Saturday, April 7, 2018

Sympathetic Magic: What are correspondences, how do they work and how can I make my own?

The Interconnectedness of Energy

Herbs. Gemstones. Oils. Colors.  We witches turn to ingredients and tools like these to achieve our desired effect when creating a spell.  Unfortunately, we often take the correspondences they represent at face-value.  We pull from a table online or out of a spell book and cast our spell without paying much attention to the representation behind the ingredients we use.  Then, when the spell backfires, we wonder why.

Correspondence is the concept that unlike objects and ideas are connected on a metaphysical or subconscious level, their energies tied in a way that magic workers can exploit to bring about their personal intent.  As humans, we like to create patterns.  We see faces in everyday objects and link events together regardless of whether they’re actually connected.   These same connections often appear in mundane life and even the most ordinary of people use them.  Whether it’s pink and blue as binary gender concepts or the rabbit as a symbol of fertility and sex, these ideas root themselves in our unconscious and shape the way we think – for better or for worse.

In witchcraft, we use these correspondences to manipulate the energy of the world around us.  We perform spells that align with the time of day or phase of the moon, selecting ingredients ranging from herbs to gemstones that we perceive will strengthen the energies we want to use.  We create love spells around pink and red with rose oil and rose quartz.  We make calming blue sleep sachets with chamomile and lavender.  Oftentimes, we pull these correspondences from a correspondence table – an esoteric reference list of items and their magical uses cataloged for our convenience.   Have you ever noticed, however, that every correspondence table differs?  Pull up five different lists and check what allspice is used for.  If you only see a few correspondences, you’ll notice that they often vary.  Alternatively, you’ll get a long list of just about every use under the sun – and moon.  How do you determine what’s real?  What are the actual correspondences?

A Short History of Correlation

From the dawn of time, humans have created correspondences between nature and our own needs.  The evolution of folk medicine and correspondences is largely owed to something we currently call sympathetic magic.  Meaning “alike” or “similar to,” sympathetic magic is defined as imitation and correspondence.  This is where we develop concepts like yellow meaning sun or bay leaf meaning protection.  But where did sympathetic magic come from?

From literally every culture throughout history.

As I mentioned before, humans love to create patterns out of unlike objects and ideas.  We’ve been doing this since we could see stars and create tools.  Folk medicine and divine intervention were our first forms of science.  As we have crossed continents and developed independent cultures, we’ve created a wide array of correspondences specific to each magical and folk practice.  Judaism has the Kabbalah, which was stolen and Christianized in the Renaissance; Gnostic books focus on good and evil beings, creating correspondences between them and the virtues and vices.  Indian Aurvedic healthcare manuals feature correspondences and Chinese traditional medicine heavily relies on correlations as well.

Dating back to the first century, the doctrine of signatures is one of our earliest recorded methods of correspondences.  The core of this theory is visual: Herbs that look like certain parts of the body can be used to heal and treat said parts.  This is where we get ideas like walnuts being good for the brain and beet juice being good for blood.  During the Renaissance, Swiss physician Paracelsus strongly advocated for the use of the doctrine of signatures and, through the sixteenth century, this theory played a large role in the creation and knowledge of Western medicine.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of signatures was largely the cause of many deaths and is now considered pseudoscience – for good reason.  One such example is Aristolochia clematitis, commonly known as European birthwort.  Because the plant resembled a uterus, the doctrine of signatures held that it would be helpful during childbirth.  After birth, this plant would be consumed to encourage the placenta to expel.  Unfortunately, birthwort contains a lethal toxin called aristolochic acid, which is highly carcinogentic and damages the kidneys.  Throughout history, Aristolochia clematitis has been the unfortunate cause of many deaths, often from renal failure.  If you’ve ever wondered why this toxic plant is known as birthwort, the doctrine of signatures is your answer.

Other correspondence theories popped up during the 17th and 18th centuries, including theologian and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg’s theory of correspondences from his 1744 Regnum Animale.  None had quite enough sticking power as the lasting basis for correspondences today.

