Sympathetic Magic: Principles, Applications, and Controversies


All sympathetic magic is based upon two principles: first, «likes produce likes,» or that an effect resembles it cause; and, second, that things having been in contact with each other continue to react upon one and another at a distant even after they have been severed or disconnected. The former principle is called the Law of Similarity, while the latter is the Law of Contagion or Contact.

From these principles the magician makes inferences. From the Law of Similarity the magician infers that he can produce any effect that he desires just by imitating it. And, from the Law of Contact, the magician infers that whatever he does to a material object will equally effect the person who once had contact with or possessed the object.

This is the reason that when performing the spell the practitioner may have in her or his possession something personal of the person, such as a lock of hair, nail clippings, a piece of clothing, or a photograph, for whom the spell is being cast for.

In order for the above principles to form, or cause, sympathetic magic there also must exist a cause-and-effect relationship; if not, the magician’s inferences would never function. Simply, something must transfer the effect of the magician’s actions on the physical object to the person who once was in contact with the object.

This thing or substance, for a better term, is believed to be a secret sympathy that exist between the object and person. This secret sympathy is an impulse being transmitted from one thing to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether, not unlike that which is postulated by modern science for a precisely similar purpose, namely, to explain how things can physically affect each other through a space which appears to be empty.


Many who give examples of sympathetic magic usually present it in a sinister light. One example of this treatment is the witch’s ladder. In the past 40 knots were tied tightly in a cord with a concentration of fierce hatred against the victim. Then the cord was hidden so the intended person could not find it because the only way to break the spell was to untie the knots. Supposedly the knots strangled the life out of the person until he died.

Writers when describing these subjects, if they are not objective, seldom if ever describe any good things which are believed by some to occur from these practices. If one is objective one has to wonder if the tying of knots in a cord is always done for evil purposes. There are woodcuts showing witches in the Middle ages selling knotted cords to sailors. It was believed the witches had tied the winds into the knots of the cords. When the sailors got out to sea and there was no wind to move their ship, they would untie a knot causing the wind to rise and their ships to move. Some said, one knot for a light breeze, two for a strong wind, and three for a gale. Here the witches gave sailors opportunities to move their ships. How the sailors used the opportunities was up to them. Untying three knots might not only start a gale but wreck the ship too.

On frequently hears the phrase burned in effigy, which means to let it be known publicly that a person is hated and his enemies want to destroy him. The history of this spectacle reaches back for thousands of years. Occurrences of it were found in ancient India, Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Occurrences still happen in countries throughout the world. The theory behind the idea of burning in effigy is pure sympathetic magic: just as the image suffers, so does the man. When the image is burned, so the man that it represents must die.

The following are two examples of this: There was an Ojebway Indian custom that when a person wished to kill his enemy he would make a little wooden image of the enemy, then he would burn or bury the puppet. As he did so he uttered certain magic words causing the enemy to die. Peruvian Indians molded images of fat mixed with grains to imitate the persons whom they disliked or feared, and then burned the effigy on a road where the person was to pass. They called this the burning of his soul.

Puppet healing, or magic, is another use of sympathetic magic. It might be said to be the reverse of burning in effigy. Instead of desiring to kill or injure the person whom the puppet represents the practitioner wishes to help him. The theory is whatever degree of healing the practitioner performs on the puppet, the same degree of healing is believed to occur in the person which the puppet represents. So it can be seen that those who subscribe to and practice puppet healing do believe that sympathetic magic can produce positive affects. Also, it is believed that it is the intention of the practitioner which determine whether the results of the sympathetic magic are good or evil.

Positive affects arising from sympathetic magic are also believed to occur in color healing. Color healing can also be applied when the patient is absent by utilizing a photograph of the person. It is also referred to as distant color healing

In summary, sympathetic magic is the belief that what a magician does to a physical object that belonged to a person, or to a representation of the person will similarly effect that person. Many claim that there is no validation for sympathetic magic, the results which seem to occur from its use can be explained by other things. No doubt, in some incidents, this is true. However, with sympathetic magic, as with all magic, the most objective answer seems to be, if people believe in it then it is true for them. Sympathetic magic seems not to be limited just to the occult sciences; one sees individuals praying the Catholic rosary for sick people just as one sees Witches using their cords to heal the sick. Each individual is practicing an act of belief. A.G.H.

Sources: 4470.