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.
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.
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).
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!
- Alvarado, Denise. The Day of the Dead Handbook (CreateSpace Publishing, 2012).
- The Voodoo Doll Spellbook: A Compendium of Ancient Spells and Rituals (Weiser Books, 2014).
- Anderson, Jeffrey E. Conjure in African American Society (LSU Press, 2008).
- Casas, Starr. The Conjure Workbook, Vol. 1: Working the Root (Pendraig Publishing, 2013).
- Chireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Univ. of California Press, 2006).
- Crowley, Daniel J. “Anansi.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 50-1.
- Goldberg, Christine. “Witchcraft.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1560-64.
- Hyatt, Henry M. Folklore of Adams County, Illinois (Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935).
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” In Journal of American Folklore (Fall 1931). 317-417.
- Kirkland, James W. “Folk Medicine.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 983-89.
- Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. “Toys, Folk.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1477-80.
- McMillan, Timothy. “Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, & Resistance in Colonial New England.” In Journal of Black Studies (Sept. 1994). 99-117.
- Miller, Jason. Protection & Reversal Magick (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books), 2006.
- Milspaw, Yvonne J. “Paper Cutting.” In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, ed. Jan Brunvand (New York: Garland), 1998. 1132-35.
- Morrison, Dorothy. Utterly Wicked: Curses, Hexes, & Other Unsavory Notions (St. Louis: WillowTree Press, 2010.
- Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (New York: Dover, 1970).
- R. D. Personal correspondence via email. 23 Dec. 2015.
- Yolen, Jane, ed. “Coyote Fights a Lump of Pitch.” In Favorite Folktales from Around the World (New York: Random House, 1986).
[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!
In this extended episode, we revisit our recent trip to the magical city of New Orleans. We’ll discuss the most recent Pagan Podkin Super Moot, places to see in the Crescent City, and hear some music, travelogues, and even a tea leaf reading or two!
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 57
- Big thanks and mention to Erzulie’s, which hosted the event!
- Yo Mama’s Bar & Grill
- Cafe Du Monde (delicious beignets & chicory coffee)
- The Gumbo Shop
- Chartres House
- Bottom of the Cup Tea Room (where we got our leaves read!)
- New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum
Tours & Events:
- French Quarter Phantoms (great walking tour with ghost stories & absinthe tasting)
- Tours BaYou (awesome downloadable driving tour of the Garden District)
- Folk Magic Festival
- American Horror Story: Coven – Made Laine watch her first episode in NOLA!
- Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins – Cory bought his wife some perfume from Bourbon French Parfum because of its connection to this book.
We announced a new contest in this episode! Details are coming in a separate post, but the basic rules are: 1) Buy something, anything, from one of the sponsors in the list below; 2) Take a picture with that item (or a a picture/screengrab of the receipt); 3) Send your picture to email@example.com and let us know to enter you in the contest. You could win one of three fully-stuffed PPSM Swag Bags, full of items from these great sponsors!
PPSM Sponsors! (We love them!!!)
(We’ll be posting more on these items in other places, but here’s a short list of the swag items and sponsors)
- Javamancy Kit – Carnavalia/The Mystic Dream
- Three Venezuelan Powers Holy Card Sets – Camino de Yara
- Stay with ME Bath – The Curio & Candle Shop
- Lucky Green Rice Sachets – Draconis Arcanum
- Handcrafted Conjure Condition Oils – Candlesmoke Chapel
- 2014 Witches’ Companion – Llewellyn Publications
- “Horsetamer” CD – Julia Ecklar & Prometheus Music
- “Traditions” Download Card – Kellianna
- Enchantment – Pendraig Publishing
- Banshees, Werewolves, Vampires, & Other Creatures of the Night – Red Wheel/Weiser Books
- The Candle & the Crossroads – Red Wheel/Weiser Books
- Fifty-four Devils Cartomancy Kit – New World Witchery
- Witches & Pagans Magazine – BBI Media
- Herbal Healing Salve – Rue & Hyssop/Three Brooms & a Cat
- Magical Miscellany Oil & Incense – Magical Miscellany
- Coconut Oil & Obsidian – Kathleen Borealis/Borealis Meditations
- Mini-Altar Kits/Dowsing Rods – Franchesca /VampRaven’s Nest
- Scarlet’s Deck – Scarlet’s Treasures
- And let’s also do our best to say thanks to Anna, owner of Erzulie’s Voodoo
If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!
