Dolls have been a popular toy for many years. They have also been an item of collection. Plastic or porcelain faces, whether beloved by a child or sitting in a pristine hutch, they look at us with their never ending expressions.
Many cultures have different types of dolls… dolls that were never intended to be used as playthings. They have been used to represent coming of age, as an offering for the hope of fertility, and in some cases… used to absorb the energy of someone and create magic.
Perhaps the oldest doll (or doll fragment) found to date is part of an alabaster doll from the Babylonian period. There are also wooden dolls that have been found in ancient Egyptian graves that date back to 3,000 BC. These dolls were actually intended for religious or ritual use, often depicting the gods and goddesses of their worship.
In Ancient Greece, dolls for girls were often made at the time of their upcoming marriage. The doll was then offered to Artemis, the goddess of fertility. It was believed that the doll represented the girl, therefore in essence, she was offering herself as a vessel for childbearing. If a woman died before marrying, the doll was buried alongside her. There were also dolls that had religious symbols on them representing the deities of their worship called “daidala”.
Africa also has a history of using dolls as religious symbols and coming of age ceremonies. The dolls were often adorned with beautiful, intricate beadwork and passed down from mother to daughter (or daughter-in-law) throughout generations. The designs and shapes are unique to each tribe and often represented religious deities and rituals. The Ndebele, located in Zimbabwe would craft dolls to represent different stages of womanhood. Dolls wearing an apron meant that the girl who owned it was able to be married. When they would ready themselves for marriage, part of the custom was to have a doll to care for as if it were an actual child. Whatever name the doll was given, the firstborn child was also given that name.
While dolls were often intended for young girls, the actual use for them being strictly a toy came about in 15th century Europe. Even so, dolls were still used in more meaningful and traditional ways in many areas of the world. In Russia for example, the Matryoshka dolls were created in the later nineteenth century. These wooden dolls which would stack inside each other, representing the mother with her family. They are also known as “nesting dolls”. They were brightly painted and considered treasured family heirlooms.
The nations of people indigenous to the United States often made dolls out of corn husks. They were used as children’s playthings, however they also had ritual uses as well. The Iroquois believed that making a doll after a particularly bad dream, then giving it back to the earth would take the evil of the dream away. Another Iroquois legend speaks of the dolls having no face. This legend tells about the corn being one of the Three Sisters, and the “little people” being her creation. She was said to have made one in particular very beautiful. When this creation saw a reflection of herself in a pool of water, she became vain of her looks. The Great Spirit punished her by decreeing that none of them should have any face at all.
Dolls and Magic
People that were deemed “pagan” by other religion’s leaders have had ritual magic uses for dolls that date back centuries. It is believed that a doll made from items that a person owns or bits of their hair can be absorbed by that person’s energy. These dolls are called “poppets”. In magic, it is believed that anything put forth will come back times three, so a poppet used to create something negative for a person increases the negative energy to the one making it. They can be made from any material, and are often filled with stones, herbs, anything that represents the energy that is being created. Haitian voodoo rites often involve the making of these dolls, and believe wholeheartedly in their ability to connect with the person they represent.
Robert the Doll
With their never-ending gazes and fixed expressions, dolls can look quite chilling… and there are some that are reputedly haunted. One of the most famous of these is Robert the Doll. Robert was given to a boy named Eugene Otto in 1896, according to legend, by his caregiver who was said to have been a woman who practiced magic. It is also said that this woman became angry with the family and placed a curse on Robert. The family then said that Eugene began acting strangely, appearing to have actual conversations with Robert.
The doll was packed away in the attic when Eugene became older, and when he died in the 1970’s the house was sold to another family. They had a daughter, and when they discovered Robert tucked away in the attic, they gave it to her to play with. She then started having episodes of screaming fits at night saying that Robert was moving around the room and frightening her. The girl, who is now an adult, maintains that the doll was “haunted”. Today, Robert is on display in the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida.
Whether it is simply their never-ending stare… or if maybe the legends and uses of the original intent of dolls carried over into how they are seen today… stories of dolls that are haunted are everywhere. There is Annabelle, the famous haunted Raggedy Ann doll that was believed to be possessed by something evil and, like Robert, is locked away in a museum case. Even the beloved Barbie doll is in on the action with one in Pulau Ubin in Singapore that is revered as the spirit of a long dead German girl. She was, according to legend, tragically killed falling off a cliff escaping the British Army that had captured her parents. A temple was built to pacify her spirit, and the Barbie was placed there some years later.
Whether we enjoy them, collect them… or even fear them a little bit… the fascinating history of dolls encompasses so much more than a treasured toy. They have represented many things since their inception, and will continue to enthrall many of us for years to come.
Written by Angela Sangster, Copyright 2010 BestOfAllTopics.com