>[Most of the images of prayer candles in this post are from the BrightGlowCandle.Com website. Check it out.]
I realize that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, in all probability, intends her new eponymous Prayer Candles to be viewed through the comfortably distancing lens of ironic detachment. But such self-conscious indifference is just an act. Literally.
In fact, homo religiosus longs to infuse every aspect of our lives, including the minutiae (and not-so-minutiae) of mundane daily existence, with spiritual significance and divine influences. Human beings have always chosen to adorn our homes, our bodies, our highways and byways and alleyways, our public spaces and private places, our shops and farms and government buildings, etc, with religious icons, idols, representations, logos, ornaments, signs, symbols and so forth. These representations range from the huge, elaborate and unimaginably costly: such as magnificent works of fine art made with gold and precious jewels; to the humble, almost unnoticeable, and downright cheap: such as the lowly Prayer Candle.
And if, in these modern times, we feel the need to feign coolness as we express this basic urge to surround ourselves with religious bricolage, well, I guess it’s better than nothing.
One should not be too dismissive toward at least the idea of the Lady GaGa Prayer Candle. The Savage Mind of homo paganus recognizes no boundary, whatsoever, between religion and popular culture. They are one and the same.
Take, for example, a low budget Indian movie released in 1975. This was very loosely based on a little-known folk-cult among poor women in northern India centered around an obscure Goddess named Santoshi Maa. The film became a huge financial success, to everyone’s amazement, but the response did not stop there. Showings of Jai Santoshi Maa became religious events. People took their shoes off before entering the theater, and burned incense once inside. While the film was in progress those in the audience bowed every time the Goddess Herself appeared, or her name was spoken, and even threw flowers at the screen.
Thirty-five years later, Santoshi Maa has gone from being an unknown Goddess worshipped by poor village women who spread her cult by word of mouth, to an international religious phenomenon with at least one Temple in the United States, multiple websites, the Goddess’s own wikipedia entry, and other accoutrements of a modern religious success story. The Goddess Santoshi Maa, along with her movie and her devotees, have also become a focus of serious researchers. Devotees of the Goddess even use the film as a “how-to” video for the proper way to call upon the Goddess and receive Her blessings.
I thought about Jai Santoshi Maa after watching James Cameron’s Avatar. That, too, is a film that depicts a benevolent Goddess who is called upon in a time of great need, and who answers the desperate prayers of her beloved children. And watching Cameron’s movie was a genuinely moving spiritual experience for many people.
And yet in American society one can go just so far but no further in open expressions of religiosity in public. Why? Only because we impose that on ourselves. I’m not proposing that such a thing is possible or even advisable, but just consider this thought experiment: what if Americans had reacted to Avatar in a way similar to how Indians responded to Jai Santoshi Maa? Why not? Why not turn viewing a film about the victory of the Goddess Eywa over the malevolent forces of greed, hatred, and ignorance into an act of participatory religious devotion? Why not take one’s shoes off before entering the theater out of respect? Why not bow and throw flowers at the screen every time the name of the Goddess is mentioned? Why is it so difficult for people to even imagine such a thing happening?
But when it comes to something safe, like Lady GaGa, people, some people anyway, take the opportunity to abandon all restraint and allow themselves to briefly experience some good old-fashioned Dionysian frenzy. People anxiously await a Lady GaGa concert (or Ke$ha or whoever….) the way others devotedly anticipate a Papal visit. And from the standpoint of event-planning, crowd-management, merchandising, etc, what’s the difference really?
Now I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, well, you know, Santoshi Maa is, like, a Goddess and everything — and Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is just some 25 year old Italian-American art-school dropout turned megastar. Well, let us not forget that the world’s leading religion, with twice as many followers as the one in second place, is a cult based on the worship of a dead guy. It’s true that he has been dead for a very long time, but he was still alive when the whole thing started.
And especially when it comes to the lowly Prayer Candle, mere mortal status is really not, in itself, a barrier. Take, for example, Juan Soldado, a humble private in the Mexican Army who was arrested, tried, convicted and executed for the crime of raping and murdering an eight year old girl in 1938. His devotees claim that he was an innocent victim of Mexico’s notoriously corrupt power structure. He is especially popular among Mexican immigrants coming to the United States “without documents”, as they say. These newcomers to the Land of the Free pray: “Juan Soldado, ayúdame a cruzar” (“Soldier John, help me to cross”). For more on Juan Soldado check out Paul J. Vanderwood’s Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Soldier, Saint.
