Very Superstitious: The Power Of Everyday Thought
July 31, 2012
In September 1863, a local paper in Somerset, England, ran an article about a man and a woman from Taunton whose child had been stricken with scarlet fever. Depressingly common, a child suffering from the illness itself was not noteworthy—what made the news were the remedies proposed. Distraught, the parents had turned to a group of women for advice, and this “jury of matrons,” in the paper’s words, all agreed that there was no hope of survival. Instead, they suggested ways to prevent the child from “dying hard”: open all the doors, drawers, cupboards, and boxes in the house, untie any knots—perhaps in a shoelace, a curtain pull, or an apron sash—and remove all keys from their locks.
In 1707, Taunton had been the site of one of the last witch trials in England, and while the paper didn’t call these matrons witches outright, reactions among any urban readers who would have come across the story would likely have ranged from bemusement to dismay that ancient superstitions still persisted in England’s smaller towns. The household rituals suggested by these women contained a belief that stretches back thousands of years, a belief in “sympathetic magic,” a phrase coined in 1890 by anthropologist James G. Frazer in The Golden Bough—a mammoth study of magic, science, and religion. The sympathies involved were commonplace: everyday objects could affect human behavior and physical actions. By throwing open the doors and untying the knots, the Somerset jury of matrons were offering their best advice so that a “sure, certain, and easy passage into eternity could be secured.”
Miraculously, the child did not die. A few years later, a surgeon familiar with the case suggested that the women’s advice had inadvertently ventilated the home, and he celebrated this bit of “magical” intervention. (“Oh, that there were in scarlet-fever cases a good many such old women’s—such a ‘jury of matrons’—remedies!”) In his book, Frazer had a good deal more scorn for the matrons and their advice: “Strange to say, the child declined to avail itself of the facilities for dying so obligingly placed at its disposal by the sagacity and experience of the British matrons of Taunton; it preferred to live rather than give up the ghost.”
It’s a shame that we owe so much of our understanding of sympathetic magic to someone whose attitude toward magic was so, in a word, unsympathetic. In the time since its publication, The Golden Bough has influenced and inspired everyone from T. S. Eliot to H. P. Lovecraft, W. B. Yeats to Joseph Campbell. No one before Frazer had so exhaustively documented the wide variety of shamanistic, magical, and religious practices throughout the world, nor had anyone sought to so thoroughly synthesize them into a work regarding the basic structures of human belief. Yet for all its rigor, Frazer repeated a vicious refrain throughout: magic is a “spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct,” “a false science,” as well as an “abortive” and “bastard” art.
Drawing from questionnaires sent to anthropologists, field workers, missionaries, and colonial administrators, Frazer analyzed a broad spectrum of magical rites and rituals— the preservation of hair and nail clippings, the destruction of images and effigies, the healing power of color—ultimately grouping them into two broad categories: the Law of Similarity, whereby “like produces like,” (a mutilated wax figure, for example, standing in for a hated person) and the Law of Contagion, in which “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” (in which hair, nail clippings, or clothing once belonging to that person just might do the trick).
Sympathetic magic taps into a symbolic ordering of the world, where disparate objects and ideas can have unexpected correspondences and new potentials. This kind of magic reflects the order of our lives even as it seeks to gain mastery over that order. Its genius is its simplicity, which articulates a basic but all-encompassing explanation for human and natural events. With the proper gesture or carved totem, all of heaven and earth is in the hands of the magician. Sympathetic magic is easy to understand, requires no real training, and is catholic in its application; anyone who can tie knots or who can fashion a wax doll can employ it, from kings to their illiterate peasant subjects.
Perhaps this is why Frazer disdained sympathetic magic: by its very simplicity, scholars saw in it something juvenile and unsophisticated. Frazer describes the rainmaking ceremonies of an unspecified tribe of American Indians as involving a “sort of childish make-believe,” whereby one seeks to establish a sympathy with rain by making oneself wet, and fertility rites are “relics of an age of childish ignorance,” practiced by those who don’t understand modern obstetrics.
It’s no accident that the study of magic and ritual flourished during the wane of the British empire; the beliefs of native cultures were collected and studied so they could be corrected. The study of magic was important, the ethnologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard would later explain, “not only for the anthropologist but also for the colonial administrator and missionary, if they wish to show to the peoples whom they govern and teach that they understand their notions about right and wrong.” For some, the main reason for studying sympathetic magic was to eradicate it.
For all its erudition and analysis, The Golden Bough has for more than a century helped cement the idea that magic is inappropriate, wrongheaded thought. Yet what separates magic from religion or science is not its methodology—Frazer himself notes that it “is therefore a truism, almost a tautology, to say that all magic is necessarily false and barren; for were it ever to become true and fruitful, it would no longer be magic but science”—it’s that ordinary people can do it, transforming their lives with the ambitious power of everyday thought…