Blog Post 227 – Bread

Stone figure of woman making bread
Neolithic stone figure of woman making bread. Louvre. (Wikimedia)

I have to admit something slightly shameful about my time during the pandemic. I have not undertaken the task of making my own sourdough starter. Now, before you judge me too harshly, I should note that it’s not as though I haven’t been baking anything, just that I tend to do most of my baking using store bought yeast, eggs, or leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder. Our area did run out of yeast in the stores for a while, but somehow I’ve managed to back-stock just enough of it to last us for the few months it took for yeast to begin appearing on our shelves again. I’ve made starter-based breads before (yummy Amish friendship bread that lasted a few loaves before I failed miserably as a fermentation parent, for example), but I just haven’t needed to do the sourdough yet so it remains off of my “pandemic skills checklist.”

However, the popularity of bread baking did spark one of my other skills: research! I have been looking into a few of the folklore collections I have access to and finding all sorts of doughy, yeasty, yummy notes about the uses of bread in North American folk magic. So I thought today I’d share a few of the notes I’ve gleaned with all of you! Hopefully if you’ve been doing some resting, rising, and toasting of your own you’ll see some things here that spark your witchy senses and maybe make the act of bread-baking a little more magical the next time you go to top up that bottle of starter in the corner of your pantry.

I’ve already written a bit on things like the magic of cakes before, but I’ll start here by mentioning a cake of a sort. This is the “witch cake” used during the Salem Witch trials (and also occasionally found in other places, as it seems to derive from some English antecedents). The basic idea, as found in historical accounts such as town church documents from the trial period and reprinted in George L. Burr’s Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, is that a bewitched person’s “water” (urine, as it always seems to come back to collecting someone’s pee here at New World Witchery) is added to a rough loaf of rye or barley, then baked and fed to a dog. If the dog grows ill, convulses, or dies, it indicates witchcraft, or alternatively may be able to reverse harm, causing the witch to suffer visibly and thus identifying them. Mary Sibley, the neighbor of the Parris family who recommended the magical loaf cure, was later intimidated into confessing that the cake was diabolical in nature, a sort of “using witchcraft to fight witchcraft” approach that was found throughout Colonial New England folk practices (see the excellent book Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement by David Hall for more on these sorts of folk magical practices in wide circulation).

A witch cake could be fed to a dog to either diagnose or reverse harmful witchcraft. This dog seems particularly suspicious, probably because the cake is baked with the victim’s urine. [Image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020]
These sorts of curative bread recipes, even if they are a bit unappetizing to us today, were widely known across traditions in North America. Oftentimes, bread was used as a delivery method for a variety of unsavory magico-medical treatments, creating rolled “bread pills” to treat ailments using herbs, medicinal mixtures, or even insects like lice and spiders to fend off sickness (Brown v.6 #806). A similar remedy could be used when treating animals, feeding them medicine or folk remedies along with bread to ensure they took them, as evidenced by an entry in Hohman’s Pennsylvania Deitsch tome, The Long-lost Friend:

#91 – For vomiting and diarrhoea [sp] – Take pulverized cloves and eat them together with bread soaked in red wine, and you will soon find relief. The cloves may be put upon the bread.

Hohman also mentions a similar method of delivering a chickweed based rabies cure in that book.

While baking a magical loaf of dark bread is certainly an intense way to mingle witchcraft and daily baking, many other beliefs and rituals surrounding meal, dough, and a warm oven could be found throughout the continent and across a wide range of people. In terms of superstitions, a massive number exist surrounding everything from baking the bread to burning it to taking a piece of it:

Preparing

      • Set bread to rise before the sun rises (Brown v.6 #2771)
      • Make a cross in bread dough to make it rise right (Brown v. 6 #2772) (This ritual is also mentioned in Robert Herrick’s Charmes and cited in Kittredge’s book on witchcraft. Rhyme: “This Ile [I’ll] tell ye by the way,/ Maidens when ye leavens lay:/ Cross your dow [dough] and your dispatch/ Will be better for your batch.” In the US this was also done to keep “witches from dancing over the dough” and thus cursing it and keeping it from rising.)
      • Cutting an unbaked loaf of bread is bad luck (Brown v.6 #2774)

