How Culture and Philosophy Shapes Magic

I was chatting online with a good friend and started to explain how the practice of magic is a result of both the environment and the philosophy of those working magic. Our conversation was cut short, but I was inspired to take the ideas I was relaying in my impromptu talk and write them out in a more coherent and organized fashion.

The World of Entorais is a low fantasy setting, but not without magic. I wanted to have a few types of magic present, which would be influenced by the user’s culture and philosophy, while still keeping a common source behind all magic for internal consistency.

All magic arose naturally as an emergent property of amassed life-force and creative intelligence. The more life and intelligence gathered together in one place, the more accessible magic becomes. Magic requires a strong affinity or soul to access, but also a capable mind to manipulate and will into existence the power to enact change. Some species of animals might have magical abilities, which they use in an instinctive fashion for a particular effect, and which evolved alongside their more mundane abilities.

Sapience allows for one to become sufficiently aware of the underlying nature of magic to study and refine it to make it more malleable. Thus the philosophical and intellectual study of magic allows individual systems of practising magic to arise.

There are three common cross-cultural magic systems: Psionics, Sorcery, and Theurgy.

Psionics – A naturally and spontaneously occurring type of magic which arises in individuals with an affinity for magic. There are distinct paths of psionic, or mind magic, which define the way in which this magic interacts with the world. One endowed with such magic can achieve different related magical effects referred to as talents within the same psionic path. The paths one might have are seemingly random and often remain dormant within an individual. Stressful experiences or exceptional affinity might awaken these powers, and once an individual is aware of the path or specific talent, they may strengthen and refine their powers. This can be self directed through trial and error or by training under someone who also has psionic powers, ideally in the same path. Most paths have a small number of common talents, but may have more discoverable by persons who have pushed the limits of their psionic powers to open new ways of using their powers.

Sorcery – A philosophical theory of magic which allows people to access and use magic in a structured system composed of six elements: Spirit, Water, Earth, Metal, Fire, and Air. This arrangement arose from study of the four classical elemental psionic paths. In trying to understand these elements, early sorcerers discovered the additional elements of spirit and metal. These are conceived of as a circular wheel. Practitioners will become attuned to one element, and have decreased ability with the adjacent elements, and little or no ability with the diametric opposite element. The more one studies and focuses on their particular affinity element, the greater their understanding of that element, with an inverse regarding the opposite element. So for example, the more one attunes themselves to water magic the less attuned they become with fire magic. It is still possible to attune to multiple elements. Grey mages are persons who have achieved the sorcerous ideal of being equally attuned to all six elements, figuratively moving from the rim of the wheel to the hub. Such a state of balance is mythic, and perhaps unobtainable within a mortal’s lifetime. This is a kind of Nirvana which one may continue to strive towards, but might never obtain.

Theurgy – Belief in the gods and their ability to affect the world through miraculous powers is a common thread in many cultures. To those who believe, magic is a gift from the divine, and those who are pious enough in their service to a deity may be gifted with a small measure of their divine power. Through ritual prayer and ceremony, devout worshippers might enact smaller miracles aligned with their god’s particular domain. Being able to do so is directly tied to one’s piety and understanding of the particular deity’s desires. So a worshipper of Shaelar, the Waejiran fire god, may be able to perform ritual magic to summon forth fire, but not rain. This system of magic is both defined and restricted by the perception of the deity as the source of magic, which is then channelled through the most devout of their worshippers.

An individual might have ability in any system of magic. It is simply a matter of affinity and intellect. This allows for less common systems to arise, which require a different world view or philosophy to understand at a level appropriate for working that magic. Smaller or more isolated cultures may have wholly unique magic systems. For example the Sildaryn practice of Spellsinging.

