The Powder of Sympathy

“The Powder of Sympathy”




To which is Added a Small Budget of Interesting
Paradoxes, Illusions, and Marvels.


This curious occult method of curing wounds is indissolubly associated with the name of Sir Kenelm Digby (born 1603, died 1665), though it was undoubtedly in use long before his time. He himself tells us that he learned to make and apply the drug from a Carmelite, who had traveled in the east, and whom he met in Florence, in 1622. The descendants of Digby are still prominent in England, and O. W. Holmes, in his “One Hundred Days in Europe,” tells us that he had met a Sir Kenelm Digby, a descendant of the famous Sir Kenelm of the seventeenth century, and that he could hardly refrain from asking him if he had any of his ancestor’s famous powder in his pocket.

Digby was a student of chemistry, or at least of the chemistry of those days, and wrote books of Recipes and the making of “Methington [metheglin or mead?] Syder, etc.” He was, as we have seen in the previous article, a believer in palingenesy and made experiments with a view to substantiate that strange doctrine. Evelyn calls him an “errant quack,” and he may have been given to quackery, but then the loose scientific ideas of those days allowed a wide range in drawing conclusions which, though they seem absurd to us, may have appeared to be quite reasonable to the men of that time.

From his book on the subject,we learn that the wound was never to be brought into contact with the powder. A bandage was to be taken from the wound, immersed in the powder, and kept there until the wound healed.

This beats the absent treatment of Christian Science!

The powder was simply pulverized vitriol, that is, ferric sulphate, or sulphate of iron.

There was another and probably an older method of using sympathetic powders and salves; this was to apply the supposed curative to the weapon which caused the wound, instead of the wound itself. In the “Lay of the Last Minstrel,” Scott gives an account of the way in which the Lady of Buccleuch applied this occult surgery to the wound of William of Deloraine:

“She drew the splinter from the wound,
And with a charm she stanched the blood.
She bade the gash be cleansed and bound:
No longer by his couch she stood;
But she has ta’en the broken lance.
And washed it from the clotted gore,
And salved the splinter o’er and o’er.
William of Deloraine, in trance,
Whene’er she turned it round and round
Twisted as if she galled his wound.
Then to her maidens she did say,
That he should be whole man and sound,
Within the course of a night and day.
Full long she toiled, for she did rue
Mishap to friend so stout and true.”
That no direct benefit could have been derived from such a mode of treatment must be obvious, but De Morgan very plausibly claims that in the then state of surgical and medical knowledge, it was really the very best that could have been adopted. His argument is as follows: “The sympathetic powder was that which cured by anointing the weapon with its salve instead of the wound. I have been long convinced that it was efficacious. The directions were to keep the wound clean and cool, and to take care of diet, rubbing the salve on the knife or sword. If we remember the dreadful notions upon drugs which prevailed, both as to quantity and quality, we shall readily see that any way of not dressing the wound, would have been useful. If the physicians had taken the hint, had been careful of diet, etc., and had poured the little barrels of medicine down the throat of a practicable doll, theywould have had their magical cures as well as the surgeons. Matters are much improved now; the quantity of medicine given, even by orthodox physicians, would have been called infinitesimal by their professional ancestors. Accordingly, the College of Physicians has a right to abandon its motto, which is, Ars longa, vita brevis, meaning, Practice is long, so life is short.”

As set forth by Digby and others, the use of the Powder of Sympathy is free from all taint of witchcraft or magic, but, in another form, it was wholly dependent upon incantations and other magical performances. This idea of sympathetic action was even carried so far as to lead to attempts to destroy or injure those whom the operator disliked. In some cases this was done by moulding an image in wax which, when formed under proper occult influences, was supposed to have the power of transferring to the victim any injuries inflicted on the image. Into such images pins and knives were thrust in the hope that the living original would suffer the same pains and mutilations that would be inflicted if the knives or pins were thrust into him, and sometimes the waxen form was held before the fire and allowed to melt away slowly in the hope that the prototype would also waste away, and ultimately die. Shakespeare alludes to this in the play of King John. In Act v., Scene 4, line 24, Melun says:

“A quantity of life 
Which bleeds away, even as a form of wax, 
Resolveth from his figure ‘gainst the fire?”

And Hollinshed tells us that “it was alleged against Dame Eleanor Cobham and her confederates that they had devised an image of wax, representing the king, which, by their sorcerie, by little and little consumed, intending thereby, in conclusion, to waste and destroy the king’s person.”

In these cases, however, the operator always depended upon certain occult or demoniacal influences, or, in other words, upon the art of magic, and therefore examples of this kind do not come within the scope of the present volume. In the case of the Powder of Sympathy the results were supposed to be due entirely to natural causes.

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