American Hoodoo, Appalachian Magic, & Folk Magic
In American Hoodoo and folk magic, the use of poppets as a magical tool became popular following the Civil War. There is some dispute as to whether the dolls are used at all in Haiti, which is the home of Vodoun religion, and a few sources disagree on whether the use of poppets is truly a Vodoun practice or not. However, the Voodoo Museum of New Orleans does stock a variety of dolls in their gift shop.
Many of today’s modern witchcraft traditions are rooted in the folk magic customs of days gone by. In America’s Appalachian mountain region, there’s a long and storied tradition of magic that today is referred to as granny magic, or granny witchcraft. Passed down from one generation to the next, women of the hills used a combination of religious texts, traditional herbal medicine, and down-home remedies to treat their neighbors for a variety of complaints. Poppets were often a way of connecting the family and passing on practices within the family.
The history of Appalachia itself is the history of the granny witchcraft tradition; although the name is relatively new, the customs go back a long time. A combination of folk magic, faith healing, and superstitions, granny magic was often the only source of aid for people in remote, isolated regions.
As European settlers arrived in the colonies during the 18th century, they brought with them the traditional folk magic and healing modalities of their home countries. Primarily women, these healers used the concepts they’d learned in Scotland, England, and Ireland. Once they settled in, they met their Native American neighbors, who taught them about the plants, roots, and leaves indigenous to the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, and beyond. They also blended their practice with German immigrants, who arrived in Pennsylvania and began migrating south and west. Soon, they began incorporating the knowledge brought to the mountains by people of African descent, escaping slavery in the South.
Traditional granny magic included a lot of different practices. Dowsing, the practice of looking for water with a forked stick or a length of copper, was a valuable skill to have if you or your neighbors needed to dig a new well. Practitioners often tended to the needs of women; they worked as midwives and assisted in the birth of new babies—but could also be counted upon to provide herbal remedies if a young woman didn’t want to become pregnant. In areas that rarely had access to professional medical care, the granny witch worked as a healer, crafting poultices and salves and teas with curative properties. Divination could be done in the remains of tea or coffee grounds in the bottom of a cup.
In 1908, John C. Campbell went to Appalachia to conduct a study of living conditions in the mountains. The result was a book called The Southern Highlander and His Homeland. According to Campbell,
[O]ne may become a grandmother young in the mountains—if she has survived the labor and tribulation of her younger days, has gained a freedom and a place of irresponsible authority in the home hardly rivaled by the men of the family… In sickness she is the first to be consulted, for she is generally something of an herb doctor, and her advice is sought by the young people of half the countryside in all things from a love affair to putting a new web in the loom.
Because of the religious environment of the Appalachian region, in which nearly everyone was staunchly Protestant, most of the people practicing what we today call granny magic would have disagreed that what they were doing was witchcraft. In fact, many charms and spells included invocations of psalms, prayers, and verses from the Bible. Which often leaves many today conflicted by practices of new generations. Keep in mind that not all who practice Appalachian Magic are religious.
Folk Magic and Healing Remedies
Many of the granny magic traditions of the mountains share some common ground with the folk magic found in other parts of the world. Depending on what part of Appalachia someone lives in, and the traditions that have been handed down from one generation to another, a practitioner of granny magic might follow a variety of practices.
Beth Ward writes in The Long Tradition of Folk Healing Among Southern Appalachian Women,
These women knew that catnip tea or red alder tea kept infants from getting hives. They prescribed stewed down calamus root to help soothe colic. They put sulfur in the soles of shoes to help ease flu symptoms. And if someone came to them with a bad burn, they knew that blowing smoke and chanting the right words could talk the fire out.
In addition to magical traditions, many of the granny women of the past served as healers and midwives. The granny woman would arrive at the home of a mother in labor with a bag of herbs, roots, and leaves. She would use these to help the mother safely deliver a child, and then might recite a verse from the Bible or a protective charm to keep both mother and baby healthy, especially in a time of high infant and perinatal mortality.
