Day 117: Sympathetic Magic



Sympathetic or imitative magic is the basis of many folk healing traditions. It’s the idea that an object stands in as the symbolic representation of whatever is at the receiving end of the work e.g. using a jawbone to heal someone’s jaw. It’s sometimes seen as a “primitive” form of healing, but is actually very powerful and represents the ingenuity and cleverness of the people’s healer.

There are many examples of this sympathetic magic within the Ozark tradition. One example is the use of animal parts in certain work. An animal penis bone is often used in love work, teeth are used both as representations of actual teeth that need healing, such as in the case of hillfolk stringing teeth around their necks in order to ward off decay, and can also be used whenever you want to “bite” someone. Skulls are used in cases where the head needs to be healed, or where spirits need to be driven out. Binding up toe bones prevents someone from walking your way, or hand bones to stop someone working against you. Chicken feet are used to “scratch” evil from off your body, and wings to help the sickness to fly or blow away. Animal claws are often used in defensive work but can also be put to use against an enemy. Of course there are many more examples of this, too many to be mentioned.

Another example of this sympathetic work is seen in the curing of the object that did the damage. Often giving medicine to the blade or the bullet is used in the curing of wounds e.g. to help stop bleeding from a cut the knife is often plunged into the dirt. Bullets and knives themselves can work in a sympathetic way. Making mock “bullets” out of wax and hair, sometimes called “witch bullets” or “witch pellets” in the Ozarks, is a common way to “shoot” and kill someone supernaturally. I’ve already discussed some knife lore in another post, but they can be used to symbolically “cut” or “stab”.

Certain remedies against a milk-stealing witch involve sympathetic magic. One cure involves taking some milk from the cow that’s going dry and boiling it on the stove, or putting a red-hot iron in it. The milk becomes a representation of the witch, and in this way it is supposed to burn them or cause them so much pain that they stop. Another cure along those same lines is to whip the milk or the butter churn in order to stop the thieving witch. Again, the milk and the churn become symbolic representations of the witch.

Another cure against witchcraft involves drawing a picture of the witch, or making a doll of them with their clothes, hair, nail clippings, etc. then manipulating the object. Most of the time it will either be shot with a silver bullet, or nailed to a certain tree. The idea is that the witch will display the wounds that are given to their double.

Brooms, whisks, and dusters are also a form of sympathetic magic, with the idea being that as the broom sweeps dust out of the house, so too it can sweep evil or sickness off of a body.

Oftentimes the secret charms and prayers that are used in healing and other work contain this sympathetic work. For example, using a charm like “As this tree is strong, let Bill be strong.”

It’s important when we look at folk traditions that we realize how much the people within these cultures relied upon work that was quick and efficient. That’s one of the reasons why you see sympathetic forms of healing being used so often; they’re fast and effective. Folk magic is the magic of the people, the “folk”. It seems like an obvious statement, but so often people forget that this work was born out of necessity. The tools and materia medica/magica that were used mostly came from the repurposing of household items and what could be gathered from off the land or bought at the Drug Store. In the Ozarks there are about a million uses for kerosene, turpentine, and sulfur, mostly because these were things that were readily available to farmers and hillfolk. For those of you out there practicing or trying to revive these folk traditions, get inside the heads of your grandparents, or great-grandparents. What would they have used? Would they have spent lots of money on fancy new tools or items? Probably not. Use what you have, use what you can find, and use what you can make. It’ll bring so much more meaning to your work.

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