- “When the Saints Go Marching In,” by Wingy Malone (from Archive.org)
- “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” by the Delta Choral Union (from Archive.org)
- “Iko Iko,” by the Grateful Dead (from Archive.org)
- “New Orleans Stomp,” by Louis Armstrong (from Archive.org)
New Orleans Recollections from:
I realize this is rather late, and that I’ve taken a long time to get it out. I’m still working on papers and projects for the graduate seminar, which wound up being incredibly time-consuming, so I had very little time to devote to my work here. However, I hope you’ll forgive me and enjoy the articles I do manage to put out when I manage to get them up.
Today, let’s continue working on those summer saints I started in the last post. While there are plenty of saints remaining in the calendar for the season, I thought that one saint’s feast day deserved some particular attention. St. John’s Eve, which is June 23rd, is ostensibly a celebration of the life and times of John the Baptist. It falls remarkably close to Midsummer, however, and so its connotations and meanings have absorbed a good bit of the lore associated with that holiday, too. It features prominently in accounts of New Orleans Voodoo from the nineteenth century, and functions as a day of tremendous power for working all sorts of quasi-magical operations. Let’s look at two from (quasi-)anthropological perpsectives. The first is an account found in Robert Tallant’s Voodoo in New Orleans, taken from a newspaper report contemporary to the events described (allegedly 28 June 1872):
“On Monday morning (St. John’s Day) I went to the French Market for the express purpose of finding out…the exact spot where the Voudou Festival would be held this year…I took the 8 o’clock train on the Ponchartrain Railroad. Arriving at the lake I fooled around a little; saw great crowds…I hired a skiff and pulled to the mouth of Bayou St. John—the best way of getting there from the lake end—the festival took place near Bayou Tchoupitoulas. Upon arriving at the shanty I found congregated about two hundred persons of mixed colors—white, black, and mulattoes…Soon there arrived a skiff containing ten persons, among wich was the Voudou Queen, Marie Lavaux [sic]. She was hailed with hurrahs.
The people were about equally divided male and female—a few more females. The larger portion of the crowd Negroes [sic] and quadroons, but about one hundred whites, say thirty or forty men, the remainder women.
Upon the arrival of Marie Lavaux, she made a few remarks in Gumbo French [Creole, I presume the reporter means], and ended them by singing, “Saiya ma coupe ca,” to which all hands joined in the chorus of “Mamzelle marie chauffez ca.” [reporter’s itallics, not mine]…The song ended, orders were given by the queen to build a fire as near the edge of the lake as possible, which was ‘did,’ every one being compelled to furnish a piece of wood for the fire, making a wish as they threw it on. Then a large caldron [sic] was put on the fire; it was filled with water brought in a beer barrel; then salt was put in by an old man, who jabbered something in Creole; then black pepper was put in by a young quadroon girl; she sang while putting in the pepper; then a box was brought up to the fire, from which was taken a black snake; he was cut into three pieces (the Trinity), one piece was put in by Marie Lavaux, one piece by the old man who put in the salt, and one piece by the young girl who put in the pepper; then al ljoined in chorus of the same song: “Mamzelle Marie chauffez ca;” then the queen called for a ‘cat,’ it was brought, she cut its throat, and put it into the kettle.
Another repetition of the same chorus, then a black rooster was brought to the queen. She tied its feet and head together and put it in the pot alive. Reptition of the chorus. Then came an order from the queen for every one to undress, which all did, amid songs and yells. The queen then took from her pocket a shot bag full of white and colored powders. She gave orders for every one to joino hands and circle around the pot. Then she poured the powders into the pot, sang a verse of some oracle song, to which all joined in a chorus while dancing around the pot, “C’es l’amour, oui Maman c’est l’amour, etc.”…everybody went into the lake, remained in the bath about half an hour…in half an hour the horn was blown (a sea shell), and all hand shurried back to the queen, and set up another chorus to a verse she sang to the same tune as the first one.
After the song she said ‘You can now eat’” (Tallant 80-81).