Baking

      • Bread that cracks down the middle while baking is a sign of bad luck (Appalachian Magazine)
      • Burning your bread is a sign of bad luck, especially because it is likely to cause a quarrel. Beliefs from North Carolina, Tennessee, and even California all have similar variations. Many say that if a girl burns her bread or biscuits, it’s a sign she’ll fight with her sweetheart, for example, while a married person who burns bread is likely to fight with neighbors (Brown, Randolph). 
      • Burning bread can also mean the preacher is coming to visit soon (which may or may not be bad luck or the sign of a quarrel about to start, I suppose) (Brown v.6 #4000). Intentionally burning bread by throwing it into the fire will result in punishment, as the Devil will make you pick out every piece from the coals of hellfire later, according to Kentucky lore (Thomas).

Eating

      • You should never turn bread upside down once it’s baked, or you will bring bad luck (Brown, Randolph, Hines)
      • It’s bad luck to take the last piece of bread (Brown, Hyatt). Taking the last piece has a number of folkloric meanings, as well. For example, there’s a very gender-biased set of beliefs that a girl who takes the last piece of bread will be an “old maid,” while a boy is simply obligated to kiss the cook! (Which makes me think it was a clever ploy by many a mother to get a kiss from a child when giving the last piece away, but that’s simply my supposition). One variation also says that a woman who takes the last piece will also marry rich, so I guess one rolls the dice and takes their chances? (Brown v.6 #4735–a Nebraskan tidbit of lore)
      • Taking bread while you have bread on your plate already will also cause someone to go hungry (usually the person who has done the taking, but sometimes it is treated more as a portent for someone else) (Brown, Randolph)
      • A bit of Ozark lore says “I know of several families near Big Flat, Arkansas, who have a strange notion that one should never allow a piece of bread to fall upon the ground–the idea is that to do so will somehow injure the next crop of corn” (Randolph 62). 
      • Another bit of Ozark folklore says that eating bread crusts makes one a better hunter or fisherman, and that it leads to curly hair! (Randolph).

This last bit about the curly hair is one of the strangest but most pervasive beliefs about bread I found while researching loaf-lore. A number of sources indicate that if a person eats bread crusts, it will cause the person’s hair to curl, which is usually presented as a desirable outcome (Brown, Randolph, Farr). Sometimes those curls are ringlets, and at other times more like curly bangs or forelocks. In other cases, the curly hair actually predicts something about the bread, as in one North Carolina belief that says a baby with two curls of hair on its forehead will eventually “break bread on two continents,” indicating a life of travel (Brown v.6 #259). This may have something to do with the fact that the crust is the outermost part of the bread and often what visually draws us in (although the smell is certainly a factor, too, as many realtors know). Similarly, the hair or outer appearance of a person could be linked to this visual enticement through the bread. Or, it could simply be a way for a frugal parent to convince a child to eat the crusts, too!

Cartoon of several bread items, pies, and cakes. One smokes a cigarette. A mouse with a gun approaches.
When good bread goes bad. (Image from A Little Book for a Little Cook by L.P. Hubbard (1905), Wikimedia)

Continuing the theme of good looks and good bread, several wart or blemish cures are connected to a well-baked loaf. Most of these depend upon the use of cornbread rather than other forms of grains, with cornbread “sweat” being invoked most frequently as a curative for things like warts, pimples, and freckles (for those that don’t know, “sweat” is the condensation layer that settles on top of cornbread as it cools). Cornbread factors into several other cures and rituals as well. An Ozark cure for bewitched cattle involves feeding the cow a combination of burnt cornbread, soot, and salt (Randolph). In parts of Appalachia, there are superstitions that say a person should never break cornbread from both ends, or else there will be bad luck (Brown). A Georgia folk ritual says to feed a dog cornbread that has been rubbed on his left hind-foot in order to get him to follow you or stay loyal to you (Steiner).

