Magic is a staple of the fantasy genre, but some authors don’t take the time to flesh out how it works and what it looks like. There might be a few magic words, maybe a wave of the wand, but for the most part, there’s little distinguishing the depiction of magical workings from one author to the next. Why should any writer settle for that when magic – “real” magic – has a rich history stretching back to the dawn of humankind?
Myriad are the schools and techniques of the high art of magic: there are rites of invocation (inviting a magical being into one’s body) and evocation (commanding a being to materialize into a sacred circle or other protective medium), laws of sympathy (like influences like – pins stuck into a human-shaped voodoo doll will affect a specific person) and contagion (having a lock of hair can allow the practitioner to inflict various magical punishments upon its owner), and literally thousands of laws, rituals and ceremonies.
Why have a spell to “find treasure” when you can have your characters create a “Hand of Glory”? What’s that? Ah, it’s gruesome: Medieval spellcasters would remove the hand of a corpse, replace its fingers with lit candles, say a few magic words and then (somehow) use it to locate ancient treasures. That’s certainly a bit more colorful than a sketchy sentence or two about using a “spell” to find a horde of gold.
Divination is another oft-used form of magic in fantasy literature: this or that grizzled old soothsayer speaks a hero’s doom after consulting magic cards or perhaps a cauldron. Historical methods of divination were a little more…colorful. Here are a few examples of fortune-telling from times past:
Alectryomancy: The diviner forms letters on the ground out of seed. Once finished, he or she lets a rooster out and watches which letter and in what order it pecks at. When the rooster is done, it’s up to the diviner to interpret the results. What do you think about that? Can you imagine a sage old wizard summoning his magic rooster in order to tell a character’s fortune?
Pyromancy: The oracle burns bones and interprets their cracks as an omen. Turtle shells were often used, but there’s no reason that they can’t be rooster bones. (Poor roosters!)
Machyromancy: The soothsayer spins a dagger in the center of a circle of letters, taking note where the point lands. When he or she is finished, the interpretation of the message begins. (Maybe the knife can be the one with which the diviner slayed that poor rooster.)
Another way to make magic more “realistic” in fantasy fiction is to not draw clear lines between sorcerers, scientists and priests. In the pre-scientific era, magic was considered another valid tool for exploring the world. Alchemists prayed to God, sorcerers invoked the names of angels and more than one priest knew a spell or two. Want to make things even more complicated? Don’t make magic your magician’s sole vocation. Noblemen, adventurers and businessmen of all kinds were counted among those who courted the magical arts.
Additionally, much like the Wu-Tang clan, magic ain’t nothin’ to f@*k with. Magicians often cautioned their peers to exercise great precaution before beginning a magical work. Some grimoires urged the would-be wizard to fast and purify his spirit through prayer and ritual cleansing. Even collecting the proper spell components could be the work of several months. Only then could a magical ceremony begin. To do otherwise would be to invite various dark powers into one’s life. So much for the “fire and forget” spells that have become a standard of fantasy stories!
Finally, magic – especially magic as envisioned in the modern era – is rarely thought to evoke spectacular fireworks and ghosts and ghoulies when it works. Aleister Crowley, the self-styled “wickedest man in the world” claimed to see the manifestations of his spells in the form of coincidence. After casting a ceremony to appease a god of fortune, he would receive money through perfectly mundane means, such as a payment for a service or as a gift of some sort. At least, that’s what he claimed. Why have a cursed character carried off by demons when he or she misstep and break his or her neck falling down a flight of stairs? A question of whether something is magic or coincidence is a hallmark of modern magic.
There’s no reason to adhere to any orthodox interpretation of magic, fantasy or otherwise, but history can provide plenty of colorful examples for the would-be writer to draw upon for inspiration. Anthropological texts, old Medieval grimoires, and cultural studies can make your magic come alive in ways that you might have otherwise never imagined.