Lilinah's Introduction to Magic
Focus on the Near and Middle East

Chapter 8:
**** Poppet Magic ****


Throughout the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean, small doll-like figures were used in magical processes. To drive away harmful magic, little dolls representing the source might be destroyed. To work magic on another person, a small crude figure representing them could be made, with some action performed on it, which might include being bound with cords or lead strips and being pierced with metal pins or nails. Other types of figures were worn or kept by the person for whom the magic was performed. Many served for protection. Often they were placed in doorways and on window ledges. Some would be kept hidden or buried.

The figurines constructed for magical purposes could be dealt with in a number of ways. In some cases, they were buried, burnt, smashed or otherwise destroyed. Sometimes they represented sacrificial offerings to spirit helpers. Other times they might represent spirit harmers, whose destruction during the course of the ritual would serve to banish or curse.


Among the Egyptians, use of figures for magic was common. The most common material was wax because it could be easily modeled into whatever shape was desired, but figures could be made of stone, wood, or clay, as well. Among the oldest are those known as the execrations figures used in official governmental magic ritual, at the end of which the figures were broken, then buried. Each is a kneeling human form of clay, the torso flattened to provide an area on which a text was written. In this case they represented enemy states and the text indicates what will be done to them.

Another surviving magical figurine for personal work was made of two sticks tied together to form a cross. This framework was then padded with coarse cloth to give the general shape of a person, and then it was covered with three small tunics of three different kinds of cloth tied on the figure. The purpose of the three different cloths is unknown, but there was probably some magical reason.

At times, spells were to be recited over images of the deities. One example is a set of figures of the eight primordial deities who were in the waters of chaos, then words were written on the hands of the images with yellow pigment and Nubian ochre. This was to be washed off the figures early in the morning.

Common among the goods found in graves are small figures of deities or symbols associated with deities, such as scarab, ankh, djed, etc. Some of these were worn in life to promote a relationship between the person and the deity, they might enhance a person's vitality, or offer protection. In other cases these figures were exclusively buried with the dead for similar purposes.


The Mesopotamians used many different kinds of figurines in magic. One common material was clay. Clay figurines were painted with colored gypsum (plaster). These might be set up in doors and windows for protection or buried during the course of rituals. Still others were made of dough, wax, or tallow, to be burned on hot coals. In the Maqlu ritual, further steps are taken and the remains are doused with cold water, then the sodden ashes were tossed outside the gates of the home or estate to send bad magic back to its maker. Finally, magical figures might be made of an edible substance, perhaps suet or dough, and fed to the packs of domesticated dogs which might roam the city streets at night.


The Greeks and Hellenes were also great users of magical figures. These were usually formed of easily acquired malleable substances such as clay, dough, and wax. Lead was also commonly used. During the magical ritual, the figures might be written on, bound with cords or lead strips, or have nails stuck into them, but some were unmarked in any way.

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