Spellcraft: Level Two

Sympathetic Magick

Magick has Roots in Herbal Medicine

The doctrine of signatures, dating from the time of Dioscorides and Galen, states that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. A theological justification, as stated by botanists such as William Coles, was that God would have wanted to show men what plants would be useful for.

The concept of signatures is reflected in the common names of some plants whose shapes and colors reminded herbalists of the parts of the body where they were thought to do good, as for instance:

• Eyebright, used for eye infections

• Liverwort, either Marchantiophyta or Hepatica – used to treat the liver

• Lungwort – used for pulmonary infections

Concepts similar to the doctrine of signatures may be found in folk or indigenous medicines, and in modern alternative medicines. Links are given that rate the effectiveness of each herb above using modern standards.

This theory is today considered to be pseudoscience, and has led to many deaths and severe illnesses. For instance birthwort (so-called because of its resemblance to the uterus), once used widely for pregnancies, is carcinogenic and very damaging to the kidneys. As a defense against predation, many plants contain toxic chemicals the action of which is not immediately apparent, or easily tied to the plant rather than other factors.

The signatures are described as having value only in creating a system for remembering actions attributed to medical herbs. There is no scientific evidence that plant shapes and colors help in the discovery of medical uses of plants.

Another explanation is that the human mind, in trying to find patterns to explain phenomena, while lacking adequate scientific knowledge, resorts to anthropomorphism.

While the doctrine of signatures got it almost entirely wrong, the essence of this theory can be quite useful in the context of a magickal practice as it has expanded into a more comprehensive theory of magick. We call this Sympathetic Magick.

Sympathetic Magick is also known as Imitative Magick, and is based on imitation or correspondence.


Imitation involves using effigies, fetishes or poppets to affect the environment of people, or occasionally people themselves. Poppets are an example of fetishes used in this way. Such as using a lock of hair on the doll creating a "link" known as a "taglock" between the doll and the person the hair came from so whatever happens to the doll will also happen on the person.


Correspondence is based on the idea that one can influence something based on its relationship or resemblance to another thing. As explored above in the doctrine of signatures, 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 a similar or corresponding 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, as in the Russian folktale of Koschei the Deathless. (Other familiar examples include Sauron's ring in The Lord of the Rings, and the horcruxes in the Harry Potter). Today we often call an object like this a 'spirit jar' or 'spirit trap'.

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.

Many societies have been documented as believing that, instead of requiring an image of an individual, influence can be exerted using something that they have touched or used.

Consequently, the inhabitants of Tanna, Vanuatu in the 1970s were cautious when throwing away food or losing a fingernail, as they believed these small scraps of personal items could be used to cast a spell causing fevers. Similarly, an 18th-century compendium of Russian folk magick describes how someone could be influenced through sprinkling cursed salt on a path frequently used by the victim, while a 15th-century crown princess of Joseon Korea is recorded as having cut her husband's lovers' shoes into pieces and burnt them.

James George Frazer coined the term "sympathetic magic" in The Golden Bough (1889); Richard Andree, however, anticipated Frazer, writing of sympathy-enchantment (German: Sympathie-Zauber) in his 1878 Ethnographische Parallelen und Vergleiche.

Frazer subcategorized sympathetic magick into two varieties: that relying on similarity, and that relying on contact or "contagion":

• Law of Similarity

• Law of Contact or Contagion

Law of Similarity

Like produces like, aka an effect resembles its cause

This principle of magick infers that you can produce any effect you desire merely by imitating it.

For instance, whatever happens to an image of someone will also happen to them. This is the basis for use of poppet dolls in various folk traditions around the world. If someone sticks a pin into the stomach of the doll, the person of whom it is a likeness will be expected to experience a simultaneous pain in his or her stomach.


In many modern magickal traditions we use 'correspondences'. A correspondence for a magickal practitioner is a connection between a non-magickal item and a magickal concept.

Common examples of magickal correspondences include using Sage for wisdom, Rose Quartz (pink) for love, or a red candle for passion.

This was even the case as far back as prehistoric times according to some theories. It's believed that cave art may represent the earliest documented examples of sympathetic magic. If, for instance, a tribe’s shaman wanted to ensure a successful hunt, he might paint images of the hunting group killing an animal that could later be consumed by the whole tribe.

