Magic – Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog I looked at the questions you should pose when trying to create a nicely rounded form of magic.  So what about the types of magic that are actually ‘out there’ in the real world that you can take inspiration from?  Of course, you can take inspiration from published fantasy writers and sculpt the seed of an idea from their work into something that’s uniquely your own.  But there is magic in the real world, woven into the very essence of our beliefs and culture, which you can tap into.

  • Ordinary things – Fantasy is the genre of “what if…?”.   Now look at the world around you through that lens with magic in mind. What if I could open the door with a single thought?  What if I could read people’s minds?  What if the electricity in this computer could control the actions of the dog?  What if I could sleep walk into another world?  What if I could guess the lottery numbers each week?  The ordinary can be turned into the extraordinary by breaking the mould and questioning its constraints.
  • Religion – Every religion probably originated from magical beliefs, and uses magic in its rituals, though not every religion likes to call it ‘magic’ as such, it’s usually called something like a miracle, mystery, prophecy, divine retribution or God’s will.  Religious magic is very powerful, as it is strongly entrenched in people’s beliefs and accepted as something that only a God (or their representatives on Earth) are capable of doing.  Any type of magic outside this divine magic is then looked at as either impossible and to be ignored (at best) or dangerous and in need of elimination (at worst).  For example, God’s representatives turning water into wine is fine by Christianity, but a little old lady who has a black cat and warts on her face doing the same trick about 400 years ago probably wouldn’t have been looked upon so favourably.  And yet it’s OK to have bleeding statues, springs that cure blindness and saintly remains that don’t decompose.  As a source of magic in fantasy writing, religion is a great place to start as you’re tapping into those inherent beliefs already in your readers that Gods can do just about anything – for example, David and Leigh Eddings have used religious forms of magic extensively in their writing.  Religious magic is something that’s a part of everyday life in the world you know, so there’s no reason why it can’t play a part in your fantasy world as well.
  • Modern magic – I was quite taken with the book called The Prestige by Christopher Priest, which is about a stage magician who uses an electrical contraption to perform a magic trick that is both dangerous and soul-destroying, to clone himself and achieve the greatest of marvels.  This was quite an unusual take on the world of the modern magician, with a satisfying fantasy edge. This book asked what if a magician could actually do something beyond sleight of hand?  What if the magic were real?  But the magician need not be someone who performs on stage.  The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde holds a similar kind of promise.  Although Dorian is not a magician, he performs a type of magic to achieve his desire, by selling his soul to the devil (a concept that has been around for centuries) to stay beautiful while his picture magically ages in his stead.
  • Medieval magic – Although many innocent people were persecuted for magical practices in Europe and even in America, there were people who did practise magic in the middle ages.  This is very likely to have arisen from pagan times and the constraints on people’s beliefs imposed by the Christian church.  So people had to go ‘underground’ to practise the old rites and rituals that they believed were their right and which they thought could control their environment in some way.  Mostly these were simple magics such as herbs and bizarre concoctions to cure illnesses, and amulets and other things that people believed provide magical protection.  But there are also stories of necromancy; to make the dead do what you want or to provide information about the future, which seem a bit nastier and were mainly conducted by educated men as the spells were written in Latin.
  • Ancient magic – My favourite types of ancient magic are from ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome, the British Isles and Central America, and yes, their magic was largely based on religion and religious ritual.  However, a little blog like this is too small to cover such extensive and complex topics.  So I’ll give you a taste of each and a few links you might like to look at:
    • GreeceAncient Greece was alive with myth, Gods and legend, from the god Zeus’s lustful transgressions (which resulted in quite a few humans like Achilles and Heracles claiming him as their father and with powers beyond mortal man), to the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi and to adventurers like Homer who saw and battled magical creatures near and far like the sirens and cyclops.  The Greeks even had a god dedicated to magic, witchcraft, necromancy and sorcery called Hecate.
    • Egypt – The use of magic in ancient Egypt was quite an intimate one and wasn’t looked at in the way that modern eyes would perceive magic, instead it was seen as an energy or power that was neither good or evil, but could be used in either direction.  There were people in the community who could invoke magic, those who were believed to be born with it (such as dwarves) and those who became magical at specific times (e.g. breastfeeding women).  Pharaohs, Gods and the dead were considered to be inherently magical, but magic (or ‘heka’) was essentially a part of daily life and an integral part of the fabric of their society.
    • Rome – The Romans were a bit more pragmatic about magic.  They tended to view it as dangerous and something practised only by charlatans.  They also brought in laws to forbid its practice, but it was still everywhere around them; in their religion, the amulets people wore and in the people peddling magic on the streets.  The street magicians could provide a spell for all sorts of things, such as to fix a chariot race, murder someone or provide a variety of different potions.  But any Roman might try to invoke magical assistance, usually to cure a sickness or prevent pregnancy by performing small rituals with a combination of objects.
    • British Isles – Across the British Isles, ancient myth and legend also abound full of magic and magical creatures as far back as the neolithic age, through to Roman occupation.  But it tends to be a rawer, more visceral type of magic.  We all know the stories of Merlin and other magical goings on at the court of King Arthur, but these were just popular middle age fantasy tales.  What little we know of the magic used by the ancient Celts, Picts, Stone-age people, etc. resound with stories of blood sacrifice, tragic myths, superhuman heroes and a strong belief in magical spirits, ghosts and fairies.  There are countless websites and books professing to know all about the spells and rituals conducted by ‘druids’ and such.  But so much of that ancient world was unwritten, so it is very unlikely anyone knows what they got up to, all you’re seeing is the imaginative fantasies of specific people.  Your best source is archeological evidence and guessing.  Why did the neolithic peoples inhale the smoke of or eat ‘magic’ mushrooms?  Why did the Celts leave broken swords and jewellery in remote ponds?  Why were people killed and left in bogs?  All of these types of rituals seem to point to religious ceremony to invoke the goodwill and magic of the Gods, but your guess is as good as the next person as to what their real intent might have been.
    • Central America – If the magic of the ancient British Isles was visceral, then that of Central America was quite violent and gory.  Blood sacrifice was rife, but this didn’t always mean extracting a beating heart from someone’s chest, the elite members of Mayan society were required to perform bloodletting as a part of ritual sacrifice (by piercing their tongue, ears or genitals) – thus keeping the Gods happy. Some cultures employed mind-altering drugs (imbibed, smoked and inserted) to communicate with spirits in order to predict the future, cure certain ills (wars, illnesses) and during rites of passage.  And it’s believed that magical displays were also given to convince people magic was real (but appears to have involved the occasional trapdoor and the use of twins).  But their magic could also be more everyday, to cure illnesses or to imbue an article with the power to protect.

Magic isn’t just a witch on a broomstick, it’s much more than that.  People have used magic in their daily lives for thousands of years to help them understand and try to control their lives and environment, because they had so little knowledge of how it worked.  Modern science may have dulled the need for people to want to use such magic any more, but science itself is magic and is worth exploring as a topic in fantasy – not just in science-fiction.

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