Bread features in a number of magical rituals beyond ensuring canine companionship, too. One of the better-known rites is probably the Dumb Supper, which we’ve covered a few times and even done as a story episode during our annual All Hallows Read. A specific version of the working from Watauga County, North Carolina, involved even baking the bread backwards:

“Cook bread backwards, by sifting with the flour sifter behind you, and the like; also eat it with your back toward the table, and you’ll dream of whom you will marry” (Brown v.6 #4296).

The “reversal” power of the Dumb Supper works magically by inverting the typical order of things, allowing the user of the spell to see an end result (a future partner) earlier in their life. However, there are also consequences to that working in many cases (as you hear in our spooky retelling of the tale). It may also be that the Supper works to sort of ‘short circuit’ the brain by making it do a rote task in an unfamiliar way, thus causing a sort of distorted reality reaction and an altered state of consciousness, which might make a person much more susceptible to things like visions. Bread, as a staple ingredient and something so ordinary and frequently made, would be a perfect base for that kind of rite. It also has long-standing associations with strength and body, which could be another reason it gets used to call forth a corporeal image of a future lover. This body association also makes bread a key component of the modern Traditional Witchcraft rite of the Housle or “Red Meal.” In that rite, dark bread is presented as part of a ceremonial meal shared with Otherworldy spirits or the Dead (Artisson). That association of bread with the land of the dead also plays out in many customs and folkways from cultures that have ancestral reverence as a part of their practice. For example, in Mexican American traditions, a sweet bread flavored with orange essence and anise seed called “pan muerto”/”pan de muerto,” or “bread of the dead” is offered to ancestors during holidays like Dia de Muertos (Fernandez Kelly).

Bread’s association with the strength also leads to a curious bit of lore from Georgia, which says that a knife with a “soft” blade can be strengthened by simply putting it into hot cornbread, then into hot water (Steiner).

Bread also features in a variety of other folklore as well, even metaphorically. For example, many people almost instinctively say the phrase “bread and butter” when passing someone on the street with a light pole or other object between them. This is thought to ward off bad luck (another variation has one party say “bread and butter” while the other says “come to supper,” as well) (Brown, Randolph). A Pennsylvania Deitsch idiom says that a person who can use braucherei magic or other supernatural gifts is someone that “Hot meh du kenne wie Brod esse,” or that “he knows how to do more than eat bread!” (Dorson 112n1). Even in dreams, bread can have significance, as evidenced by this interpretation from the well-known and widely available Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream-book from the early twentieth century: “To eat wheaten bread, gives great gain to the rich, but loss to the poor; to eat rye bread is the reverse” (9). The commonness of the bread seems to be underlying most of its metaphorical value in these folk beliefs, sayings, and symbols–a person who can do more than eat bread can do more than the ordinary, and a rich person who eats the sort of bread only available to rich people (the more expensive and finer-milled “wheaten” bread) will see their gains continue. 

Illustration of a house blessing using bread, salt, and a coin
A simple house blessing spell/ritual using bread, salt, and a coin. (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020).

A House Blessing Charm (with bread!)

Perhaps my favorite bread-based magical working is one that I’ve done for a lot of folks when they move into a new home. It’s a little house blessing that I learned from my mother, who claimed it derived from Polish customs (we have a section of our family who all come from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as well as the Bialystok region of Poland). I’ve also seen this represented as a Jewish house blessing, as well as a few other ethnicities, but thus far I’ve not found a single “source” for it. My guess is that it builds upon some fairly widespread Central and Eastern European symbols, and may even have been widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean through the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (which still uses house blessings today). The basic practice involves taking a small jar and filling it partly with salt, then adding a piece of homemade bread (just a small, crouton-sized cube would be enough), and a single coin. You can say a blessing over this (such as the Catholic rite of house blessing or Psalm 122:7, “Peace be in thy walls, and prosperity in thy dwelling”), simply explain the symbolism when you give the gift, as well. The individual components each have a meaning:

        • Bread – that those who dwell in the house may never know hunger
        • A Coin – that they may never know poverty
        • Salt – that their lives may never lack for flavor (i.e. good experiences)

There are lots of magical variations you could make here, too, including selecting specific kinds of coins (or ones with significant minting years printed on them). A silver “Mercury” dime would be a very protective one to include. You might also make a special kind of bread using herbs that convey specific blessings (although you do want to make sure the bread is somewhat dry when fully baked–it will essentially “mummify” in the salt over time so it won’t spoil, but only if it’s not a particularly moist bread to begin with…no zucchini bread, please!). You might even mix in spices or herbs with the salt, or consider using black salt as a way to specifically repel evil.

Loaves of homemade bread
Loaves of homemade bread (Image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, 2020)

However you slice it, there’s a lot of magic in the lore of bread! If you’re baking up a storm during these mad, mad days of plague and pandemic, I hope that this post will inspire you to mix in a little magic along with your leaven, and add some enchantment to your bread basket!

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

REFERENCES

  1. Appalachian Magazine. Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Superstitions, Ghost Stories, & Haint Tales (Independently Published, 2018).
  2. Artisson, Robin. The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill (Pendraig Publishing, 2009). 
  3. Brown, Frank C. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (Volume 6), Wayland Hand, ed. (Duke Univ. Press, 2018 [1961]).
  4. Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore of the United States (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972) 
  5. Farr, T.J. “Riddles and Superstitions of Middle Tennessee,” in Journal of American Folklore 48:190, 1935.
  6. Fernandez Kelly, Patricia. “Death in Mexican Folk Culture,” in American Quarterly 26:5, 1974.
  7. Hall, David. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement (Harvard Univ. Press, 1990).
  8. Hines, Donald. “Superstitions from Oregon,” in Western Folklore 24:1, 1965.
  9. Hohman, John George. The Long-lost Friend, Daniel Harms, ed. (Llewellyn, 2012).
  10. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Witches Almanac/Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 2020 [1935])
  11. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover, 1964).
  12. Steiner, Roland. “Superstitions and Beliefs from Central Georgia,” in Journal of American Folklore 12:47, 1899.
  13. Thomas, Daniel and Lucy Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions (Franklin Classics, 2018 [1920]).

Blog Post 198 – Dolls

In one of our recent holiday episodes, we discussed the way that toys, dolls in particular, seem to embody the uncanny. Dolls, doll babies, dollies, poppets—whatever you call them, figural toys seem to have the power to evoke fear in people and act as powerful proxies for magical work. I decided to cover the topic in part because several podcasts I frequently download (namely LORE and Stuff You Missed in History) have recently mentioned Robert the Doll in Key West, Florida. Robert’s story is full of creepy twists and turns, but nicely captures how dolls can be both innocent (as Robert is when he acts as a best friend to his young owner, Gene) and terrifying (as Robert is when he shows up on a subsequent owner’s bed, brandishing a kitchen knife). Still, most tales of dolls and magic in the New World are not as spectacular as Robert’s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some very interesting uses for dolls in American folk magic. There most definitely are, and in this article, we’ll look at some of the ones that I find most interesting.

Robert the Doll, in Key West, Florida. Creepy, right? By Cayobo from Key West, The Conch Republic (Robert The Doll Uploaded by LongLiveRock) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
We can start in Salem, during the famous witchcraft trials of the early 1690s. A slave from Barbados named Candy was the focus of one early investigation (although her fate was not, as far as we know, the gallows). Candy confessed her use of folk magic, including the use of a handkerchief which she transformed into a doll:

“Candy stated that her knowledge of witchcraft came from her experience in Salem and not from her home in Barbados. The magical items possessed by Candy bear closer analysis and provide evidence for a possible connection to African or Afro- Caribbean beliefs. The knotted handkerchief was obviously a doll to stick with pins or to rend to inflict pain on others. The pieces of cloth were possibly shreds of clothing to be used to identify the dolls with a particular victim, as is common in the sympathetic magic which makes up part of voodoo belief” (McMillan 104-5)