Graham Collier of Psychology Today writes that there is a psychological force at play when it comes to a belief in magick, and in the efficacy of sympathetic workings in art and ritual. He says,

"Essentially, the term ‘ sympathy’ signifies the urge and ability to enter into another person’s or creature’s mental state—be it that of your best friend’s or of your dog’s—and feel both an affinity with, and a compassion for, the state of their existence… If we go back to what we previously thought were the earliest man-made prehistoric images created in the cave complexes of Altamira in Spain, and Lascaux in France—say 20,000 to 15,000 B.C.—the paintings of animals discovered there displayed an acuity of visual perception, a drawing skill, and expression of ‘feeling’ for the animal, that can certainly be described as ‘Sympathetic’... And one of the world’s most distinguished anthropologists, Henri Breuil, added the word ‘Magic’ in describing them, denoting the archetypal belief held by many so-called ‘primitive’ societies, that to possess the image of an animal (so vital for the hunter’s own survival), ensures a degree of human control over the animal’s destiny when it comes to the hunt. In addition, pre-hunt rituals involving the image were intended to assure the animal spirit ‘that it would not be hunted without mercy."

In other words, the human consciousness causes us to believe in magick based on the connection of an image to the thing or person that it represents.

Another set of views to consider...

The doctrine of analogy and correspondence, present in all esoteric schools of thinking, upholds that the Whole is One and that its different levels (realms, worlds) are equivalent systems, whose parts are in strict correspondence. So much so that a part in a realm symbolically reflects and interacts with the corresponding part in another realm.

For instance, the Sun in the mineral realm is the counterpart of the Lion in the animal realm. The relation between A and B is similar to the relation between C and D. The microcosm and macrocosm are analogous, that is, equivalent, similar in their structures, even though they are outwardly dissimilar. The parts are in strict correspondence, closely knit together and closely interacting : thus feet/Pisces = veins/ rivers. According to Robert Fludd (Utriusque Cosmic Historia, II), "Man is a whole world of its own, called microcosm for it displays a miniature pattern of all the parts of the universe. Thus the head is related to the Empyreal, the chest to the ethereal heaven and the belly to the elementary substance."

Keepin' It Real

Sympathetic magick is not your usual flowery explosive flashing lights and poofs of flame magick. It's a way of looking at the world and the world looking back. It can feel primal, intrinsic, and right, like you found something you lost but forgot you ever had, something familiar and ancient you feel connected to.

The foundation of sympathetic magick may depend also on whether you believe in it. If you can truly believe that two unconnected things are in fact one and the same, they will act as if they are, influencing each other no matter the distance between them. Of course, the more similar they are, the greater that influence will be.

Using sympathetic magick, you can create a connection between any two things together such that when one is affected, the other will be as well.


Now, unlike what you might read in fantasy novels, you can't take this practice and, for instance, bind one coin to another, physically pick up one of the coins with your hand and find - as a result of the coins being bound together via sympathetic magick- that the other coin is lifted into the air without anyone touching it.

That's not how real magick works.

That's not how any of this works.

Folk Magick

Folk Magick is a valuable resource for any Witch. Understanding how or why beliefs, practices and traditions came about or were used by ancient people and cultures helps us tap into those origins and gives us insight into our own magick.

It's easy to look at these stories and see them as silly, humorous or even ignorant. Yes, much folklore and tradition is primitive by modern standards. We are certainly not obliged to do everything our Ancestors did or believe everything they believed. But we can still learn from them when we read about their history, and we can use that to strengthen our ties to them as well as our own magick. If we know where our practices and beliefs came from and how they evolved, we can step forward in our Power with Knowledge and Wisdom rather than ignorance and folly.


Folk Stories & Historic Examples of Imitative Magick


Perhaps the most familiar application of the principle that like produces like is the attempt which has been made by many peoples in many ages to injure or destroy an enemy by injuring or destroying an image of him, in the belief that, just as the image suffers, so does the man, and that when it perishes, he must die.

A few instances out of many may be given to prove at once the wide diffusion of the practice over the world and its remarkable persistence through the ages. 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 folk 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 Ojibway 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 magick 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.

In one kind of Malay charm, which resembles the Ojibway practice still more closely, is to make a corpse of wax from an empty bees’ comb and of the length of a footstep; then pierce the eye of the image, and your enemy is blind; pierce the stomach, and he is sick; pierce the head, and his head aches; pierce the breast, and his breast will suffer. If you would kill him outright, transfix the image from the head downwards; enshroud it as you would a corpse; pray over it as if you were praying over the dead; then bury it in the middle of a path where your victim will be sure to step over it. According to this same folklore, in order that his blood may not be on your head, you would say:

“It is not I who am burying him,

It is Gabriel who is burying him.”

Thus, it is supposed that the guilt of the murder will be laid on the shoulders of the archangel Gabriel, who is a great deal better able to bear it than you are.


