Voodoo Dolls and Witchcraft

06 November 2019

Often called ‘Voodoo dolls’, the creation of human effigies for the purpose of causing harm has very little to do with Voodoo. They are in fact a common and ancient form of what has come to be called ‘sympathetic magic’.

What Is Sympathetic Magic?

The term was first coined by Sir James George Frazer in his well-known treatise on magic and religion; The Golden Bough. The effigies are easily identified in the two sub-branches of sympathetic magic; homeopathic (similarity) and contagious (by contact) magic. That is that the magic of the effigy works by being similar to the victim and often contains an item of clothing, nail pairings, hair etc. to further connect the effigy to the victim. Practices in this guise can be found across the world, for example the act of pushing nails through someone’s footprint to render them lame appears in both south-eastern Australia and in parts of Europe. Likewise, the act of inflicting ills on images and effigies has been practiced by many cultures including the Native Americans, the Congolese, Muslim Africa and India, and the Singhalese of Sri Lanka:

To injure a person a Singhalese sorcerer will procure a lock of his intended victim’s hair, a paring of his nails, or a thread of his garment. Then he fashions an image of him and thrusts nails made of five metals into the joints. All these he buries where the unfortunate man is likely to pass. No sooner has he done so than the victim falls ill with swelling or stiffness of joints, or burning sensations in the body, or disfigurements of the mouth, legs, and arms.

The Golden Bough

Egypt and Babylonia: the First Recorded Practices


The Egyptians cast their spells through the use of Heka. Heka was the force used in the divine creation of the world and was thus intrinsic to all things. Heka was neither good nor bad and its use was available to anyone who could correctly apply the right words, actions or writing. Thus prayers were a form of this magic and people carried magical amulets and written charms on pieces of parchment. Writing was considered a powerful way to utilise this force as so few people were literate. Heka was also powerfully employed as sympathetic magic.

The first record of a Voodoo doll style effigy was in ancient Egypt during the rule of the Pharaoh; Rameses III. Rameses ruled Egypt for 31 years from 1187-56BC. Rameses' rule started with an initial warlike period, fending off invasion attempts by coalitions of Libyan tribes and the Sea People but peaceful times followed. It was during these peaceful times that his court fell from grace.

luxury, intrigue, and superstition invaded the court, where the eunuchs and concubines exercised a pernicious influence. Magic was practised by some of the chief men in the State, and the belief was widely spread that it was possible by charms, incantations, and the use of waxen images, to bewitch men, or paralyse their limbs, or even to cause their deaths. Hags were to be found about the court as wicked as Canidia, who were willing to sell their skill in the black art to the highest bidder.

Ancient Egypt by Arthur Gilman and George Rawlinson

Eventually one of Rameses' secondary wives hatched a plot to place her own son onto the throne. She worked with a group of priests, courtesans and concubines to steal a book of destructive magic from the Royal Library. They used the book to cast spells, make potions and employ a waxen image as an aid. The conspirators were captured and executed but recent evidence suggests that Rameses may not have survived. An x-ray scan of the mummy reveals a deep knife wound across the throat.

Egyption effigy used as a binding spell.

The above image is of an effigy from the 3rd to 4th Century. There are thirteen pins placed in the sensuous and sensory parts. The effigy was placed in the clay pot with a lead scroll containing a 'binding spell', a kind of love spell, written in Greek. The spell invoked all the spirits of the dead and the gods of the underworld to bind a women (Ptolemais) to an infatuated man (Sarapommôn). It prevented her from eating, sleeping, having sex, or even leaving her house and to drag her by the hair to Sarapommôn whom she would fall in love with.


Few records concerning the Babylonian’s religion have survived, but their system of magical beliefs concerning witchcraft can be explained. They had a great many demons that were responsible for all the ire’s of man. They believed their demonic power flowed through the insane, the deformed and those of strange, marked appearance, whom were also in possession of a keen intellect. The ordinarily invisible demon manifested itself inside their bodies but was subject to their will. By virtue of having a similar appearance to the demon the deformed gained superiority over them. All the powers of the demon were thus theirs to command; they could ruin food and drink, seal mouths, cast the evil eye and speak the evil word. They were witches and sorcerers and were sought after for evil spells and incantations. The most powerful of those spells were those that fell under the term ‘sympathetic magic’ and included effigies of human beings. These effigies were usually made of soft materials such as clay, pitch, honey or fat. They would be burned or placed in meaningful places such as fountains, coffins and pits or hidden around doorways where the victim would pass through.

Wards were made against such sorcery in the form of amulets, charms and images of gods. Against the more powerful forms of demonic magic, the professional aid of priestly exorcists would be sought. The exorcist would consult a highly ordered collection of codified tablets which would direct to the most appropriate recipe for counter spells, potions and incantations. Generally the exorcist would perform the opposite of what he believed the witch had performed. Thus if the witch had created an effigy of the victim then the priest would make an image of the witch. This effigy would be burned with incantations and gifts to the gods.

To start such an incantation the victim would first recite his woes either as an appeal to the gods or as a curse against the witch;

They have used all kinds of charms
to entwine me as with ropes,
to catch me as in a cage,
to tie me as with cords,
to overpower me as in a net,
to twist me as with a sling,
to tear me as a fabric,
to fill me with dirty water as that which runs down a wall
to throw me down as a wall.

The priest would then follow with an incantation; utilizing his personal powers and control over evil spirits:

But I by command of Marduk, the lord of charms,
by Marduk, the master of bewitchment,
Both the male and female witch
as with ropes I will entwine,
as in a cage I will catch,
as with cords I will tie,
as in a net I will overpower,
as in a sling I will twist,
as a fabric I will tear,
with dirty water as from a wall I will fill,
as a wall throw them down.

Often the incantation would be read in a whisper and the accompanying actions performed on the effigy of the witch as they were read.

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