Archive for the 'Magic and Magicians' Category

Yo, Melanthios, I ain’t sure this dead-eyed witch sellin’ phallus curses is on the level

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The quote above is from the three witches, the Weird Sisters, in MacBeth. It reflects a genuine belief in folklore and tradition that magic sometimes required the use of obscene, gruesome ingredients. We have accounts of this from second hand sources, and also from sources written or even used by magic practitioners. However, there’s one particular page of papyrus written in Greek, dating from the 4th century AD that sort of pulls the pants down on this whole notion.

In a column on the left it lists assorted strange or gruesome spell components supposedly used in witchcraft and magic. In a column on the right it lists what each one actually represents. You see, according to the anonymous authors, their local magicians were filthy liars.

It was theatrics. If you made things seem more weird and gruesome and mystical, more people were likely to think you were legit. Given that many magicians in the ancient world were in it to make a buck, bullshitting of this nature was a valuable talent. It also meant your rivals weren’t sure what sort of stuff you were using, and if you did use weird and exotic ingredients, it meant you had some more mundane stuff to fall back on when supplies were low.

Here’s the twin lists, translated from Greek* (the headers are mine): Continue reading ‘Yo, Melanthios, I ain’t sure this dead-eyed witch sellin’ phallus curses is on the level’

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Beware Old Man Willow

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The poem in the above picture is, supposedly, an excerpt from a Somerset folk-song. I say “supposedly” because the source is one Ruth Tongue. Ms. Tongue was an invaluable source of Somerset folklore, publishing numerous books, but she was not a trained researcher, she was a storyteller. As a result, it’s hard to tell if some of her works are genuine folklore or her own creations, and I’ve never been able to find a full copy of the song this excerpt comes from.

Nevertheless, it reflects a genuine belief in British folklore that different trees had supernatural properties. Elm trees were thought to grieve for one another; if one elm died, another nearby may as well. Oaks were thought to be vengeful, and a coppiced oak grove, grown from the stumps of oaks cut down by humans, was not a safe place to be, especially if a carpet of bluebells lay beneath it; that meant it might be home to hostile, dwarf-like nature spirits called Oakmen. Willow trees were more dangerous still, uprooting themselves after dark to follow people around, muttering dark threats.

There are many other such beliefs, aside from the ones in this poem. Oaks were also reputed to wail when cut. Hawthrown trees were supposed to be fairy-haunted. Yew trees were associated with death, and nothing was supposed to grow around them; this one might have some basis in fact, as yew leaves are toxic. There’s a story about a sacred elder tree in Borrisokane that if anyone  tried to burn part of it for firewood, their house would be consumed in an inferno.

This is just a sampling of such beliefs. It simply goes to show that cultures that believed in magic saw it everywhere. Modern fiction sometimes presents the world as if there is nature (which functions according to science and physics as we understand it) and then the supernatural (which does not) but genuine magical beliefs tended not to make this distinction. The magic of trees is just one small example of this philosophy.

MAGIC, PART XLII: The Priest and the Magician

Calming a Storm - Wiliam Hole

If I were to tell you, devoid of any other context, about a man who could command demons, cast curses that caused living things to wither and die, or control the weather, then you might be reasonably forgiven for thinking I was talking about a wizard. Of course, these are all actually miracles of Jesus. The line between magic and divine power is a concept you see a lot in fiction—the powers of the gods and the powers of a human sorcerer do not spring from the same source. This distinction has not always been present in human beliefs, and is in many ways somewhat rare.

Continue reading ‘MAGIC, PART XLII: The Priest and the Magician’

LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy

Profanation de l'hostie lors d'une messe noire

The idea of a fantastical school where people are taught magic is an old cliché in fantasy literature, and with good reason. A writer could hardly ask for a better setting. You can humorously juxtapose the mundanity of schoolwork with the wonders of magic, or write a parable about the responsibilities of power, or just tell a rollicking adventure story as people learn (or fail) to tame the supernatural. These days the most famous example is the Harry Potter series, but the concept goes back a long way—a very long way, in fact.