Comments about “voodoo belief” aside (here I think McMillian is simply conflating “voodoo” with the folk magic of African Caribbeans), Candy’s use of the knotted handkerchief gets at some of the main reasons that doll magic seems to be popular and widespread. Firstly, it involves easily found or acquired resources—in this case cloth from the intended target, making the materials doubly enticing. Secondly, doll magic is sympathetic magic, and the connection is easy to see. If I make a piece of someone’s long johns look like a person, particularly the person whose backside the doll so recently covered, it seems likely that those two things will share a connection.

This point, that something that looks human but isn’t has uncanny powers, gets echoed in a lot of folklore as well, some of which connects to the folk magical systems of early Americans. Imported stories, such as tales about Anansi, refer to the use of dolls as agents of trickery. One account of Anansi tells how he tricked Tiger, and Tiger avenged himself on Anansi by putting a gumdoll in a field. Anansi gets angry when the doll won’t respond to him, and strikes it, becoming stuck to it. This tale is likely best known by American audiences as the tale of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, of course, which replaces Anansi with the wily trickster rabbit and uses tar in place of tree gum. An Apache tale recasts the narrative as Coyote fighting with a lump of pitch, placed in a field by a “white man” to catch the sneaky food thief. The story keeps reappearing across different cultural backdrops, with new characters but the same basic structure. In all cases, the doll in question does nothing—that is one of the reasons Brer Rabbit and his compatriots dislike the thing—but still manages to get the best of its target.

Illustration of Brer Rabbit & the Tar Baby. A. B. Frost [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dolls, much like the Tar Baby or gumdoll, don’t necessarily have to do anything to be effective in folk magic, either. Jason Miller recounts a story in his Protection & Reversal Magic in which a doll’s effect is clearly psychological, but nonetheless potent:

“A santera I know was having problems with her neighbor being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night and leaving garbage on her lawn. She asked her madrina (her teacher) what she should do. The madrina told her to make a doll that looked like the neighbor, blindfold it, tie its arms and legs, and nail it to the tree in her yard facing her neighbor’s front door. My friend was a bit shocked and said, “Good Lord! I don’t want to hurt him! What will happen?”

“Nothing” replied her madrina, “but it will scare the living crap out of him!”” (Miller 30)

Miller’s account of the santera’s doll experience resembles other accounts in American folk history. Newbell Niles Puckett references a similar incident in his Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. In the cases Puckett describes, the dolls may or may not actually have a magical effect, or they might simply convey the sender’s sentiments about how they wish to see the recipeient suffer: “Very common also was the practice of putting small black caskets, often with skull and crossbones upon the cover, in front of a person’s door. Sometimes these would contain a small doll with pins run through the heart and with a burned-out candle at the head and another at the foot, doubtless a case of sympathetic magic, indicating a desire that the person be “laid out” according to the Catholic rites.” (Puckett 227-8).

Dolls that do nothing, however are not as much fun as dolls that do something. Fairy tales like “Vasalissa the Beautiful” from Russian lore offer dolls that seem to do little, but in fact act as powerful fetishes of protection to those that carry them. Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s doll, which carries a maternal blessing and performs tasks while the young girl and the old witch Baba Yaga are sleeping at night. Baba Yaga is always disappointed by Vasilissa’s completion of her tasks, which she knows must be done by magic but cannot figure out. Eventually the ancient cannibal witch decides not to eat the girl and instead sends her away with a magical gift when she learns that Vasilissa is protected by her mother’s blessing (although she never does puzzle out the secret of the doll).

Just as in fairy tales, dolls can have powerful magical agency, according to folklore. Several authors, including the aforementioned Jason Miller, suggest using dolls or poppets in spells, just as Candy was said to have done in Salem. Miller recommends a mirror box spell using a doll which will turn any harmful magic back on its sender or protect one from magical attack. Dorothy Morrison makes similar suggestions in her book on baneful magic, and even talks about using dollar store Barbie knockoffs stuffed with personal materials or herbs as a way of simplifying the doll-making process.

