The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Many consider “Voodoo Dolls” to be the height of harmful magic. The Voodoo doll is envisioned as a figure crafted to resemble a specific human target. The target’s fingernail parings or strands of his hair may be imbedded in the doll to further personalize it. Pins are then plunged into the doll, according to this stereotype. The part of the target’s body corresponding to that part of the doll pierced by the pin is subject to sharp pains. A pin through the heart or throat might be fatal. This stereotype is unfortunate as it has served to demonize Voodoo and Vodoun, sophisticated magical and spiritual systems with relatively little to do with what might be better called image magic.
Image magic is an ancient practice, common to every corner of Earth.
The wizard or witch
Sits in the shade of the wall
Sits making spells against me
Fashioning images of me
That poem or charm may sound current but it was composed during the later Babylonian Empire and is featured amongst the Maklu or “Burning” Babylonian magical tablets. The Maklu consists of eight tablets giving directions for protective spells and incantations to be used against malevolent witches and wizards. The chant describes the harmful witch or wizard fashioning images for malicious purposes, but protective instructions also incorporate image magic, instructing the bewitched person to make figures of their enemies, and then to ritually destroy these figures accompanied by prayer and spiritual petition.
Image magic is among the most primordial magical arts. Various creation tales including the one in the Bible suggest that people were first created via image magic. In the Bible, God creates people from Earth. The Egyptians posited a similar scenario: Khnum the ramheaded god created the first people out of clay on his potter’s wheel. His wife, frog-goddess Heket breathed life into the forms he created.
A Chinese myth suggests that a female spirit created people also via image magic. Lonely Nu Kua the Dragon Goddess was playing alone on the beach with wet sand, when she started molding human figures to amuse her and keep her company. She crafted the first people this way, breathing life into them: eventually she grew tired and bored. When Nu Kua realized how much work it would be to fill the entire Earth with individual human beings, she invented sexual intercourse so people could reproduce independently.
Most people are only familiar with the sensational, harmful aspects of witchcraft such as malevolent killing spells. Image magic has traditional been used to cast malevolent spells but it is just as frequently used for beneficial magic, including healing, love, success, and fertility spells.
Figures may be crafted from clay, wax, cloth, wood, or bone—just about any material that exists. Photographs are now also incorporated into modern image spells; paintings and other visual images have been used in similar fashion for centuries.
It is unfair to ascribe harmful image magic to Voodoo or any other modern magical or spiritual tradition for that matter. The concept of causing harm by piercing an image of a specific target dates back at least to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Piercing was not always intended to cause harm, illness or physical pain. In Alexandria, wax figures were pierced with pins to induce the pangs of love. Pierced doll magic was incorporated into a less-than-romantic love spell. The image was personalized as the person the spellcaster wished to seduce. Pins were introduced into various parts of the image along with the appropriate incantation: as the pin pierces an eye, for instance, the spell-caster croons “You see only me” or “Your eyes burn with desire for me” or something similar. Ancient magic wasn’t shy and tends to be sexually graphic, and so the spell-caster would describe in detail exactly what effects those pins were expected to cause.
Image magic was used for all sorts of goals and purposes. An Egyptian story dates back to c.3830 BCE: a man suspects his wife of betraying him so he crafts a small, wax crocodile image. He chants spells over it and commands the crocodile to catch his wife’s lover. The wax crocodile comes to life and proceeds to capture (and punish) the lover. The guilty wife is punished by the king. The story views the magic spell as perfectly appropriate; the wax image is not an object of dread and horror but an avenue toward justice and truth.
According to legend at least, wax images are a favorite tool of those who conspire against royalty: in 968 CE, his enemies allegedly used a wax image to try to kill King Duffus of Scotland. The perpetrators were caught and identified as witches. The king survived the spell; those accused of witchcraft were burned. In 1479, allegedly one dozen Edinburgh witches participated in the burning of a wax image of Scotland’s King James III.
Although harmful image magic exists, many methods of causing magical harm exist. It is not the only one. In sub-Saharan African practices, from whence the roots of Vodoun derive, magical harm is more traditionally caused via direct application, not indirect image magic. Topical poisons or inserting foreign objects into the body are more common. In Africa, image magic is more closely identified with acquisition of fertility than with harmful spells.
Image magic might also be called Doll Magic. The word “doll” derives from the same roots as “idol.” The first dolls were crafted for spiritual and magical use as well as to entertain children. See TOOLS: Dolls.
Image magic for whatever reason is created by first crafting an image that resembles the target of the spell. Love spells involving a couple require two images, one to represent each person. A Chinese spell intended to stimulate family harmony and protection requires an image to represent each member of the family.
Candles, formed from wax, may be understood as the direct descendant or even just another branch of Image Magic.
The Scottish magical image is known in Gaelic as the Corp Creadh. Traditionally, a clay figure is formed in the image of the spell’s target, and then pierced with pins to cause pain. The piercing is not done haphazardly but deliberately; each pin is accompanied by a verbal curse. Similar images were formed in Ireland, too, but the figure was created from twisted sheaf of wheat.
Marie de Medici, widow of France’s King Henry IV, together with her friend Leonora Galigai Concini, was accused of trying to kill Marie’s son Louis XIII using a clay statuette baptized in his name and stabbed with a needle. Marie was exiled; Leonora was burned as a witch in July 1617.
Image magic was particularly feared in Christian Europe; it became exclusively identified in the popular imagination with negative, harmful practices. Because all magic was forbidden, it was impossible to discuss the various beneficial techniques to which image magic may be put—for instance distance healing or protection spells.
Although most images are small, the Golem is a dramatically large magical image, larger than life, so to speak. The golem may be the single most dramatic manifestation of image magic. A golem is an artificial man created from Earth and brought to life by various techniques, including mastery of names of power. In folklore, the golem often acts as a servant who eventually grows more powerful than its master and creator. It can’t be controlled so it must be destroyed. Legends of the Golem inspired Mary Shelley to write her novel Frankenstein.
Eliezer of Worms (now Wûrzburg) recorded a formula for creating a Golem:
1. Craft an image from virgin soil obtained from a mountainous place where no one has ever previously dug.
2. Chant the incantation comprising “the alphabets of the 221 gates” over every single organ individually.
3. Incise either the name of God on the image’s forehead or the Hebrew word EMET or “truth.”
4. The golem may be destroyed by erasing the first letter of EMET, creating the word MET or “death.” Conversely the entire creative combination may be reversed so that it becomes a destructive combination.
Golem is a Hebrew word indicating “formless” or “lifeless matter.” It also means an embryo, something not fully formed or complete. The Latin name for this concept is homunculus. Alchemists like Dr Faust were suspected of trying to create artificial people; herein lie the origins of the archetypal mad scientist and perhaps of modern cloning.
Solomon ibn Gabirol (c.1021—1058) allegedly created a rare female golem from wood. Rabbi Samuel, a twelfth-century French Kabalist, allegedly created a golem that was able to accompany him on his travels and serve him, but was unable to speak.
The most famous golem of all was the one created by Rabbi Judah Löwe ben Bezalel. Its remains are allegedly among the debris in the attic of the Prague synagogue the Altneuschule.