If imitative magick, working by means of images, has commonly been practiced for the spiteful purpose of putting obnoxious people out of the world, it has also, though far more rarely, been employed with the benevolent intention of helping others into it. One example of beneficial practice is it has been used to facilitate childbirth and to procure offspring for barren women.

Among the Bataks of Sumatra, a barren woman who would become a mother will make a wooden image of a child and hold it in her lap, believing that this will lead to the fulfilment of her wish.

In the Babar Archipelago, when a woman desires to have a child, she invites a man who is himself the father of a large family to pray on her behalf to Upulero, the spirit of the sun. A doll is made of red cotton, which the woman clasps in her arms, as if she would suckle it.

Then the father of many children takes a fowl and holds it by the legs to the woman’s head, saying, “O Upulero, make use of the fowl; let fall, let descend a child, I beseech you, I entreat you, let a child fall and descend into my hands and on my lap.” Then he asks the woman, “Has the child come?” and she answers, “Yes, it is sucking already.” After that the man holds the fowl on the husband’s head, and mumbles some form of words.

Lastly, the bird is killed and laid, together with some betel, on the domestic place of sacrifice. When the ceremony is over, word goes about in the village that the woman has been brought to bed, and her friends come and congratulate her. Here the pretense that a child has been born is a purely magical rite designed to secure, by means of imitation or mimicry, that a child really shall be born; but an attempt is made to add to the efficacy of the rite by means of prayer and sacrifice. To put it otherwise, magick is here blended with and reinforced by religion.

Among some of the Dayaks of Borneo, when a woman is in hard labor, a wizard is called in, who essays to facilitate the delivery in a rational manner by manipulating the body of the sufferer. Meantime another wizard outside the room exerts himself to attain the same end by means which we should regard as wholly irrational. He, in fact, pretends to be the expectant mother; a large stone attached to his stomach by a cloth wrapped round his body represents the child in the womb, and, following the directions shouted to him by his colleague on the real scene of operations, he moves this make-believe baby about on his body in exact imitation of the movements of the real baby till the infant is born.


The same principle of make-believe, so dear to children, has led other peoples to employ a simulation of birth as a form of adoption, and even as a mode of restoring a supposed dead person to life.

If you pretend to give birth to a boy, or even to a great bearded man who has not a drop of your blood in his veins, then, in the eyes of ancient law and philosophy, that boy or man is really your son to all intents and purposes.

Thus, Diodora tells us that when Zeus persuaded his jealous wife Hera to adopt Hercules, the goddess got into bed, and clasping the burly hero to her bosom, pushed him through her robes and let him fall to the ground in imitation of a real birth; and the historian adds that in his own day the same mode of adopting children was practiced by the barbarians.

At the present time it is said to be still in use in Bulgaria and among the Bosnian Turks. A woman will take a boy whom she intends to adopt and push or pull him through her clothes; ever afterwards he is regarded as her very son, and inherits the whole property of his adoptive parents.

Among the Berawans of Sarawak, when a woman desires to adopt a grownup man or woman, a great many people assemble and have a feast. The adopting mother, seated in public on a raised and covered seat, allows the adopted person to crawl from behind between her legs. As soon as he appears in front, he is stroked with the sweet-scented blossoms of the areca palm and tied to a woman. Then the adopting mother and the adopted son or daughter, thus bound together, waddle to the end of the house and back again in front of all the spectators. The tie established between the two by this graphic imitation of childbirth is very strict; an offence committed against an adopted child is reckoned more heinous than one committed against a real child.

In ancient Greece any man who had been supposed erroneously to be dead, and for whom in his absence funeral rites had been performed, was treated as dead to society till he had gone through the form of being born again. He was passed through a woman’s lap, then washed, dressed in swaddling-clothes, and put out to nurse. Not until this ceremony had been punctually performed might he mix freely with living folk.

In ancient India, under similar circumstances, the supposed dead man had to pass the first night after his return in a tub filled with a mixture of fat and water; there he sat with doubled-up fists and without uttering a syllable, like a child in the womb, while over him were performed all the sacraments that were wont to be celebrated over a pregnant woman. Next morning, he got out of the tub and went through once more all the other sacraments he had formerly partaken of from his youth up; in particular, he married a wife or espoused his old one over again with due solemnity.


Another beneficent use of imitative or sympathetic magick is to heal or prevent sickness.

The ancient Hindus performed an elaborate ceremony, based on imitative magick, for the cure of jaundice. Its main drift was to banish the yellow color to yellow creatures and yellow things, such as the sun, to which it properly belongs, and to procure for the patient a healthy red color from a living, vigorous source, namely, a red bull. With this intention, a priest recited the following spell: