Are Voodoo Dolls Real?

Voodoo dolls with sea shells and nails in Togo, Africa
Voodoo dolls in Togo, Africa. Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Voodoo dolls spark fear and conjure up images of revenge, but is there really anything to them? Are Voodoo dolls real? The answer to that is quite complicated and it depends on how you look at the circumstances.

In general, the popular belief of Voodoo dolls being an instrument of vengeance that is poked and causes harm is false. Yet, there are doll figures used in the Vodou religion, albeit for a different purpose. There are also magical poppets used in some Pagan traditions which are followed to this day. 

The Myth About Voodoo Dolls

Popular culture depicts the Voodoo doll as a poppet bearing the resemblance of an enemy. The target is cursed with misfortune, pain, and even death via the thrusting of pins into the doll. Such items are not a part of traditional Vodou religious practices. However, some Vodouisants -- primarily in New Orleans -- have now adopted them, often for sale to tourists.

That said, the Vodou religion varies greatly and there is no standard dogma; Haitian Vodou is different from Vodou found around New Orleans, for example, and each practitioner learns different rituals. To speak generally about all Vodouisants is to do a disservice to this often misunderstood and complex faith.

The Twisted Story of the Voodoo Doll

If the Voodoo doll of popular culture doesn't exist, how did the story come about? This is a story of twisted fates and two belief systems that have been misunderstood for centuries.

The poppet has long been used by many cultures throughout the world for magical purposes. Quite often, these were for sympathetic or healing magic, but the symbolism is very easy for an outsider to misunderstand. 

Tales of poppets have existed in European witch folklore for centuries. Many followers of Pagan traditions continue to use them, though even in that spiritual tradition it's advised that they not be taken lightly.

In another part of the world, the people of West Africa used dolls called a fetish or bocio for rituals. These were often used to interact with the spirits. When these people were forced to the new world as slaves they brought their doll tradition with them. Some of the Africans then merged their traditional tribal religion with Roman Catholicism and the Vodou religion came to be.

Taking all of this history into account, one can see how Europeans came to fear the Voodoo doll. It's certainly possible that they knew very little about Vodou and commonly decried it as evil and Satanic. They may have merged rumors of Vodou with familiar witchcraft rumors from back home and created an unfounded fear.

The Vodou Pwen

All of this is not to say that you will never see a doll figure in the practice of the Vodou religion. There are items that Vodouisants use in rituals to communicate or invoke deities known as lwa or loa.

In Vodou, a pwen is an item filled with particular components that appeal to a particular lwa. They are meant to attract a lwa and gain its influences for a person or place. However, pwen come in a variety of forms, one of those happens to be dolls. To further complicate matters, Vodouisants say that a pwen doesn't even have to be a physical object.

A pwen doll can be anything from a crude poppet to an elaborate work of art. On the surface, these dolls could be called Voodoo dolls. As with all pwen, their purpose is not to enact harm but to invoke lwa for means of healing, guidance, or whatever need the Vodouisant has.