Powder of Sympathy
An occult remedy applied to the weapon that caused a
wound, and which supposedly cured the hurt. This method was
in vogue during the reigns of James I and Charles I, when its
chief exponent was Sir Kenelm Digby. Digby published his theory
in a volume entitled A late Discourse . . . by Sir Kenelm Digby,
Kt. & c. Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy
(London, 1658). Sir Francis Bacon had also written on the subject
a generation earlier in his book Sylva Sylvarum or, a Natural
History (1627), in which he quoted a recipe for the powder
‘‘It is constantly Received, and Avouched, that the Anounting
of the Weapon, that maketh the Wound wil heale the
Wound it selfe. In this Experiment, upon the Relation of Men
of Credit, (though my selfe, as yet, am not fully inclined to
beleeve it,) you shal note the Points following; First, the Ointment
. . . is made of Divers ingredients; whereof the Strangest
and Hardest to come by, are the Mosse upon the Skull of a dead
Man, Unburied; And the Fats of a Boare, and a Beare, killed
in the Art of Generation. These Two last I could easily suspect
to be prescribed as a Starting Hole; That if the Experiment
proved not, it mought be pretended, that the Beasts were not
killed in due Time . . .’’
A summary of Digby’s theory was presented at an assembly
at Montpellier in France. According to T. J. Pettigrew’s book
On Superstitions connected with the History and Practice of Medicine
and Surgery (1844), his instruction for making the powder was
‘‘Take Roman vitriol six or eight ounces, beat it very small
in a mortar, sift it through a fine sieve when the sun enters Leo;
keep it in the heat of the sun by day, and dry by night.’’
Pettigrew, T. J. On Superstitions connected with the History and
Practice of Medicine and Surgery. N.p., 1844.
Redgrove, H. Stanley. Bygone Beliefs Being a Series of Excursions
in the Byways of Thought. London Rider, 1920. Reprinted
as Magic & Mysticism Studies in Bygone Beliefs. New Hyde Park,
N.Y. University Books, 1971.