Sympathetic magic is a magical modality that involves symbolically imitating the desired outcome. It may involve acting on a physical representation of a target or creating a physical representation of the outcome or recreating the desired outcome through motion and art. In this way, the practitioner might cause change at a distance in time or space.
Sir James George Frasier first outlined the underlying principles of sympathetic magic in his 1189 book The Golden Bough (Ch 3). He proposed that it was based on two basic principles which we now call the Law of Similarity and the Law of Contagion or Contact.
The Law of Similarity
The Law of Similarity says that like produces like and that the effect resembles the cause.
There are two ways we can use this idea in magick. First, if we wish to effect a change, we can bring it about by pre-producing it through symbolic action. One popular example is the dances performed by hunter and gatherer communities before a big hunt in which a successful hunt is acted out in a choreographed manner. Another example might involve a modern-day witch with an artistic flair who wishes to successfully buy the house of her dreams chanting or meditating herself into a trance state and then painting an image of the house with herself standing in the doorway smiling. Indeed, many archaeologists believe that the ancient cave paintings found throughout the world were the result of sympathetic magick.
The other implication of the Law of Similarity is that things that resemble other things can bring about similar effects to those things. That is, if an herb, for example, resembles a certain part of the body, that herb might strengthen that part of the body by bringing more of its essential nature into the body. This ideal can be seen quite strongly in the Doctrine of signatures.
This idea is also the basis of Planetary and Elemental Correspondences. These correspondences are essentially a classification system or a system of taxonomy based on energetic characteristics. That is to say, the element of Fire is not actually fire, but a collection of characteristics named and represented by Fire. The energy of these characteristics acts upon the body, the psyche, the immediate environment or a situation in a certain way and by correspondence, any object (plant, crystal, whatever) that shares certain characteristics of the energy (red, hot, etc.) will bring about the desired result. So, if for example, you are in need of creative inspiration and you know the energy of the fire element helps bring that into a situation, any herb that corresponds to the fire element and consume it (assuming it is edible), keep it nearby or inhale its scent to bring the creative inspiration of the fire element to you.
The Law of Contagion or Contact
The Law of Contagion states that those things that were once in contact remain connected after separation and that whatever affects one can still affect the other, and whatever energy was in the original remains in the removed bit.
While it is generally believed that an object that was once actually a part of a larger object is more firmly connected than one that was just peripheral (Say a toenail versus an old shoe), any object that came in contact with the original can still be used in this way.
There are two major ways that these objects can be used.
First, something once belonging or part of someone or something that has characteristics that might prove useful to the practitioner may be carried, worn or used in a spell to encourage those characteristics. The tooth or claw of a dangerous animal may be worn as a protective talisman, for example.
Second, and most well known, is the use of an object once belonging to or part of a target being used as a stand-in for the target. Thus, hair, fingernails, a piece of paper the target has written on (especially if it contains their signature), a business card or a piece of clothing that the target has worn may be subjected to whatever treatment the practitioner wishes to visit upon the target in a symbolic manner. For example, a business card might be used in a Honey Jar spell to “sweeten the deal” and encourage a bank to consider your loan application favorably. Or a piece of clothing might be soaked in a warm bath scented with healing herbs to help heal someone who is far away. Or a cactus might be planted in the boots your boy wore at bootcamp to protect him while he’s deployed.
Often when performing magic at a distance, both the law of similarity and the law of contagion are used and an object, like a poppet may be created that resembles the target while incorporating items that also came in contact with the target.