At the most basic level, sympathetic magic is the concept that like affects like, and that like produces like. It’s an expression of interconnectedness, where the effect resembles the cause.
James George Frazer, in The Golden Bough (1889), separated sympathetic magic into two types: magic that depended on the similarity of two things, and magic that depended on contact between things.
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. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers 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.Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough. London: Macmillan, 1966.
The Laws of Sympathetic Magic
The Law of Similarity
The Law of Similarity can be used to bring about a result by symbolic action, the way our prehistoric ancestors would act out a successful hunt before going hunting. In some European cultures, it was good luck to have a cat in the room when a woman gave birth, as cats generally purr as they bear young, which led people to believe that cats’ labors are painless and birth is easy. We draw pictures of our fears and tear them up, we are told to dress for the job we want rather than the job we have. Symbolic magic permeates our lives in ways we don’t even notice – we believe that the image can affect the object.
The Law of Similarity also tells us that there’s connection between items that share one or more characteristics. Does the inside of a walnut look like a brain? Then walnuts must be good for the brain. Even the barest sliver of a connection is something to be looked at and acted upon. This aspect of the Law of Similarity led to the development of something called the Doctrine of Signatures, which is an important feature of oil use in ritual magic.
The Law of Contagion
The Law of Contagion holds that when two objects come into contact with one another, a link is formed that provides a potentially permanent exchange of properties between them. The part IS the whole, in a very real way.
Magical contagion can work in two ways. First, by direct contact. The source containing the quality comes into direct contact with the recipient, transferring the quality. The source and recipient might be animate or inanimate. Contagion also works indirectly, where the source is in contact with a medium object, and then to the recipient.
Transferrable qualities may be negative or positive, and they may be tangible (physical), or intangible (mental, behavioral, or moral).
In modern society, the Law of Contagion operates at an unconscious level. Advertising uses this Law to sell us things – we want to wear the same jeans as the person in the magazine. In magic, the Law is explicit. We are intentionally using the Law of Contagion, rather than having it used on us by third parties or falling prey to it unwittingly.