Sympathetic magic

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Hepatica acutiloba
As performed by
Tim the Enchanter

By the powers of woo
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Sympathetic magic is a specific magical belief that similar objects affect each other. (This concept is often phrased as "like affects like," as in homeopathy.) Anthropologically speaking, this is apparently one of the most common and most primitive forms of magical belief, found in communities and cultures all over the world.


An easily understandable example of sympathetic magic is the Haitian tradition of the voodoo doll, more properly known as a "poppet" or "puppet". The magician (termed houngan, in this case) will prepare an image of the target and will do various things to the image, in the hopes/belief that this will cause similar things to happen to the image (for example, "causing pain" to the voodoo doll, for example, by sticking pins into it, should cause equivalent pain to the target. However, while this is the most commonly known form due to popular culture, most sympathetic magic in voodoo is directed toward healing, not harm). Although most often associated with Haitian voodoo cults, this form of magic has been documented all over the world. In The Golden Bough,[1] Frazier suggests that:

For thousands of years ago it was known to the sorcerers of ancient India, Babylon, and Egypt, as well as of Greece and Rome, and at this day it is still resorted to by cunning and malignant savages in Australia, Africa, and Scotland. Thus the North American Indians, we are told, believe that by drawing the figure of a person in sand, ashes, or clay, or by considering any object as his body, and then pricking it with a sharp stick or doing it any other injury, they inflict a corresponding injury on the person represented. For example, when an Ojebway Indian desires to work evil on any one, he makes a little wooden image of his enemy and runs a needle into its head or heart, or he shoots an arrow into it, believing that wherever the needle pierces or the arrow strikes the image, his foe will the same instant be seized with a sharp pain in the corresponding part of his body; but if he intends to kill the person outright, he burns or buries the puppet, uttering certain magic words as he does so. The Peruvian Indians molded images of fat mixed with grain to imitate the persons whom they disliked or feared, and then burned the effigy on the road where the intended victim was to pass. This they called "burning his soul."

Similarly, drawing pictures of desired events may be believed to cause those events to come about. Such an explanation has been suggested for the many cave paintings that depict successful hunts.

Other usages[edit]

In alternative medicine, sympathetic magic is often presented under the guise of the doctrine of signatures, the idea that everything is "marked" in some way with a signature or guide to its intended use. For example, a plant with an arrow-shaped leaf might be a good treatment for arrow wounds. No, really. Plants with yellow sap would be jaundice treatments, and plants and animals with long lives could be used to extend human life. More formally, the plant Hepatica acutiloba (liverwort) has leaves that look somewhat like a human liver, and is therefore believed by some herbalists to have a beneficial effect on liver complaints. Sympathetic magic is also used in traditional Chinese medicine, e.g., the fruit of birthwort (Aristolochica kaempferi) resembles the human lung and has been used for pulmonary diseases.[2] As a side note, these sorts of things might be expected if the natural world were the creation of a divine intelligence, and the fact that this sort of thing rarely works is consistent with a world where life has developed instead through natural selection.

A variant of sympathetic magic is the demands made by certain prosperity gospel televangelists, such as Kenneth Copeland and the appropriately named Creflo Dollar, that their followers should send in “seed” (i.e. money) which will then “grow” and/or “attract” (more) money/success to or result in supernatural healing of the follower. These appeals also involve magical thinking, as the “seed” is supposed to be an indication or physical manifestation of the follower’s belief and it is this belief that will ultimately lead to the granting of divine favour.

Scientific investigation has produced no support for the idea that sympathetic magic applies to the natural world. Nevertheless, the tendency to believe in sympathetic magic has been used to good effect in artificial environments. The Graphical User Interface (GUI), in which a user manipulates a symbolic representation of an underlying structure, resulting in changes to that structure, can be considered a form of artificial sympathetic magic. Few people understand computer software, and even fewer also understand computer hardware, so the workings of a computer might as well be considered magical. Under Clarke's Third Law, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Even seasoned professionals use the term "fancy magic" to describe mysterious aspects of a system, although another word with the same first letter is usually substituted for "fancy". As most ancient and isolated peoples have expressed, the forces of magic can be capricious, arbitrary, mendacious, and cruel. People who use modern software also find this true.

External links[edit]


  1. The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion by James George Frazer (1890) Macmillan and Co.
  2. Chinese Materia Medica. 1. Vegetable Kingdom by G. A. Stuart (1911). Presbyterian Mission Press, revised from F. Porter Smith.