Picture a human-shaped effigy molded in clay or wax, or perhaps sewn out of fabric, pierced by pins and nails as if by someone malevolent. What do you call that object? If you said, „voodoo doll,“ then we have a lot to talk about. And even if you didn’t, I bet I can still surprise you with something you might not have known about figure magic! So let’s get into it. As a content warning, this article will contain brief mentions of racism and intimate violence.
The idea of the voodoo doll became popularized as a 20th century Hollywood trope, due primarily to racist stereotyping and fearmongering about Haitian Vodou. Reacting to the US-led invasion of Haiti in the early part of the century, lurid images of white people being bewitched through the use of voodoo dolls, zombie powders, and the like appeared in popular culture, amplifying and sensationalizing white fears about Haitian culture and Vodou religion. In fact, magic using effigies is rare to nonexistent in actual Haitian Vodou. Figure magic itself wasn’t invented as a Hollywood trope—it does have a place in other regional traditions such as Hoodoo and New Orleans Voodoo.1 However, it found its way into these traditions not from Vodou but from European folk magic, which in turn inherited the practice from Greco-Roman and ancient Egyptian roots.
Figure magic, also sometimes called poppet, image, or effigy magic, is a form of sympathetic magic found in many folk cultures and with a well-documented history stretching to ancient times. In its essence, it is the creation of a figurine, usually in the form of a human body, which is ritually identified with a person. This relies on the very ancient principle of sympathetic magic: the figure is placed in „sympathy“ with the target of the magical operation, so that whatever happens to the figure manifests upon the person themselves.
The earliest examples of figure magic come from ancient Egypt, where stone or clay figurines or inscribed figures representing enemies of the Egyptian state were subjected to rituals intended to protect the ruler by suppressing rebellion or attack. Images were decapitated, pierced, or drilled with holes, suspended or bound with ropes, placed under door hinge-posts so as to be ground down with each turning of the hinge, and inscribed in the shoe so as to be trodden upon with each step.2 This pharaonic magic became translated over time into the more familiar interpersonal personal usage against individual enemies, and the practice also made its way into Egyptian magical texts that in turn influenced Greco-Roman magic. There are many fascinating examples of these effigies, and they can reveal a lot about the magical practices used with them, so let’s look at a few.
In the Iron Age, a temple to Isis and Mater Magna was established at Mogontiacum, modern-day Mainz, Germany. The temple, built during Roman colonization of the area starting in the first century CE, served a highly international population composed of local Germanic, Celtic, and Roman peoples as well as travelers from all across the Roman world. Offerings, curse tablets, and other ritual items were found in abundance at the temple complex, having been deposited there over a long period of time. Among these finds was a clay figurine showing signs of cursing. Inscribed with a name, the clay figure had been pierced six times, through the neck, chest, stomach, hip, back, and rear; then it was twisted and broken and deposited with its head facing downward. With it were found an oil lamp, a clay pot, and the remains of burnt fruit.3 This suggests some elements of a ritual: offerings to the gods and spirits petitioned for help in the ritual were made and burnt, perhaps by the light of an oil lamp, as the curse was spoken and the figurine was fiercely stabbed, broken, and twisted.
The remains of six poppets were found in an ancient cistern in Rome, from the period of late antiquity. Each had been carefully entombed inside a nested series of three sealed lead containers, as if to isolate and imprison each target. The figures had been sculpted from some kind of wax-like mixture including animal fats, and scans revealed that a sliver of bone inscribed with a name had been inserted inside each figure. Invocations had been inscribed onto the lead containers before being deposited into the cistern.4 This evocative ritual illustrates the animistic nature of figure magic: the bone and animal fat used to sculpt the poppets seems to have invested them with life, with the name inscribed into the very bone to identify it with the target. We can also see how depositing them into a cistern, as a liminal gateway into a dark watery place below ground, was felt to hand them over to chthonic Otherworld powers.
A few centuries later, in Upper Egypt of the fifth century CE, a clay pot containing two intertwined wax figures was deposited in a cemetery. Accompanying the figurines was an extensive spell written on papyrus, which indicates that the invoker called upon the dead and the spirits present in the cemetery as well as a cross-cultural group of deities showing Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish influences. It inscribed a binding love spell to attract and bind a certain woman to fall in love with the man who commissioned the spell. The limbs of the wax figures had been wrapped around each other as if in a passionate embrace, creating a sympathetic enactment of the intended consequence of the spell.5
Does a binding love spell using a wax figure strikes you as horrifying? It probably should; coercive love spells are a form of intimate violence. Reading about artifacts like this can remind us to think about the ethics of figure magic. That is to say, just because someone historically did a spell like this, doesn’t make it right for us to do so. So then, when is it valid to pin someone with a poppet? For me, the ethical principles are the same as those that govern my actions in everyday life. I believe everything we do should be guided by principles of consent, power, and justice. When considering taking magical action that will impact an individual, I ask: Has this person consented? If they haven’t, in what way have they forfeited the right to consent by harming someone else? Who holds power in this situation, and if I take action, am I punching upward to equalize a power imbalance, or downward to reinforce one? What does justice ask for at this moment? Historically, many of the effigy spells that have come down to us in the record are justice curses seeking redress for a wrong, and I believe that’s the most appropriate use of this magical technique.
