Writing Magic — Part 3

Kerr-DarkMagicks600x900Before we go any farther in our discussion of using Western magic in fantasy writing, we need to consider an important question: what is the difference between magic and religion?  For that matter, is there any difference?  The devoutly religious will  insist that there is.  Traditionally among monotheists such as Jews, Christians, and Muslims, religion is considered to be “good” and magic, “bad.”  Religion, believers will tell you, is a matter of worshiping the Divine and submitting one’s will to that of God, while magic is a matter of exalting one’s will and making pacts with evil powers.

Yet outside of the Jewish, Christian, or Islamic context, it ain’t necessarily so.  It wasn’t even necessarily so during various periods in the histories of Judaism and its two derivative faiths.  The doctrine of the evils of magic evolved slowly over many centuries.  At the beginning, the “old ways” of the polytheistic religions still held power within the region we considered “The West”, which really should include the north African shore and the “Middle East” as well as Europe.  As priests and mullahs gained in importance, they defined their turf more and more narrowly and did their best to exclude others from holding spiritual power. 

Ultimately, in the Nineteenth Century, the most rigid separation of magic and religion arose from colonial imperialism.  “Natives” in “barbaric” places like sub-Sahara Africa practiced “savage rites” and were “slaves to superstition”.  Enlightened peoples, mostly white males by some strange coincidence, “worshiped” a “higher” god and or practiced a “healthy, sane” scepticism.  I’m not making up the terms in quotes.  They were a common parlance in the writings of the time, particularly of course in missionary writings.

The more modern way of looking at the difference between religion and magic is a matter of recognizing a shifting boundary between the two.  Basically,  who is a wizard and who, a priest, depends on the culture doing the defining.  Both cultural expressions of the human mind have much in common.  Let’s look at some of these shared principles.

1. Intelligent but invisible beings other than humans exist in the universe.  Whether you call them “gods” or “spirits” is pretty much a matter of cultural choice.

2. These beings are organized in a hierarchy of power.  Gods, angels, elementals, efreets, demons, daimones, sprites, imps — there are a lot of names, but they tend to arrange themselves with gods at the top, angels just below, humans in the middle, and other spirits at the bottom.

3. These beings are also labeled good, neutral, and bad in various ways, depending again on culture.  “Good” beings tend to be the ones who help humans, while the “bad” harm them.  The “neutral” spirits don’t give a hoot one way or the other.

4. All of these beings are approachable by humans IF the human knows the right way to do so.  These ways range from exalted prayer and martyrdom to down and dirty spells, depending on the power of the being in question.  Even normally indifferent spirits can be bribed or coerced into co-operating with the priest or wizard.

5. Turn-about’s fair play. If humans want things from the other beings in the chain of existence, those beings often want things from humans, whether it’s the focused attention of worship and prayer or blood sacrifice and sex.

6. If the beings don’t get what they want, they can become quite nasty.  Gods can condemn you to hell, efreets can burn you to a crisp, spirits can give you a bad case of boils, demons can eat your soul.  The results of pissing them off are all a matter of degree.

7.  Thus, messing with magic and religion is dangerous.  Even a single, all-powerful god, the kind described as “loving” by its worshippers, demands obedience to an often-irrational code.  These gods require sacrifices of and set tests for their devotees and threaten grotesque punishments for those who fail them.  Angels tend to despise humans, especially the way they smell.  There’s a persistent tradition in both Judaism and its Christian off-shoot that the angels tried to argue God out of creating humans in the first place.  The lesser spirits are all “tricksy”, to use a good old word.

Now that we’ve seen the similarities, let’s look for a difference.  One that’s often cited comes down to a difference of approach.  If you want something from a god, you worship the god and then beg for what you want.  If you want something from a spirit, you impress or dominate the spirit and then demand what you want.  This distinction, however, doesn’t always hold true.  Both gods and spirits can be bargained with to the mutual benefit of both.  The core of many ancient polytheistic religions was the principle of do ut des, I give that you may give.  The worshipper offers incense smoke, burnt meat, poems, and other things that the gods desire, and in return the god grants the worshipper’s request

Lower spirits as well will grant favors in return for payment.  Lesser spirits like fresh blood, for instance, and can be offered slaughtered animals in return for help.  It’s possible to treat certain kinds of spirit, particularly the elemental spirits, with respect and receive their help in return.  Yet there’s no doubt that domination and blunt spiritual force have always been an integral part of Western magic as well.  We’ll discuss that in some detail later in this series.

In the mean time, here are a few sourcebooks for those who’d like to read more about ancient religion and magic in the classical world.  These books are collections of ancient writings in translation with editorial comments.

THE ANCIENT MYSTERIES, edited by Marvin W. Meyer



ANCIENT CHRISTIAN MAGIC, edited by Meyer and Smith

THE GREEK MAGICAL PAPYRI IN TRANSLATION,  v. 2, “the Texts”, edited by Hans Dieter Betz.  This particular book may be hard to find if you don’t have access to a university library.

There are lots of studies of ancient magical systems as well, but the above should give a writer a good grounding in what actual spells really looked like.  Writers who want to incorporate “real” magic into their fiction need to know.


About Katharine Kerr

Katharine Kerr's bookshelf Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.


Writing Magic — Part 3 — 6 Comments

  1. The two biggest witch hunts on record were conducted in the Roman Republic, condemning thousands apiece.

    Both Roman and Greek pagans condemned — and prosecuted — magic as impiety.

      • I didn’t mean that to sound so abrupt and rude, actually. My apologies.

        My problem with statements like that is the category they so often fall into, the “persecuted women” category, such as the false claim that the Catholic church burned 9 million witches during the Middle Ages. They kept careful records of such things, and what they burned were thousands of “heretics”. Not millions, thousands, some of whom were women, many of whom were men. Some of these heretics believed things that we’d call witchcraft now, but by no means all of them did. The real witch burners were Protestants in Germany and Scotland, but again, their victims number in the thousands, not millions.

        • The Romans had laws on the books against what we’d call witchcraft, but they were rarely enforced. Generally a “saga”, a wise woman, had to have offended a member of the upper classes before she was hauled in. The term persecution implies an organized and long-lasting hunt. Christians weren’t persecuted, either, though in periods a good many were prosecuted for breaking various laws, especially under Domitian, who was a world-class paranoid and put a lot of other sorts of people to death as well.

        • I’ll have to track it down. I remember it was in one of Ronald Hutton’s book — if my memory is correct.

          But witch crazes are a common feature of human life. A belief in the malefic use of magic is common to all cultures except certain hunters and gatherers and modern industrialized ones — very modern, as there were killings in late 19th century France over accusations of witchcraft — and a lot of them have had witch hunts.

  2. You got me to thinking about the magic vs. religion issues in a couple of Barbara Hambly’s novel series — The Time of the Dark series and the Windrose series. In both those series, there are wizards both good and evil who do real magic and there is a religion that preaches against magic but has no supernatural power of its own. The religious sometimes use the power of wizards to their own ends, but belief in their gods does not cause magical experiences. In those books, the wizards have real magical power, but the church has only a kind of political power.