More well known is the famous Mexican revolutionary hero Pancho Villa. Prayer Candles bearing his likeness can be found in any well apportioned Botanica in any major US city. These candles also bear the traditional prayer addressed to Pancho Villa by those in need:
Al espíritu mártir de Pancho Villa Gran General Revolucionario
En el nombre de Diós nuestro Señor invoco a los espíritus que te protejan para que me ayudes. Así como ayudaste en el mundo terrenal a los NECESITADOS. Así como venciste a los PODOROSOS. Así te pido tu protección espiritual, para que me libres de todo mal y me des el ánimo necesario y el valor suficiente para enfrentarme a lo más dificil que se me presente en la vida. Amén
PRAYER To the martyr spirit of Pancho Villa Great Revolutionary General
In the Name of God our Lord I invoke the spirits that they protect you so that you may help me. As well as you helped the NEEDY in the earthly world. As well as you conquered the POWERFUL. This I request of you your spiritual protection, so that may free me of all evil and you give me the necessary spirit and sufficient valor to confront the most difficult things that are presented to me present in this life. Amen
And if these examples don’t impress as being sufficiently “spiritual”, then perhaps I could interest you in some Allan Kardec Prayer Candles? Kardec was the founder (or, more correctly, “systematizer”) of Spiritism. Kardec is an enormously popular occult figure in Latin America, where he is often referred to as the Divine Messenger. Born in Lyon, France, Kardec was well-educated and from a wealthy family. He devoted his life to science, education, and social reform. He did not become involved with Spiritism until he was already in his 50’s, but when he did, he “transformed a fad into a movement, popularizing the messages of the spirits that taught that each soul could be reincarnated many times as it moved progressively along a path toward divinity.” [From Lynne Sharpe’s excellent book Secular Spirituality: Reincarnation and Spiritism in nineteenth century France.]
Then there is El Niño Fidencio, a Mexican Curandero born in 1898. Fidencio spent most of his life in the town of Espinazo, where tens of thousands of fidencistas still come to pay homage every year at the time of Fidencio’s birth and death (in March and October). Many of these devotees come not just to receive healing, but to become healers themselves, for they believe that they are able to assume El Niño’s divinely endowed healing powers. Here is how the cult of El Niño was described in a 1997 article that appeared in the National Catholic Reporter (the author is James Burbank — his fascinating piece was the cover story for the February 7 issue of the NRC that year):
ESPINAZO, Mexico — Twice a year this sleepy northeast Mexican hamlet, two hours’ drive from Monterrey, comes alive. Tens of thousands of Hispanic Catholics from south Texas and Mexico conduct annual pilgrimages here to venerate their curandero folk saint, El Nino Fidencio. Despite repeated warnings by Monterrey Archbishop Adolfo Rivera to avoid the heretical festivals, crowds of the faithful continue to come.
These crowds know no heresy in their veneration. For many Catholic Mexicans on both sides of the border, religion is anything but pure, and naturally so. It is the product of a synthesis of Indian and European cultures that has evolved since the Spanish conquest of the Americas. This explains why a curandero, or shaman-healer, is also called a saint . . . .
Born in 1898, Jose Fidencio Sintora Constantino came from the state of Guanajuato as a young boy to Espinazo, where he served as housekeeper for Enrique Lopez de la Fuente. The boy showed a gift for healing, a knowledge of medicinal plants and concoctions and an affinity with the supernatural. As a young man, his reputation as a curandero spread. Hundreds seeking cures camped out in Espinazo.
In 1928 Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles’ suppression of the Catholic priesthood had resulted in the Cristero Revolt. Calles, who organized Mexico’s dominant political party — the PRI — the following year, came to Espinazo to arrest the curandero faith healer for practicing medicine without a license. After El Nino cured the politician and his ailing daughter, thousands descended on Espinazo. By the time of his death, El Nino was the most famous Mexican curandero.
In 1938, Fidencistas say, El Nino was murdered by jealous physicians. Before he died he made a prediction. He said he would come back three days after his death. El Nino would return by inhabiting various spirit mediums called cajitas (little boxes) or materials (literally matter, applied to persons who believe they embody a sacred personage) through whom he would speak, act and heal the sick.