A long account (even with my editing), and likely a pretty sensationalized one. Certain aspects—communal feeding, dancing, music, memorized choruses, and the direction of a guiding presence like Marie Laveau—all ring somewhat true to accounts of African Traditional Religious practices in other places, such as the thorough examination of Brooklyn Vodoun in Mama Lola. Yet other features seem glaringly off, such as the complete lack of lwa, or the insistence on nudity (a common embellishment which appeared in several accounts and which essentially exists to exoticize and sexualize an entire race—even in the 1920’s stage shows at The Cotton Club in New York featured nude Black dancers with spears and tribal makeup because white patrons enjoyed “primitive” Black culture). The St. John’s dances, however, were highly popular affairs, and I see no reason to doubt that they truly happened. In many cases, it seems whites saw what they wanted to see—or what they were directed to see, and missed a great deal of the spiritual side of the events.
In Mules & Men, Zora Neale Hurston recounts her apprenticeship with Laveau’s alleged nephew, Luke Turner, who gives a somewhat more mystical (and significantly shorter) version of events:
“Out on Lake Ponchartrain at Bayou St. John she hold a grat feast every year on the Eve of St. John’s, June 24th. It is Midsummer Eve, and the Sun give special benefits then and need great honor. The special drum be played then. It is a cowhide stretched over a half-barrel. Beat with a jaw-bone. Some say a man but I think they do not know. I think the jawbone of an ass or a cow. She hold the feast of St. John’s partly because she is a Catholic and partly because of hoodoo.
The ones around her alter fix everything for the feast. Nobody see Marie Leveau [sic] for nine days before the feast. But when the great crowd of people at the feast call upon her, she would rise out of the waters of the lake with a great communion candle burning upon her head and another in each one of her hands. She walked upon the waters to the shore. As a little boy I saw her myself. When the feast was over, she went back into the lake, and nobody saw her for nine days again” (Hurston 193).
Again, I am a bit skeptical about Turner’s claims in some ways, but he seems to get at the heart of the event in a more profound way. Laveau becomes a demi-goddess in his account, a precursor to the lwa which she would eventually become. Certain aspects of both accounts agree: the presence of music, particularly drum music; the great communal feast; the crowd chanting and calling for her to arrive. For a celebration of St. John, the focus in these accounts tends to be awfully heavy on Marie Laveau, no?
However, that is not to say that St. John should be completely left out of his own holiday. Even one of Tallant’s informants recognizes the role the saint plays in the New Orleans frenzy on his feast day:
“Alexander Augustin remembered some of the tales of old people which dated to the era of the Widow Paris [another name for Marie Laveau].
‘They would thank St. John for not meddlin’ wit’ the powers the devil gave ‘em,’ he said. ‘They had one funny way of doin’ this when they all stood up to their knees in the water and threw food in the middle of ‘em. You see, they always stood in a big circle. Then they would hold hands and sing. The food was for Papa La Bas, who was the devil. Oldtime Voodoos always talked about Papa La Bas” (Tallant 65-6).
So does that mean that John’s role—and I should here clarify that the John honored on St. John’s Eve is St. John the Baptist, who was written about in the New Testament, but who was not the author of the Gospel of St. John (different saints entirely)—is always sublimated to another spiritual force, be it Marie Laveau or Papa Le Bas (also frequently called Papa Lebat, and sometimes seen as an alternate identity for Papa Legba, although he may also be named after a New Orleans priest who tried to eradicate Voodoo only to become a lwa after his death)?
Let us briefly look at the saint behind the day, then. Since we’ve already spent so much time in New Orleans, I’ll pause to crack open my copy of Denise Alvarado’s Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, which says that St. John is aligned with Ogun, Agonme, and Tonne in the lwa/orisha traditions, and that he has patronage over silence, slander, bridges, and running water. While Alvarado does note that the eve of June 23rd involves observations in honor of Marie Laveau, she does a lovely job looking at the current understanding of the saint’s feast day on the 24th:
“[The] holiday coincides with summer solstice, celebrated in New Orleans every year by Mambo Sallie Ann glassman at St. John’s Bayou. To celebrate the summer, the warmth, fire, and nourishment from the sun. For opportunities, good luck, and to realign with cosmic forces” (Alvarado 74).
