Construction and Use of Ancient Greek Poppets

© 1996, Apollonius Sophistes

I. General

This essay addresses the use and construction of ancient Greek poppets (ritual effigies, “voodoo dolls”); it is based primarily on “Binding and Burying the Forces of Evil,” by Christopher Faraone, which is cited in full at the end of this essay. In ancient Greek such a ritual image was usually called a Kolossos (kaw-lawss-SAUCE), a word of uncertain origin, which can refer to an effigy of any kind. The Greek use of these effigies dates from at least the fourth century BCE and is similar to their use throughout the Mediterranean, although of course there are regional differences. One distinguishing characteristic of the Greek use of Kolossoi (kaw-lawss-SOY) is that it is primarily defensive; it is generally aimed at containing a hostile force, rather than destroying it.

II. Purpose

The general purpose of Kolossoi is to bind some Subject, but the binding can be applied to various kinds of beings for various purposes. First, bindings may be applied to deities, which cannot be destroyed, but may be restrained (although even this “restraint” must be understood as a ritual action provided by the God as a specific means by which Their energy is bound in a particular way). Sometimes Kolossoi are used to restrain a dangerous deity, who may cause harm or is believed to be favoring your enemies. Thus Ares, as God of slaughter and death on battlefield, may be bound to bring safety in battle, or to decrease the probability of war.

Protective deities also may be bound to restrain Them from leaving. Thus the Athenians had their “wingless Victory” — wingless to keep Her from leaving the city. This may also be the sense in Pandora’s paradoxical trapping of Hope in the jar after she has released all the evils in the world; we will see that Kolossoi are often bound in jars or pots. Ares is sometimes bound in this way as a protector, and, in the absence of an inscription, it may be difficult to tell whether He is being bound as a hostile or a friendly force. Perhaps He may be bound in both aspects at the same time: constrained to stay here to protect us and prevented from going to the enemy's side. We also have Kolossoi depicting Hephaistos, for He is a God of both binding and unbinding (recall the story of how He trapped Ares and Aphrodite in bed). (See 14.Diabolos in the Pythagorean Tarot for more on Hephaistos as God of Binding and Unbinding.)

Second, Kolossoi can also be used to restrain ghosts and other Hikesioi Apaktoi (hostile visitants). Again, they cannot be killed (since they are already dead), but they can be bound. For ghosts especially, the binding ceremony may follow funerary customs, and so help to ensure that the ghost is properly laid and departs for the Land of the Dead.

Third, Kolossoi are used to restrain mortal enemies. Such might either be a Goês (Sorcerer), who has sent an Eidôlon or Phasma (Phantom) against someone, or it might be a mundane enemy (e.g. in a lawsuit). In cases where the antagonist is unknown, a pair of Kolossoi, one male and one female, are used. Where there are a number of enemies (e.g. a family or an army), three Kolossoi are typically used, on the principal of pars pro toto (a part for the whole). Finally, Kolossoi might be used to bind the partners of an oath.

In passing, we may mention Erotic Kolossoi, which are generally intended to bind someone in love, to constrain them to be faithful, or to restrain a rival. They are large topic, and will not be discussed further in this essay, although most of the same principles apply to their construction and use (see Winkler 1991).

One important defensive use of Kolossoi is the protection of boundaries, for which purpose they may be buried in a wall or at a fence-line or other boundary. Kolossoi are used for both public and private defense. I have already indicated how they might be used to protect a temple or other building; the public might also use them to ward off an invading enemy. Private use would typically be to protect an individuals and their families.

In some cases, where permanent protection is required, the Kolossos is regularly rebound. An example of this is the yearly binding of Ares for the protection of the city of Syedra; He is unbound once a year during a period of general license analogous to the Saturnalia. (This may be symbolized in the story in Book 5 of the Iliad, where Ares is bound in a cauldron for thirteen lunar months.) Other deities regularly bound for the protection of the state include Artemis, Dionysos, Hera, and Athena.

In other cases the Kolossos is constructed and consecrated for a particular crisis. It is bound and buried once (as described later) but, especially if it was successful, may receive a regular (e.g. monthly or yearly) sacrifice thereafter.

