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Sympathetic Magic

The power of the image

Homo sapiens: in other words, ‘Us’—members of the human species as evolved over countless years. Yet the ‘homo’ or ‘hominid’ part, which basically connotes the factual, biological side of our existence…is much more verifiable and explainable due to discoveries in anthropology and archaeology, than is the ‘sapiens’ part. For here we are not dealing with the tangible, physical aspects of human ‘being’…but with the range of intangible psychological forces that drive consciousness: reason, intelligence, intuition, imagination, creativity…not to mention the influence of the theoretical mental force we term the ‘human spirit’.

Opinions vary as to just when in the distant past the development and combining of ‘Homo’ and ’Sapiens’ occurred—when physical abilities and mental faculties formed their operating union: the kind of working relationship exemplified by the title of this particular Blog where the ‘image’ is the result of a sense-perception, and the ‘magic’ of an imaginative psychological involvement. ‘Fact’ and ‘fancy’ working hand in hand.

Essentially, the term ‘sympathy’ signifies the urge and ability to enter into another person’s or creature’s mental state—be it that of your best friend’s or of your dog’s—and feel both an affinity with, and a compassion for, the state of their existence. (As such it represents a primary awareness of the experience we call ‘love’.) So, you ask, where does the ‘Magic’ come in? Well…if we go back to what we previously thought were the earliest man-made prehistoric images created in the cave complexes of Altamira in Spain, and Lascaux in France—say 20,000 to 15,000 B.C.—the paintings of animals discovered there displayed an acuity of visual perception, a drawing skill and expression of ‘feeling’ for the animal, that can certainly be described as ‘Sympathetic’ (and the equal of any drawings and paintings produced since). And one of the world’s most distinguished anthropologists, Henri Breuil, added the word ‘Magic’ in describing them, denoting the archetypal belief held by many so-called ‘primitive’ societies, that to possess the image of an animal (so vital for the hunter’s own survival), ensures a degree of human control over the animal’s destiny when it comes to the hunt. In addition, pre-hunt rituals involving the image were intended to assure the animal spirit ‘that it would not be hunted without mercy.

The earliest of such ‘magic-promoting’ images—carbon-dating around 40,000 B.C.—were discovered in the Chauvet Cave in S.W. France only some 20 years ago. (Moreover, it should be pointed out that these paintings are in the more remote cave ‘galleries’—regions not used for human occupation…so they cannot be said to simply be a form of ‘decoration’.)

Which brings us to consider the modern photograph of someone close to us…as an image magically functioning in the same way as prehistoric cave art. If such is the case, then it would seem that the passing of 40,000 years has not substantially changed the way human consciousness works to promote such irrational and imaginatively-charged thoughts and feelings—‘magic’, if you like. Well, let me give you just two instances that suggest the survival of these prehistoric levels of consciousness, despite our sophisticated way of life in this day and age.

During World War II, a Lancaster aircraft taking-off on a mission to bomb Berlin, turned back on reaching 1200 feet to circle and land on the aerodrome’s one night-time operative runway. The aircraft was carrying a 4000 lb. bomb plus clusters of incendiaries…and not only did this maneuver prevent other aircraft from taking-off, but landing with a full bomb-load could have blown the whole place up. Flying Officer Smith was arrested and later court-martialed. His defence was that he had forgotten to put the three photographs of his wife and two children into his tunic pockets (his normal practice), and therefore was deprived of the talismanic protection these images provided…so he came back to collect them…

Some years ago, lecturing at the University of Georgia, I was talking about Paleolithic cave art and showing a slide of the Red Deer of Lascaux while discussing the ‘sympathetic magic’ hunting ritual and noticed one particular student smiling rather patronizingly, dismissively, at such naivety on the hunter’s part. Walking up the aisle I asked him if he thought the whole idea of such a form of ‘possession’ was somewhat ridiculous.

“Of course”,’ he replied, “Don’t you?” Without responding to the question, I asked if he had a photo of someone he cared for. ‘Yes”, he said, “I have one of my mother.” “May I look at it?” said I. “Of course,” he replied, pulling out his wallet. “Well she’s a very handsome woman…I suppose you have a negative?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. I pulled a Swiss Army Knife out of my pocket, opened up the blade…” Well then, you won’t mind if I just scratch a swastika on this print…” and made as if to do so.

“No…” he said in some alarm, “Don’t do that…” I pretended to go ahead. “Stop,” he shouted and pulled the photograph out of my hand. “Well…of course,” said I, “I never intended to deface the photo…but it does seem that you still have something in common—even though it’s 20,000 years on…with Paleolithic man. Do you feel that if your mother’s image is damaged…something bad might happen to her? “

He didn’t reply.