“The Powder of Sympathy”
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:
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:
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.