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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


    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]:

    • "Flor de Hermano Pedro -- flower of Brother Pedro, brown flower which cures the sick." [These whole, crumpled flowers smell a bit like black tea mixed with mild tobacco. For more on Brother Pedro, see below.]
    • "Lagrima de San Pedro -- San Pedro's tears, a grey seed from Esquipulas which heals when it is cooked." [This is Job's Tears.]
    • "Piedra de Ara -- a grey stone which attracts money." [This appears to be milk quartz.]
    • "Frijol Colorado -- a red bean which protects against the evil eye." [Until i determine the proper name, i am calling this "medium-sized red legume species A." See the page on red beans for more about the "good luck" qualities of the several species of psychedelic, intoxicant, and lethally toxic legumes known as huayruru seed, tento, coral bean, frijol colorado, crab-eye, and frijolitos]
    • "Semilla de Chameleon -- chameleon seed which attracts money." [This is a species unknown to me.]
    • "Mustard Seed -- protects against all harm." [This is a yellow-brown mustard seed, Brassica sp.]
    • "Romero Cortado -- an herb to protect the individual" [The herb is rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)]
    • "Mira Compuesta -- an herb to prevent jealousy." [This brown, wrinkled, soft herb is visually unidentifiable.]
    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:
    • "San Antonio -- will improve one's love life." [He is the saint of lost things and hence of lost loves.]
    • "Hermano Pedro -- will cure ailments."
    • "San Judas -- will help in business matters."
    • "San Simon or Maximon -- a Guatemalan folk saint who can help in financial troubles, or help one quit smoking or drinking."
    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].

    • "Oil for Health."
    • Not listed. [A portion of a vuelve vuelve vine -- for the return of a lost love.]
    • "Red and Black 'Huayruru' Seeds for Luck." [There is but one seed in the vial, of the species Abrus precatorius, also found in the Mexican Snow-Globe Pyramid of Luck and the Mexican Buddha pregnant with a Christian cross. See the page on red beans for more about the "good luck" qualities of the several species of psychedelic, intoxicant, and lethally toxic legumes.]
    • Not listed. [A painted soapstone carving of Saint Anthony, for the return of a lost lover.] [The example at left contains a painted soapstone carving of the Child of Wisdom, a Peruvian deity syncretized with the Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes.]
    • Not listed. [A fragment of a nut of unknown species (more clearly seen in Charm Vial #4).]
    • "Pyrite or Fool's Gold to attract money."
    • Not listed. [A small chunk of tree bark dyed bright yellow -- for health.] Also found in a Peruvian package amulet.
    • Not listed. [A small chunk of tree bark dyed bright green -- for health.] Also found in a Peruvian package amulet.
    • Not listed. [A small chunk of tree bark dyed bright pink -- for health.] Also found in a Peruvian package amulet.
    • "A Horshoe [sic] for Good Luck." Also found in Peruvian package amulet.
    • "A magnet which attracts both Luck and Money." [In Latin American amulets, the word "magnet" is usually a mis-translation for "piedra iman" or lodestone, but there is neither a magnet nor a lodestone in this vial as far as i can see.]
    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:

    • "Blue figure is St. Anthony, the patron saint of lovers." [This is who appears in the vial shown here]
    • "Yellow figure is St. Cyprian, the patron of healers."
    • "Brown figure is St. Francis, the patron of animals."
    • "White figure is the child of knowledge for wisdom." [Cross-cultural conflation is at work here; the Child of Wisdom is a Quechua deity now identified with the Christ Child and invoked for good grades in school and increased mental prowess.]
    • " Skull for the protection of the home." [This an unusual symbolic use of the skull.]
    • "Closed hand, the 'Mano Poderosa' of Christ also protects." [This is another example of cross-culturalism: The Catholic Mano Poderosa or Powerful Hand (derived from the ancient Roman Hand of Power) is typically shown open and upright. This hand -- although it seems to make the Italian mano fico closed fist gesture for protection from the evil eye -- is actually derived from pre-Columbian Quechua illa amulets showing the hand of a weaver holding a beater-stick. Ancient weaver's hand votive amulets were buried in the ground to increase the manual dexterity of the petitioner. The Quechua soapstone weaver's hand amulet can be seen in a Peruvian package amulet of the "collage" type.]
    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:

    • Oil -- for health
    • A small chunk of tree bark dyed bright green -- for health. Also found in Peruvian package amulets of the "collage" type.
    • Two small chunks of tree bark dyed bright orange -- for health. Also found in Mexican package amulets of the "collage" type.
    • A Job's tear (Coix lacryma-jobii) seed -- meaning unknown to me but also found in Peruvian package amulets of the "collage" type.
    • A small piece of white rock (probably milk quartz); presumably this is the Piedra de Ara of Charm Vial #1 -- to attract money
    • Vuelve vuelve vine -- for the return of a lost lover
    • A carved and painted soapstone statue of St. Anthony -- for the return of a lost lover
    • A piece of pyrite -- to attract money
    • A miniature horseshoe -- for luck
    • A red huayruru (Ormosia) seed -- for luck. The species looks like Ormosia macrocalyx. [See the page on red beans for more about the "good luck" qualities of the several species of psychedelic, intoxicant, and lethally toxic legumes.]


    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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