In order to understand the use of dolls in ritual magic, it’s important to understand the concept of sympathetic magic whereby a magician believes that he can produce any desired physical effect merely by imitating it. In addition, there is the belief that whatever is done to a material object will also be done to the person that it was once in contact with. This is why dolls used in magic rituals are often constructed or decorated with hair, nail-clippings, or pieces of cloth once owned by a person. A perfect example of this is a dolls now housed in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. The doll was made in 1953 as a curse against a woman who had connections to the Nazi party. It is made out of cloth, and the gown it wears is made out of material stolen from the woman’s wardrobe. The doll has a dagger through its face and eye. (1)
The use of dolls in sympathetic magic goes back thousands of years. The melting and burning of ritualistic dolls was written about in great detail in some ancient Greek texts. In ancient Egypt, enemies of Ramses III used wax images of the Pharaoh in rituals to help bring about his death. Greek poppets, known as Kolossoi, were used for various ritual purposes, such as to restrain a ghost, to ward off an evil entity, or as a way to bind lovers together.
Voodoo dolls are the most familiar type of doll used in casting spells and curses, but there are actually a number of different types of dolls used in ritualistic magic and witchcraft.
The oldest examples of dolls stuck with pins and used in ritual magic don’t come from Africa or the Carribean, they originated in Britain where during the middle ages, practitioners of magic called ‘cunning folk’--also known as wizards, wise men or women, or conjurers-- would make cloth dolls made to resemble a person in the community who was thought to be a witch. The doll would be stuck with pins to do the witch harm, and to help break any magic spells she may have put on anyone.
If you ever get a chance to visit England, be sure to visit the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall. The museum was founded in 1951 by folk magician Cecil Williamson to display his personal collection of occult artifacts. Today, the museum houses the largest collection of objects related to witchcraft and the occult. Among the museums many interesting artifacts is a curious figure--a small, crudely formed female clay doll stuck with four pins. This type of ritualistic doll is known as a poppet, and this particular one appears to be blackened in places as if it had been charred by fire. Two of the pins are stuck in the dolls eyes, one in the throat, and one through the right breast. The poppet once belonged to the museum’s founder, and was made by him as a curse. Who he was cursing, and for what reason is unknown. But what we do know is that poppets such as this are often used in ritual magic and witchcraft.
Poppets are made to represent a person and they’re used to cast spells on that person for good or for evil, or to put a curse on the person. They can be made out of a number of different materials such as carved roots, corn husks, a piece of dried fruit, wax, clay, branches, or cloth. Dolls made out of cloth are often stuffed with herbs or other materials thought to have magical properties. While most dolls are kept close by the person who is casting a spell or curse, others are sometimes lodged in chimneys or other hidden places in a home. Obviously, those poppets who are designed for protection are placed there with full knowledge of the homeowner. Poppets that have a curse on them would be hidden in a home to make sure it is close by its intended victim.
Now let’s get one thing straight, Voodoo has very little to do with so called Voodoo dolls. In fact, the name Voodoo isn’t even the actual name of the religion. Vodou (the proper spelling and pronounced VOO-dow or VOE-do) originated in the 17th century French colonial empire among enslaved West Africans. An 1685 law required all slaveholders to Christianize slaves within eight days of their arrival, and this was often Catholicism. Over time, the slaves combined elements of their religious beliefs with Roman Catholicism. Because they were forced to adopt Catholic rituals, slaves gave them double meanings and in the process, many of their African spirits became associated with Christian saints.
Vodou is a fascinating and complex religion, and although dolls are used in Vodou, they are usually used for good, or for protection against evil, similar to the use of religious statues in churches and homes. Dolls are used for a variety of purposes such as love, healing, guidance, fertility, and empowerment. The color of the doll is associated with its intended purpose.
White -- Healing, purification, positive intentions
Red -- Love, Attraction, Power, Blood
Green -- Money, Growth, Fertility
Yellow -- Success, Confidence
Purple -- Wisdom, Spirit Realm, Intuition
Blue -- Love, Peace, Serenity
Black -- To summon negative intentions and energy or to dispel negative energy
The same colors can also be found on pins which are stuck into a doll to emphasize the intention associated with a particular color.
When West African slaves were brought to the United States, they retained their religious practices of using dolls. One type of doll that they made was called a “fetish” and it was thought to be possessed by spirits connected to the doll’s owner. The fetish would be worn for good luck, or to access magical powers. Fetish dolls are also used to create a bond between the physical and spiritual worlds. They are also known by the names ‘juju’ and ‘grisgris’. The term ‘grisgris’ also refers to charm bags filled with magical powders, roots, herbs, bones, spices, stones, feathers, and so on. So, grisgris bags are actually a type of magic potion--a combination of ingredients designed to produce an intended outcome. The bags are usually worn by a person, but they are sometimes tied to fetish dolls as part of a spell.
