Image Magic

Image magic is based on the idea that if an image made of a person is harmed or destroyed, then that person physically feels the injuries done to the image because of the physical sympathy existing between the person and his or her image. The custom of sticking pins into a person’s effigy in order to harm him is by no means only linked with voodoo and not confined to the Indies. In the 1950s, it was still common practice in scattered backwoods of the United States to stab doll-figures with pins and other sharp objects to harm the person whose likeness was reflected in the doll. 

This form of magic was known in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Greece, amongst the Romans, and in many other countries throughout the world from ancient to modern times. The practice is referred to in the Old Testament: ‘... for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, to slay souls.’1  This relates to the making of a figurine, representing one’s enemy, out of dough and repeatedly stabbing it, thereby in effect killing the represented person. Whereas crafting the statue of a person from wood or stone required skill, making one from dough was easy and cheap. 

The ancient Egyptians revealed their belief in this type of magic by placing many little figures made of stone, pottery, or wood, called ushebtiu, in the tombs of their dead. These figurines were representations believed to provide the dead with servants, attendants, and combatants in the hereafter.

Curiously, during the Middle Ages, image magic was frequently used as a method of attempted murder. European history is filled with many failed political assassinations of this kind, and although this seems absurd to us today, they were criminal by intent, as the objective was to deprive the victim of his or her life. For example, Caroline of Brunswick (1764–1821), unhappy and neglected wife of the prince regent,2 apparently spent her lonely evenings making waxen images of her husband. She would stick these with pins and then slowly melt them over the fire, hoping to rid herself of the man.3 Similarly, in 1591, Richard Batte, a surgeon from Burton-on-Trent, was accused in a court of law of using the same technique to try to murder his mother-in-law. 

In England and Italy it was still customary during the last century to stick a pig’s heart full of pins and thorns. This object was then hidden in someone’s house, either for protection or for harm. It was believed that the inflicted shrivelled pig’s heart caused suffering and eventual death to a targeted victim’s heart. In Europe, such pig hearts were hidden in chimneys and house walls and have often been found in old homes during renovations or when the houses were demolished to make way for modern buildings. 

It is interesting to note that the same parallel is found on the Australian continent. The Yolngu Aborigines of Arnhem Land drew their opponent’s image on a certain type of tree and then rubbed poison on this image to kill or poison the opponent. Alternately, the opponent’s image could be drawn on a so-called poison tree, a tree that should not generally be touched or its fruit eaten. The enemy’s likeness placed on the tree was then thought to cause bone disease in the person targeted.4   The belief in image magic persists in a notion still found in many Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries that it is dangerous to have one’s photo taken, believing that if harm came to the photograph, this could physically affect the person in the picture.


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