Imitation as Magical Incantation
As anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) observes, “[W]e find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous.” In The Golden Bough, James George Frazer identifies two basic principles, or techniques, underlying the practice of magic. The first is the law of similarity, which assumes that like produces like, and that the effect resembles its cause. The second is the law of contact or contagion, which assumes that things that once were in contact with each other continue to influence each other at a distance after the contact is over. Frazer calls magic that is based on the law of similarity “imitative,” or “mimetic,” magic.
In mimetic magic, the created image is thought to somehow capture the essence of the object it represents, so that what is done to the image is thought to be done to the object (immediately or in the future).
When an act of symbolizing, whether through drawing or mimetic enactment, “represents” what is absent, it gives the object a sort of life and reality. The more realistic the image or enactment, the more vivid and powerful the impression that the object has been summoned and is thus under control. Again, it is not the actual thing itself that is invoked through mimesis but the essence or spirit of the thing that it made to appear before us “through the metaphors and symbols that ‘give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.'”
Hunting peoples have long used imitative magic to “summon” and “control” the animals they hunt. Typically, an image of the prey animal is drawn so that it can be pierced by spears or arrows in the belief that this mimetic enactment will influence future events. Ojibwa hunters, for example, chant the following words over a drawn depiction of the prey animal, “I shoot you in the heart, I shoot you in the heart, O beast! I hit your heart.”