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Very Superstitious

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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).

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  • For all the protesting the Catholic church did against sympathetic magic, their concept of "relics" (body parts of saints, clothing they wore - or any item that touched either of those) seems closely related!

    Posted by Jared on Thu 26 Jul 2012

  • The quote from Evans-Pritchard advocates for understanding not eradication of magic. Here is a more complete version of the quote:

    "It is important to understand native opinion about black magic, 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. The native does not so much distrust European justice and education as he despairs of the administrator and missionary ever understanding, or attempting to understand, his point of view as expressed in laws and public opinion. This despair springs largely from the handling by Europeans of such matters as sorcery, with which both missionaries and administrators frequently have to deal. The native becomes convinced finally that the European is quite incapable of seeing the difference between right and wrong, between the proper use of a cultural weapon fully sanctioned by public opinion, such as white magic, and a heinous and cold-blooded murder, such as the crime of black magic or sorcery. He eventually reaches the conclusion, through long experience, that to white men all magic is shameful and criminal, and that they will either laugh at it or penalize it." Evans-Prichard. Sorcery and Native Opinion. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1931), p22.

    Posted by Victor on Thu 26 Jul 2012

  • I'm not sure how much I buy the Joan Didion parable. Objects that belonged to deceased loved ones are similar to photographs, in that both stand in for the lost one. A hat or a lock of hair is like a literary metonym, related to its object by contiguity; a photo or a portrait is like a metaphor, related by analogy. But both are signs that stand in for an absent object.

    I suppose magical thinking comes in if we collapse the difference between the sign and its referent. But Joan Didion claims that she only recognized that she was doing that in retrospect. Which makes me wonder if she was doing it at all, or if those statements are an artifact of post-hoc speculation on lost -- because they were never really consciously there -- motives.

    Posted by Egypt Steve on Sun 29 Jul 2012

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Colin Dickey is the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith and Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius. His last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Fall 2011 issue, The Future. He lives in Los Angeles.

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, is a soothsayer, an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, consults ghosts or spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you.
Book of Deuteronomy, c. 620 BC
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