Spellsinging – The Dalfyn, Sidaryn druid-shamans, work a kind of magic tightly interlaced with their animist beliefs about the nature of all things. They believe that by studying a given entity’s physical nature, and communing with its spiritual form, one might access some essence of the subject spirit, and thence work magic in the world. This is a negotiation between the Dalfyn and the subject spirit, in which the spirit may require the Dalfyn to perform a service on its behalf, or accept a ban on behaviour, in exchange for learning its song. For example the spirit of a fruit bearing tree might allow a Dalfyn to learn how to cause it to flower and bear fruit, out of season in an accelerated fashion. In exchange the Dalfyn must agree to plant seeds in ideally suitable spots for new plants, and/or refrain from eating the fruit themselves. Should the Dalfyn fail in this task, they may have to atone for their lapse or lose the ability to perform that song for effect.

It should be noted that, due to the way magic systems arise and develop, the very act of intellectual study, application of labels, and formation of theories about how things work, establishes the limits of the magical system. The more precise the study, meditation, and experimentation regarding a system, the more defined it becomes, both in what it can do, but also in what it cannot do. This means that while more powerful magical effects are attainable for the truly studious and long learned practitioners, they become more limited in the breadth of their powers. Like the narrowing effect of knowledge with mundane expertise in a field, they know more and more about less and less.

Additionally, there is a common drawback to will working in that it is physically, emotionally, and mentally draining. Effectively, any individual magic user can become exhausted and unable to functionally perform their magic, should they over extend themselves with specific effects, or make too frequent use of their powers. This can be somewhat mitigated through certain specific practices, which allow pooling of energy, prepared storage in advance, or group work for greater power or wider reaching effects. Some magic users will also combine different effect in pieces to achieve a greater effect once combined.

Magic is also not guaranteed to succeed every time. Small moments of distraction, or other minor errors of concentration, or misapplication of the theories, can result in simply ineffective application of the power, or wild and unanticipated results, or overpowered and dangerous effects. This leads to a lot of self correction amongst those who practice magic, to limit the dissemination of knowledge to those whom are disciplined enough to show restraint and care in the use of their powers. As such, access to magical knowledge and training becomes rare amongst the general population, or rigidly constrained to rank in the clergy or arcane guilds as appropriate.

Due to magic’s rarity, the spectacular and hard to explain or understand effects, and lack of common knowledge, magic users tend to be distrusted by the majority of people without access to such power. Fear is a regular reaction, and laws restricting or prohibiting the practice of magic are often the result.

Competing philosophies have difficulty reconciling the differences between them. Theurgists often see sorcerers as people full of hubris, and trying to claim divine powers for themselves, in a clearly heretical manner. Contrarily, Sorcerers see Theurgist as deluded and unnecessarily superstitious folk, who are dependant upon the whims of their deity to dole out power. Both groups distrust persons capable of Psionic magic, as the non-divine nature, and lack of training or study, makes them more chaotic in the application of their magic. Undisciplined and unpredictable, mind mages are poorly treated by both the general population and those in the arcane guilds or churches.

Beneath these differences, magic is the same at its root. It all comes from the same source, and functions along the same fundamental principles. The philosophy of the user forms the lens through which it is understood and manipulated. Having an underlying cohesive primordial source for all magic allows for special cases, such as magical diseases or curses, to exist within the same structure. For example, Therianthropy.

Therianthrope – A person whom can transform between their natural form and that of a particular beast. This is realized as a infectious disease, with a magical ability that transfers to the infected. Through this system, a victim of such a creature could survive the initial attack and succumb to the disease at a later time. However, if they recover from the disease, the magical ability and infectious nature of the disease will have integrated into their being, such that they now exist as the same sort of cursed being. They gain the ability to transform between forms, but are also capable of spreading the curse, just like the original creature that gave them it.

With this unifying magical conceptualization, I can expand upon the extant lore for the already detailed magical philosophies and practices, and add additional practices or manifestations of magic in different areas of the world of Entorais, which I have yet to explore in detail. Keeping with the idea of consistency, such additions should not contradict or undermine the already extant systems for magic use.