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Sympathetic magic, also known as imitative magic, is a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. Imitation involves using effigies to affect the environment of people. Correspondence is based on the idea that one can influence something based on its relationship to another thing.
The term is most commonly used in anthropology in relation to Neolithic cave paintings such as those in North Africa and at Lascaux in France. The theory is one of prehistoric human behavior, and is based on studies of more modern hunter-gatherer societies. The idea is that the paintings were made by Cro-Magnon shaman. The shaman would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves. This goes some way towards explaining the remoteness of some of the paintings (which often occur in deep or small caves) and the variety of subject matter (from prey animals to predators and human hand-prints). In his book Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell stated that the paintings "...were associated with the magic of the hunt." For him, this sympathetic magic was akin to a participation mystique, where the paintings, drawn in a sanctuary of "timeless principle", were acted upon by rite.
In 1933, Leo Frobenius, discussing cave paintings in North Africa, pointed out that many of the paintings did not seem to be mere depictions of animals and people. To him, it seemed as if it was an acting out of the hunt before the hunt began, as well as a consecration of the animal to be killed. In this way, the pictures served to secure a successful hunt. While others interpreted the cave images as hunting accidents or representations of ceremonies, Frobenius believed it was much more likely that "...what was undertaken [in the paintings] was a consecration of the animal effected not through any real confrontation of man and beast but by a depiction of a concept of the mind."
However, as with all prehistory, it is impossible to be certain due to the relative lack of material evidence and the many pitfalls associated with trying to understand the prehistoric mindset with a modern mind.
- Campbell, Joseph (1991). The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-019443-6.
- Frobenius, Leo (1993). Kulturgeschichte Afrikas. Prolegomena zu einer historischen Gestaltlehre (A Cultural History of Africa) (in German), pp. 131-132, Zurich: Phaidon-Verlag.
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