Both Hurston and Alvarado have noted the strong connection to the sun with this day, not surprising given its proximity to the summer solstice. Within Christian cosmology, the desert-dwelling St. John recognized Jesus before most others had, and spoke of baptizing people with fire. He saw the heavens open up, and the holy spirit—sometimes represented by fire, though in this case in the form of a radiant dove—descend to earth to acknowledge Jesus as God incarnate. A number of solar symbols appear in this myth—deserts, fire, heavens opening up, descending light, and even the metaphorical light of understanding which enables John to see Jesus’ true nature. And since Midsummer forms the balance point for the winter holidays, which included the feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), it makes a great deal of sense to have the fiery and solarly-aligned John the focus of such a major holiday. Plus, they guy lived off of locusts, so I think we can spare him a day on the calendar.
Turning to NWW favorite Judika Illes, we find that St. John is associated with the color red, love spells, herbs, marriage, fertility, and, of course, beheading (the method of his death). She notes that he “has dominion over healing and magical plants in general,” which makes sense as one of the famous magical herbs bears his name: St. John’s wort. A bevvy of rituals surround the acquisition and deployment of this enchanted plant, the most famous of which Illes shares in her book:
“If you rise at dawn on Midsummer’s Day and pick a sprig of St. John’s Wort with the dew still clinging to it, tradition says you will marry within the year—but only if you do not speak, eat, or drink from the time of rising until after the plant is picked. A second part to this spell claims that if you slip the plant benath your pillow and go back to sleep—still without eating, drinking, or speaking—your true love will appear in your dream” (Illes 381).
The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, & Sages also points out that in a number of European cultures, any herb gathered on St. John’s Day before dawn is inherently imbued with intense magical qualities.
Finally, let’s finish up our (rather long) snapshot of St. John with a smattering of magical lore surrounding him and his feast day from around the world:
- “Wear a mugwort wreath around your brow on Midsummer’s Eve to banish headaches for a year” (Illes 381).
- “Gather blossoming St. John’s Wort at midnight on St. John’s Eve. If the blossoms remain fresh in the morning, this is an auspicious sign that the rest of the year will be happy; if the blossoms have wilted, magical protective measures may be in order” (Illes 381).
- To return an wandering lover, gather three roses on St. John’s Eve, bury two secretly before sunrise in a grave and under a yew tree, and put the third under your pillow. Leave it for three nights, then burn it, and your lover won’t be able to stop thinking about you (Illes 381).
- St. John is the patron of conversion/baptism and tailors, and can be petitioned for “good luck, good crops, fertility, & protection from enemies” (Malbrough 29).
- In Russian, a priest would visit local farms on St. John’s day and make a cross of fresh tar on the fence posts while reciting a prayer to keep away witches “who were liable to go around in the shape of dogs and steal milk from the cows” (Ryan 43).
- A Russian spell from the Enisei region of Siberia notes that gathering twelve magical herbs (unspecified) on St. John’s Eve and placing them under the pillow would induce prophetic dreaming (Ryan 47).
- St. John could be invoked in a charm with St. Peter to diminish fevers, according to English cunning man William Kerrow (Wilby 11-12).
- English cunning woman Ursula Kemp “recommended three leaves each of sage and St. John’s wort steeped in ale,” as a powerful potion against witchcraft (Davies 110).
So that’s a little look at St. John. And his day. That was worth the wait, right?
One thing I did learn in my long absence is that I should be careful about setting expectations with some of these posts. I originally intended to make a 3-to-5-part series on the “summer saints,” but at this point it will probably be a while before I return to the saints I had planned to cover in the remaining posts. I still will be addressing magical saints in various articles and from a few different perspectives, but I think for the moment I want to move on to other topics here. My reading and research have me exploring a number of topics, and I’d prefer to get those covered here while they’re fresh in my mind, so forgive me if I get a little bit more scattershot in terms of what gets posted here. I’ve also had requests for topics to be covered that I may essay given a bit of time and the proper resources. So, in other words, I’ve got lots to do, and the saints of summer may just have to wait a bit. I hope that’s okay with y’all.
