Similia Similibus: Sympathy in Magic and Cursing

This article is cross-posted from, a research project about curses and cursing in the ancient world. If you would like to read the full article, or would like to know more about cursing, I invite you to visit the website!

Scholarship on curses often explores the significance of cursing rituals—how did performers of curses expect them to work? Did they believe that the malicious things they wished upon their target would come true? For example, a famous “voodoo doll” at the Louvre depicts a female figure with nails driven into various points on the body. Did the person who made this curse hope that the woman would literally suffer from being pierced, or was something else at work?

A Case of Sympathetic Magic?

The term “sympathetic magic” was popularized by Sir James Frazer, an anthropologist who released his influential book on magic and religion, The Golden Bough, in 1890. While much of his work has been questioned (for example, the idea that certain stages of belief were more primitive than others), there can be no argument that his work laid the foundation for investigating magic. For example, it was Frazer who first described how the “magician’s logic” worked:

“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 [the Law of Contact or Contagion] 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.”

“Both branches of magic, the homoeopathic and the contagious, may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of Sympathetic Magic, since both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one 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.”

(Frazer, The Golden Bough, III.1.1, III.1.2)

Fritz Graf observes that the concept of sympatheia did not originate with Frazer. In fact, ancient thinkers such as Plotinus and Theocritus also believed that everything in the universe was linked and that some things were more connected than others due to sharing similar properties or what not (Graf 205-206). Nevertheless, modern scholars dispute that instances of sympathetic magic indicate a straightforward equivalence on the part of the practitioner, or that a magician is manipulating an “invisible ether.” While there is something to the ideal of similarity, Frazer’s view has generally fallen out of favour, and we’ll see why shortly.

Instances of Sympatheia

So what would constitute sympathetic magic? I mentioned the figurine at the Louvre (pictured here), but there are other ways a curse could be considered in sympathy with its target. In addition to figurines, many curses also included what is called ousia, a Greek word that literally means being or substance. In this context, it refers to physical objects that belong to the victim—things like hair or bits of clothing which stood-in for the persons they represented (Gager 16-17). For example, one “love spell” from the Greek Magical Papyri specifically requests the “magical material” of ousia:

“Wondrous spell for binding a lover: Take wax [or clay] from a potter’s wheels and make two figurines, a male a female. Make the male in the form of Ares fully armed, holding a sword / in his left hand and threatening to plunge it into the right side of her neck. And make her with her arms behind her back and down on her knees. And you are to fasten the magical material on her neck…” PGM IV.296-466

I left out a lot of the rest of the spell, but it would be fitting to disclose it here. Copper needles are stuck in various places on the figurine and supernatural figures are appealed to in order to bind the target and compel her affection. Many of the pin placements (brain, mouth, genitals, etc.) correspond to specific requests that the victim lose her appetite, have restless thoughts, and be hindered sexually. Can we say there is a correspondence? If so, to what extent were such effects expected? Graf argues that “sorcerers did not wish to wound the victim’s members in the same way that they pierced the members of a figurine” (Graf 145). So what was going on then?

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Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.