Posted tagged ‘voodoo dolls’

Blog Post 198 – Dolls

February 1, 2016

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.
  12. McMillan, Timothy. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, & Resistance in Colonial New England.” In Journal of Black Studies (Sept. 1994). 99-117.
  13. Miller, Jason. Protection & Reversal Magick (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books), 2006.
  14. Milspaw, Yvonne J. “Paper Cutting.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1132-35.
  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).
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Episode 84 – Dolls and Magic

December 21, 2015

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Episode 84 – Dolls and Magic

Summary:

This episode is a season-appropriate discussion of toys in magic, particularly dolls. We’ll talk about how dolls and poppets get used magically, as well as why they tend to show up in folk and popular horror so often.

 

Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time. Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.

 

Producers for this show: Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast, Sarah, Molly, Catherine, AthenaBeth, & Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

 

Play:

Download: Episode 84 – Dolls and Magic

 

-Sources-

This episode’s material comes from a wide mix of popular, literary, and folk sources, including:

-Books-

-Film & TV-

We also mention Robert the Doll in Key West, Florida, who has been featured on recent episodes of the podcasts LORE and Stuff You Missed in History Class.

 

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.”

 

Promos & Music

Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Music: “The Feast of Krampus,” by S.J. Tucker.

Podcast recommendation: Gordon over at Rune Soup has finally started putting out a podcast, which is definitely worth listening to. Subjects are often deeply philosophical and get at the roots of magical practices with an eye towards history as well. Good stuff!

Blog Post 191 – Book Review: The Voodoo Doll Spellbook, by Denise Alvarado

September 30, 2014

[Author’s disclaimer: I received this book as a review copy from Red Wheel/Weiser Books. They have neither paid nor coerced me in any way to write this review, and the opinions stated herein are my own, and do not reflect the position of the publisher.]

 

I am absolutely certain that a number of people will see the title of Denise Alvarado’s latest title from Red Wheel/Weiser Books and simply ignore its existence. That is a downright shame, because the book proves to be a personal and anthropological tour through an area of magic that can be very easy to misunderstand, work with dolls and effigies. Alvarado confronts the issue of the ‘Voodoo doll’ early in her text, laying its negative cultural cache at the feet of “Hollywood and the media” and noting that despite its origins as a “fusion of folk-lore with science fiction…the image of the pin-stuck doll is so embedded in the collective psyche of the general public that the thought of using a Voodoo doll any differently seems to defy all logic” (p. 2). Alvarado’s book is a repository of doll magic, some of it very interesting and useful, some merely edifying or even occasionally confusing, but it certainly deserves consideration beyond its titular associations.

The book is broken up into twenty-one chapters, generally grouping spells by expected outcome, not much different than other spellbooks in the genre, really. There are chapters on “Money Spells,” “Spells for Good Luck, Success, & Gambling,” and of course, “Spells for Love & Romance.” Alvarado really sets herself apart with the amount of space she devotes to the less savory workings of doll magic, with chapters like “Bend-Over Spells,” “Binding Spells,” “Break Up Spells,” and most especially an extensive chapter on “Curses, Hexes & Spells for Revenge.” Her work draws upon myriad traditions, not solely Vodoun, hoodoo, or Southern Conjure—the fields she clearly connects with best, at least personally. She also brings in chapters on doll magic from the Ancient world, such as dream dolls drawn from Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. One of the truly standout chapters is a section called “Japanese Voodoo Spells,” which actually looks at two types of effigy magic found in Japanese practice, even connecting them to the popular youth culture there: “Aggressive marketing campaigns advertising Ushi no Koku Mairi [Japanese cursing dolls] kits that contain a straw doll, a hammer, a couple of candles, and fifteen-centimeter-long nails are targeted to the young Japanese demographic” and she notes an increasing presence of these dolls in “anime episodes, online games, and videos that promote cyber cursing” on sites like YouTube (p. 172). Alvarado brings in Goetic spells involving dolls, and influences from Christian magical practice via Catholic and Psalm workings. She even includes a doll spell to prevent pets from getting lost.

Sources for The Voodoo Doll Spellbook range from the scholarly to the questionable (ghost hunting websites and a book on Mexican magic which tenuously reframes Hispanic folk ceremonies in a Wiccan context, for example), but generally speaking, Alvarado speaks authoritatively and presents her material well. Several spells are guest-contributed by conjure worker Carolina Dean, which prove to be some of the high points in the text. In some cases, the reason for lumping some spells into separate chapters is unclear, as in the “Binding Spells” section, of which a reprint of Psalm 94 takes up a full twenty percent of the pages. Still, when she is on-target, as with her two Mississippi cursing dolls (pp. 36-38), the quality of the work is apparent, and the spells make a useful compendium of doll magic.