When it comes to making dolls, however, kids seem to have a knack for doing it with whatever’s at hand, which as I mentioned above, may be part of why dolls are both so ubiquitous and so powerful. Coming from materials which are already familiar to the doll-maker through use and contact, the relationship with the doll itself can be very deep once the figure has been created. Adults do sometimes craft dolls and other toys with what is around, but they are also likely to purchase materials:

“Folk toys are made of any convenient materials, including wood, clay, plants, paper, fabric, metal, sand, or snow. If made by children, they most often utilize recycled or “found” materials (as when rubberbands are saved to make a “Chinese jump rope”). Adults, especially those who make toys for sale, are more likely to purchase new materials as needed. Folk toys come in many varieties: Dolls are common (often made of natural materials such as nuts, apples, or corncobs dressed in scraps of fabric).” (Leeds-Hurwitz 1477)

The fabrication of toys and dolls, including ones used for ritual or magical purposes, is not limited to post-European contact in the New World, either. According to scholar Yvonne Milspaw, Native cultures would create paper-type dolls out of natural materials with magic in mind: ““Other reported uses of paper and bark cutting among Native Americans include carefully worded reports of sorcery and cut-paper dolls among some Mexican people like the Otomi” (MIlspaw 1134). Some of these traditions may have shaped latter-day practices like the creation of skeletal papier mache dolls for Day of the Dead/Dia de Muertos celebrations in Mexican and Mexican American culture.

So dolls can be made from lots of materials, and can be active or passive in the use of magic, as we’ve seen. They also frequently come with their own rules or taboos about how they can be used, deployed, or even simply treated. When it comes to folk magic, African American conjure traditions emphasized the choice of materials as a matter of import. Dolls are often crafted with local flora (and occasionally fauna) for a combination of practical and symbolic reasons. Spanish moss is frequently used to stuff or wrap doll babies in Delta-area conjure practices both because it grows ubiquitously on trees in the region and because as a plant it acts semi-parasitically (it doesn’t actually feed off of the oak trees it grows upon directly, but it can limit their growth), thereby sharing life with a host as a doll is supposed to. Even more potent than Spanish moss, however, are doll components that come directly from the intended target, such as pieces of their clothing, as illustrated by this example from African American folklore:

“My husband was very jealous of me, he was just insane jealous. He was always telling me he was going to put a spell on me. I was afraid of him. I went to a house where he didn’t want me to go, because a man was at that house he was jealous of. He was going away to get work…and told me not to go there. He went and took a piece of my bloomers and made a rag doll out of them, stuff it, worked black eyes like mine with silk thread; then put in the head — a needle, some of my hair, pins, rain water and a shingle nail, then sewed up the head. After that he took a small picture of me and put it on the left side of the rag doll, about where my heart is; then he filled the doll just full of pins and needles all over. He then put it in a pint jar and buried it under that house, where he didn’t want me to go — without anyone knowing it — and left town. I started to getting sick just as soon as he left, was sick all the time, could not find out what was wrong. I would start over to the house, but I could not make it. Something kept me from going. I went on this way for about a month, I was getting weaker and weaker, when one day some children playing around this house, digging, dug up this rag doll. They [the people at the house] knew right away it was to cast a spell over me, because they knew my picture was on the doll, and he was always saying he was going to make me suffer. We took the rag doll, jar and all, put it on the fire and burnt it all up; and I started to getting better right away and got well. And my husband got stab in about a month time; we threw the spell back on him by burning up everything, and he died and I am well.” (Hyatt 456)

A number of writers on conjure similarly describe the use of clothing from the intented target, including Yvonne Chireau, Starr Casas, Denise Alvarado, and Jefferey Anderson. While a doll sculpted from scratch certainly seems to be preferred in many magical practices, it is not the only way to operate. Much as Dorothy Morrison mentions using dollar-store plastic dolls to do work, Zora Neale Hurston records the repurposing of children’s toys for magical purposes in Southern African American hoodoo:

“To Keep a Person Down. Write name on paper with black ink. Rip open back of a doll and put the names in it. Sew it up with black thread. Put aloes, cayenne pepper in doll along with names. Tie the hands of the doll behind her and place her in a kneeling position in a corner, and keep her there where nobody will interrupt. They will be frustrated as long as she is not disturbed. Tie a black veil on her face and knot it in the back, so that the person will be blind and always do the things to keep himself from progressing” (Hurston 384).

"Voodoo Doll," featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
“Voodoo Doll,” featured at the Louvre, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the lore of creepy dolls and the lore about how to use dolls magically, there seem to be a few taboos about dolls which thread through different American cultural landscapes as well. For instance, many Amish communities have strict rules about children’s dolls, insisting that they cannot have faces on them for fear of violating the “graven images” commandment in the Bible (the rule also extends to things like snowmen and usually paintings as well). Hyatt notes that one superstition about dolls involves naming: “If a girl changes the name of her doll, the doll will break.” (Hyatt, p.268). He also records a much more sinister taboo about dolls which I cannot help but share here:

“A little girl died that was three years old, and her mother put a doll and a little horse in the coffin that she always played with. I said to the mother, ‘I would not do that, for there is an old saying, never bury anything with a corpse.’ And in a few weeks this little girl’s mother and sister died.” (Hyatt 374)

This last bit of folklore is fascinating to me simply because it seems to be a powerful impulse in human beings to bury toys with children when they are tragically lost. Many early human graves contain burial goods, and children’s burial goods often seem to be toys. Dolls, though, might have a special exemption from burial because of their close resemblance to a living person, although that does not seem to be a universal taboo.

Dolls today have a lot of the same stigmas attached to them: they are objects of fear and superstition as well as simple objects of play. Magically, they can be used for a number of purposes which resemble and also modify the traditional folk uses I’ve outlined here. One of our readers shared a story with us about a sloth doll she uses to overcome issues with chronic lethargy, letting the doll absorb any feelings of laziness from her (she also shared her very terrifying experiences with an American Girls doll, so that tradition is alive and well, too). The film Toy Story and its many sequels and similar movies all play upon the idea of toys having a “secret life,” which involves humans not being around, but being the prime object of the dolls’ attention. In theaters as of the date of this post, one can also see the film The Boy, about a very Robert the Doll-esque figure which seems to have a (sinister) life of its own.

All of which is to say, dolls are a big part of magical lore and practice, and don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And they watch you while you sleep. So sweet dreams and all.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References

  1. Alvarado, Denise. The Day of the Dead Handbook (CreateSpace Publishing, 2012).
  2. The Voodoo Doll Spellbook: A Compendium of Ancient Spells and Rituals (Weiser Books, 2014).
  3. Anderson, Jeffrey E. Conjure in African American Society (LSU Press, 2008).
  4. Casas, Starr. The Conjure Workbook, Vol. 1: Working the Root (Pendraig Publishing, 2013).
  5. Chireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Univ. of California Press, 2006).
  6. Crowley, Daniel J. “Anansi.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 50-1.
  7. Goldberg, Christine. “Witchcraft.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1560-64.
  8. Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935).
  9. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” In Journal of American Folklore (Fall 1931). 317-417.
  10. Kirkland, James W. “Folk Medicine.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 983-89.
  11. Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. “Toys, Folk.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1477-80.
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  15. Morrison, Dorothy. Utterly Wicked: Curses, Hexes, & Other Unsavory Notions (St. Louis: WillowTree Press, 2010.
  16. Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (New York: Dover, 1970).
  17. R. D. Personal correspondence via email. 23 Dec. 2015.
  18. Yolen, Jane, ed. “Coyote Fights a Lump of Pitch.” In Favorite Folktales from Around the World (New York: Random House, 1986).