Van Van Oil : History & Use
If you’ve wandered through a witchy store or botanica, either in person or online, you’ve probably come across a little bottle of Van Van Oil. If you’ve unscrewed the cap, you’ve either been punched in face by citronella and patchouli or a pleasant, delicately blended aroma of perfumes, citruses, and florals. But what is Van Van Oil or Van Van Powder/Wash/Incense/etc? Where did it come from? What’s in it and how would one use it?
It’s a traditional American formula that can be used magically for damn near anything.
The majority of research out there from both rootwork and conjour practices, as well as historical perfumery, shows that Van Van formulas comes from New Orleans in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s. As a major port in the south, New Orleans was not only a place where goods were bought, sold, and traded up the Mississippi River, but so were people. Algiers is the second oldest district in New Orleans, and as such, many people were sold as slaves in this time and place. Where people go, enslaved or not, goes their culture, their recipes, and their magic. These practices become reshaped, hidden, lost, and reworked through what resources are available. From the American south, and through New Orleans in particular, comes much of the American folk magic, and hoodoo practices.
The formulas of Van Van, and it’s uses, reflect the economic circumstances of the time. Van Van, refers to the Vervain (Aloysia citriodora) also known as lemon verbena, which is used to make perfumes. Vervain oil is expensive and certainly was traded through the New Orleans ports during this time period. Spanish and Portuguese merchants were trading the herb which is native to South America starting as early as the 1700s. It was unlikely that people making and using Van Van products would have had access to such a luxury item at the time.
This is where the traditional ingredients for Van Van come into the picture. Lemongrass and citronella, common to most Van Van recipes, would be used to boost or mimic the scent of the Verbena/Vervain oil. Gingergrass, also known as palmarosa, is another common ingredient, and has a similar lemon scent as the other grasses. palmarosa is more floral and fruity than lemon/citrus. More earthy, musky, and perfumed scents like patchouli and vetiver were used to tone down and round out these strong citrus notes. These roots were also being traded through New Orleans at the time, and common among perfume blends just as much as they are today.
There is no Vanilla in traditional Van Van oil, as you might have been told. According to Chas Bogan in his book The Secret Keys of Conjure, the idea that Van Van includes vanilla comes from Herman Slater, an early promoter of Wicca in the U.S. and an occult shop owner in New York City in the mid-1970s. Several of Slater’s books contain recipes for southern hoodoo products, though it seems like something was lost in translation between the south and north. While some parts of his recipes appear to be accurate, such as his Van Van has vetiver, others seem to be “guess work” on his part. There is more to the story and I recommend checking out Bogan’s book to learn more about this and many of items used in American folk magic.
Van Van oil has been used for as many things as all-purpose flour has. Used primarily for prosperity and love charms, Van Van oil can be put on lodestones, lucky rabbits foot, or to anoint a mojo bag to attract luck, money, and prosperity. This probably comes from the vetiver, patchouli, or verbena oil being relatively expensive scents. Thus, like Cardamom in England during the early modern period, the idea of having expensive things brings about more wealth. The old “like attracts like” proverb. I’ve also heard of lemongrass being an herb used to attract luck and gain prosperity. It not uncommon for Van Van products and various charms/tokens to be sold together.
There is a long history of lemons, lemon verbena, and lemongrass being used in love magic. I’ll get into this more in my next blog post, but for now, these herbs/oils, were undoubtedly the reason Van Van has been used for love magic. A notable example of this outside of rootwork would be a Van Van formula used in hair cream was advertised in the 30’s and 40’s to African American consumers. All beauty products are love magic by degree. By a lesser extent, the palmarosa with it’s fruity, floral notes, would be associated with love and romance as well.
The final, yet no less common, use for Van Van Oil would be cleansing, clearing, and protection. One has only to look to modern bug spray and cleaning products to find the association between lemons and cleaning alive and well in our time. Lemons and lemongrass by extension have strong antibacterial properties. They are also pleasant scents. I have a working theory that anything with a strong and pleasant scent has been used widely as a cleansing/purifying agent in magical practices. Additionally, citronella is found in so many bug repellent products it almost goes without saying it is used for clearing and protection in magical formulas. Practically speaking, if if these citrus scents repel insects, especially those that can spread disease e.g. mosquitoes, then these fragrant grasses would have similar magical property.
I wasn’t joking when I said Van Van Oil can be used for almost anything.