Magic Series—Tools of the Trade, or Not

Look around at “how to write fantasy” blogs, sites, books, and articles and you’ll likely find a lot of people who say that magic requires limits. I suspect this is true, to a great extent, in most writers’ hands. Occasionally a great writer comes along who can portray unlimited, anything goes magic without sacrificing plot—all too often such magic becomes a deus ex machina to get the writer out of the proverbial corner (s)he’s painted into. Some have argued that Tolkien, for instance, had no limits on magic—a claim I will definitely contest for a variety of reasons—but virtually every fantasy world has some restriction on magic.

 One of the easiest and more common limitations is to require the use of props or tools.

 This is also a common historical approach to magic, as noted by Richard Kieckhefer and, to a lesser though more systematic extent, Isaac Bonewits.

 What do we mean by props and tools?

 For my purposes, I think not only in terms of material tools, but also actions and practices. Common props in both fictional and historical conceptions of magic include (obviously not a complete list):

 Animals—common historically among the Romans and Celts as sacrifices for divination

Cauldron (or laboratory)—for alchemy and other elixir/potion making, or scrying

Chants—use of magic words, whether chanted or spoken, to produce spells

Circle—the classic magic circle to contain summoned beings or magic

Crystals—both New Agey and historical for channeling magic energy

Dancing—common historically for magic and religious channeling, ex. Sufis

Dolls—old historical focus for magic, ex. Voodoo and kachina dolls

Drums (or other musical instruments)—music has always been potent in magic for focus or emotion control

Familiars—common in historical views of witchcraft, also present in Steven Brust’s Dragaera for witches

Herbs—historically part of both alchemy and traditional medicine and protective magics

Holy Symbols—obviously part of Christian exorcism, integral component of D&D/Pathfinder

Incense—historically part of several magic traditions, either to sharpen focus or produce a mood

Knife (or Athame for the Wiccans)—symbolic severing or use in sacrifices, special materials used for other purposes

Martial Arts—important in some Eastern magics, like Taoist, for focus and control of body and mind before magic; in fiction, see wuxia stories

Meditation—common historical means of achieving focus necessary for some magic traditions

Purification—historically part of both exorcisms and religious magical traditions, ex. Shinto

Relics—throughout history religious relics have been said to possess magical powers

Rituals—whether hand/wand waving gestures (Harry Potter) or full on 20+ minute rites

Seal of Solomon—said to be able to contain and command djinn, demons, and other spirits

Staff (or wand)—often a focus device historically or in fiction, sometimes channels or contains magical energy for the spellcaster

Star Charts—obvious usage in astrology and some of the more hermetic/Kabbalistic magics

Talisman—usually a focus device, possibly a protective device in some cases whether an amulet, ring or other item

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2 comments on “Magic Series—Tools of the Trade, or Not

  1. calmgrove says:

    I usually think of two, not necessarily exclusive, areas in which magic operates — mental and physical. The tools an adept would use might depend at what level the particular magic operates: incense or dancing might affect mental states, for example, more readily than physical.

    Like

    • I definitely agree with that assessment. Often, both in fictional and historical conceptions, I think the physical is used to affect the mental – meditation to get the mind into “spell casting mode”, a ritual to focus visualization, a ring to focus concentration, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

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