From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Imitation in sympathetic magic
Correspondence in sympathetic magic
Correspondence is based on the idea that one can influence something based on its relationship or resemblance to another thing. The belief that consumption of walnuts can increase intelligence and memory may be based on the nuts' resemblance to brains. Many traditional societies believed that an effect on one object can cause an analogous effect on another object, without an apparent causal link between the two objects. For instance, many folktales feature a villain whose "life" exists in another object, and who can only be killed if that other object is destroyed. (Examples including Sauron's One Ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Russian folktale of Koschei the Deathless. Compare Horcrux and lich.) In Uganda, a barren woman is thought to cause a barren garden, and her husband can seek a divorce on purely economic grounds (Eliade 385).
Hypotheses about prehistoric sympathetic magic
The term is most commonly used in archaeology in relation to Paleolithic 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 shamans. The shamans 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 they were acting out a hunt before it began, perhaps 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 depictions of hunting accidents or 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.