Similia Similibus: Sympathy in Magic and Cursing

Female figurine pierced by needles as part of a curse.

Female curse figurine pierced by needles.

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?

Similia Similibus

Like Graf, Gager argues that graphic curses were not necessarily seeking graphic outcomes. Instead he suggests that such depictions “give form to the expressive and metaphorical aspects of human experience” (Gager 22). The idea of metaphor is especially relevant in the development of the Similia Similibus formula (from the Latin meaning “similar things from similar things”). According to Christopher A. Faraone, the Similia Similibus formula is “a persuasive analogy” that seeks to liken the status of objects to the projected outcome of the curse. Like the “voodoo doll” above, these curses invoke graphic imagery. Here are a few:

“Just as this lead [tablet] has been completely buried, deeply buried and…thus also bury for Zoilos…his business and household affairs and friendships and all the rest.” (Gager no. 20)

“[Just as] this corpse lies useless, [so] may all the words and deeds of Theodora be useless with regard to Charias and to the other people…” (Gager no.23)

“Just as this rooster has been bound by its feet, hands, and head, so bind the legs and hands and head and heart of Victoricus the charioteer of the Blue team…” (Gager no. 12)

Although this sort of magic was characterized by Frazer as “primitive,” scholars, such as Stanley J. Tambiah, understand it differently. Such actions are not to be understood literally; rather they are symbolic appeals. Tambiah observes, “In respect of linguistic operations the concept of metaphor presents no problem… The implications of metaphor (which is a shorthand expression I use to include simile and analogy) are that it is a surrogate which has a dual reference to the original object and to the object for which it now stands. Every metaphor or symbol contains both truth and fiction: if it is taken literally it misrepresents, but it is more than a conventional sign because it highlights a resemblance” (Tambiah 189).

Tambiah suggests that analogies to objects are used because they hold symbolic import. In reference to a beauty ritual performed by those living in the Trobriand Islands (in the Coral Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea), Tambiah illustrates the difference between metaphorical and concrete thinking:

“All the voyagers wash in sea water, rub themselves with medicated leaves, apply coconut grease on their bodies, tease out their hair with combs, paint ornamental designs on their faces in red and black, and insert in their white armlets mint plants preserved in coconut oil. In the spells recited…the major reference is to red colour as represented by certain kinds of red fish…. It is clear that this magic does not say that the men become red fish or that there is a substantial identity between them, but it simply postulates a comparison between the redness of the fish and the red painting on the human face, redness itself standing for flashing and irresistible attractiveness.” (Tambiah 197-198)

This is what is argued is going on in cursing: words and images are invoked as an analogy. Faraone, following Tambiah, suggests that, “The rationale of this kind of ritual is not, therefore, based on poor science or a failure to observe empirical data but rather on a strong belief in the persuasive power of certain kinds of formulaic language” (Faraone 8). Thus, the victim will not literally be thwarted by pins in various orifices, but will experience certain faculties compromised. A target will not literally become a dead corpse, but will find their actions deadened.

The world of cursing is full of instances of sympatheia. Verbal and physical analogies appear in the use of persuasive analogies or physical items which represent the target or their intended state of being. This sympatheia, however, is of a different sort of “sympathetic magic” than the kind postulated by Frazer. It is not a symptom of a “primitive” mind, but rather a flexible association between attributes and outcomes.

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.


  • Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, Vol. 1. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1997.
  • Frazer, James Geroge. The Golden Bough.
  • Gager, John G. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Graf, Fritz. Magic in the Ancient World. Translated by Franklin Philip. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Faraone, Christopher A. and Dirk Obbink editors. Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Tambiah, S. J. 1968. “The Magical Power of Words,” in Man 3.2 (1968): 175-208.

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