, a big guy wearing a knit cap he stashed his pack of smokes in, bought a candle to petition the 7 African Powers - a rainbow colored candle that includes the synchretic images of Catholic saints that represent West African Gods. He had a new baby grand-daughter, he said, and he wanted to start her life out right. "And can you give me that St. Joseph statue, too? I'm gonna put these on the altar just as soon as I get home," he said.

So - I got to thinking. With all the turmoil and news, I'm getting more and more nervous about the upcoming election. Do you suppose I should go ask Tanya what kind of candle to burn for a favorable outcome?

Which of you would join me in a candlelight petition, if you can find a botanica in your town?


Anonymous said...

Absolutely! Find out about shipping? I suspect the closest possibility to me would be 200 miles or so away. Sigh - another sue

Glennis said...

You know, I see saints candles in Walmart all the time, but the problem is you have to know on your own which ones are powerful for what, since Walmart doesn't exactly employ any spiritual advisers or Voudou priestesses.

But I got some nice Virgin of Guadalupe and St. Michael candles at Walmart.

David Duff said...

Alas, there will be no "favourable outcome" to your election given that they are the two worst candidates in years!

Anonymous said...

Yes, hard to believe all the marketing genius that has been left behind re:wal-mart. I need to haul my recycling to town before the winter season hits, so might as well make it sooner rather than later, and go see myself. Because, as you may have surmised, correctly, what we lack in botanica options we have in spades in wally worlds. Again with the heavy sigh! Thanks kiddo - hope you are having a good week-end. another sue

Trudy said...

My very Catholic mother, her Russian Orthodox best friend and, subsequently me....all burn Jewish Yahrzeit (Memorial) candles when we feel the need.

I do have access to the Sainted ones that are around, but just feel that the Yahrzeit work best......when my daughter's Jewish boyfriend came for the first time and saw the candle....he definitely commented on it, knowing I'm Catholic...I told him it's a family tradition...he just laughed.