Spiritual Herbalists have the ability to extract the essence of herbs, roots, and flowers to bring mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well being to their clients. They do this by enhancing herbal preparations with music, dance, chanting, and prayer. If you have ever said a prayer before eating a meal then you have grasped the concept of Spiritual Herbalism, but this is not a faith based healing nor are the medicines snake oil. The herbs, roots, flowers, and oils that are used have real physiological effects as observed and practiced by native people from antiquity. Before consulting any herbalist check with your doctor to make sure herbal and aromatic therapy is safe for you.
The first herbalists in the Americas were the Native people. Indigenous spirituality primarily holds an animist worldview. That means all things, including plants, have intelligence. The Arawak migrated from South America up into the Caribbean Islands, to Florida, and even as far north as the Carolinas. They are referred to as Tainos.
The Tainos were the people who greeted Christopher Columbus when he arrived in the Caribbean. These Native people had already inhabited the region for 1000 years before Columbus arrived and had intimate knowledge of the islands, healing plants, and mastered sea travel. The Tainos were referred to as the "good folk" who were handsome, energetic, and hospitable. They had a cosmology, performed ritual bathing, venerated their ancestors, and used hallucinogenic plants to go into trance. Next time you eat something Creole know that it was the Tainos who invented the seasoning! Contrary to popular belief the Tainos did not go extinct but are as durable as the spirit of the Caribbean.
When African slaves were forced to the new world they brought the religions of IFA, Vodou, and others with them. Some Tainos and Africans were able to escape to the forests, caves, and mountains where the Spanish refused to venture. Others fled to surrounding islands. Those who were still enslaved by Europeans concealed their religions syncretizing African spirits with Catholic saints. The African slaves that were brought over included royalty, military, and priestly classes. The ancestral knowledge that was brought to the new world ran deep into the Congo. Other esoteric and occult European practices were absorbed into the culture such as Freemasonry.
The Yoruba Speaking People
IFA is a Traditional African Religion that originated in what is now Nigeria with the Yoruba speaking people. IFA is a spiritual science with a very complex binary system of divination called ODU IFA. The knowledge of Ifa has been preserved within Yoruba communities and transmitted among IFA priests. Orishas are the spirits of IFA, like angels and archangels, who are in charge of human affairs.
The Fon Speaking People
Benin, in West Africa, is the center of Vodou in the world. When the people of the Dahomey Kingdom arrived in Saint Domingue they brought their religion with them. Over time Vodou developed differently across the island. Haitian Vodou and 21 Divisions (Dominican Vodou) is different from what is practiced in Africa, yet they drink from the same well. At Vodou parties the LWA or Mysteries are called down and when they arrive they possess their devotees to communicate with the congregants.
The Bantu Speaking People
Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão sailed the Congo River becoming the first European to encounter the Kongo Kingdom. King Nzinga Nkuwu converted to Christianity in 1485. Kongo people maintained churches but also kept shrines to their local spirits. The Kongo people's conversion was based on a different assumption about what Christianity was and syncretic beliefs continued for centuries. These beliefs traversed the Middle Passage to the New World.
Today people in the islands and across the world practice Afro Caribbean traditions in many different forms. The most commonly known are Espiritismo, Santeria, Lucumi, Palo Mayombe, Haitian Vodou, 21 Divisions (Dominican Vodou), Puerto Rican Sanse, Brazilian Candomble, and Umbanda. These beliefs and practices arrived in New Orleans and evolved into what is known as Louisiana Voodoo. Africans living in the South East Coast of America developed Hoodoo. These traditions continue to evolve around the United States in communities of the diaspora.
Before any spirits can be called in conjure Papa Legba must be honored first. He is the guardian of the crossroads between this world and the next. Legba is the trickster spirit in African Vodou as practiced in Benin. He is syncretized with St Lazarus and St Anthony in Vodou. He can be found at dusk and dawn at the crossing of day and night. He can be seen by intersections, train tracks, and any crossroads. He loves candy, rum, black coffee, and tobacco he smokes out of a corn cob pipe.
Marie Laveau was a famous Creole practitioner of Voodoo, who was renowned in New Orleans. Her daughter, Marie Laveau II, also practiced rootwork, conjure, Native American and African spiritualism as well as Louisiana or what is known today as New Orleans Voodoo. Tourists continue to visit her tomb and some draw X marks in accordance with a decades-old tradition. They turn around three times and leave an offering hoping Marie will hear their requests.
Native American Medicine
Native American healers believe that plants, trees, shrubs, flowers and herbs possess a spirit and intelligence. When harvesting plants and herbs to be used in Herbalism the Shaman only takes what is required and asks permission and expresses gratitude during the harvesting process. The healing potential of the plants and herbs are empowered by ritual ceremonies, prayers, songs and chants.