With all of that being said, thank you so much for hanging in there with me. I’ll do my best to keep work coming your way, but I hope that what is here already is proving useful to you. I’m not going away anytime soon, even if I do seem quiet from time to time. I really love getting emails and comments, too, and I apologize for the delays in response to those, but thank you to everyone who has written in.
I really appreciate your patience, and thanks so much for being friends to us here at New World Witchery!
Thanks for reading,
I’ve been reading a lot lately (but then, when am I not?). I’ve also managed to catch a couple of great movies as well. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on them with you! The excerpts below are the slightly abridged versions of the full reviews found over at Pagan Bookworm, so head over there if you want the full report.
1) The Book of English Magic – by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate (Overlook, 2010)
If you have spent much time studying occult literature, you know that Great Britain is rife with magical lore: fairies, Arthurian legends, druidry, cunning folk, etc. In The Book of English Magic, Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate make the not-too-audacious claim that Britain’s magical history is one of the richest—perhaps the richest—in the world. They approach their subject by examining a mix of history, folklore, and modern practices to attempt to piece together a portrait of Britain as an enchanted isle. While I think that they succeed in presenting a magical portrait of a magical land, I also think that the authors are by turns too broad and too narrow. They do a wonderful job looking into subjects like English alchemy and dowsing, providing a number of excellent resources to discover more about each topic. They also dwell overlong on the concept of druidry (not surprising considering it is one of Carr-Gomm’s chief fields of interest—he is also the author of Druid Mysteries, the Druid Plant Oracle, and the Druid Animal Oracle). The paucity of sources supporting some of their research means that while some chapters seem tight and focused, others seem only loosely woven together. They hardly plumb the depths of what is called Traditional Witchcraft, and the concept of cunning folk is given surprisingly short shrift considering how close to contemporary some of that material is. The inclusion of practical exercises gives a slightly ‘workbook’ feel at times, which deflates the momentum of the book in some places, but really does seem to serve the overall work.That being said, if one were looking for a good coffee-table introduction to the myriad magical traditions available to the student of British history, this would be an excellent starting point.
2) The Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook – by Denise Alvarado (Weiser, 2011)
This book is about what author Denise Alvarado calls “Voodoo-Hoodoo,” a term which irks some as the continuing inaccurate jumble of two terms which should remain distinct (Voodoo being a religion and hoodoo being a folk magical practice). However, if one takes the time to read Alvarado’s passionate book on the topic, the Voodoo-Hoodoo Spellbook, one can see that she is merely sticking to the terminology most people are familiar with and that the dog of diction has no teeth to bite when it comes to New Orleans-style magic. Instead, Alvarado presents a tradition which blends elements of Haitian Vodoun, folk Catholicism, Southern root work and hoodoo, and a touch of New Age spirituality to create a vibrant, current practice. She uses a number of good resources, often primary ones, to support her understanding of a practice she has lived with her whole life (according to her). She also frequently slips away from the facts and into personal experience, but does so in a non-authoritarian way. Her history of Mardi Gras and the magical folklore associated with them is captivating, as is her heartfelt look at the Seven African Powers. When she does slip off of the scholarly or personal track the book can get a bit messy. Her correspondence tables are not a strength, and her inclusion of New Age style tumbled gemstones in her work almost undermines her traditionalism (as it seems fairly obvious that slaves doing similar work in the 19th century would not have had polished rose quartz to work with). She is flexible and fluid towards Christianity, though here it should be pointed out that she neither says one must work with Christianity nor one must work with African Traditional spirituality. People are looking for spells, and this book definitely has those. There are spells for love, luck, money, protection, and half-a-dozen other needs. Hundreds of spells and workings are contained in this book, as well as recipes for conjure oils and powders, instructions for candle working, and a discussion of poppets and dolls in magical work. Some of them seem totally reasonable within the context of her presented practice, and some seem a little forced. This book fits nicely on the shelf next to other “hoodoo 101” texts, while offering a few doors to open for a reader looking to go deeper.
