I’ve been asked to discuss the significance of “sympathetic magic” to prehistoric art, and if I believe there is a connection between such magic and mythology. Now in order to figure this out I have to understand what sympathetic magic really is. Merriam-Webster defines sympathetic magic as: magic based on the assumption that a person or thing can be supernaturally affected through its name or an object representing it. So, the question now is do I believe if a prehistoric artist painted what he did because of the belief that he could somehow be supernaturally affected through it. My answer as of now?
Absolutely. Now, the theory of sympathetic magic was first developed by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough. He categorized sympathetic magic in two categories: that that relies on similarity, and that that relies on contact. Sir James Frazer states, “If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.
The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion.. ” Now that we know what sympathetic magic is, it’s time to look at some examples of how people have used sympathetic magic, from prehistory all the way to modern times. In prehistoric times we see our ancestors going into caves such as the Chauvet Cave, or the Cave of Niaux, and painting truly immaculate, unbelievable portrayals of (most commonly) large wild animals. These caves are covered on the walls and the ceilings with these animals, and it is quite clear that our ancestors showed these images a lot of respect.
These images were not drawn in caves in which people lived, in fact most caves showed very little signs of life at all. Some of these caves were very hard to find, let alone maneuver in. Now there are many theories as to why they painted these images in the first place. One of these theories is that they were simply trying to communicate with others. I have a couple issues with his theory. First of all, I feel that that theory is looking at too much face value. We make murals today, is it a form of communication? I guess you could make an argument, but for me it is simply ART.
Second, if it was a form of communication, then why go through so much effort? Why make it in caves that were difficult to find, let alone maneuver in? These people risked their lives to paint high on the walls/ceilings, etc. I simply do not buy this argument, and feel as though we need to look at it deeper. The way I see it is that it was a ceremonial, or religious experience, which they showed a lot of respect too. A couple reasons that I feel this way is the fact that our ancestors drew mainly large wild animals.
Now you might as why did they draw these animals? I believe it was through mythology. They didn’t really draw nature, or much of people really (besides an incredible human hand). Now why would this be? I believe it to be spiritual sanctuary, a memorial really. I feel, and I remember saying this in class, that they were showing how much they respected these creatures. They never saw the river die, or sun die, or the moon. So I could see this being almost a sort of cemetery, or place of ritual in which they believed the spirits of these great beasts go to live on.
So now what is a ritual? Merriam-Webster (once again) defines it as something done according to religious law, or social custom or normal protocol. Now we see rituals everyday from what we see at church, to maybe someone praying before dinner, to even the beginning of a football game. Rituals are all around us! So how do rituals and myth relate to each other? Well I believe everyone does these rituals because they believe it will be beneficial towards them otherwise, why do it?
The guy at the table in front of you praying before lunch does so because he believes it will somehow make his life better. This is the same reason our ancestors went through the rituals they did in the process of our prehistoric art. They originated the process of sacrifice and rituals because they believed it would somehow make their lives better, to appease the gods; maybe it was for protection, or maybe it was for the health of themselves/their families, but they did these rituals because of myths.
Creation myths are all around us. Whether it is Egypt with Osiris, Mesopotamia with the flood, or the Christians with Jesus, we have always tried to find out what we were doing here, and how we got here. It has happened for the past thousand years, and will continue to happen in the future. Because of myths we have shaped rituals through seasonal changes (such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years etc. ), rites of passage through our individual lives (birthdays, baptisms, bar mitzvahs etc. and even through family traditions (who hands out presents on Christmas, who cuts the turkey on Thanksgiving).
Myths have shaped how humanity is today. It’s hard to imagine a time in which we have never had rituals or myth, but if a time like were to ever come, wouldn’t we lose our humanity? Think about what makes us human, to the friends we make, the people we care about, the birthdays, the holidays, the superstitions, this is what makes us, us!
My belief in this is so strong that I really think that, as silly as it sounds, if you were to hop into a Delorean, travel 88 miles an hour go back in time to the prehistoric times, and if you were to stop our ancestors from those cave paintings that you return to a completely different world. These paintings are truly the root of what we are. So what have I learned? I learned how important culture, ritual, art, and myth are to humankind. Before taking this class I didn’t really give much thought towards past cultures and how important they are to us today.
But after my Mesopotamian presentation with Toomey, and during the preparation of the presentation, I read all the technology we can thank the Mesopotamians for, from the wheel and the cuneiform all the way to the use of terror on enemies, they had certainly given us a lot. But now I feel like I need to thank their ancestors, and those ancestor’s ancestors even more. For without them, and the implementation of ritual, myth, sympathetic magic, and well, everything else really, I’m not too sure we’d like where we would be today.