Laws Of Magic Part IV – Purification and Personification

For those looking to read in order…

And now for Part IV – Purification and Animism / Personification

In “real” traditional magic Purification is a vital prerequisite for any major working. After all… since everything is connected, and there are all sorts of influences and correspondences everywhere, the first step in any major working (that’s anything that isn’t purely reliant on your personal power like “psychic” abilities and petty cantrips) pretty much has to be to clear away all of the magical influences that you don’t want getting involved. Otherwise… you’ll be incorporating all kinds of random influences into your magic. So the first step in anything major is to set up a magic circle or ward to keep outside influences out of your working – and the second is to cleanse your ritual area of any influences that are already present. The third, of course, is to specifically invite, summon, or add those influences you do want present. These days this is usually known as Casting The Circle.

Only then do you actually start in on what you want to do. Otherwise you’re risking having your working go wildly out of control and causing god-only-knows-what to happen. Classically, working without purification was risking much more than your mere life.

In legends and literature, purification is mostly a matter of personal purification. After all, having your characters stop to conduct various purification rituals before they do anything every little bit gets boring very, VERY, fast – and even entirely mortal (super-) heroes are generally capable of doing the impossible ten times before breakfast anyway. Why shouldn’t they get away with skipping the dull bits here too?

Conventionally, when it comes to personal purity in legends and literature…

  • “White” wizards are likely to have to refrain from sexual activity and/or most personal emotional relationships, or avoid certain foods, or follow strict rules to avoid “sin”, or take ritual baths (or possibly never bathe so as to avoid dissipating their personal energies), or spend time in a sweat lodge, or dance and chant, or any of a hundred other methods. In most such cases, the potency of their magic relies on how pure they are, although failure chances and such do show up in some cases.
  • “Black” mages tend to offload their need for purity on other people – which is why they’re big on virgin’s blood, child sacrifices, and stealing the power of untainted magical nexi and items. Thus they weaken and corrupt the sources they draw on – which they care little about because they tend to throw them away as they weaken and grab new sources of power. Black Magic thus inherently taints and corrupts both the area around the user and the sources of magic he or she draws upon.
  • Elementalists, “Nature Mages”, or “Priests” tend to just bind themselves to a particular source or type of power (and usually one they have a natural affinity for at that) or two – thus making it relatively easy to remain “pure” by not interacting with other kinds of magic. All those systems of freeform magic that only apply to particular fields probably work like this.

Which is at least one way in which the (rather boring) traditional generic ritualist – who can try to do almost anything at all given sufficient time in which to work – turns into the familiar specialist-in-a-field / “elementalist” / “necromancer” / whatever role-playing-game quick spellcaster who can keep up with the action but has a strictly limited variety and supply of spells.

Purification is even less important in most RPG’s though, simply because in such games most spells are preset, as with Amber’s “Hung” spells, d20’s “Prepared” spells, or World Tree’s “Grafted” spells. When the effects are set down in the game rules, active purification usually falls by the wayside. Why bother when that fireball wand is essentially every bit as “mechanical” as a grenade launcher?

With systems like that… if you needed to purify yourself, you presumably did it while you were getting your spells ready to go. Once a spell is hung, assembled, or grafted, it is pretty much independent of outside influences – just as a grenade will go off regardless of where it is when you pull the pin (at least barring really insane environments such as the surfaces of neutron stars or “antimagic” zones).

Still, there are echoes of the idea in most role-playing games; that’s presumably where cursed items come from – and it’s why half the powers of The Practical Enchanter’s Wards Major are normally selected randomly; the area covered by such a Ward is usually just too big to purify effectively before it’s enchanted.

Games that happen to have a (usually secondary) ritual magic system or adhere to “only blunt weapons for priests (so that they are not rendered impure by the intent to shed blood, like early AD&D) usually already include some nods to the idea of ritual purity – but if you want to emphasize it a bit more, noting that mages must spend some time every day in meditation to cleanse their minds, or spend a day of downtime not casting anything so as to purify the energies of their chakra every so often, or burn the occasional stick of special incense to let it’s smoke carry away malevolent demonic forces, or never speak an impure language, or whatever, as a part of being a spellcaster, will do it. You can even give it a small penalty to ensure that the players make a note to do it. 5% chance of spell failure per week missed to a maximum of – say – 10% per spell level – will be plenty of incentive for your spellcasters to find an hour or so a week for some purification ceremonies.

Personification is basically Animism – the belief that objects, places, creatures, and possibly even abstract concepts, have spirits of their own, are at least somewhat aware of the world, and can act in their own ways. From this point of view there is no sharp distinction between the spiritual and physical aspects of the world – or between mankind and the rest of the universe. Of all the classic laws of magic… it is perhaps the oldest and most universal. The idea is so widely held and inherent to most indigenous peoples that they often do not even have a word in their languages for it – or even for “religion”. It is unquestioned; Animism simply IS.