The relatively few other doll-baby work books available (Starr Casas’ slim-but-potent one comes to mind, which seems to be out of print, sadly) mean that Alvarado’s book fills a major niche in practical magical writing. In many ways, what she accomplishes with The Voodoo Doll Spellbook is quite similar to work done by Judika Illes in her books—this is the notebook of a collector of spells. What plagues the text the most is its title, which seems to relegate it to a very specific subcategory of magical work, and which undermines its authority in the minds of educated readers. The material contained within is useful, if occasionally uneven (I’m currently working with one of her money doll spells, for example—I’ll let you know how that goes). While I could consider this book neither a definitive text nor a weak entry in the field, I can certainly point to its utility and some of its unusual offerings as a recommendation to read it and be satisfied.

If you’ve read this book, or have others to recommend on the topic of doll magic, I’d love to hear them!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 140 – Pins and Needles

October 13, 2011

Really, this entry should be called “pins & needles & spikes & nails & all other kinds of spiky things,” but that would have been an overly long title, so I’m standing by my choice. What I’ll be looking at today are folkloric occurrences of piercing devices as magical tools. This will probably overlap a bit with my entry on iron, but I’ll attempt to cover more new ground than old.

Probably one of the first things to come to mind when looking at sharp-and-pointy things is the popular “voodoo doll,” which is essentially a European-style poppet. These poppets are stuffed with botanicals, curious, dirt, rags, and/or personal items from the intended target and then manipulated to control him or her. Films and television frequently portray only harmful magic being done through these dolls, but a witch or conjurer can also use them to cast love spells, healing spells, or even health and wellness spells. I’ll probably try to do a separate entry on doll magic another time, but it’s worth a mention here, too, I think.

There are some African roots to the voodoo doll phenomenon,  including the minkisi minkondi, which were little wooden dolls from Kongo where spirits were thought to live. The doll’s owner would drive a spike into it to “provoke the forces within them” and then the owners would be able to command the spirit to perform certain tasks (Chireau, Black Magic: Religion & the African American Conjuring Tradition). Other cultures have certainly used small effigies of human beings to cause hurt or help, as well. Denise Alvarado has a book which examines these dolls in detail, including a look at corn dollies, fetishes, Greek kolossoi, and other similar magical poppets.

Of course pins and other sharp objects can be used to cause magical harm even without the use of a doll (which makes sense according to the Doctrine of Signatures, which has tremendous influence on much folk magic). Zora Neale Hurston recorded a sinister curse which involved taking nine new pins and nine new needles and boiling them in a nefarious formula called “Damnation Water” in order to cross one’s enemy (Hurston, Hoodoo in America). An old-world carry-over (likely from England, but found in Southern communities where conjure is common) says that burying a pin taken from the clothes of a living person with a dead person will cause the target to die within a year (William G. Black, Folk Medicine).

Probably the most One of the more gruesome application of pin-and-needle magic had little to  do with the magical effects of these tools, and all too much to do with their physical dangers: “One instance is given [in an account from 1895] of ‘toad heads, scorpion heads, hair, nine pins and needles baked in a cake and given to a child who became deathly sick’” (“Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors in the Southern United States,” Journal of American Folklore, p. 143). Curing magical maladies often involved finding pins used in spellwork and disposing of them in a ritual way: “He went at once to the hearth, took up a brick, and found sticking in a cloth six pins and needles. He took them up, put salt on them, and threw them in the river. The needles and pins were said to be the cause of so many pains”( “Conjuring…”, JAF, p.145).

A number of ‘Shut-up’ spells—tricks that involve tying the tongue of a gossip or potential witness against you in court—involve taking a slit tongue from an animal like a cow or sheep, packing it with hot peppers, vinegar, and/or salt along with the name paper of the target, and pinning it up with a number of pins and needles (usually nine, but not infrequently more).

Not all piercing spells used metal points. An account of Clara Walker, a former slave from Arkansas, describes her getting help from a rootworker who made a mud effigy of her master and ran a thron through the back of it, causing severe back pain in him (Chireau, Black Magic…)

Pins and needles needn’t be solely used in malicious work, however. A healing spell from England resembles wart charms in Appalachia and some of the rootworker cures from Hyatt’s Folklore of Adams County, requiring pins that have been used to poke or pierce a wart to be sealed in a bottle and buried in a newly-dug grave (Black, Folk Medicine).  An account of a mojo bag from the days of slavery tells of “a leather bag containing ‘roots, nuts, pins and some other things,’ which was given to [the slave] by an old man” (Chireau, Black Magic…). The purpose of this bag was to prevent whippings on the plantation where the slave toiled, which could be quite severe.