III. Construction

I will turn now to the construction of Kolossoi. They may be made of metal (e.g. bronze, wood, silver or lead; the latter being the most common metal), wood, clay, wax or similar malleable materials. The image is not normally realistic, since it does not depend on similarity of appearance to become connected with its Subject; that is accomplished by other means (described below). Typically the figure is nude, and often there is exaggeration of the genitals, feet or other parts; this accords with the general principle of using shocking or obscene images to ward off the evil eye and other dangers (e.g., the sign of the fig and phallic amulets).

Generally some parts of the figure are twisted backward, to indicate the incapacitation of the Subject. Often the head is twisted backward, or at least extremely far to the left, to cause confusion. It is also common for the feet to be backward, and sometimes the arms or the entire torso. (So Hephaistos is sometimes shown with His feet backward.) In some cases the Kolossos is made with these parts backward, but usually they are made normally and then twisted around.

The figure is often pierced with nails or needles (13 is a popular number), typically made of iron or bronze, though animal fangs and other materials may be used. Each nail or needle transfixes some part of the body representing a faculty, which it thereby paralyzes, but without destroying it. For example, nails through the eyes, ears and mouth paralyze cognitive faculties, while one through the heart might restrain will, and nails through the limbs cause paralysis or loss of strength.

The Kolossos may be further mutilated to restrain the enemy; for example the head may be hacked off and buried separately from the body (to prevent them being rejoined), or the effigy may be burned, melted, crushed, trampled under foot, etc. (These aggressive measures are not normally used for laying ghosts; instead the Kolossos is given funeral rites. A ghost is normally called by name for three days or thrice in one day to summon it home for burial.)

link to image of Kolossos Hellenistic Kolossos from Delos

In addition to being transfixed, the figure is normally bound. For example, the arms may be bound (usually behind the back), the legs may be bound, and sometimes the arms are bound to the legs. There may be a collar around the neck, or a binding around the mouth (which could hold a nail or peg in it). Sometimes the Kolossos is bound to another object, such as an erotic amulet.

A number of materials may be used for binding, including lead bands, bronze wires, nails and iron chains (for large Kolossoi). The figure may even bind itself, for example with the right hand over its mouth (perhaps holding in a nail) and the left over its anus.

The Kolossos is identified with its Subject by either incantation or inscription, most often by both. The Subject (deity, ghost, person) is mentioned by name if its name is known, often including a patronymic or mentioning the Subject's mother, e.g., “NN whom NN bore” (“NN” stands for a name). The Subject’s name is usually inscribed on the left side of the Kolossos, most often on the hip, leg or arm; the name may also be written in red ink. The name is often accompanied with a binding formula (described below).

The Kolossos also may be identified with its Subject by embedding in it Ousia (Substances): stuff connected with the Subject, for example, a bit of hair, fingernail parings or a bit of clothing, might be embedded in the navel of a wax figure. Finally, a wax or clay Kolossos might be molded around a papyrus containing a spell mentioning the Subject’s name.

The Kolossoi are really of a kind with the Defixiones or Katadesmoi (so-called “Cursing Tablets”), since a Kolossos may be made nearly flat to better accommodate names and spells. Thus we may have Kolossoi in the form of lead tablets or sheets bearing inscriptions, perhaps with inscribed pictures of the Subject(s) bound by hostile spirits. Such lead sheets, or equivalent papyri, can be folded or rolled, and are often pierced with a nail (hence, defixio from defigo, to fix down) to achieve the binding.

IV. Katadesmoi (Binding Formulas)

In addition to an identification of the Kolossos with its Subject, there is often some formula of binding (Katadesmos, kah-TAH-dess-maws), which may be inscribed on the Kolossos, spoken above it, or both; it may take several forms of greater of less elaborateness. Inscriptions may be written backwards, to increase the Subject’s confusion. The spoken spell is usually accompanied by ritual actions, such as the mutilation, piercing or binding of the figure; further, the Defigens (Binder) may touch the ground while invoking chthonic deities, or raise his or her hands to celestial deities.

