Action and Symbol: Sympathetic Magic
A lifelong atheist once asked me, a former Catholic, what “Eucharistic Adoration” was. I said it was the practice of praying in the presence of the Eucharist. It was a way to tune into everything the Eucharist means: God wishing to be one with us, wishing us to be family to each other. She returned, “In other words, you were praying to a cracker.”
At the time, I felt far more bitter to my former Church than I do now, but I was still annoyed and offended. When I prayed in front of the Eucharist, I was committing myself to what I believed to be the greatest good. I was worshipping a love that wants to embrace everyone, a love that wants to heal all wounds and repair all injury. Yes, I believed that that love was specially present in the sacrament. That is not the same thing as “praying to a cracker.”
Plenty of people have noted the Catholic affinity with paganism, whether in the seasonal holidays it adopted from northern European pagans, or the gods and goddesses it repackaged as saints or demons. Roman Catholicism is a religion with semitic roots planted in European-pagan soil, and this shows up in the continuity between “sympathetic magic,” and Catholic sacramental thinking.
Sympathetic magic is a form of magic practiced in many cultures, in which an object or action takes place in imitation of what the practitioner would like to have happen. An enemy is harmed in effigy, as in voodoo; a loved one is protected by protecting something belonging to him, or representing him. An animal’s strength is absorbed by eating it, or wearing a symbol of it. Sympathetic magic thus lies in a space between unsymbolized action, where everything is literal, and a purely symbolic world (as in the world of language), where we can speak of killing without anyone’s being literally harmed, or speak of building without anything’s being actually put in place.
In the realm of Catholic belief, a sacrament such as baptism or the Eucharist both means and is– and morever, effects some change. Baptism means being washed clean, died and reborn, and it imitates these actions, while believing that on some level they actually are effected. Eucharist is about being nourished by Christ, being joined body and spirit to him and to all believers, and it is in fact effected by eating. Catholicism seeks to prevent this approach to the world from degenerating into pure superstition by tying these actions to the faith of the believer, and the will of God. Your faith and God’s love are what saves you, not just having water poured over your head and saying certain words. Sacraments are also distinguished from “sacramentals” (holy water, medals, statues, etc) which are seen as purely symbolic, effective only in the sense that they inspire the believer or express her intentions.
Of course, popular practice sometimes does collapse into superstition, with some people actually believing that burying a St. Joseph statue in the yard will help them sell their house, or that wearing a particular medal or saying a particular prayer will deliver a result as automatically as a coin in the vending machine.
Witchcraft has the same potential for superstition. It also has deep roots in pre-scientific magic. Psychologists use the term “magical thinking” to describe a groundless belief that you can make something happen just by wishing it. This common meaning of “magic” has led many witches to use the spelling “magick” to distinguish a more grounded practice. The “k” allows us to say (without sounding crazy) that we believe in magick, NOT, of course in magic!
The difference is huge. It’s what allows me, as a non-theist, still to assert that I was not praying to a cracker. The wafer had been imbued with a symbolism that did, in fact, affect the way I engaged the world. Meditating in the presence of this symbol made me more honest with myself, more open to change, more compassionate towards myself and others. This was not the only way it could have played out; I have no doubt that some Catholics who sat in front of the Eucharist reinforced their own narrowness, bigotry, and zealousness against nonbelievers. After all, the wafer was not “magic.”
When I use sympathetic magic now, I am aware that I am seeking to make a small change in myself, by enacting a truth or a commitment. The value of the exercise is in its power to solidify a good insight or intention. Its danger is in its power to solidify something not so good.
If I were to do a “love spell” to make someone fall for me, I am sure it would have no effect at all on the other. But it would solidify a wish in me to interfere with someone else’s freedom, and this would corrupt everything I mean by “love.” If I were to do a “money spell” in the belief that it was a winning lottery ticket, and that this guarantee of success would also bring happiness, I would only reinforce a very skewed sense of priorities.
I recently cast a circle and did an impromptu protection spell. In my office, using toys, I would have called it play therapy; in the circle, “spell” will do just fine. I was at a loss for how to work with a client. She had been emotionally abusive for years to a younger sister, and now that the sister had cut off contact, felt the girl had a duty to try to reconcile with her. I could hardly contain my outrage when I listened to this victim-blaming. I couldn’t find a way to be firm about the sister’s right to be left alone, without enjoying my stance as “punisher.”
Once within the circle, I felt a certain freedom to think and feel, without the pressure to be right, to have the answer. I could accept the circle as a place where my thoughts would not harm this client. Neither, though, were all my thoughts and feelings helpful.
I set out three stones, one for the “victim,” one for the “abuser” and one for the “rescuer” (those who work with abuse will recognize this triangle: the roles we get pulled into when we do therapy for abuse). I had, in front of me, the dilemma. The client saw herself as the victim. I saw her as the abuser, and in turn, wanted to rescue her sister and punish her– in other words, I became the abuser. There seemed no alternative to these roles, and simply to empathize with her felt like joining her against the victim.
Then I found myself reaching for a new stone, to represent the sister. It occurred to me that she was no longer in actual emotional danger from this woman. She had cut off contact. She had protected herself. I placed her far away from the triangle, and with my wand, circled her three times to reinforce my awareness that she was safe. I placed her near the goddess.
And now, I found myself outside of the triangle, looking at it. I no longer felt confined to the roles it presented. It dawned on me that I can be angry with my client, yet not act; not until I’m ready, not until I have something to offer besides anger.
I placed a sprig of heather, for peace, in the middle of the stones. I circled each with the wand three times, on the third time letting the wand drift outside the circle, to free them from their roles. Then I was ready to open the circle.
I do feel the change in myself, since doing this spell. I still struggle with difficult feelings, but I’m better able to help myself and my client reflect on what we’re doing, instead of just mindlessly acting out. The representation of the situation allowed me to work with it symbolically, but in a way that reached me deeply– that effected change. This is what I mean by magick.