Because mountain dwellers were often nowhere near a doctor’s office, and the cost of professional medical treatment was prohibitive, it often fell to the local women to provide healthcare for their neighbors, setting broken bones, treating fevers, and caring for the terminally ill.
Regardless of how you make your poppet — out of cloth, a chunk of meat, or a glob of wax, remember that poppets have a long tradition behind them, and that tradition is influenced by the magical practices of a wide range of cultures. Treat your poppets well, and they will do the same for you!
Make Your Own Poppet
A poppet can be as simple or as elaborate as you like — it all depends on how much time and effort you want to put into it. You can construct one out of just about any material — cloth, clay, wood, wax. Use your imagination! In some magical traditions, it’s believed that the more work you put into it, and the more complex it is, the stronger your link will be to your goal. Because a poppet is a device for sympathetic magic, all of its components will be symbols of what it is you hope to achieve.
You can do your poppet-making as part of the working itself, or it can be made ahead of time so you can use the poppet later on. Which method you choose is really up to you.
Remember, your poppet represents a person, so figure out before you begin who it symbolizes. Is it you? A friend who’s asked you for help? An un-named lover you want to bring into your life? A gossip you want to shut up? The possibilities are endless, but just like in any spell working, you’ll need to set a goal before you begin. It keeps you from having to deal with “do-overs” later. These instructions are for a basic poppet construction, using fabric. Feel free to modify your design as you need to.
Selecting Your Fabric
There are no real rules when it comes to choosing your material, but it’s not a bad idea to select fabric based on your goal. If you’re doing a money spell, use a piece of green or gold cloth. If you’re looking at healing, perhaps something in a soft blue or silver would be best. Check out fabric stores around the holidays, and you can find all kinds of neat patterns.
Valentine’s Day designs are perfect for matters of the heart, and there are plenty of prints with dollar signs, coins, stars and moons, and other fun designs.
Another option is to use fabric that links the poppet to the person it represents. Doing a healing spell for a friend? Ask the person for an old t-shirt. If you’re trying to draw love into your life, consider using a scrap from that sexy lingerie you wore last night. If you just can’t find the right material, use a plain muslin or white felt. Here are a few ideas for designs and colors for poppet magic.
- Animals: Brown or green fabrics, patterns with cats or dogs, anything pet-related
- Banishing: Black fabric, designs such as swords or wands, dragons or fire
- Creativity: Orange or yellow fabric, prints of suns or other fire symbols
- Healing: Silver, white or blue, with designs of clouds or other air symbols
- Love: Pink or red material, designs like hearts, roses or other flowers, Cupids
- Money: Silver, gold or green fabric, or designs of dollar bills or coins, cups or earthy symbols
- Protection: Red or white material, with patterns of shields, keys or locks, fences, mistletoe
When it comes to types of fabric, use what’s easiest for you to work with. Cotton prints are easy to sew, but if you’ve never used a needle and thread before, you might want to try something stiffer like felt — it comes in every color you can imagine, and will hold its shape as you sew. If you’re an experienced sewer, use anything you like.
A poppet represents a person, so ideally it should look (sort of) like a person. Give it a head, two arms, two legs, a torso. You can make your own outline or you can use the ultimate poppet pattern — a gingerbread man. If you’re doing a spell for an animal — such as a healing spell for a sick pet — make the poppet shape accordingly. Your poppet doesn’t have to be huge, but it should be big enough that you can stuff it with your ingredients later.
Take two pieces of your fabric, and place them right side together on a flat surface. Place the pattern on top, pin it in place, and cut it out. Leave a little room around the edges for a seam allowance — usually a 3/8″ margin is good. Remove the pattern, and there are your two poppet shapes. Time to start sewing!
If you’ve never sewn anything by hand before, don’t panic. It’s not hard, but it does require some patience. You could always use a sewing machine if you’re pressed for time, but most experienced poppet-makers agree that it’s worth the effort to do it by hand. Pin the two pieces of material with the right sides together, and stitch around the edges. Leave an opening somewhere, wide enough to stick a couple of fingers in. Turn the poppet inside out, and begin stuffing.
