Sympathetic magic

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Across a wide range of cultures some common themes recur, among them sympathetic magic. It attempts to use a symbol of some notable event to cause the full power of that event to manifest itself, most notably as seen in cargo cults. Classic examples of cargo cults, although they had been observed much earlier, played out in Melanesia during the Second World War: natives would see desirable "cargo" come out of an airplane, or, perhaps in a more modest fashion, cold beer from a refrigerator. They would subsequently construct wooden replicas of airplanes or refrigerators, hoping that, with the right invocation, they would then open their own door and find the same precious cargo.

Where the goal of the cargo cult is to invoke and create, another aspect of sympathetic magic is to protect and control. In a healing rite from Jewish mysticism, a person who wanted bleeding to stop would sit under a drain, as others poured water over him, all saying a formula that predicted that as the water flow stopped, so would the blood-flow cease.[1]

"Like cures like", the "Law of similars", and related maxims are common in anthropological literature.

IF we analyse 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... Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic. Charms based on the Law of Contact or Contagion may be called Contagious Magic. To denote the first of these branches of magic the term Homoeopathic is perhaps preferable, for the alternative term Imitative or Mimetic suggests, if it does not imply, a conscious agent who imitates, thereby limiting the scope of magic too narrowly.[2]

In his 1571 work, Phytognomica, Giovanni Battista Porta suggested that, due to the principle like cures like, a root resembling the human hand would be curative of pains in the hand.[3] The idea appeared throughout early medical history, and the principle of similars forms the basis of the healing art of homeopathy. As Samuel Hahnemann wrote,

we can perceive nothing but the morbid symptoms, it must ... be the symptoms alone by which the disease demands and points to the remedy suited to relieve it — and, moreover, the totality of these its symptoms, of this outwardly reflected picture of the internal essence of the disease, that is, of the affection of the vital force, must be the principal, or the sole means, whereby the disease can make known what remedy it requires [4]

According to this premise, the homeopathic remedy must invoke the symptoms to propitiate that which produces the undesired symptoms. In fairness to Hahnemann, when he made these observations early in the 18th century, the external symptoms were the only information available to the physician (or, in modern medical usage, symptoms and signs). Today, however, there is a bit more information on the etiology of disease, just as Solomon Airlines' Boeing 737 flies export cargoes of Melanesian seafood to the diners of Australia and New Zealand.[5]

Sympathetic magic has powerful cultural significance, and has been the base for an immense body of legend, lore and literature. In Richard Wagner's Parsifal, with the touch of the magic spear of the evil Klingsor, Parsifal healed the endlessly bleeding wound of Amfortas, King of the Knights of the Grail: "Only one weapon can heal the hurt, the weapon that caused it."[6]


  1. Bloomfield, Maureen (2007), Jewish Mysticism and Magic: An Anthropological Perspective, Routledge
  2. Frazer, James George, Chapter III: Sympathetic Magic; 1. The Principles of Magic, The Golden Bough: A study of magic and religion, Project Gutenberg
  3. Hodgen, Margaret Trabue (1964), Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 392
  4. Hahnemann, Samuel, Organon der Heilkunst, §7
  5. Pacific Island Travel, Airlines flying to and in the Pacific
  6. Metropolitan Opera, Using Parsifal to Teach Music, Motivation/Discussion Exercises: Use of leitmotifs: What does a kiss really mean? (The turning point of the drama)