Sympathetic Magic

Sympathetic magic, also known as ‘imitative magic,’ is a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence.

It has been said that the theory of sympathetic magic was first popularized in 1889 by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer in ‘The Golden Bough’ (a comparative study of mythology and religion); German geographer and ethnographer Richard Andree, however, anticipates Frazer, writing of ‘Sympathie-Zauber’ in his 1878 ‘Ethnographische Parallelen und Vergleiche’ (‘Ethnographic Parallels and Comparisons). Frazer further subcategorized sympathetic magic into two varieties: that relying on similarity, and that relying on contact or ‘contagion.’

‘If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. The former allows a magician to produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it, and the latter informs him that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.

Imitation involves using effigies, fetishes or poppets to affect the environment of people, or occasionally people themselves. Voodoo dolls are an example of fetishes used in this way.

In theology, ‘correspondence’ is based on the idea that one can influence something based on its relationship or resemblance to another thing. Many popular beliefs regarding properties of plants, fruits and vegetables have evolved in the folk-medicine of different societies owing to sympathetic magic. This include beliefs that certain herbs with yellow sap can cure jaundice, that walnuts could strengthen the brain because of the nuts’ resemblance to brain, that red beet-juice is good for the blood, that phallic-shaped roots will cure male impotence, etc.’

Many traditional societies believed that an effect on one object can cause an analogous effect on another object, without an apparent causal link between the two objects. For instance, many folktales feature a villain whose ‘life’ exists in another object, and who can only be killed if that other object is destroyed (e.g. Sauron’s One Ring in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, and the Russian folktale of ‘Koschei the Deathless’). Koschei cannot be killed by conventional means targeting his body. His soul (or death) is hidden separate from his body inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest (sometimes the chest is crystal and/or gold), which is buried under a green oak tree, which is on the island of Buyan in the ocean. Romanian-American historian of religion and novelist¬†Mircea Eliade wrote that in Uganda, a barren woman is thought to cause a barren garden, and her husband can seek a divorce on purely economic grounds.

Theories of sympathetic magic have been applied to Paleolithic cave paintings such as those in North Africa and at Lascaux in France. These theories suppose that the paintings were made by Cro-Magnon shamans. The shamans would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves. This goes some way towards explaining the remoteness of some of the paintings (which often occur in deep or small caves) and the variety of subject matter (from prey animals to predators and human handprints). In his book ‘Primitive Mythology,’ American mythologist Joseph Campbell stated that the paintings, ‘…were associated with the magic of the hunt.’ For him, this sympathetic magic was akin to a participation mystique (the instinctive human tie to symbolic fantasy emanations), where the paintings, drawn in a sanctuary of ‘timeless principle,’ were acted upon by rite.

In 1933, German Ethnology Leo Frobenius, discussing cave paintings in North Africa, pointed out that many of the paintings did not seem to be mere depictions of animals and people. To him, it seemed as if they were acting out a hunt before it began, perhaps as a dedication to the animal to be killed. In this way, the pictures served to secure a successful hunt. While others interpreted the cave images as depictions of hunting accidents or of ceremonies, Frobenius believed it was much more likely that ‘…what was undertaken [in the paintings] was a consecration of the animal affected not through any real confrontation of man and beast but by a depiction of a concept of the mind.’ (However, as with all prehistory, it is impossible to be certain due to the relative lack of material evidence and the many pitfalls associated with trying to understand the prehistoric mindset with a modern mind.)

Several studies have found that even today humans maintain a belief that ‘certain properties are contagious, either in a good or a bad way,’ in a manner similar to sympathetic magic, such that even a replica of a celebrity’s guitar may become a fetish.

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