In October I was contacted by Roy Carter who’d found a small wooden figure, about an inch and a half long, when he’d renovated a Tudor Cottage in Burwash, East Sussex. Although not sure of its exact location, Roy thought that it may have come from above a beam or within a wall, making it a possible concealed object – of a variety that is quite well known.
Such figures are known as ‘poppets’ and they can be made from a variety of materials: wood, clay, cloth, straw, wax, etc. They’re sometimes found having been secreted away within houses, but for purposes that remain unknown to us. Some theories are given by Simpson & Roud in their ‘Dictionary of English Folklore’and by M. Chris Manning in her doctoral thesis ‘Homemade Magic’, and I’ll just outline them briefly here:
Some poppets were likely used in maleficium (harmful magic): the poppet represents a person, and through the process of sympathetic magic, as the poppet is ‘tortured’ (by burning, pricking with pins, etc.) the person is tortured too. But if there’s no evidence of the poppet having been ‘tortured’ in some way then other theories seem likelier. Did they represent domestic spirits? Were they concealed for luck or protection? Were they a child’s contribution to larger caches of concealed deposits? Were they a form of foundation sacrifice? A small stone figurine, held at the Museum of Manchester was found in the cellar floor of a Conservative Club in Hollingworth, Greater Manchester (picture below, courtesy of Manchester Museum, and a future blog post to follow) which was possibly concealed as a foundation sacrifice.
What’s particularly interesting about Roy’s figure is its size (only an inch and a half long) and its appearance. It has two small holes in its back: perhaps it originally hung on a thread, and its small size suggests that it could have been worn as a charm. It also appears to have breasts and, when flat on its back, looks like a pregnant woman – was it associated with fertility magic, worn and concealed by a woman wanting to get pregnant and/or bear healthy children? There’s a rather uncanny foetus-like terracotta poppet held at the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft (follow link here), found bricked-up in a wall in a house in Okehampton, Devon, which may have been concealed for similar purposes.
Of course these are all just theories, and I’m eager to hear what other people think about this small wooden figurine. So if anyone has any ideas, or has come across a similar find, please do get in touch!