#FolkloreThursday: Sympathetic Magic

#FolkloreThursday: Sympathetic Magic April 21, 2016
"The Golden Bough" by J.M.W. Turner, in U.S. Public domain.
“The Golden Bough” by J.M.W. Turner, in U.S. Public domain.

In preparation for my keynote, I thought I’d take this week’s #FolkloreThursday post to define sympathetic magic (which I apply in what is hopefully a fun/novel way in my speech).

For a definition, I’m going to liberally quote myself, from a blog post I wrote about how sex affects perceptions of identity at MySexProfessor.com:

Folklorists and anthropologists call this process of things-affecting-nearby-things sympathetic magic, based on the scholarship of Sir James Frazer (a brief abstract of his major work on sympathetic magic, The Golden Bough, is available here). “Sympathetic magic” is just the scholarly term for the belief mechanism; it doesn’t mean you literally believe in magic (although, given that some churches teach that demonic possession is a thing, I don’t see how magic could be that far off).

There are two main parts to sympathetic magic – similarity and contagion – but here I’d like to focus on contagion. Contagion means that two things that have been in contact continue to exert an influence over each other. So a folklorist might study a charm that requires a piece of a person’s hair in order to work magic on them. Anthropologist Mary Douglas discusses ritual pollution and taboos that are looked down upon because of association (contagion), such as disgusting foods and bodily emissions, in her book Purity and Danger (summary here).

These are physical examples of contagion, but there are conceptual examples too, such as social stigma, which Erving Goffman has famously explored in the field of sociology. Basically, stigmatized people are judged for not adhering to social norms, and they must try to manage the label of deviance in whatever way possible. This happens to sex workers, drug users, and others who step outside the bounds of normalcy (by choice or not).

With these instances of conceptual contagion, what is happening is that people – who are composed of many parts, beliefs, and actions – are reduced to just one of those parts in the eyes of others. This is where contagion comes in: the unacceptable or taboo part “contaminates” all of the other parts of that person, until an onlooker sees only the “bad” part of the person, not the other parts.

The concept of sympathetic magic, expressed through the laws of similarity and contagion, is everywhere you look. The law of similarity (that like attracts like) definitely survives outside of an outright magical or ritual context, too; I think of all the lookalikes and wannabes out there. I find contagious magic especially prevalent in religious ritual, as well, though of course people don’t like to admit that religions of the book have things in common with the types of magical practices also found in, say, neo-paganism today.

But this is what having an atheist-leaning orientation helps me bring to the table as a cultural scholar: since I don’t have a religion to stick to, I’m not going to shun analytical tools like sympathetic magic for fear that they’ll hit too close to home. People of all belief systems indulge in irrational thought patterns from time to time, but certain systems of thought encourage them more than others.

What do you think – is sympathetic magic still a useful concept?

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