Vilified Voodoo Dolls: Can They Really Cause Harm?

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Horror Mystery and Lore

The Origin of Voodoo Dolls

Voodoo Market in Bohicon, Benin
Photography by Jean-Baptiste Dodane

While the exact origins of the Voodoo doll aren’t known, it can be tracked down from the Fon people of the region that now Benin. When slavery brought the voodoo religious practice to the Southern United States—specifically Louisiana—it brought along with it the practice of imbuing dolls with magical intent. Many sources say that voodoo dolls are not actually a practice associated with legitimate voodoo, but actual practitioners would disagree. Doll magic is a part of many magical spiritual paths, including European based folk magic, wherein people would create poppets much for the same reasons that are seen in the modern voodoo practice.

Although slaves were forbidden by slave owners to practice voodoo, it was still an extremely common practice. These dolls were frequently used in secret as a means of self-defense, it’s been speculated that this history of trauma is where the dolls originally obtained their reputation for being instruments of revenge. These days it’s not uncommon to see voodoo dolls being marketed specifically for harmful intentions, which contributes to their already dark reputation. It’s unfortunate, as many people are unaware of the common belief that the practice of darker magic ultimately brings around its own darker consequences for the user—depression, conflicts, bad luck, and overall negativity are things that using such methods can bring back. Glossing over details like this are reasons why dark and devious magic practices are often still the source of fright and horror. It wouldn’t look as good to have the main villain of a story worrying about their own comeuppance for using magic that might harm another individual.

During the reign of Marie Laveau, the Queen of Voodoo, the use of Voodoo dolls rose exponentially. Veering from the original practice of carved wooden figures, used to house spirits of those who have passed, the modern-day voodoo doll is typically a small, soft fabric doll used to represent a person who has not passed. Physically, voodoo dolls vary in the extremes, from the type of fabric, color, and pattern, the basic idea is that a hand-constructed doll is a representation of the intended target.

The Importance of Color

Voodoo dolls in the Voodoo Museum
Photography by Claudia Brooke

Color carries incredible meanings that differ from culture to culture, where love, anger, sadness, infidelity, and more can be expressed merely by the color of an object. Even the culture of flower arrangements had a huge impact on western culture, in which it combined the shades of flowers along with the type of flower being added to the bouquet. Departing from everyday meanings of color, it’s widely believed in many different metaphysical communities that different colors represent different aspects of life and the voodoo community is no exception.

Fabric and Pin Color

When it comes to the actual intention of the Voodoo Doll, one of the most important aspects is the color of the material the doll is made out of, as well as the clothing that the doll is dressed in. The colors with which the doll has been crafted directly correlate to what the doll is meant to be used for. As an example, a doll made of, or clothed in yellow fabric represents things like success, confidence, and attractiveness. Using black fabric for the doll would represent dispelling negative habits, grief, poverty, and bad luck—keeping in mind that a doll made from and fully clothed in black fabric would be used in what is considered “black” magic, which would result in the kind of magic that is often over-represented in television, movies, and books. So what about the pins that you stick in the doll? Well, unbeknownst to many, the color of the pins also holds significance, and the meaning of pin color actually varies more than you might suspect.

How Are They Used?

The concept of these dolls isn’t lost on most people, but the intention of them is frequently confused with how they are portrayed in movies and popular culture—diverse as this spiritual practice is in reality, Hollywood loves to vilify practices that are outside of what is deemed the normal scope of religious practices. This isn’t necessarily meant to be an affront to such practices, the practice of painting it with such broad evil strokes is because of how deeply submerged the actual spiritual practices are in mystery. Modern media portrays voodoo dolls being used by witch doctors, black magic practitioners, and pins that cause pain when placed, but the truth is far more interesting. When exploring this practice in-depth, we see that these dolls are meant to convey the intention of the user, for a full spectrum of uses—not just the dark aspects.

Voodoo doll resting against a book
Artwork by Mary Farnstrom

When the user is attempting to manifest their intent, they can use various personal objects for the target. Handwriting samples, locks of hair, a picture or piece of clothing, and even bodily fluids can be pinned to, or stuffed into the doll in an effort to pinpoint the target person—whether that person is alive or dead. To further manifest the doll as a representation of the target, the user may focus upon the intended person during meditation or spells, either by placing it upon their altar or while holding it. Additionally, specific herbs are often stuffed into the dolls and oils are also used to anoint the doll before use.

