It’s safe to assume that everyone has heard about voodoo dolls and thinks they’ve pretty much grasped the concept. After all, what could be more simple? A little cloth cut to look like a person, a little stuffing (preferably some rotting Spanish moss), some twine, a Sharpie marker to make the features, and a big box of shiny new pins can provide hours of nasty, furtive fun to the discontented or just mischief-minded among us.
Or, perhaps you’ve encountered them dressed in Mardi Gras hues, complete with feathers and primitive features, glued to magnets and grinning from the refrigerator door as a little memento of a visit to New Orleans.
But is this all that’s behind the mystique and seduction of these popular little creatures? Mostly harmless and merely decorative?
Creating little effigies and figures in the form of human beings, gods, animals, etc., is as old as the history of mankind. Some of the earliest surviving forms of cultural art (the art created to entertain the masses, kind of like our arts and crafts of today) were little effigies of people involved in day-to-day activities: water bearers with buckets, farmers with pitchforks, etc. Many of these were probably children’s playthings, but others were created for more empiric purposes such as the adornment of personal altars or to accompany soldiers in battle as tiny memorials of dead cohorts or mementos of living family members.
But perhaps as long as the craft of creating these positive, reinforcing effigies has been around, a darker side has existed and a darker, more malevolent use has been found for them.
Enter the poppet. Not just a children’s doll, the poppet, in the European tradition, was truly the first “multi-task” toy.
Buckland defines a poppet as, “A figure made to represent a person…used in magical ritual. Made of cloth, wax, clay, or any other substance, it may or may not look exactly like the person it represents.” He goes on to state that cloth poppets have “always been popular in magic, especially for healing purposes.” The type of magic he is referring to is, of course, sympathetic magic, and in this regard the poppet would be created in a sort of gingerbread man format and is stuffed with healing herbs appropriate to combat the illness or malaise affecting the person it is intended to help. Often slivers of fingernail or hair from the individual will be added and the poppet will then be consecrated as the living counterpart of the person in need of healing. The practitioner will then utter the consecrating spell, “Creature of cloth, thou art (name), and all that I do unto thee be done unto (name),” or something similar.
It is a fact in human relationships that everybody doesn’t always get along, and this may have been a particularly poignant reality of daily life in ancient times when just surviving was next to impossible. This feeling of desperation, often coupled with a feeling of helplessness, and further exacerbated by frequent, deplorable victimization at the hands of more powerful tribes or individuals, led to the realization among our distant ancestors that, “Hey, life can suck sometimes!”
These harsh realities led early mankind to rely on groups of more powerful and wise individuals to explain the sometimes glaring inconsistencies of human life. These individuals might be anything from priests and shamans, to midwives and apothecaries, but all had in common the same thing: knowledge of the mysterious, intricate workings of the unseen side of the natural world. And not all confined their craft to healing and helping. From the very beginning there were those who were perfectly willing to facilitate injury and revenge; or who were, at the very least, willing to show one how to bring about these things on one’s own behalf. To say they taught by example is an understatement.
According to Buckland, “As early as 1100 BCE, a treasury official and the women of the harem of Pharaoh Ramses II worked together to make a wax image of the Pharaoh to bring about his death.” From this account, its obvious to see that the sympathetic connection for evil as well as for good was almost instantaneous in the minds of people inclined to use such methods.
Poppets appear throughout the history of European paganism and witchcraft and on more than one occasion the magical connection apparently worked quite well. Historical chronicles are full of accounts of people becoming injured or ill as a result of malevolent magic taken out on a poppet consecrated for the purpose of harm. Still others have apparently died, though whether as a result of injuries to the poppet or simple fright at the knowledge that black magic was being worked against them can’t be determined.
What this serves to illustrate, though, is the potent link that exists in the human psyche connecting poppets, or dolls, with harm. The fact that the use of poppets and dolls is so widespread also indicates that no culture is immune to this shared memory. Even among the most insular cultures, the use of poppets or dolls for magic is well known. For example, the Gypsies create their straw fetish dolls in a similar traditional way, and these are known to be used for “good” as well as evil magic.
