Altar dolls, also called Spirit Dolls, are just the vessel for an entity that is a guardian, or a companion, or a teacher in a Witch’s growth. Actually more than one entity can live in a spirit doll, but that is rare. To be an active spiritual tool/helper/master, it has to be “awakened” by a ritual; that is, inviting a spirit to enter the doll and inhabit it. Please notice that I have said inviting instead of summoning; I really find the word summoning out of my practice, because I think it includes an element of forcing spirits to come at our will, and I really don’t want that. If you want a friend to come and visit, you don’t bring him/her home dragging it by his/her hair.
The inviting ritual includes, of course, offerings – nothing like the promise of good food, drinks and sweets to attract a spirit! I also burn incense and candles and a permanent place at the altar is offered for the spirit doll to inhabit.
Having a working spirit doll is a complete responsibility – very similar to adopting a pet. It changes your habits and make you readjust them to take care of them. In Santeria there is a very simple principle: the more you give them, the more powerful they are to help you and protect you. But don’t think it is a matter of how much you give, but of how much you love what you give to them. It doesn’t matter if you buy a hundred candles for your deity, if that means no sacrifice to you – and personal sacrifice is not only the way to honor your deities, but also is the only tool for losing your superficial ego and sense of property.
So, this doll will have to be fed regularly and her demands should always be taken into consideration. This is not obeying blindly: when my Spirit Doll asks for an offering, I answer “Ok, help me get the money to buy it!”. Along the next 48 hours, I will get ten times the money I need – and of course I keep the change! Needless to say, if I didn’t buy that candle BEFORE wasting or saving the rest of the money, I can be sure to be tightening my belt for a couple of weeks! When you make a pact to the Spirits, be it important or completely ordinary, you have to keep your promises.
Something that I’ve found very productive to use with spirits dolls is offering your time. When I want something special from my Spiritual Guides (that is, the usual Witch-whining about the super-expensive-and-unexpected-bill-that-just-arrived), I sit and embroider/paint/craft something for them, or make a thorough cleaning to the altar, or cook some food for them. I think that this is not only a wonderful way to reinforce the trust you have in your deities, but also a big relief from mental stress. Doing something that has such a meditative quality as embroidering or gardening has a soothing effect on me, helps me alleviate my worrying, and thus stops blocking the coming of wealth with my negative energy.
Spirit dolls do not necessarily live with you forever – the spirit may consider that you have learned the lesson he/she wanted to give you and will make you see that he/she wants to leave. Two things may happen: that the spirit, still inside the doll, wants to passed on to a new student, or that the spirit will simply leave and then the doll is again just a doll that you can keep or not.
Just a note about those “haunted items” that are sold online, allegedly with a spiritual inhabitant: I don’t think selling them with the spirit inside is a good idea. To me would be like selling slaves. Spirits are free and I do not own them, as I am free and they do not own me.