What is done with voodoo dolls once they have been used for their purpose? The final step when using a voodoo doll is as much of a variable as what the doll is made of. There are a few methods for finalizing, some elect to toss it into a river, or lake if available to them, others bury them in the ground, where still others may burn them. Each of these avenues is a symbolic reference to ending a particular spell—to give the doll up to a rushing river would be helpful in sweeping everything the doll represents away with the moving water; whereas burying would imply wanting a solid result, allowing the doll to disintegrate slowly and over time in the earth that surrounds it. Burning a doll has be the most profoundly symbolic way of disposing of the doll, where it is literally turned to ash and the manifestation is carried away into the air through smoke.

It’s not difficult to understand the illustrious dark connotations that voodoo dolls carry outside of the spiritual practice, as it’s steeped in mystery and misunderstood history.

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Voodoo on the Bayou

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle
Spiritual Speaker in the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana
Photography by Nico Bhlr

Anyone can practice voodoo in New Orleans—embraced by people no matter their race, creed, or origin—there are no standard worship practices, in this flexible and inclusive spiritual and religious practice. A religion so immersed in mystery, voodoo is often mistaken for something much more sinister. First introduced to the United States through the repugnant practice of slavery, it originated from the Fon people of West Africa and was then intermixed with European cultural influences, as well as Native American herbalism and spiritual practices.

In Denise Alvarado’s The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, it’s explained that voodoo and hoodoo are not the same, despite the how often they are confused for one another. Incredibly complementary in nature, voodoo and hoodoo in New Orleans are melded together in a practice endearingly referred to as voodoo hoodoo, something that is distinct to the region—elsewhere, voodoo is strictly a religion and hoodoo is strictly a folk magic practice. New Orleans is a mixing pot—multiple cultures converging together, the influences of voodoo are so incredibly diverse that it’s no wonder why those who aren’t involved in the religion would be confused about the whole thing.

The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook

Well, here is where the confusion clears—like it was mentioned before, voodoo is a religion, while hoodoo is a practice. Voodoo practitioners believe in a single supreme creator, known as Bondye, which in French Creole stands for “good god.” There is no mention of only good or only evil beings in the religion—instead it is a practice that embraces the good and bad in all situations, where spirits known as the loa act as messengers for Bondye. Despite there being a single god, the loa, also known as lwa, are the ones that practitioners communicate with. Frequently likened to the saints in Catholicism, there is a loa to contact in regards to nearly every aspect of normal life.

Popular media insists that New Orleans voodoo is an ominous, evil tradition—this is based on the demonization of the unique practices within the religion. During the reign of the infamous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau, the use of voodoo dolls came into common use, like gris gris (gree-gree), as a form of talismanic magic. There is an odd tradition of depicting voodoo dolls are objects of revenge—ways for malevolent practitioners to send destruction and pain into the lives of their targets. The majority of Voodoo practitioners have been actively working against this negative media presence, showing that most voodoo dolls are centered on healing, finding true love, and obtaining spiritual guidance. Just like Marie Laveau, it seeks to help those in need—to feed the hungry, help the poor, and curing ailments such as anxiety, addictions, depression, and loneliness are mainstays of this religion.

Skulls deteriorating in the jungle
Photography by Christian Grecu

All in all, it seems that those who are a part of the voodoo religion actually prefer to keep their beliefs and practices to themselves, you won’t find any legitimate practitioners displaying their rituals in public, as this would be considered disrespectful to the spirits. This is fair, considering the amount of public bile that spills over into their culture whenever it is brought to light anywhere else in the United States. Privacy is often more pleasant than negativity when it comes to personal beliefs.

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Zombie

Date of Discovery

1810 is the first recorded date that Zombies were introduced to text, but not in regards to the Haitian Zombies, instead to refer to a West African deity. There is an argument that the first time zombi was used to identify the living dead, was in 1819, within the context of an English poem written by Robert Southey.

The oldest evidence of their origin dates back to the Ancient Greeks, but they are certainly not referred to in the context of zombie, but instead within the fear of the dead being reanimated.

