Voodoo Dolls v. Poppets

I want to mull this over some more, but dang, I love this post. It’s not directly about a subject near and dear to my heart, but it gets at it in a round-about way. It seems to me that there is a kind of American vernacular magic, a pool of magical knowledge you kind of pick up just by living in the culture. Mostly these are superstitions–don’t step on a crack, Friday the 13th is unlucky, don’t walk under a ladder, a dropped fork means company’s coming. But some of this vernacular magical knowledge is a little more sophisticated–you can make a deal with the devil at a crossroads, you can use a doll to curse people, etc.

Now, I want to call this American vernacular magic, because it’s shared by a lot of us (and is available, through our cultural memes, to be shared by almost all of us). Even if we don’t believe in it, we know of it. But, since we, in general, don’t consider ourselves to be a magical people, we don’t really know a whole lot about where these beliefs come from or why we have them or why they might be thought to work.

It’s like finding a bunch of stuff in a distant relative’s attic after she’s dead. You know it was important enough for her to keep, some of it may resonate with you, but you don’t know really what it means or where it came from.

Folk magic, I would say, is slightly different than that. It’s like going into that distant relative’s attic with her and having her explain things to you and show you how to use them.

You can see how there’s a lot of overlap between vernacular magic and folk magic, but also that there’s some important distinctions–the main being that you know folk magic comes from someplace and that there’s a lot to it, more than you might ever know.

And here’s where I think a lot of American white folks get into trouble–we aren’t aware that we have folk magics, that we have traditions–like making poppets or tying knots or burying witch bottles–so when we encounter vernacular magic, we ascribe it to non-white folks. Oh, it must be those voodoo practitioners who use dolls to curse! Not our people, not us.

And it’s complicated, of course, because American folk magic is like a large lake and currents in the lake bring different practices to different folk traditions. So, like, for instance, with voodoo dolls–those poppets clearly originated with European folk magic. And, yes, by now, I’m sure the use of voodoo dolls by voodoo practitioners in New Orleans is wide-spread. But not because they’re a part of the voodoo tradition, but because they’ve come in on a European current within American folk magic.

Or because American vernacular magic attributed magical dolls to voodoo and that got repeated enough that New Orleans-style voodoo practitioners took up doll-magic to see what the fuss was about and decided they liked it.

Or both.

Anyway, I think it’s useful to remember that, while religion and magic hold hands, they aren’t the same thing.

Plus, the more I think about it “vernacular” might not be the right word. But I don’t have a better one for it, yet. Ha. But I think it applies to voodoo as well. There’s a difference between Voodoo as a spiritual practice (in New Orleans or in Haiti or in other places) and “voodoo” in the vernacular magic realm, where it only resembles how real people practice in fun-house ways. (Which is not to say that there’s not leaking back and forth–that vernacular magic ideas become real practices and that real practices can become part of the vernacular magic imagination.)

But I’m not sure quite how I want to get at that space. Or what I want to call it. I just know that it’s there.

Haters Gonna Hate

I realize that, even though many cute things have been happening with the cats, that I have not said much about them because I am still bummed about the disappearance and probable death of the tiny cat, who had a real name, which I guess I can tell you now. Stella. Her name was Stella. And she was always weird as hell and spent much of her life with no butt hair and then one day she darted out the front door and she never came back. And it’s sad, but she had a good, full, weird life, so I really hope she’s having a good, full, weird death or is living out in the wilds of Davidson County with an old moonshiner. You just never know.

Anyway, yes, even the animals have pseudonyms.


So, the new kitty. Bless her heart, she has a real name, too–Pumpkin. But the Butcher still calls her new kitty and when I talk to her, because it is usually right after or during a time when she’s going all “squeak, squeak,” I’ve taken to calling her “Squeaky.” She’s a cat of many nicknames, but no real good name that suits her–though I think “Squeaky” does. But can you change a cat’s name mid-stream? Does it matter? I call the orange cat “Bobby” and the Butcher calls him “Buddy” and the nephews call him “Garfield” and he doesn’t seem to mind.

The new kitty will answer to anything, with a squeak.

But the thing that cracks me up about her is that she’s got two modes of locomotion–the mad scramble, which is as you’d think it is, with usually a thud as she slides into something at the end, and the “haters gonna hate” strut. I don’t know if it’s just because she has such stubby legs, so she has to kind of stick them way out in front of her before setting them down, just to make sure they still can reach the ground from the height of her body or what, but I have never known a cat to strut around like she does, as her primary means of locomotion.

I mean, most cats are kind of sneaky. They pour into a space like milk over your cereal. Or they pounce out of nowhere.

Not the squeaky kitty. She’s got to strut in like she’s the head of her own parade.

Ha, like she’s been watching the dog for pointers.