Hermeticism and Other Theories

So if we abandoned the doctrine of signatures in the 17th century, why do we will utilize correspondences?  High magic, of course  Working with alchemy and planets, magicians utilized correspondences in their every day work.  But these correspondences actually have an older basis dating all the way back to the Greeks and Egyptians.

All Hermetic theory and writing hails from Hermes Trismegistus, an entity seen as the syncretism of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.  Hermeticism claims three great wisdoms: Alchemy, the study of the reconstitution of various matter; astrology, the study of the metaphorical and spiritual value of the movement of planets and stars; and theurgy, the study of the subconscious, the spiritual realm and the entities that inhabit that plane.  We can already see that we’re linking common items from alchemy with the planets and stars of astrology with the subconscious and entities of theurgy.

Additionally, the Principle of Correspondence is a core aphorism within Hermeticism.  This principle is present through nearly every spiritual and religious sect.  As a witch, you’ve likely heard it: “As above, so below.”  The Principle of Correspondence asserts a macrocosm and microcosm of the universe – that is, the concept that each singular part of the universe is a reflection of the greater whole.  Hermeticism purports that three planes exist: The physical plane, where the mundane occurs; the mental plane, the lens through which we process all other planes and where things must exist first; and the spiritual or subconscious plane, the “otherness” of the universe.  These planes are ordered, so that the physical plane is below and the spiritual or subconscious plane is above.  As above, so below. As below, so above.  Each item, each entity, each part is a reflection of that same part, entity or item on the other planes.  Whatever happens on any one level happens on all other levels.

If you’d like a more detailed description, I talk about the Principle of Correspondence in depth here

In Hermeticism, energy is the vibration everything exhibits as it inhabits the three planes.  It has to vibrate because these planes are just a degree off from one another.  By vibrating, it exists in all three locations at once.  For the physical, its existence is exactly as we see it.  For the mental, its existence is how we perceive it.

But what about the subconscious or spiritual?

The traits the item possesses are how it exists on the higher plane.  This is the core of Hermetic correspondence.

This still leaves room for interpretation, of course.  How exactly do correspondences work?  How do they come about?  Three major schools of thought exist on this topic.

The first is that magic is akin to science.  Every item you use, every word or symbol, the timing and deities, are ingredients that have to be performed or utilized in the correct order to produce the desired event.  This assumes that all items have their own independent and fixed powers, separate from our own personal gnosis, our own experiences.  Through this method, there is a “right” and a “wrong” way of performing a spell.

A second theory believes that correspondences are merely associations that we don’t necessarily have to have when performing magic.  In this school of thought, we have all the power we already need and any correlations are transitory, meaning we can change them at will.  All correspondences are personal gnosis and can be manipulated or thrown away when no longer needed.  Theoretically, you could cast a spell with just intent and energy work alone by this method.

The final theory is an amalgamation of the two prior ones.  Correspondences are aids, whose energy is primarily stable within THE ALL yet also manipulated by our own beliefs and experiences.  In this method, correspondences and your personal magic are partners, creating an easier flow of energy to your target goal.  Your intent is necessary but, as humans, difficult to enact by sheer will alone.  The tools and ingredients you use have only slightly mutable energy based on the belief of the majority and your own personal beliefs, but aren’t enough on their own to create any real change.  Balance is the key to this school of thought.

Weening Yourself from Charts and Tables

When we use a table we’ve pulled up online, we often have little idea where those correspondences come from.  This lack of understanding, I feel, creates a gap in our ability to utilize the energy the item exhibits.  It becomes a toss-up as to whether our magical workings will actually, well, work.  Correspondences become most effective when we have researched, studied, utilized and experienced in a way that crosses various systems of thought.  In this, we create the most specific correspondence that fits our cultural, scientific, historical and personal world views.

I would suggest starting a journal or keeping electronic notes.  Having a record of your research and experiences will make it far easier in the end to create your own correspondence charts.


