Fish sinkers reveal deeper meaning

Lead fishing sinkers.
Lead fishing sinkers.

Written by Jeannie Swales

These lead fishing sinkers were probably never intended to be seen by anyone other than the fisherman using them, and the fish he caught (or didn’t!) – so why has someone gone to the trouble of decorating them, albeit fairly crudely, as representations of fish?

The answer – whether the maker knew it or not – probably lies with the ancient belief in sympathetic magic.

Also known as imitative magic, the principles of sympathetic magic were discussed at length by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) in his great treatise on folklore, mythology and religion, The Golden Bough, first published in 1890.

Frazer divides sympathetic magic into two types – the first, the Law of Similarity, says that ‘like produces like’; the second, the Law of Contagion, ‘that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed’.

“From... the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it,” Frazer tells us. “Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic.”

In other words – you’re more likely to catch a fish with something that looks like a fish.

And of course, the word 
‘homeopathy’ is still in widespread use today, describing the system of alternative medicine that decrees that ‘like cures like’.

The sinkers are just one 
example of sympathetic magic to be found in the collection of Scarborough folklorist William James Clarke (1871-1945), whose many charms and amulets are now part of the Scarborough Collections.

Other examples include jewellery in the form of eyes, meant to protect the wearer from the glance of an ‘evil eye’; and crude medical devices in which something which resembled the source of pain or infection would in some way help to cure it – perhaps wearing the tooth of an animal on a string around the neck to alleviate toothache.

And possibly the most 
obvious example of sympathetic magic is the witch’s ‘poppet’, similar to a Haitian voodoo doll – a representation of a person which the magician wants to harm, by damaging the doll in some way.

The lead fishing sinkers are part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects that have been acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on or 01723 384510.