Another popular Curandero with his own Prayer Candle is Don Pedrito Amarillo. Below is an excerpt from the description of Don Pedrito from Dr. Eliseo Torres’ Curanderismo website at the University of New Mexico:
Don Pedrito Jaramillo is perhaps the most famous curandero of all time. Known as “The Saint of Falfurrias (Texas),”
Don Pedrito was a great folk saint — a personage to whom people pray to combat their illness, change their luck, or as a simple expression of faith, who is not a canonical saint of the church but is neverthless acknowledged as one by the people.
Don Pedrito was born in 1829 in Mexico. Nothing is known of his childhood, but he was aeither a shepherd or a laborer; in either case, he was poor. When he was 52 years old, Don Pedrito is said to have asked God to heal his sick mother, pledging that, if his mother were not healed, he would leave Mexico. Thus, when his mother died, Don Pedrito crossed into Texas. This was in 1881. Don Pedrito is said to have been familiar with the Texas territory he entered from previous experience partly because he had helped run booze illegally into the area when he was younger.
Don Pedrito is said to have learned of his healing gift when he suffered a fall from a horse (he was, apparently, a mediocre horseman at best). In the fall, he injured his nose badly, and the pain was excruciating. Then something led him to a nearby wallow where, for no reason he could name, he dabbed mud all over the injured spot. This assuaged the pain and he was finally able to sleep after several sleepless days and nights. Don Pedrito later said that during that sleep, God spoke to him, commanding him to spend the rest of his life healing the sick and injured. From then on, Don Pedrito was a healer.
There are also Prayer Candles specifically devoted to the Orixas, as well as Candles with such wonderful names as Easy Street, Law Stay Away, and Shut Up, and also more profoundly dubbed Candles: The Omnipresence of God, Ecce Homo, and King Solomon.
Interestingly, especially from the standpoint of religious syncretism, it turns out that the Prayer Candle itself is a relatively recent innovation in spiritual technology. Peter Doan Reed, an Irish immigrant who owned a grocery store in San Antonio, Texas, decided to start making his own devotional candles in 1937, and this eventually led to the now iconic “seven-day candle”. The tradition was carried on by his son, Peter Nathan Reed, who died in 2009.
I will end with an excerpt from a 2005 Chicago Tribune article, by Monica Eng, on Prayer Candles and their inventor (the article identifies the elder Reed as “Mexican born”. I think that’s a mistake. But he did live in Mexico first after emigrating from Ireland before settling in San Antonio.):
Prayer candles are popular, even with non-believers
Chicago Tribune, June 25, 2005, Monica Eng
Known as prayer candles, seven-day candles or, in Spanish, veladoras, they come in 81/2-inch glass jars filled with about 71/2 inches of paraffin and usually bear an image and a prayer.
Scholars and candle industry folks find their origin hard to pinpoint. According to Sister Schodts Reed, chief executive officer of the Reed Candle Factory in San Antonio, her Mexican-born father-in-law, Peter Doan Reed, invented the prayer candle in the late 1940s.
The elder Reed started making votive candles — which are always burned in glass and are so named for their use when making a vow or petition — in 1938. But after about a decade of making standard votives, Reed, in 1947, came up with a tall jar model that could burn for seven days and bore a picture of a spiritual figure along with a prayer.
“His goal was to allow people to have their particular patron saint with the image on the candle so that they could light it and have their prayer on it,” Reed said. “That way, they have a silent prayer that is continuing even after they are done praying.”
Reed said her father-in-law’s company started out selling just a few types of silk-screened prayer candles, and now it produces 350 saint varieties alone, many with paper labels. And this doesn’t count the mystical varieties made by a subsidiary, Mission Candles.
The popular candles can be bought in herbal/spiritual shops called botanicas, often found in Hispanic neighborhoods and from Web sites or supermarkets.
The usage of these candles has evolved far outside of a religious context. On the same Web site and even on the same store shelf, you can find Virgin Mary candles not far from “D.U.M.E. Black List” candles that are purported to help you, well, kill your enemies.
More common uses include attracting a specific mate with a “Come to Me” candle while simultaneously sabotaging the mate’s current relationship with a “Break Up” [Separar] candle. According to Carlos Soto, manager at Indio Products, a chain of botanicas in Southern California, the combo is his No. 1 seller.
The target market for seven-day candles is primarily female, according to botanica representatives across the nation. Jorge Diaz says most of the customers at his Texas store are Hispanic, but on the Chango Web site they are “almost all Anglo or African-American. More and more of them are getting into this.”