Hoodoo and Powwow
Hoodoo, or Rootwork, is an old and powerful system of African American folk magic. Hoodoo's roots derive primarily from the Gullah people, a distinctive group of African Americans from Coastal South Carolina and Georgia. In the 1800's white and Jewish pharmacists opened their shops in southern black communities and began offering items asked for by their black customers. Homemade powders, mojo bags, conjure oils, and talismans form the basis of much rural hoodoo, but there were also successful commercial companies selling various products to urban and town practitioners. Hoodoo practices developed in a heavily protestant Black Christian community. Hoodoo is not Vodou/Voodoo by any means, and the two should not be confused which might seem a little confusing at first.
Southern Conjure's magical lore would grow with the emerging of the mail order catalog. Most practicing Hoodooist identify as Christian and not only see the Bible as the word of God but also a book of spells, especially the Psalms. Like all folk magic it generally concerns itself with day to day activities like love, luck, protection, and revenge!
The Pennsylvania Dutch
Pow-wowing, or brauche, is a magia-religious practice whose chief purpose is healing physical ailments in humans and animals. The practice has been present on this continent since the first German speaking settlements were established in Pennsylvania in the early eighteenth century, although it has its roots in much older German esoteric traditions.
Powwow was essentially a religious movement which regarded illness as the work of the devil to be expelled by charms, herbs, and incantations delivered by an empowered believer in the Scriptures. The Bible is considered the most important book of the Powwow and no practitioner would work without his on hand. The majority of the charms and spells utilized by the Powwow are generally agreed upon to be remnants of medieval Catholic folk magic.
Espiritismo, Spanish for Spiritism, is the most influential belief system that impacted the island of Puerto Rico second to Catholicism. Espiritismo teaches that there is one God who is the benevolent creator of the universe. Just as good and evil exist in the physical world, it also exists in the spiritual worlds. Elevated ancestors and spirit guides influence a person in a positive way while malevolent spirits can do so in a negative way. Espiritismo has never had a single leader nor center of practice and its practices vary between individuals and groups. Espiritismo was influenced by the books of French spirititist Allen Kardec, but they only reinforced the existing folk practices of ancestral veneration and spirit communication. Espiritismo also absorbed and influenced foreign religions entering the island such as Santeria and Vodou.
In the early 1800s Espiritismo gained popularity in Puerto Rico because of it's condemnation of the Colonial Catholic Church. Espiritismo eventually made it's way to New York City during the Puerto Rican and Cuban diasporas of the 1940s and 1950s. Fleeing a shattered economy in Puerto Rico, and political persecution in Cuba, this new generation of Caribbean Americans continued to practice their faith in garages, basements, and bodega backrooms. When a practitioner of Espiritismo incorporates elements of Santeria in their practice it is referred to as Santerismo. Espiritistas who practice Sanse, Puerto Rican Vodou, are called Sancistas.
The 7 African Powers
In Santerismo The 7 African Powers are spirit guides not the Orishas. They are actually spirits of the dead from the seven different African tribes that were brought to Cuba and forced into slavery which were Congo, Mandika, Yoruba, Calabari, Takua, Kissi and Arara. A person who has The 7 African Powers as guides will have one spirit from each of these tribes unique to him, and one of the seven will dominate the group and orchestrate their efforts.
Great Power of God
The brightest spiritual light in our universe is seen as the sun that gives life and sustains it. He blesses humanity with forgiveness, compassion, and love. A spark of his essence exists in all humanity. He is envisioned as the Lord Jesus Christ. Espiritismo and it's practices are rooted in African, Taino, and European Spanish faiths. The use of candles, oils, colognes, and herbs are a central part of healing as well as working with a variety of spirits from many different cultures.
Puerto Rican Witchcraft
Brujería is the Spanish word for witchcraft. Men are called brujos and women brujas. Brujería doesn’t participate in hierarchical communities or initiation-based fraternities. It is extremely individualistic. Rituals are heavily dependent on the attitudes of the participants, on the forces of nature, and spontaneity of spirits. As separatist ideals begin to gain momentum more practitioners are clinging to cultural nationalism especially that of Afro-Boricua and Taíno folklore.
The Seven Wonders
There are a few commonalities/practices that (most) all spiritual herbalist share. Just for fun I came up with seven. They are:
- Ancestral veneration
- Spirit communication
- Mediumship, trance, or possession
- Practice of divination
- The ability to cast spells for good or ill
- Herbal medicine and other healing methods
- Sacred music, dance, prayers, and folklore
I have used the term "spiritual herbalist" on this page to describe a certain "type" of folk healer. The importing of Traditional African Religion to the New World and it's fusion with pre-existing Native religion and Catholicism created very powerful hybrid magical systems of healing. For the most part every traditional folk healer you meet is going to perform healings in their own way according to their tradition. Some follow very strict initiatic traditions that function within the context of a community and hierarchy. Some practitioners are lone rogues practicing their family tradition running a botanica. One thing is for certain and that is "Magic" has always played a crucial role in the social and political evolution of mankind.