The earliest example I know of is from medieval Spain, in the city of Salamanca. The city is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1134. According to legend, though, there was another school nearby, of a considerably different nature, that certain students sought out. This school was inside of the Church of Saint Cyprian, or rather in a cave beneath the church. This cave, the Cueva de Salamanca, was a school of dark sorcery, taught by a mysterious headmaster who would answer any question imaginable regarding witchcraft, necromancy, summoning demons, or any other black arts. Only seven students could attend his dark academy at a time, for a period of seven years. At the end of this period all the students could leave save one; his soul was a sacrifice to the headmaster, who was truly Satan. Continue reading ‘LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy’

SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds

The magic circle, by John William Waterhouse

If you’re writing a story about supernatural dangers, you don’t want things ending in the first few pages, so the characters may need some reliable ways to defend themselves. Folklore and legend are chock full of various ways to do this, so per a reader request, I’ve spent the last week digging up some good ones for your use.

These remedies and protections can be played in a lot of different ways in a story. Sure, you could use them as described, but you could also just make them a point of cultural interest, or use their symbolism in a story otherwise devoid of magic. You could undermine them as well, foreshadowing the one crucial defense against a monster, only for the hero to find out it’s all a lot of hot air at the worst possible time. Plus, if you want to create some original otherwordly threat for your story, these might be a good jumping off point for creating your own defenses against it.

Continue reading ‘SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds’

DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath

497px-Page_facing_174_illustration_in_More_English_Fairy_Tales

What makes a magical creature magical? This question has often bugged me in my own writing. Take the griffin, for example. On the one hand, it’s a blatantly impossible creature, part lion and part eagle. At the same time, in most stories, the griffin is just a beast. It’s a strange beast, and it’s very fierce, but it is still a brute creature of flesh and blood, to be avoided or killed. Familiarity breeds contempt, and when a magical creature is reduced to a beast, it becomes much less interesting.

This brings me to dragons. I haven’t talked much about dragons on this blog so far, and that’s been on purpose. There’s so much literature out there about them already that I feel I should avoid the topic unless I have a relatively novel aspect to bring to the table. Today I think I do. You see, dragons often have the same problem as the griffin. It’s all too common to see them reduced to a big dinosaur with halitosis. They’re so popular, so frequently seen and written about, that it’s hard to find new things to do with them. If that issue is one that has plagued you in your creative attempts, this article is for you.

Continue reading ‘DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath’

MAGIC, PART WHATEVER: The Spell List

522px-Arthur-Pyle_The_Enchanter_Merlin

Let’s face it, magic can be hard to write. It offers limitless possibilities to a writer, but once we touch the keyboard or put pen to paper our options can seem much more restrained. After all, if your wizard protagonist (or antagonist) can do anything with magic, what stops them from using it to get what they want immediately and ending the story right there?

So you create rules and restrictions, outlining what magic can and can’t do in particular circumstances, and a bit of the wonder is lost. Some intangible quality that was there before is there no longer. The question is, how do you get it back?

Human beings have believed in magic for thousands of years, and when you go back to the old stories and beliefs of people who accepted it as a reality, you find some interesting things. They viewed magic as an incredible force in the world, but it also had limits. Yet in these stories and beliefs, the strangeness, the weirdness, the impossibility of magic can endure despite that. The old-style flavor is sometimes the best.

So, in the interest of helping you to make use of that, I’ve gone through quite a number of my books, collecting examples of spells. They are split into two lists. The first is from ancient myths and legends, reflecting what the people who wrote them might have once thought magic was capable of in their own distant past. These spells tend to be more fantastical, but a bit vague about how the magic was done. The second list is lifted from books of history and anthropology, and consists of spells people actually thought they or their neighbors could cast. These spells tend to be smaller scale, but provide us with more information on how our ancestors thought magic worked and was performed.

Feel free to make use of any of these spells in your writing, either wholesale or as an inspirational jumping off point.

  Continue reading ‘MAGIC, PART WHATEVER: The Spell List’