Powder of Sympathy

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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 simple:

"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.