Name

The word zombie itself was actually only introduced into linguistic history as of 1871, and originated in West Africa; in Kikongo, it is zumbi, which translates to, “fetish,” wherein Kimbundu, it is nzambi, which translates to, “god.” In West Africa, zombie was the name of a snake god and only later took on the meaning of, “reanimated corpse,” with use within the voodoo religion.

The zombie goes by many different names and is seen throughout the world’s cultures. Some popular names for the zombie within the English speaking cultures are undead, the living dead, ghouls, revenants, as well as an endless supply of slang terms used within novels, television series, and movies.

In Germany they’re referred to as nachzehrer, the Romanian culture refers to them as strigoi, and the Scandinavian regions refer to them as gjenganger, or draugr.

Physical Description

Depending on the origin of the zombie, they may have slight differences in their physical appearances; as an example, the Bandage Man is considered both a ghost and a zombie, but he appears badly injured and covered in bandages from head to toe.

Within Haitian Voodoo culture the zombie is less of an undead monster and more of an automaton, or a human slave that lacks free-will, so they maintain the physical appearance that they had before becoming a zombie, save for a few details. Their physical appearance changes due to their lack of a personality, they have a blank expression and don’t respond to in any significant way, other than doing what they’re told.

Popular Horror Culture differs in great distinction, where the average zombie is a decomposed, but a reanimated human corpse, they can have dislocated, or broken limbs, as well as parts of their bodies, missing entirely. Other, more extreme versions such as the ones in movies like the Resident Evil series are mutated humans and other creatures who look in some cases look like Lovecraftian creatures.

Origin

It seems that the Ancient Greeks may have been the first to have a fear of the dead coming back to life, as archaeologists have uncovered many graves dating back to the period that contained skeletons that had been pinned into place by heavy objects, such as rocks, with the assumption that it would prevent these people from coming back from the dead.

There are two types of zombies that exist within modern lore, those who have been the victim of a voodoo curse and those who have fallen victim to a zombie virus. One predates the other, but in modern terms, the most likely scenario for a hoard of zombies and the most terrifying remains the zombie virus.

Haitian Zombies

The Haitian Zombie is derived from a West African tribal religion, which morphed into Voodoo when the religious beliefs were brought to the Americas by African slaves. The Haitian Zombie lore is derived from actual ritualistic practices within the Voodoo religion that are still practiced today, albeit not publicly and not for a cheap price. Bokors who are gifted enough to know the recipe for Zombie Powder, the powder used to drug the victim destined to be turned into a Zombie, are considered dangerous men and protect their secrets quite skillfully with their threatening demeanor and oftentimes guns.

Zombie Virus

According to popular culture, the modern zombie is either a reanimated corpse with an unmatched appetite for flesh or a person who has been bitten and consequently becomes a zombie–this is due to some type of zombie virus. This particular brand of zombie is usually portrayed as being strong, but otherwise, a mindless rotting creature who may occasionally grunt and moan, but ultimately only has one motivation–to feed. These zombies evolved from the Haitian zombie, but they were given a life of their own by the ever-changing imagination of writers who continuously try to reinvent and spark new interest in these flesh-crazed revenants.

Mythology and Lore

In Passo Marinaro, Sicily archaeologist Carrie Sulosky Weaver from the University of Pittsburgh brought to our attention that zombies are in no way a new cultural phenomenon. The evidence that they discovered goes back more than 2,000 years, but the discovery of two peculiar burials happened in the 1980s. Weaver studied two burials in particular from a necropolis in a Greek settlement on Sicily which she believes were evidence of the Greek’s belief in the dead rising from the grave. What they found was that only certain bodies had heavy stones or other objects pinning their bodies down within the grave, but her article discussed how these, “revenants could [also] be trapped within their graves by being tied, staked, flipped onto their stomachs, [or] buried exceptionally deep.”

As discussed earlier in this entry, mythology of the Haitian zombie reaches back to the West African origins of Voodoo, as do the more modern virus-spreading counterparts.

Zombies have been and will continue to be a huge part of horror culture, so much so, that the CDC came up with their own Zombie Preparedness Guide for people who might have been concerned about being overrun by the undead.

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