It’s true origin lies deep in infancy. Even infants as young as three months of age seem to realize that objects continue to exist when they’re out of sight. Soon after that they begin to understand that not much happens around them unless something makes it happen.

So what makes most things happen around an infant? Sometimes it’s wind, but most of the time it’s a creature – occasionally a family pet or other animal, but most of the time… it’s other people. Infants do tend to be kept safe, warm, and tucked away in quiet, stable, places after all.

It’s not much of a jump to the idea that when things happen… it’s probably people of some sort. Even if you can’t see them, bigger and older people do all kinds of marvelous things. They bring you food, they mend broken toys, they bring fire and keep you warm. So things like lightning, wind, the growth of plants, the flight of birds, the movement of celestial objects, and the great eruptions of volcanoes… are probably acts of even bigger and older people. Sure, some spirits (like some people) are relatively simple and are only good at a few things – but others, like the Great Sky Spirit, are vast and complex.

And, as children grow… a rich animistic overlay of gods, nature spirits, haunts, and fancies grows with them, cast over cold reality like a warming blanket. So you asked for what you wanted or needed. And if, in extremis, that failed you and you died… well, you didn’t pass on that experience. And those times when – against all odds – you succeeded, soon passed through storytelling into legend. What further proof could a member of a small tribe ask for?

Older human brains play into that worldview in another way. The brain is a survival mechanism. It looks for patterns, for ways to survive and prosper in the present – and to predict and influence the future. When the patterns are beyond it’s current understanding, and appear impossible to change to suit itself, stress sets in. The brain starts throwing preconceptions, fantasies, and wild ideas into the desperate effort to find a manipulable pattern.

And waiting there, from early childhood, in the minds depths… is Animism. From a time when life was controlled by mighty beings who did mysterious things for no reason that you really understood – but whom could be influenced to fulfill your needs when you made noise. Did you have a stuffed animal as a child that you talked to? Did you hide under the covers to keep the monsters from getting you? Have you sworn at your car or your computer while trying to get it to start? Then congratulations! You are a practicing animistic mage. Most of us are, if only because It’s VERY hard to get rid of the feeling that threatening that annoyingly balky piece of equipment with being thrown away will help somehow.

Animism is so deeply embedded in human cultures and thus gaming magic that it’s barely even noticed. Look at the setting of your game. Are their various gods of nature and natural phenomena? Are there elemental entities or storm spirits? Do magical items respond when commanded? Are there haunted places, sacred groves, spirits of the land, and great totems that control animals? Do older weapons have proper names and perhaps powers due to their growing legend? Can you speak to the spirit of a mountain or a river? There’s a reason why no one questions that sort of thing when it’s put into a setting. Every fantasy setting has some of that sort of thing.

About the only way that “Personification” elaborates on basic Animism is to say that Animistic Spirits tend to react in kind and can be channeled – and that this is an entirely valid way to deal with the unseen world. Are you a noble hero serving the equally-noble Sun God? Then the Sun God will tend to answer your pleas and will support you as you support him. Congratulations; you’re a Paladin. Do you demand that dark forces do your will and strike down your enemies? Then they will demand equally dark deeds and offerings from you in exchange. Do you attempt to gently persuade locks to open even if you don’t have the key? Then the locks may refuse, or gently ask for a few drops of oil in exchange, or try to talk you into going away – but the are most unlikely to demand anything much more burdensome. If you’re polite and reasonable… then so are they.

Purification and Animism can be left unremarked in your games of course – after all, they’re usually a part of the underlying assumptions anyway – but bringing them a little more into view does serve to hint at a vast, underlying, structure to your worlds magic – and in a way that most people are already primed to accept.

4 Responses

  1. Hm… I sort of want to write a specialist purification mage now.
    Even with the really reliable magic that exists in eclipse there’s lots of things that you can do with it, if you squint a little.
    I imagine that it’s possible purify at least the smallest ward major sizes properly (e.g. A standard house or mages tower) with a lot of (possibly sustained) effort but the largest seems like you might run into the same problems with any sort of large scale fix. *Maybe* you could do it with like, a fleet of flying and burrowing purification artifacts but that isn’t really possible outside of something like a highly optimized version of the ‘factory of miracles’ set-up.

    • Oh undoubtedly – that’s why the note on Random Ward Powers in The Practical Enchanter

      Why the random tables you ask? They’re here because Wards Major, unlike lesser enchantments, cannot be created in a laboratory isolated from all other outside influences. Even if the creator pays for the “controlled” modifier, things may go seriously wrong if something major was overlooked (QV: Hellgate Keep, page 224) – and at least one power is likely to be “chosen” at random in any case.

      If things do go seriously wrong, the entire thing may be determined randomly or according to some theme chosen by the game master

      A specialist purification make might be quite a lot of fun though – at the simplest, just take a bunch of magical enhancements that only work as long as you’re keeping up a regime of purification rituals and such and tell people that your magic is more powerful than theirs because your heart is pure…

  2. […] Part IV – Purification and Animism / Personification […]

  3. […] Part IV – Purification and Animism / Personification […]

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