A written description of a justice-focused figure magic ritual comes to us from medieval Ireland. A ninth century law text gives the particulars of a ritual to curse an unjust king: a group of poets were to gather on a hilltop, each chanting a poem of satire against their target, while piercing an image of him sculpted in clay using thorns of the hawthorn tree.6 Some descriptions of poetic satire also describe it being paired with the use of a ritual posture, where the invoker stands on one foot, closes one eye, and holds one hand behind the back. This ritual posture is called corrguinecht, meaning „sharp wounding“ or „crane wounding,“ likening the posture to that of a hunting crane, with their long sharp beak poised to stab prey. In such a ritual, the invoker adopting this stance like a hunting crane would echo and reinforce the action of stabbing the effigy. It was also believed that seeing through one eye and standing on one foot would place the ritualist in a liminal state between this world and the Otherworld, a place of great power for magical work.
Wax and hawthorn make appearances again in early modern witchcraft trial records. In Windsor, England, in 1579 a group of witches are recorded using figures shaped of red wax that they pricked with the thorns of a hawthorn through the spot where the heart would be.7 Scottish cunning woman Agnes Sampson, in 1591, described making an image of yellow wax and „conjuring it under the name“ of her target, and then placing it beside a fire where it would melt away, so to consume and melt away his life.8 Nineteenth century Gaelic folklore collections from Scotland still speak of the corp crèadha, or „clay corpse,“ which would be enchanted and stabbed with pins, pierced with flints or „elf-shot.“9 Wax was said to be more commonly used in lowland regions, and clay in the highlands where wax was harder to come by. In at least one instance, a wooden figure was used.
Contemporary witchcraft practices have built on the bones of these old customs. Gemma Gary’s Traditional Witchcraft suggests the making of an effigy out of dough, which is stabbed, burned to ashes on a hazel fire, and the remains buried at a crossroads.10 A visit to the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall will reveal an astonishing collection of figure magic artifacts from early modern to contemporary origins. The traditional clay and wax are on display, alongside inventive materials such as cloth, felt, and knitted dolls, someone’s stuffed leather glove, figures shaped from builders‘ putty, animal hearts, and even bulbs of garlic with a bird’s head attached.11
You can see that similar elements of ritual persist across the centuries: a figurine is shaped, using whatever the maker had that could be shaped and associated with the target. A name is inscribed in its bones or carved into its surface, and, conjured by that name, the figure comes alive. Then, with chanted imprecations, it is manipulated to set in motion what will come to the target: dissolution and melting away of the body’s vitality, tying with cords to bind, piercing with sharp weapons to wound, or imprisoning inside a restricting enclosure. Offerings are made to the gods, the dead, and other liminal spirits to see the work along. Notice that up to this point, all these examples of figure magic we’ve looked at are curses. But figure magic isn’t only for cursing. For millennia, the practice of depositing votive objects and offerings at shrines, holy wells, and other sacred places has continued, and among those deposits are found many human figurines or sculpted representations of human body parts. The practice dates to the pagan Iron Age across Europe and the Roman world, but was absorbed into Christian custom and continues to the present day.12 For example, at Source des Roches at Chamalières, modern-day France, as many as five thousand votive figurines were found deposited in its sacred waters, dating back into the Iron Age, and including images of divinities as well as of pilgrims and anatomical figurines of body parts.13 Votive figures like this are not usually presented as part of the same continuum of magic as poppets stabbed with pins, but if we consider what they’re intended to do, we can see that it’s the same sympathetic magic. A figurine representing a person, or a part of their body, is deposited into a place steeped in holy or healing power, in the belief that the healing magic will transfer from the effigy to the body of the one who placed it.
Thinking about votive figurines can expand our concept of what is possible with figure magic, to include protection, healing, and blessing, among other operations. A poppet could have healing salves applied, or a wound shaped that is then smoothed away as part of the ritual. It could have amulets of protection, armor, or a protective enclosure made for it. It could be placed in the shrine of a divinity to gather their protective and blessing powers. Sympathetic magic is expansive and allows enormous room for creativity. What can you imagine accomplishing with this ancient and ever-green magical technique?
1. Tann, 82-83.
2. Ritner, ch 4.
3. McKie, 70.
4. Gordon, 165.
5. Gager, 25.
6. Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh, 15-16.
7. Wilby, 265.
8. Wilby, 54.
9. Black, 195; Henderson, 95.
10. Gary, 159.
12. Kiernan, 96.
13. Hammersen, 53
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Gager, John G. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Ukraine: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Gary, Gemma. Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways. United Kingdom: Troy Books, 2008.
Gordon, Richard. „Showing the Gods the Way: Curse-Tablets as Deictic Persuasion.“ Religion in the Roman Empire 1, no. 2 (2015): 148.
Hammersen, Lauren Alexandra Michelle. „Indigenous Women in Gaul, Britannia, Germania, and Celtic Hispania, 400 BC – AD 235. Bangor University, 2017.
Henderson, L. „Witch-Hunting and Witch Belief in the Gàidhealtachd.“ In Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland, edited by J. Goodare, L. Martin, and J. Miller, 95–118. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Kiernan, Philip. „Pagan Pilgrimage in Rome’s Western Provinces.“ Herom Journal on Hellenistic and Roman Material Culture 1 (2012): 262.
McKie, Stuart. „The Social Significance of Curse Tablets in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire.“ The Open University, 2017.
Mees, Bernard. Celtic Curses. Kindle. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2009.
Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, 2021. https://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk/.
Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh, Ailís. „Satirical Narrative in Early Irish Literature.“ NUI Maynooth, 2007.
Ritner, Robert Kriech. The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization. Vol. 54. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1993.
Tann, Mambo Chita. Haitian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti’s Indigenous Spiritual Tradition. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2012.
Wilby, Emma. Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. East Sussex: Sussex Academic Press, 2006.