3) Old World Witchcraft – by Raven Grimassi (Weiser 2011)
Don’t buy this book. I’m not even bothering providing a link to it. I’ve done a full review at Pagan Bookworm, but let me just say this text is badly researched, mis-cites or fails to cite sources, argues with scholars without presenting their actual point of view/argument, claims that graveyard dirt is just the powdered ash of tree leaves gathered in a cemetery, and says that you can become deeply knowledgable about a plant by studying its sigil. It’s bad history, bad herbalism, and bad witchcraft. All in all, this is a book which suffers from broken clock syndrome (as in, “a broken clock is right twice a day”). He occasionally hits on interesting ideas or brings up worthwhile concepts, but mostly he seems to be posing an elaborate fantasy as a pseudo-historical reality, with very little scholarly backbone to support his claims. When someone prods the gear works, the whole contraption just seems to fall apart.
4) American Mystic, directed by Alex Mar (Empire 8 Productions, 2010)
Director Mar turns the camera on three different but spiritually similar people: Kublai, an African American man who belongs to the Spiritualist Church; Chuck, a Lakota Sioux sun dancer; and Morpheus, a pagan witch and Feri tradition priestess. The director captures the challenges of these faiths, including both internal and external struggles. While there is an element of novelty to the practices of each film subject, the director never lets curiosity turn into spectacle. The Sun Dance, which can be grueling for participants, is not simply a show of blood and muscle, but rather connects Chuck to his family in a powerful way. Kublai seems to struggle with just how much he believes in his own spiritual gifts. And Morpheus senses her displacement in the modern world, while at the same time she does not shy away from the society of other people. The film does have its flaws, but keeps a sensitive and intelligent lens focused on these subjects and their deeply-felt spiritualism. This is a rare and lovely documentary on mysticism as seen at the ground level. Available on Netflix.
5) All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, directed by Tim Rutili (IndiePix Films, 2010)
In this outstanding independent film from director (and bit player/musician) Tim Rutili, a lonely fortune-teller and magical worker named Zel (played by the radiant Angela Bettis) lives in an old country house inhabited by a wide range of unusual ghosts that only she can see. There are dead flappers, priests, blind musicians, and a strange, child-like woman named Nyla (Molly Wade) who cannot speak. Zel is not merely a medium, she is also a deeply talented magical worker. She smartly lays down a salt line in front of her bedroom door every night to keep her ghost-friends out. The director cleverly bookends each section of the film with bits of folk magic, title cards with things like “A wish made while burning onions will come true,” which lends to the overall enchantment of the piece. This is such a lovely and exceptional film that I easily overlooked its flaws in favor of being bespelled by these characters. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Go, watch it now! Available on Netflix.
Whew! So that’s been my reading and watch list (at least, that all the ones I could write reviews about lately). What have you been getting into?
Thanks for reading!
-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 32-
This episode looks at the particular practices of Voodoo and Hoodoo around New Orleans. We have an interview with spellbook author Denise Alvarado, several excerpts from folkloric and magical texts, and even some music.
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 32
First, my apologies for the sudden cut-off in the interview. That was a technical difficulty on my end, but we still got almost a full 30 minutes of discussion with a stellar guest, so enjoy!
Mules & Men, by Zora Neale Hurston
Voodoo in New Orleans, by Robert Tallant
Black & White Magic of Marie Laveau, by NDP Bivens
All songs were taken from the Florida Folklife collection, and are available here: http://www.floridamemory.com/collections/folklife
The songs were “Crow Dance” and “Oh Mr. Brown,” both sung by Zora Neale Hurston, and “Sissy in the Barn,” sung by the children of Carver Elementary School in 1954.
Guest & Announcements
Denise Alvarado can be found at her website, Mystic Voodoo.
Please also check out her books, The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook (soon to be released in an expanded edition by Weiser Books), Voodoo Dolls in Magic & Ritual, and The Voodoo Doll Spellbook. You should also subscribe to her journal, Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly.
Don’t forget about the Second Annual Pagan Podkin Supermoot in Salem, MA, on the weekend of Sept. 17th, 2011. Find out more details about the event and opportunities to come meet us in person at the PPSM2 Website. [Laine respectfully asks that she not be in any photographs, due to privacy concerns—Cory will be happy to wear a wig and pretend to be Laine, however].
I’ll also be at the West KY Hoodoo Rootworker Heritage Festival (event site) teaching a course on “Biblical Magic & Sorcery.”