Contagious Magic – Items that have been in contact remain connected

Anthropologist James George Frazer theorised that there were two broad categories of magic – sympathetic magic and contagious magic.

The first was sympathetic magic, which is based on the idea that like affects like. This type of magic is often used in rituals and spells. An example of sympathetic magic would be a voodoo doll, which is used to hurt or control someone by harming the doll.

The second type of magic was contagious magic. This is based on the idea that things that have been in contact with each other remain connected, even after they have been separated.

“The most familiar example of Contagious Magic is the magical sympathy which is supposed to exist between a man and any severed portion of his person, as his hair or nails; so that whoever gets possession of human hair or nails may work his will, at any distance, upon the person from whom they were cut.”

Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941).  The Golden Bough.  1922

As can be seen from this quote from Frazer’s book, The Golden Bough, the core principle of contagious magic is that the essence of the man remains imbued in anything that was part of his person, even after it is severed or removed. This includes fingernails, locks of hair, and even the severed umbilical cord. Anyone who managed to lay their hands on such items would be able to use them to conduct magic on the source.

“The Basutos are careful to conceal their extracted teeth, lest these should fall into the hands of certain mythical beings who haunt graves, and who could harm the owner of the tooth by working magic on it.”

Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941).  The Golden Bough.  1922

Contagious magic was also deployed by hunters, who would take a piece of the animal they were hunting and use it to control the animal’s spirit. This would allow them to lead the animal into a trap or kill it more easily.

Magic and Science

It is worth noting that Frazer was writing about magic at a time when the world was becoming increasingly rational and scientific. It was a time when Darwin’s theory of evolution was beginning to challenge traditional ideas about the origins of life. Electricity and magnetism were starting to be understood in terms of physics, rather than magic. In this context, Frazer’s work can be seen as an attempt to explain magic in terms of science, or at least to find a rational explanation for what was previously considered to be irrational.

His work was therefore intended to be a debunking of magic and superstition. However, his work is still considered to be important in the field of anthropology, as it provides valuable insights into the belief systems of non-Western cultures.

Related terms:

Sympathetic magic: The belief that like affects like.

Voodoo doll: A doll that is used in sympathetic magic to control or hurt someone by harming the doll.

Glossary Terms starting with C

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