Lacquered frogs, coca leaves,
dried snakes, folk remedies,
llama fetuses, aphrodisiacs,
dried turtles, women in black hats.
Not the lines from the witches song in Macbeth, but some of the things you can see if you visit the Witches’ Market in La Paz.
On small a cobbled street in the old quarter of the Bolivian capital is one of the strangest markets in the world, El Mercado de las Brujas also known as The Witches’ Market.
Dozens of women in bright coloured shawls and black hats sit by stalls selling weird products and fascinating folk remedies. If you are in need of an aphrodisiac formula or something to get rid of unwanted spooks, then this is the place to come.
Alongside prepackaged spells, amulets, talismans and bottles of potions wrapped in colourful llama fleece are the raw materials needed to crate your own spells; dried starfish, dried toucan beaks, owl feathers, lacquered frogs, coca leaves, herbs, dried turtles and snakes. In ancient Bolivian folklore it is said that these items bring luck, wealth, beauty, love and fertility.
One of the strangest items sold at the market are the dried llama fetuses which hang in front of the stalls, somewhat juxtaposed with the bright Bolivian textiles. The Aymara people, who live in the Altiplano of the Andes Mountains, believe that if you bury a dried llama underneath the foundation of your house is becomes a sacred offering to Pachamama, the mother of earth. This offering is said to bring both prosperity and good luck (not for the llamas I thought!).
The Witches’ Market has been at the same location for centuries, with the witches, medicine women, fortune tellers and astrologers offering advice and spells to locals and tourists alike.
Tourists come in their droves to see the strange objects for sale. There are also traditional Bolivian handicrafts for sale, including bright fabrics, small carvings, jewellery and figurines. I was enchanted by the soapstone figurines of Pachumama and the Lovers, bought them and they still sit on my bookshelves today.
I also bought some very weird prepacked potions, hoping they might bring me some good luck. Although after a while these little bottles started to leak, go rusty and smell vile (hopefully not a metaphor for my luck). One day, I made the rational decision to throw them out. But on some days, like Friday 13th, when I’m feeling superstitious, or when I see a black cat cross my path or accidentally walk under a ladder, I wonder if I made the right decision on to get rid of the three little bottles of magic… (cue scary music).
Anyway, this is my painting of the Witches’ Market and also a soft pastel sketch of the two soapstone figurines.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
The Witches’ Song from Act 4 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth