Sympathetic magic. This is a term that does mean something like what you think it would. It is a kind of sympathy, an extension from one thing to another — the idea that you can influence something based on its similarity to something else. Think poppets, little dolls made to look like lovers or bad neighbors. What you do to one, you do to the other. Think pink candles lit for love; pink as interior, tender parts.
This magic is also called the magic of correspondence or contagion — the properties of one thing leaping to another. In folk medicines around the world, it shows up in what has been called the doctrine of signatures — the belief that you can tell what plant will heal you by its similarity to an ailing part. Lungwort, with its oval, spotted leaves, was prescribed to cure our ulcerated and cancerous lungs. Walnuts for the brain. Eyebright, a sunny-centered herb, for what hurts the eyes. Saxifrage breaks apart stones with its roots, and so was thought to clear away kidney stones.
As a poet, these are my favorite falsehoods. As above, so below. Correspondence means a kind of matching, but also letters, communication. If I light this wick here, and kiss this rock, some cloud above me will shift in response. If I make this metaphor well enough — if tenor moves with vehicle, hovering above that holiness called ground — then some confusion within me will lift, and I will be able to see clearly enough to show you something — that I love you, that I fear for you, that I have found something beautiful and terrible in this world.
I refuse to believe this work means nothing. And yet, I know you can crack walnuts between your teeth all day and your brain can still stutter until it stops. I know if I cut back the hair of a doll that looked just like you, even if it had your own locks sewn into its scalp, you would be untouched. Intention is powerful, they say. But I don’t know if it moves anything above or below. I only know what metaphor, what ritual, moves inside of me — what corresponds to my blood, what intent can contagion my daily movements: I will be better today. I will fight better today. I light a blue candle in the dark — blue for healing, blue for calm — and for a minute, the whole room is.
There are some who believe that the doctrine of signatures did not begin as the idea of a map placed on earth by God to tell us what can heal us. They say that individual correspondences between the shapes of plants and their qualities were used first as mnemonics — to help us remember when we stumbled onto a good one, a cure that actually worked. Eyebright, as it turns out — whether by coincidence or long-forgotten, accidental discovery — when used in eye drops, really can fight infection. Maybe that’s what ritual, what magic and the magic of good writing can do — they remind us of what we already know can help sustain us. An intent. A symbol. A daily work. A correspondence, a leeching of light from one source to another.