Bathing With Spirits: Herbal Baths and Haitian Voudou
For as long as humans have been consuming herbs, they’ve been soaking in them. Just as herbs are frequently steeped in tea, they are just as often used as an infusion for bathwater, which releases their healing properties. Whether we’re treating sore muscles with mint or just enjoying some lavender aromatherapy, it’s safe to say that every herbal bath connects us to a simple, almost sacred tradition: the creation of our personal sanctuaries.
In the Caribbean, however, the herbal bath carries an even holier association as a major component of Haitian Voudou (frequently westernized as “Voodoo”). Often performed during the new year and around holidays, voudou baths are designed to bestow various blessings from God: anything from better cash flow to improved health or a new baby.
When most of us hear the word “voodoo” we think of hexes, shrunken heads, and animal sacrifice (or, for watchers of American Horror Story, Angela Bassett’s badass voodoo queen, Marie Leveau). These perceptions are derived largely from Western taboos regarding magic, Hollywood, and perhaps most unsettling, the world’s tendency to make a spectacle out of faiths which differ widely from the Abrahamic religions (black magic Voudou, or Petro, is extremely rare, and most Voudou priests support peace and healing). Voudou is a holistic faith, combining African religion with Catholic saints; it developed in Haiti in the 18th century, along with several other Caribbean colonies with their own slave populations, and their own variations on the aforementioned spiritual fusion (Cuban Santeria, Jamaican Obeah, Brazillian Macumba). According to The Guardian, experts place the estimated number of Voudoun practitioners at 60 million people worldwide.
Voudou’s African roots drive several aspects of faith, not the least of them herbal healing. Many of the plants utilized in Voudou rituals are native to tropical areas– like eucalyptus and cayenne pepper– but you probably have a lot of them growing in your own garden, as well: mint, sage, rosemary, garlic, and catnip are all staples of the craft. When a practitioner is experiencing pain, stress, or emotional difficulties (a frequently-treated issue is commitment phobi), they meet with a priest, who prescribes them a spiritual bath by means of a divination. As the ceremony begins, a veve (e.g., a spiritual drawing designed to invoke spirits) is drawn on the floor as the diviners sing prayers. One by one, the herbs and plants are crushed by hand into the bath, until at last, the warm mixture is ready. (The herbs are best harvested by the person administering the treatment– at least that’s how it’s traditionally done in Haiti.)
Curiously enough, a Voudou bath infrequently involves a passive soak. Those receiving treatment may be seated or standing as the bath is poured over their heads, and slowly down to the feet. Additionally, they may be given hand-picked bunches of herbs to scrub onto the body prior to rinsing. All the while, those leading the ceremony continue to sing prayers and reach out to the spirits, until at last, the remains of the bath are collected in a bag (yes, a bag). This is holy water, after all, and you can’t just chuck it out the window. Typically, one disposes of the extra bath water at a river, crossroads, or other natural area.
Voudou is an uncommon practice in the United States, but cities with large Afro-Caribbean populations – such as New York City, Los Angeles, and especially New Orleans – typically have stores, or botanicas, devoted to herbal healing.
In the Bronx, the plainly-named, grocery-store-sized Original Products features a huge counter behind which lay dried chamomile, white sage sticks, high john root, and fresh bunches of palm and catmint; meanwhile, prospective spiritualists walking around the East Village will also want to check out Enchantments, the oldest occult store in New York.
Of course, if you want to get the true, authentic voudou bath experience, you’ll need to seek out a priest – something that may understandably spook Westerners. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of voudou practitioners are kind, open-minded, embracing people, and through a little bit of research, you’ll probably be able to find a temple near you. By exploring Afro-Carribean culture through the lenses of natural healing and the garden itself, plant lovers can help unravel outdated cultural perceptions, connect with man and nature, and perhaps find a sense of spiritual satisfaction along the way.