The Ndebele people of Southern Africa have a rich tradition of using different types of dolls for protection, fertility, and good luck. The Ndebele are known for their brightly colored painted homes and clothing, and their dolls reflect this colorful tradition.
During courtship, a man will place a doll outside a young woman’s hut which indicates his intention to propose marriage to her. When a woman is preparing to marry, she is given a doll that she names and cares for. When she has her first child, it is given the same name as the doll.
Another South African tribe known as the Xhosa are known for their beaded fertility and love dolls. These small dolls which are covered with colorful beadwork. The dolls are believed to have magical powers, and they are worn on a necklace to attract an eligible husband and to increase fertility. A girl is given the doll by her parents during adolescence and she is instructed to take good care of it. If a doll is lost or damaged, there is a risk that her firstborn child will die. After the birth of her first child, the young mother returns the doll to her parents and it is passed on to her younger sister.
Not all Xhosa dolls are meant to be displayed openly. Love dolls necklaces that are used to attract a husband are made up of a male and a female doll and are only worn at night.
Other dolls are meant to be seen, and are worn openly. Fertility doll necklaces are openly displayed by married women. They have just one doll attached to them, and they are worn to show both the community and their ancestors their desire to have children.
Native American Kachina Dolls
Kachinas are both spirits and the personification of things found in the natural world. A kachina can represent anything in the natural world or cosmos. Although kachinas are not worshipped, each is considered to be a powerful being who can use his particular power to help humans. But this can only be done by giving the kachina veneration and respect.
Kachina dolls are carved in the likeness of the spirit being they represent, and after a ceremony that involves dance and music, the dolls are given to young girls of the village. The dolls are then hung on the walls of the pueblo and are meant to be studied in order to learn the characteristics of each Kachina. In addition to their educational purposes, the dolls are a constant reminder of the kachinas and the powers they have to help those who respect them.
In Japan, hoku dolls are given to pregnant mothers to protect both the mother and the unborn child. Traditionally, these dolls are made of silk and human hair. Similar dolls are made for boys, but their purpose is different. Hoku dolls for boys would be consecrated and offered at a shrine when the boy ‘comes of age’ at 15 years old. Hoku dolls are also give to young girls who keep them until they married, at which time they give them up at a shrine to assure a happy marriage. Like poppets, hoku dolls grew from a tradition of a doll representing a person. Paper dolls called ‘hina’ were used as ‘stand ins’ for a person in order to take on the brunt of a person’s sins, or misfortunes. (2)
Worry dolls originated in Guatemala, and like Japanese paper hina dolls, it is believed they take away children’s worries so they can sleep at night. Worry dolls are made out of whatever material is available such as sticks, wire, thread, and scraps of fabric. They are often small enough to fit in children’s hands. Parents believe that keeping a worry doll under a child’s pillow or bed will help direct the child’s worries, fears, and bad dreams into the doll. Some people whisper their worries to the doll in private and allow the doll to take on those worries. Psychologically, this makes sense if the ritual is done with reverence and strong belief in the process.
Do Dolls Used in Rituals Really Work?
Those who use dolls in sympathetic magic and in other similar rituals and practices swear by them, but of course the only evidence we have is anecdotal. Many paranormal books tell tales of people who have been harmed by a curse involving a doll. Others tell stories where people were cured of a variety of illnesses by the use of dolls stuck with pins or adorned with herbs.
One paranormal website (5) claims that three deaths were the result of a Voodoo-type doll found in a Connecticut home, though there are some serious holes in that story. The first person who died was a woman who was well in her 90s. She was described as being in “failing health” for a number of years before her death. The second person who died was the man who made the dolls. He was also in poor health at the time; and besides, I’m sure he didn’t intentionally curse himself, though his bad intentions may have backfired and caused his death. The third person died of a ruptured spleen. Interestingly, one of the dolls had pins stuck into the spleen area. Then again, the doll with the pin in its spleen was in the shape of a fish, not a person. So, it’s not clear who the intended victim was.
If you’re interested in experimenting with ritualistic dolls, it’s probably best to keep the Wiccan “Rule of Three” in mind. The rule of three states that whatever energy a person puts out into the world, be it for good or bad, will be returned to that person three-fold. So, using a doll to help heal or to bring joy and happiness to someone should bring you a handsome reward. But be warned--before you go sticking black pins in a doll made to resemble your worst enemy, keep in mind that, in the end, the person you’ll be hurting the most is yourself.