Poppets figured in many witchcraft cases over the centuries and ultimately European traditions carried over into the New World where Puritan ideals served to forever associate the poppet with malicious intent. Thus, when poppets stuck through with pins and hog bristles were found in the home of Bridget Bishop, a woman accused as a witch during the Salem Witch Trials, it was damning evidence.
So if the use of poppets for negative purposes isn’t a new thing, what sets the traditional voodoo doll apart and gives it such an enduring air of evil?
Voodoo dolls, as we know them, are virtually foreign to the Vodoun traditions of Haiti, the island country most closely associated with the practice of Voodoo as a religion. It is true that Vodoun Bokors, or black voodoo priests, practicing a form of African fetish magic brought to the New World with the African Diaspora, have been known to employ dolls and effigies to work evil on intended victims. But even these “dolls” bear only slight resemblance to the dolls that most people associate with the practice of Voodoo.
The fact of the matter is that the tradition of creating and using Voodoo dolls for evil purposes, of sticking them with pins and subjecting them to all kinds of indecencies, is a particular claim to fame of what is called “New Orleans Voodoo.”
So how does a simple creature of cloth, wax or clay become imbued with such power to create havoc and harm?
More than just consecrating the doll as the image of a certain person, a lot of the “magic” of making voodoo dolls, especially “black” voodoo dolls, comes from the person creating it. Traditionally, the maker is instructed to concentrate all her thought and effort into the making of the doll, envisioning during the construction all the evil that can possibly be heaped on the victim. Some practitioners will spend days in the creation and “charging” of their doll, keeping it in sight and venting their anger and frustration at the doll until, when the time comes, the doll is finally given the name of the intended victim and the ritual abuse of the voodoo doll can begin. This process, according to experts in the field, rarely fails, unless the will of the creator falters at some point. The resulting humiliation or punishment of the victim may then be less potent than otherwise intended.
A form of positive (though still manipulative) magic for which the voodoo doll is excellently suited is the traditional magic “binding.” In this instance, the practitioner ritually binds the voodoo doll, charged and named for the individual in question, from doing harm or evil toward others. Thus bound, the ill-intentioned efforts of that person will come to nothing; the person whom the practitioner has protected will experience no harm at the hands of a person thus bound. Conversely, a person can be bound with evil intent and although this is often used in Bokor Voodoo the tradition is an ancient one. European grimoires are full of rituals detailing the use of poppets and dolls for bringing evil to selected individual; many of these rituals even go so far as instructing the practitioner to bury the doll in a kind of symbolic funeral. Once this is done, the person whom the doll represented will be seen to waste away and, ultimately, die. This kind of ritual is not uncommon among those who use voodoo dolls for evil purposes.
Today there are literally hundreds of kinds of voodoo dolls available. Many are the traditional primitive sort, produced by local voodoo workers for sale to the public. These dolls can usually be identified by their similarities to each other, and often come with a packet of pins and instructions. Most people who purchase these dolls will keep them around as a curio, usually as a reminder of a fun trip to the Land of Voodoo, New Orleans. Although there is a tendency to laugh at this trade, to true practitioners of Voodoo there is a real danger inherent in these mass-produced dolls.
“Just don’t name it unless you really intend to use it.” This is the warning given by most reputable mambos or priestesses who provide such items to the public. Obviously, how a voodoo doll is used depends on the person who owns it, but there have been instances where even the most garish-looking tourist trinket voodoo doll has ultimately caused harm – however minor – after arriving at its destination. The lesson here should be obvious.
Other voodoo dolls available to the public are more specialized and are usually purchased by collectors or persons who are not unacquainted with the caveats that go along with owning such artwork.
Many popular voodoo dolls are created in honor of a particular Lwa, one of the powerful spirits of the Vodoun religion, and though there are many styles, most renditions remain true to the aspects of the particular Lwa they depict. Probably the most popular of these Lwa dolls is Gede, the great Death Lwa, who is represented in various skeletal forms with colors and accoutrements easily recognized by his devotees. Other popular Lwas are Manman Brigit, Erzulie Freda, Papa Legba, and Lasirien, with her aquatic motif.
Interesting... I never tried using dolls. Good info, thanks!
It's all in the symbolism. If you can't get anything else you can always just write the name on paper and attach it to the doll.