In the simplest case, the Defigens simply declares,

I hereby bind NN!
Alternately, the binding may be expressed as a wish:
May NN be defeated!

Let NN be restrained!
The spell may take the form of a prayer to some deities to restrain the subject; often the Subject is handed over or committed to the deity (as though being put under arrest) — a wise thing to do, since then responsibility for the binding resides with the Gods. Although any God or Goddess might be petitioned, it is particularly appropriate to appeal to Hermes Katokhos (Restrainer) in the consecration. Other deities called on for binding are Hermes Khthonios, Gê, Hecate (Khthonia) and Persephone. For example,
O Hermes Katokhos, restrain NN!

I commit NN to the Gods,
to Gê, Hecate and Persephone!

I bind NN, born of NN,
in Your presence, Hermes Katokhos.
May s/he be restrained
in hand and foot and body!
Finally, by the magical principal of Similia Similibus (Similars for Similars), the incantation may call for the Subject to be bound analogically by the binding of the effigy. For example, a simple binding is:
I hereby bind NN in leaden bonds!
Analogies may be invoked with the material of the Kolossos or its disposition:
As this lead is cold and powerless,
also cold and powerless is NN,
cold in knowledge, thinking, memory!

His soul, his mind, his tongue, his plans:
let all these things be twisted round!
For a Kolossos buried in a graveyard:
As the dead are powerless and still,
just so powerless and still will NN be,
his feet and hands and body!
Here is a typical formula for binding the partners of an oath:
Just as this image melts and flows away,
Let he who breaks this promise likewise melt,
And perish all his seed and property!
This is a typical formula for boundary protection:
As long as savage Ares lies within the ground,
So long in this our land will foemen not be found!
The power of the spell is increased by the use of repetition and meter; also, multiple deities may be invoked and more of Their epithets or offices listed.

V. Disposition

link to image of Kolossoi in their containersKolossoi in their containers (from a grave in Ceramicus)

Sometimes the Kolossos is ritually destroyed, but for binding the more common disposition involves confinement and burial. First the Kolossos is usually confined tightly in a lead box with a tight cover, or wrapped in a sheet of lead, or placed in a copper of bronze cauldron or box. (Lead, of course, is the supreme symbol of fixation.) Often the container is inscribed, on the inside or the outside, with names, spells, bands, and/or bound figures. These may also be written and drawn on papyrus, which is then used to wrap the Kolossos. In some cases the Kolossos in its container is placed in a clay pot, to further constrain it. Finally, you must dispose of the Kolossos and its container(s). They may be thrown into deep water, such as a well or the ocean, or more commonly buried, for example, in a graveyard, a sanctuary or uncultivated land; both earth and water are paths to the chthonic deities. Such disposition also makes it less likely that the Subject will find the Kolossos and thereby loose the binding (see next).

VI. Unbinding (Eklusis)

It will be worthwhile to say a few words about removing bindings (eklusis, EK-loo-sis, release). In general only the Defigens or the Gods he or she invoked are capable of dissolving the bonds. The best option for the Subject is to pray and sacrifice to the Gods, either to Those who have bound him or her, or, if They are not known, to all deities. The binding is also released if either the Defigens or Subject can find the Kolossos and systematically unbind it (i.e., remove bands and nails, turn the head and limbs around the right way).


  1. Faraone, Christopher A., “Binding and Burying the Forces of Evil: The Defensive Use of ‘Voodoo Dolls’ in Ancient Greece,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Oct. 1991), pp. 165-205, with 7 figs. & 13 pls.
  2. Faraone, Christopher A., “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells,” in Christopher A. Faraone & Dirk Obbink (eds.), Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 3-32.
  3. Ogden, Daniel, Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, esp. ch. 12.
  4. Opsopaus, John, Guide to the Pythagorean Tarot, St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2001.  See also the online version,
  5. Strubbe, J. H. M., “‘Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones’,” in Christopher A. Faraone & Dirk Obbink (eds.), Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 33-59.
  6. Winkler, John J., “The Constraints of Eros,” in Christopher A. Faraone & Dirk Obbink (eds.), Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 214-43.

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