Spiritual gifts for the deities of the world
Customers ask for the strangest things in botanicas, little stores that sell candles, potions, statues and other spiritual sundries used to summon gods and goddesses, saints and demons, from religions far and near.
Some shoppers may want to bring down Ogun, an African warrior god who loves black cigars, red palm oil and 151-proof rum.
Others may need three green candles to get the attention of St. Anthony of Padua, the Franciscan friar remembered for loving the poor, healing the sick and other miracles.
Then there are those customers with more sinister motives.
“Women call up and say they want something to kill their man’s wife so he can marry them,” sighs Paris Williams, standing behind the counter of Botanica Caridad Del Cobre in Alameda. “It happens once or twice a month.”
“I tell them, ‘Think about what you’re asking for! This is not Murder, Inc.’ ”
Botanicas used to be found almost exclusively in Latino neighborhoods such as San Francisco’s Mission District or Fruitvale in Oakland. More and more, however, spiritualist shoppers need not go far to find a clean, well- lighted place for voodoo.
Many of the gods and goddesses of the botanicas are African deities that first came to the New World via the Caribbean and the slave trade. Over the centuries, some blended with Catholic saints or the indigenous spirits of American Indian spirituality.
But in today’s marketplace of mix-and-match religion, people of all makes and models seem to follow the orishas, the relocated deities of the African pantheon.
“The demographics of this religion have changed,” said Williams, an African American woman who was raised in Oakland as a Jehovah’s Witness. “It’s no longer just a religion of slaves or poor people. It has little to do with race or ethnicity.”
Williams calls her religion lukumi, which means “greetings, friend” in Yoruba, a west African language. Others call it Santeria. Still others call it ifa.
Whatever you do, said Barbara Hutchins, the proprietress of La Mariposa Botanica de Osain, don’t call it “voodoo” and don’t call her a practitioner.
“This is a tradition based on balance and harmony,” said Hutchins, whose shop is also in Alameda. “It’s a profound system of divination that is 8,000 years old.”
Hutchins insists she’s just a store owner. But talk to her for a while, tell her your story, and she may reach for “Boss Fix,” a little bottle of green “blessed oil” designed to put things back on track in the office.
“Extra strong,” the label warns. “Use three capfuls daily on body or in bath. Pray for desired results.”
Those with more serious problems may need to visit the Mission District and check Candle Light, a small shop on 24th Street that sells all kinds of religious paraphernalia.
There, shoppers can find “Court Case” spiritual incense, a “powerful Indian house blessing” used when one finds oneself in trouble with the law.
Not far from Candle Light, over on Valencia Street, Botanica Yoruba offers an all-purpose blue candle with “alleged Miracle Healing Power.”
The word “alleged” is printed in smaller letters than “Miracle Healing Power,” but the tall votive candle is nevertheless said to help with headaches, arthritis, bad backs, drug addiction, AIDS, depression and cancer.
One afternoon, Susanna Hannemann was helping out in the shop, where Tibetan prayer flags fly above statues of Catholic saints and African gods.
“It’s universalistic,” said Hannemann, lighting a candle near the front door. “God is something we cannot comprehend.”
Hannemann said she is a priestess in the Yemaya school of Santeria. She was in town from Hawaii to visit Yolanda Idalia, the “spiritualista” who owns the shop and was too busy counseling her clients to find time for an interview.
Botanica Yoruba is one of the more established spiritual supply stores in the Bay Area. It has been “fulfilling your Santeria, Lucumi, Palo and Ifa needs since 1980.”
Another longtime pagan supply house is Ancient Ways on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. It offers an extensive line of herbs and potions, including Job’s Tears for love spells and Jezebel Root to foster financial success.
Greek goddesses get equal time at Ancient Ways, where customers can purchase “Honk If You Love Isis” bumper stickers.
One of the newer metaphysical supply shops is on a gentrifying stretch of University Avenue in Berkeley.
It’s called Alaya — the Shaman’s Store, and offers “tools for ritual, ceremony and transformation.”
Like many of the newer botanicas, it has an eclectic inventory and a more upscale feel. There was a cabinet full of crystals, popular with the New Agers, next to a traditional blue statue of the Virgin Mary.
Madonna was rubbing shoulders with a bare-breasted African goddess, but neither of them seemed to mind.
There’s a back room at Alaya where spiritual workshops are conducted, including one on “Jewish shamanism.”
“This store brings together many different paths,” said Sumitra Rosella, proprietress.
Her store also carries a variety of exotic herbs and plant compounds used by Native American spiritual healers — things like Blood Root and White Willow Bark.
“The spirit of the herb does the healing,” she said.
Rosella concedes that some of the claims made about botanica products seem outrageous.
“Hey,” she said, “I’m a skeptic too and I own this store.”
Paris Williams said the religion of the botanicas, like most religion, is about faith, not facts. “I look at a lot of this stuff and think it’s b.s. Other stuff is useful. It works. How does it work? I don’t have a clue.
“But if you believe you have done something effective, you approach the problem differently,” she said. “But there are many people who come into the shop looking for a quick fix. This is America — home of the quick fix.”
Last month, the botanica where Williams worked in Alameda shut, but she’s working with her “godmother,” Maria Concordia, to open a new one, Botanica Lazaro, next month on Bancroft Avenue in Oakland.
Botanicas, like the orishas, seem to come and go.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Williams and a few dozen friends held a celebration to mark the ninth anniversary of her priesthood.
Williams leaned from the balcony of her apartment in Oakland, welcoming women in flowing dresses and other friends bringing fruit, food and other essentials.
Inside, a band of drummers led the congregation in chanting, singing and dancing.
“It’s just a party with the orishas,” Williams explained. “We sing, dance, pray and invite them to come down.”
One of the gods being summoned that day was Obatala, who likes cool water, coconuts and cookies placed on his throne.
If all goes well, the orishas inhabit the body of one of the priests. At Williams’ party, Ogun made an appearance and gave her some information about her health.
“You approach them and salute them,” she said. “If they have a message, they will find you.”