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Voodoo dolls are an often misunderstood tradition associated with the Voodoo religion and forms of Hoodoo magic. They are popularly portrayed as revenge items, used to cause pain to an enemy. Instead of stemming from the traditional Voodoo rituals as found in Haiti and nearby areas, the dolls originated in part from the New Orleans, Louisiana area in the early 20th century.
In fictional portrayals, a Voodoo doll is used to curse an enemy. According to popular fictional lore, wherever someone pokes the doll with a pin or needle, the focus object will feel pain or have an illness. For the most part, these portrayals are misconstrued or completely invented.
Many cultures use dolls as a focusing point for spells and blessings, but the use of revenge dolls did not come from Voodoo. Medieval European folk magic involved the use of poppets, effigies of specific people, that were used to place curses. Some Western African religious practices also used similar devices called nkisi. It's possible that the misconceptions about the origin of the dolls comes from the Haitian Voodoo practice of nailing puppets to trees in graveyards. Rather than being used as a curse, however, these dolls were meant to be messengers to the spirit world, to contact dead loved ones.
The doll is not used in Voodoo practices in Haiti, but rather as part of the complicated melting pot of traditions in New Orleans and the Louisiana delta areas. The Louisiana Voodoo practices combine the spiritual elements of the Haitian religion with the magical beliefs of Southern United States hoodoo. In the first decades of the 20th century, Voodoo dolls are believed to have been used to cause sympathetic magic on the desired recipient, sometimes in painful ways. The use of pins was not meant to cause pain in a particular area of the real person, but rather to reinforce the spell being cast.
Modern dolls are still sold as focal points for spells, but usually with the intention of creating positive effects. Many have specific concentration points for wealth, love and financial success. To use the doll, a person must call upon the powers of the Loa, spiritual beings somewhat similar to saints in Catholic practices. Spells cast are meant to be spells of love or blessings, rather than revenge or pain.
Voodoo dolls are often sold as gag gifts and novelty items. Boyfriend/girlfriend dolls, boss dolls, and even Osama Bin Laden dolls are meant as harmless joke gifts rather than spell-casting items. Even virtual ones are available to enact revenge by computer. These items are meant to be amusing and often succeed, but they undeniably promote misconceptions about Voodoo practices that are offensive to some.
Traditional dolls are available for purchase from Louisiana-based websites and stores. Many of these claim to be blessed by local Voodoo priests, and are made from traditional materials. Some kits include instructions for correct blessings and rituals to enact good health, wealth, or success in ventures.