Charm vials are Central and South American amulets that contain a variety of plant materials and symbolic objects. As such they are the equivalent of Latin American package amulets and African-American bottle spells and conjure bags or mojo hands. In Peru, larger containers filled with similar lucky charms are placed on altars; they are known as charm flasks. From left to right:

  • Charm Vial #1: Guatemala
  • Charm Vial #2: Peru
  • Charm Vial #3: Peru
  • Charm Vial #4: Peru
  • Charm Vial #5: Peru
  • The examples pictured here were all purchased in northern California during 1995 and 1996. Their countries of origin are Guatemala and Peru. The Guatemalan one contains plant and mineral material only; the Peruvian examples each contain plant and mineral material, symbolic objects, and a painted soapstone carving of a saint suspended in oil. Some of the containers are cast-off medical ampules; some are made to hang from a cord. Charm vials are often sold with printed descriptions of their contents, none of which are completely accurate.

    Charm Vial #1: Guatemala


    The container is a recycled medical vial with a bit of green yarn affixed to the rubber cap so that it can be suspended. The contents consists of seven layers of plant matter, plus a stone, each of which has specific symbolic meaning. The descriptive sheet explains that the charm was by "made a 'curandero' or folk doctor from Guatemala." It lists the contents, from the top down [and my comments appear in brackets]:

    Glued to the outside of the container is a tiny black and white photocopy image of a mustached man in a black suit sitting on a chair out of doors. He holds a large sack in his left hand and an erect flag staff in his right. He is Maximon, a Mayan god of the underworld who is sometimes identified with Saint Simon Peter. The descriptive note that accompanied the vial explained that there are variant images available: The elements comprising this charm vial are identical to those on the surface of a Guatemalan package amulet i found six months later -- right down to the green yarn and the image of Maximon. It would not be too wild a guess to assume that they were made in the same village, if not by the same curandero.

    Order a Guatemalan Maximon Charm Vial from the Lucky Mojo Curio Co.

    Charm Vial #2 (Long and Thin): Peru

    The container is a section of glass medical tubing plugged with a plastic stopper at the lower end and fitted with a metal cap and hanging ring at the top. Shown at left is a similar vial, minus the decorative hanger. It comes with a red or green cap and rubber stopper. The contents are submerged in oil, which appears to be regular cooking oil. According to the descriptive card that accompanied this charm vial, it was made by a Curandero' or folk doctor from the Amazon area of Ayacucho, Peru, and it is "used to protect and attract money and to protect and help business." The descriptive list that came with the vial is incomplete, so i shall list the contents from the top down, quoting from the description where relevant [with my comments in brackets].

    A note on the dyed tree bark, which is also found in Peruvian package amulets of the "collage" type: My friend Barrance C. Lespine speculates that this bark is possibly from a species of Central and South American kapok called "ceiba," a huge tree with spreading, twining roots that throws off what Barry calls "a shower of white phallic fluff" every spring and was considered a sacred "world axis" tree by the Maya and other native people. An image of the ceiba appears on Guatemalan coinage.

    Order a Peruvian Long and Thin Charm Vial from the Lucky Mojo Curio Co.

    Charm Vial #3 (Short and Squat) : Peru
    This charm vial, from the Amazon area of Ayacucho, Peru, is made from a discarded vaccine bottle with an aluminum-and-rubber cap. It came with the same scanty and misleading description of contents given with Charm Vial #2, except that there was added information about the soapstone figurines, which is worth quoting:

    Here is a list of the contents of Charm Vial #3:
    Order a Peruvian Short and Squat Charm Vial from the Lucky Mojo Curio Co.

    Charm Vial #4 (Short and Squat) : Peru

    This short and squat charm vial is almost identical to vial #3 except that it is a little larger and the aluminum-and-rubber cap has been spray painted red. A similar one, with a green cap, is depicted at left. It too is from the Amazon area of Ayacucho, Peru. Here is a list of the contents:

    Order a Peruvian Short and Squat Charm Vial from the Lucky Mojo Curio Co.

    Charm Vial #5 (One of a Kind) : Peru
    This charm vial is far more elaborate than the others in terms of aesthetic execution. Although the container is just a discarded medical vial, like the rest, the lid was hand-crafted by a skilled jeweller who used brass wire and blue stones to create a small work of art. It is finished with a ring for hanging. This type is not currently found for sale in the USA. No descriptive list came with it, but the contents are as follows:


    Related to the charm vial, but intended for use on a home altar or at a wayside shrine, is the Peruvian charm flask shown here. It was made by filling a 6" - 7" tall hip flask that formerly contained rum or whiskey with the same assortment of objects described in the Peruvian charm vials above, plus a few other lucky items, such as a strip of raccoon fur, an unknown species of moss, coloured thread wound in patterns around a flat piece of aluminum foil, cloth strips appliqued with golden rick-rack, a decorated candle (also found in Peruvian package amulets of the "collage" type). Inside the reverse of each flask there is a large saint print, most often of the Virgin of Guadalupe, set off with appliqued cloth and golden rick-rack.

    Charm flasks make a very impressive display, needless to say. Culturally unique, they still manage to convey a faint resemblance to the witch's balls and witch's flasks of England.

    Order a Peruvian Charm Flask from the Lucky Mojo Curio Co.

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