Pins are also frequently used in witch-bottle spells, which cover a number of different magical traditions, including this version from hoodoo: “Bottles of pungent liquids, pins, and needles were interred by practitioners or strung on trees as a snare for invisible forces” (Chireau, Black Magic…). It would be an egregious error of me not to at least mention coffin nails, too, which are frequently applied in hoodoo and conjure preparations. Usually these are used to inscribe candles with signs, figures, names, etc., but they can also be included in things like war water mixtures or mojo bags to cause hurt and violence. Interestingly, they can be used for protection and health, too. Binding two or four nails into a cross with a little wire or red thread creates a powerful anti-evil charm. Vance Randolph recorded that “nails taken from a gallows [not the same as coffin nails, but rather similar] are supposed to protect a man against venereal disease and death by violence” (OM&F). He also describes these nails being turned into rings by blacksmiths to be worn as protective amulets.

Another hoodoo application involves the use of a series of nails of increasing size, starting with little ‘brad’ nails and getting progressively bigger until you use railroad spikes at the end. The spell is often referred to as “nailing down the house” and requires a practitioner to start by putting the small brads into the corner of each room, and nailing them down, while speaking magic words about protection, prosperity, and stability. Then the conjurer takes bigger nails and nails down the four corners of the house, again praying the magic words. This pattern continues until the conjurer reaches the four corners of the property and nails down iron railroad spikes into the dirt, thus sealing the home from harm and ensuring that the owner will remain in the home and not be evicted. I’ve heard one rootworker say that adding a little urine to each of the nails helps with this work, too, as a way of “marking one’s territory.”

Sewing needles or hairpins can also be used in love spells, as in these from Adams County, Illinois:

  • 9641. The significance of a bending needle is a hug for the sewer.
  • 9650. If a girl tries on a dress pinned for a fitting, each pin catching in her petticoat or slip will represent a kiss before the day is over.
  • 9654. Before going to bed on January 21, a girl may tear off a row of pins (from a new package according to some) , say Let me see my future husband tonight as she pulls out each pin, and then stick them in the sleeve of her nightgown; that night he will be seen in her dream.
  • 9655. If a pin found on the floor or street is picked up and stuck in your coat, you will have a date before the week ends.
  • 9656. The girl who finds and picks up a pin pointing toward her will see her beau that day.
  • 9657. A girl finding and picking up a pin will be dated that night; the man will come from the direction towards which the pin points.
  • 9666. For luck in love a girl may secretly put one of her hairpins in her beau’s left hip pocket; this is also supposed to hold him.
  • 9669. If while walking along you pick up a large safety pin and name it a man you want to see, he will soon be seen; if a small safety pin and
  • name it a girl, she will soon be seen.

The binding power of pins in love spells makes a good bit of sense, and seems deeply entrenched in popular culture; think of high-schoolers being “pinned” (an antiquated notion, I know) or of the description of Cupid shooting arrows or darts to cause romantic feelings in his victim…er..targets. Amorous magic incorporating prickly things is not all lettermen jackets and floating nekkid babies, however. A somewhat heavier love spell from Zora Neale Hurston prevents a lover from straying:

Use six red candles. Stick sixty pins in each candle – thirty on each side. Write the name of the person to be brought back three times on a small square of paper and stick it underneath the candle. Burn one of these prepared candles each night for six nights. Make six slips of paper and write the name of the wanderer once on each slip. Then put a pin in the paper on all four sides of the name. Each morning take the sixty pins left from the burning of the candle. Then smoke the slip of paper with the four pins in it in incense smoke and bury it with the pins under your door step. The piece of paper with the name written on it three times (upon which each candle stands while burning) must be kept each day until the last candle is burned. Then bury it in the same hole with the rest. When you are sticking the pins in the candles, keep repeating:

‘Tumba Walla, Bumba Walla, bring (name of person desired) back to me.’ (Hurston, Hoodoo in America)

There are several agricultural spells which involve driving iron nails or spikes into trees to prevent fruit from dropping off of it (see Randolph, Hyatt, etc.). There’s a lovely bit of distinctly American folklore that says two iron nails driven into your bat will make you a better batter (in the game of baseball, that is).

Finally, I wanted to share an adorably sweet childhood rhyme does not use actual pins, but merely the words as part of a wishing spell performed when two people accidentally speak the same words at the same time. From Hyatt’s Folklore of Adams Co.:

8643. After two persons speak the same thing at the same time, the little finger of the one is held crooked about the little finger of the other and these words spoken alternately:
‘Needles, Pins,
Triplets, Twins,
When a man marries,
His troubles begin,
What goes up the chimney,
Smoke, Knives,
Forks, Longfellow,
Shortfellow.’
They then make a wish and together say Thumbs.

I know there are dozens more applications of pins-and-pokey-bits magic I am not listing here, but hopefully this gives you some idea of what you can do with a simple sewing needle or a couple of iron nails. Magical tools are everywhere, if you know what you’re looking for, and how to use them. But for now, I’ve waxed on long enough about this topic, so let’s stick a pin in it and call it done.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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