After thinking a bit, I’ve decided to do a five part (at this time) series of posts regarding different aspects and thoughts on magic. In part, this was inspired by recently reading Qiguang Zhao’s work on dragons and partially because I’ve been looking for a fairly comprehensive source on types or varieties of magic and haven’t been able to find what I’m looking for. So, I’ll create one.
In Zhao’s A Study of Dragons, East and West, he divided Eastern dragons into four categories, including mythic, legendary, and folkloric. This got me thinking about a similar breakdown for magic.
For this post, I’ll classify approaches to magic as: mythological (including theological), legendary, historical, folkloric, and fictive (e.g. modern fiction).
Most mythological and theological magic is about divinities. That is, the magic originates with divine beings. Given that myths themselves are focused on divine beings, this makes a certain sense. Zeus brings his siblings back from being eaten by slaying his father, hurls lightning bolts, and changes his form as desired—into a bull, sunshine, the appearance of a mortal. Odin gives up his eye to learn the runes and their related magic. Freyr oversees the seiðr, often healing magic. Monkey King changes size and form, cloudwalks, and a whole host of other powers. Christ changes water to wine, walks on water, and self-resurrects. Most of the Greek & Roman gods change the forms of mortals, ex. Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Included here are the magic devices, usually loaned to mortals. These almost always originate with the gods. Hephestus creates most of the magic items used by the other gods, demigods, and mortals of Greek myth. All the great magic devices in Celtic culture are owned by the gods.
This can also include the monstrous magic, such as Medusa and the Chinese demons.
In the legends, magic is most often used as plot devices. I’m thinking of Merlin and the Arthurian legends in general here, mostly because of my own background of knowledge. Often, legendary magic is considered negative or evil when used as spells—ex. Morgaine or Spenser’s Archimago. However, it becomes positive when it appears as devices and other items that help the hero—ex. Excalibur, Yvain’s ring of invisibility (Chretien de Troyes). But, there are exceptions to both, such as Merlin and Sigurd, whose ring is cursed to bring about his downfall but who is also magically able to understand the speech of animals (after accidentally eating dragon blood).
I think in many ways the historical perspective is more focused on practicality. This is a classification I use for how people in the past believed magic worked. Included here are alchemists, astrologers, werewolves, and witches. This is the creation of elixirs, including the elixir of life, rune magic, and shapeshifting. It is the magic of potions to cure afflictions, curses against one’s enemies, blessings upon one’s children or herds, protections from malign magics (ex. horseshoes), and human to animal shape-changing. It is the realm of Celtic ogham (tree associated) magic and entrail reading divination, Chinese I-Ching and Feng Shui and spirit magic, Roman written magics (ex. curses, of which many are extant), Greek divinations and oracles, and Aztec blood sacrifice and nahuatl shape-shifting.
This is the magic of fairy tale and folklore. It often works in a fashion similar to historical and also often comes from witches or supernatural non-human creatures (ex. goblins, fae, brownies). This magic typically violates the laws of reality, relates to the acquisition of wealth (which may vanish in the sun), and deceive. This magic is most concerned with the physics and rules of the story, in fact it does follow a certain logic and conform to certain rules—Rumpelstiltskin’s binding magical deal, the Law of Threes, the trade of a good deed for a wish. This is the magic of Jack’s gold egg laying goose and magic harp. This is the magic of Rapunzel’s witch.
In modern fantasy, magic tends to be systematic. Orson Scott Card, for instance, even goes so far as to state that the most important part of fantasy worldbuilding is understanding the laws, the rules, the system of magic. Many magic systems used in modern fiction are based on myth, legend, history, or folklore, or all of them. Generally, though, they are translated through the lens of the scientific era that classifies, systematizes, and attempts to understand the underlying rules. J.K. Rowling—with her focus on wands, gestures, and magic words—is a good example in which certain forms are required and all spells are classified into certain categories, at least for educational purposes. Steven Brust does this, differently, as well in that Dragaera has sorcery (manipulation of chaos energy, amorphia, though the Orb), witchcraft (a form of psychic energy), and psychics. Jim Butcher pulls this form, applied to a variety of legendary (fae courts), mythic, and historic (wizards) forms of magic.