Your first stop on the correspondence creation check-list should be the science behind the item.  Look up what gemstones are made out of and how they’re formed.  Find the chemical composition of the herb you want to use and what that means in the most literal of terms.  You’ll find that many herbs and oils have actual scientific uses.  For example, the bay leaf has narcotic properties because it contains eucalyptol, a sedative that can produce slightly hallucinogenic effects.  This is why the oracles of Apollo would use this herb to obtain visions.

History and Lore

The next step is to dive into the object’s history.  Find out where the herb originates and the mythology around it.  What was it originally used for?  Where is it present in the lore?  For example, let’s look at the story of Daphne and Apollo.  Shot with an arrow of love, Apollo relentlessly pursued the nymph until she finally begged her father to help her.  She was transformed into bay laurel to protect her, but Apollo’s love for her kept him vigilant.  This is why we associate bay both with protection and Apollo.


Most resources available are written by Westerners for Western culture.  This isn’t to say that you should dive into a culture you don’t understand and steal their meaning; quite the contrary, you should look at your own local culture and see what the item, timing or color is being used for in your society.  Here in the US, we often associate green with money because our currency is printed in green.  However, in other countries, colors like red or gold are associated with currency.  Red often symbolizes strength or love here, but you may find that it represents life and fertility or death and mourning where you live.  Look at the people around you and see what correspondences you find that are unique to your region or city.

Personal Associations

Up to this point, we’ve kept our feet firmly planted in the physical and mental.  Science evokes the physical, while history, lore and culture focus on the mental.  The reality is that correspondences traverse all three planes.  Once you have done your due diligence in research, it’s time to turn to the subconscious or spiritual plane.  Here, you have two methods of creating correspondences.  The first is by feeling the energy of the object.  You can do this through energy work or meditation, or by astral travel or hedge-crossing to see its subconscious or metaphysical counterparts.  The second way is to simply start using it.  Pick a gemstone up and carry it with you that day.  What happens?  Start adding a certain edible herb to your food.  Does it change anything? By both sensing the intrinsic energy of the item and using it regularly, we can begin to form our own personal associations.  Combine these with the other three methods and your correspondence chart should be strong, personalized and ready for use!

A Few Final Notes

In all that has been written here, I don’t want to downplay the use of quick online or book-based correspondence charts for the new witch.  Performing spells and using ingredients is how we learn.  It is more than okay to pull up a chart on your phone and try something out while you’re still formulating your own system!

A few words of caution as you create your own charts, however: Avoid violating the integrity of the systems listed above.  It’s easy to get caught up in forcing correlations that don’t exist.  As always, we humans like patterns and often create them by fitting everything into tiny boxes.  The problem is that these things don’t often fit and are instead crammed.  Correspondences that are forced violate the essence of correspondences in the first place.

It’s also easy to fall into a trap where you utilize every single correspondence possible, feeling that the multiple connections will strengthen your energy or open the path for better flow.  This isn’t necessarily the case.  We can easily be overwhelmed by attempting to perform a spell with 20 ingredients at the correct moon phase, astrological sign, season, day of the week, hour and so forth.  Instead, find what calls to you and use what works best.  You’ll find that your magic is more effective if you don’t feel pressured.

Finally, if you disagree with a correspondence in a scientific, historical or cultural context, don’t fret.  You still have your own personal experiences to contend with.  If you have a large conflict of suggested correlations, try to understand why that may be.  Look for possible gaps in your research, cultural context you might not have thought of or your own experiences with the item.  When in doubt, go with your instincts.

As with all things witchcraft, creating your own correspondence chart takes time.  Don’t try to rush it in one evening, one month or even a year.  Through experience, you’ll connect with a set of herbs, gemstones, oils and more that you’ll find you regularly come back to.  This will be the basis for most of your spell work.  As your craft grows, so will your chart.  Be patient.  It’s worth it!

Further Reading
The Pagan Grove: Creating Magickal Correspondences
Easy Spellcraft: Creating your own Magickal Correspondences.

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