Personalize Your Poppet
Fill your poppet with something soft, like polyfill or cotton balls. Old pantyhose work nicely too. Work the stuffing all the way into the nooks and crannies of the arms and legs, and then fill the torso and head.
This is where you’ll place your spell components — herbs, stones, whatever. In some magical traditions, something from the person represented goes inside the poppet. This is alternately referred to as a taglock or a magical link — it can be bits of hair, nail clippings, body fluids, a business card, or even a photograph. Once everything is inside, sew the poppet completely shut.
The more you can customize your poppet, the better. Even if you’ve placed a magical link, or taglock, inside, you’ll want to decorate the outside too. Draw or paint or sew a face onto your doll. Add yard or string for hair. Dress your poppet in something that looks like the person’s clothing. Copy any tattoos, scars, or distinguishing features onto the poppet as well. Add magical or astrological symbols if you like. While you’re doing this, tell the poppet who it represents. You can say something along the lines of, “I have made you, and you are Jane Jones.”
Your poppet can be used for any number of things—love, money, protection, healing, to get a job. Anything you can imagine, you can make a poppet to bring it about. Simply figure out your goal and the means to achieve it. The only limits on poppet construction are your own creativity and imagination.
6 Easy Poppet Projects
Not sure what sort of poppets to create, or how you can use them in a practical application? Try one of these six easy ideas for making and using your own poppets.
1. To Get a Job You’ve Applied For
- Material: satin, green or gold or silver
- Herbs: clover, chamomile, ginger, cinnamon
- Gemstones: snowflake obsidian or sodalite
Create a poppet to represent yourself. As you make it, focus on the positive attributes that you possess which will make you appealing to a potential employer. Another option is to create the poppet in the image of the employer (include business cards or letterhead inside, if you can get them) and tell the employer poppet why you’re the best person for the job.
2. To Protect Your Family
- Material: Modeling clay, straw, cloth [ whatever material you feel works best for you]
- Herbs: Basil, patchouli, coffee
- Gemstones: Hematite, amethyst, black onyx.
Create poppets that represent each member of the family, blending herbs and stones into the clay. Put them in a safe place in your home, such as near your hearth, and utilize magical shielding or cast a circle of protection around them. This is actually a fun project you can get your kids involved in as well — let them each make their own poppet person!
3. To Heal a Sick Person
- Material: White cotton or unbleached muslin
- Herbs: Lemon balm, feverfew, ivy, and pine.
- Gemstones: Bloodstone, turquoise
When you make this poppet, be sure to indicate what you are trying to heal, whether it’s a case of tennis elbow, a chronic infection, or even a broken heart. Focus all of your energy on the ailment in question.
4. To Bring Love Into Your Life
- Material: Red or pink silk or cotton
- Herbs: Rose petals, parsley, and peppermint
- Gemstones: Barite, jade, rose quartz
Make a poppet to represent the object of your affection — remember that in some magical traditions it is frowned upon to make a specific person the target of your working. If you are simply trying to attract love to yourself, but you don’t have a specific person in mind, focus on all the desirable qualities you want to see in a potential lover.
5. Silencing a Gossip
- Material: Ground beef or other squishy meat
- Herbs: Horseradish, pepper, rue, yarrow, valerian
Shape the meat and herbs into a person, and create a “meat puppet” in the same way you’d make a fabric one. As you make the doll, tell it that it’s time to be silent, and tell no more gossipy stories. Remind it that people who can’t say nice things shouldn’t say anything at all. Dispose of the doll by either burning it on your grill and burying it someplace far away, feeding it to your dog, or leaving it out in the sun to rot.
6. Emergency Poppet on the Fly
- Material: Aluminum foil
Perhaps something has come up in a hurry, and you feel it needs immediate magical attention. Use a piece of aluminum foil to whip together a quickie poppet — shape it into the figure of a person. Fill with any magical components that might be handy — bits of wood, dirt, grass, even a name scribbled on a piece of paper — and personalize the poppet.
Need additional poppetry ideas? Try making a magical gingerbread poppet, or put together a portable poppets kit to keep in your magical arsenal!