Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Response on "Spiritual Occultist" re Voodoo Dolls

This is a response I recently posted to the Yahoo group Spiritual Occultist concerning the use of "voodoo dolls" in New Orleans Voodoo. (The original essay, which was reposted to Yahoo, can be found at Haunted American Tours).
Popular among slaves, some speculate that making voodoo dolls and sticking them with pins was one method by which the slave could exert some control over the master: from the very start white plantation owners, mostly of European descent, feared this and its obvious connection to the more familiar poppet magic of their cultures. More often than not, however, the voodoo doll was employed as a weapon against other believers in voodoo, or vodusi, who did not hesitate to use it and immediately recognized its consequences. Primitive dolls, often bound with twine or cat-gut and stuck through with everything from pins to fish bones, have been unearthed on several plantations in South Louisiana, evidence that the concept of vicarious punishment through use of an image doll was firmly in place among the African slave populations of 18th and 19th century Louisiana.
1) Sticking pins in poppets to curse someone is almost exclusively a European practice. There are definitely some hair-raising African and African-American curses, but they are typically transmitted through the feet i.e. by sprinkling powder in your opponent's path or on his doorstep, or by getting some dust from her footprints and mixing it with various noxious substances.
2) There WAS a Kongo tradition of sticking nails and pins into a power object (nkisi) but it was not intended for curses: rather, it was meant to wake up the spirit indwelling in the object. Sme pictures of nkisi nail fetishes can be found here.

But the idea of using voodoo dolls and other forms of hexes such as gris-gris and mojo,
Gris-gris and mojo bags are generally built not to hex but to bring good luck to their owners.
The lore of 19th century voodoo is filled with the tales of victims of this vengeful magic who awoke after a fitful night’s sleep to find bones, graveyard dust and the inevitable voodoo doll laying on their porch steps — placed there in the darkness by Marie Laveaux herself. The tales would otherwise be a footnote in New Orleans history were it not for the fact that, according to reliable sources, nearly all the voodoo Marie Laveau performed actually worked.
So far as I know, there is only one fairly reliable tale connecting Marie Laveau to a doll - the records of a court trial wherein Mme. Laveau and another Voodoo Queen had a dispute over the ownership of an "ugly fetish" which was almost certainly a Kongo nkisi. See Carolyn Morrow Long's excellent book A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau for more information on that.
Some proponents of Voodoo as a religion attempt to distance themselves from the voodoo doll cursing tradition and there are many examples of dolls created for more positive purposes such as healing and spiritual enlightenment. These practitioners claim that use of voodoo dolls for vengeance and punishment is a form of Bokor (Black) Voodoo that has contributed to the bad reputation the religion has had to bear over the centuries.
The word "Bokor" only appears in Haitian Vodou and in later-period (post 1970s) New Orleans Voodoo. It describes a particular type of sorcerer and has nothing to do with blackness (which would be "neg" in Kreyol and "noir" in French). And there is a long tradition of using dolls for benevolent purposes, or as homes for benevolent/protective spirits, in African Diaspora traditions.
But it remains a fact that most, if not all, people who seek out a Voodoo practitioner for the creation and manipulation of a Voodoo doll is usually bent on vengeance, at a minimum, or often genuine, irreversible harm. There is something viscerally satisfying about pricking and puncturing an effigy of your worst enemy; the natural expansion of this concept lends itself easily to the act of greater harm and the consequent feeling of control one can obtain from this.
Among people seeking a modern day New Orleans Voodoo practitioner, this may be true. In Haitian Vodou someone seeking a doll is more likely trying to provide a home for a spirit.
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.
This is a common way of charging a poppet in European witchcraft. While it can be quite effective, it once again owes more to European folk customs than African ones.
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.
This is an interesting issue. In many Kongo traditions one "binds" a spirit by tying it with thread or string. The idea is not that you are capturing or enslaving the spirit. Rather, you are helping the spirit to stay comfortably in its new house, much as you tie your shoes so you can walk in them.
“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.
I am inclined to agree with this. Someone with the right degree of anger and will can use just about anything as a focus, and it's not all that difficult to catch the attention of the spirit world. When you put out a bright shiny "voodoo doll" beacon, you may well find something that wants to inhabit it - and said "something" may not be benevolent or easily controlled.
Other dolls available are rendered in synch with devotion to a particular Lwa but are designed to invoke the power of the Lwa in the owner’s life. These devotional dolls are created more for actual use than for display, and since most are one of a kind, created from an intimate consultation with a practicing mambo or priest, the dolls are highly prized and extremely personal. These dolls are also kept very secure because any ill-intentioned person possessing such a creation can produce no end of aggravation and harm to the devotee it represents.
This is actually the most common way that dolls are used in Haitian Vodou and other Afro-Caribbean traditions.
Another use of dolls in authentic Vodou practice is the incorporation of plastic doll babies in altars and objects used to represent or honor the spirits, or in pwen, which recalls the aforementioned use of bocio and nkisi figures in Africa.
The bottom of this page features some excellent examples of Haitian doll sculpture from the master of the craft, the late Pierrot Barra.