Poppets: A very sympathetic tradition

The word poppet is an older spelling of puppet, from the Middle English popet, which comes from the Latin “pup(p)a,” meaning a doll or small child.  A poppet is a small doll figure in the shape of a human (although there are some examples of animal poppets), commonly used to represent the recipient of focus of a spell.  They are also known as fith fath (celtic: from fith- shapeshifting and fath – words used for invocation), poppits, mommits, mommets or pippies, and can be made from a variety of materials such as cloth, carved root, corn or potato, wax, clay or branches.

poppets made from corn husks

In general the principal to use is that of sympathetic magic – the effects enacted upon the poppet are reproduced on a larger scale on the physical intended target.

The tradition is more widespread than Europe: in the days of ancient Egypt, the enemies of Ramses III (who were numerous, and included some of his harem women and at least one high-ranking official) used wax images of the Pharaoh, to bring about his death.

It wasn’t uncommon for the Greeks to use sympathetic magic in workings related to love or war. Christopher Faraone, Professor of Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Chicago, understands that Greek poppets called Kolossoi were sometimes used to restrain a ghost or even a dangerous deity, or to bind two lovers together. In Idyll 2, The Witch (Pharmakeutria),  the tragedian Theocritus refers to melting and burning wax dolls.

West African slaves brought with them a doll called a fetish (as in imbuing an object with religious or mystical qualities) when they came to the American colonies. In this case, the doll is not so much representative of an individual, but is in fact possessed by spirits connected to the doll’s owner. A fetish contains significant power and is typically worn or carried by its owner as a talisman. During America’s Colonial period, slave owners were allowed to kill any slave found with a fetish in his possession.

African fetish dolls

During the witch hysteria of the 17th century, at the infamous trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, Old Mother Demdike confessed and described the quickest way to murder someone by witchcraft as: “…to make a Picture of clay, like unto the shape of the person whom they mean to kill, and dry it thoroughly: and when they would have them to be ill in any one place more than another; then take a Thorn or a Pin, and prick it in that part of the body to consume away, then take that part of the Picture, and burn it. And when they would have the whole body to consume away, then take the remnant of said Picture and burn it: and so thereupon by that means, the body shall die.”

Elaborate beaded poppet

Another type of poppet is the ‘handkerchief doll‘, also known as a pew doll, or church doll.  This consisted of a handkerchief with three knots to form a head and two arms, which could be given to restless children in church to play with and thus not disrupt the worship.  The added advantage of this was that it would not make noise if dropped.

In some traditions, the more elaborate the poppet, the stronger the connection to your intended target, some hold that each piece, or colour of the poppet you create is representative of something you want to include in your working.  A simple figure can be sewn out of felt, but the stuffing may be symbolic objects.  A poppet commonly represents a person, which could be yourself, a friend or an unnamed representation of the love you want to ask into your life.  In magical traditions something from the person that the poppet represents placed inside the head or torso of the poppet will create the strongest link.  This can traditionally be a lock of hair or nail clippings, but can also be expanded in the modern age to include a business card, name written on paper or a small photograph.  These personal connections are also known as ‘taglocks’

Scandinavian Kitchen Witch

In Scandinavia, a poppet may be used as a Kitchen, or Cottage Witch – a figurine which is placed in the kitchen,   representing a ‘good spirit’ which watches over the cooking of food, inspires productivity and creates safety in the home.  Typically the Scandinavian kitchen witch is depicted as an older woman, commonly with a ‘troll nose’, although modern works tends to depict her as looking younger and friendlier!  Although this is widely known in Norway (although there is some dispute as to whether the practice is German in origin), the use in modern England has waned, though may have been known in Tudor times.  The will of John Crudgington, of Newton, Worfield, Shropshire, dated 1599, who divides his belongings up amongst his wife and three children, “except the cubbard in the halle the witche in the kytchyn which I gyve and bequeathe to Roger my sonne.”

You may already know something about the folk-practice of making corn dollies, in which the last of the harvest was made into a symbolic home for the spirit of the corn to reside in over winter, until it was plowed back into the earth in Spring.   Fraser’s The Golden Bough recounts many similar traditions of sympathetic magic connected with harvest and fertility.  “In some parts of Holstein the last sheaf is dressed in women’s clothes and called the Corn-mother. It is carried home on the last wagon, and then thoroughly drenched with water.” (The Golden Bough, chapter 45)


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