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The Natural and the Supernatural Part 2: Magic by Charles Mossop


~~ Worlds Apart ~~ Editor ~~ Charles Mossop ~~

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June 2006

Worlds Apart: 13


The Natural and the Supernatural Part 2: Magic


In this column last month, we began to look at the question of the supernatural world, and how beliefs about it can be used to illustrate, explain or describe the behaviour of characters in a story. 


Ever since the Neanderthals conceived of a supernatural world more than a quarter of a million years ago, two questions have preoccupied humankind: what is the nature of the supernatural world, and, even more important, how do we coexist with it?  Clearly, supernatural forces can benefit us, but equally obviously, they can do us a great deal of harm as well, and so some means has to be found whereby to forge a relationship with the supernatural. 


In broad, general terms, humankind devised two sets of beliefs and practices aimed at coexisting with the supernatural: religion and magic.  There are features of each to be found in the other, but together they provide humans with the means of expressing both their reverence for the supernatural, and their desire to control it.  Religion provides the first, and magic the second. 


Last month I used ancestor worship in traditional China as an example of religion, but there is another side to ancestor worship which is pure magic.


On the one side, the spirits of the ancestors are worshiped and revered at household shrines and in ancestral temples.  Offerings of food are left, and proper obeisance is made before the ancestor’s tablet.  The “old ones” are importuned to help their descendants and look after them, bring them good luck, or assist them in whatever way necessary.  However, on the other side, the old ones are manipulated, and they are powerless  to do anything about it.  On this magical side, it is not the spirits of the dead which are important, it is their bones.


Through the calculations of a fung shui Master, and with proper consideration for the horoscopes of the dead and the descendants, the tomb of the deceased was situated in such a place that the beneficial essences of the environment (chi) would be concentrated in the ancestor’s bones and directed to the living.   If good fortune did not result following the first burial, another Master was sometimes hired, the corpse exhumed and reburied in a more auspicious location.   There is a record of a family in South China reburying their grandfather five times.  It was believed that when the perfect place was found and the chi were flowing as they should, the bones of the dead would glow.


The spirits of the dead could do nothing to influence the actions of the chi.  If the bones were buried in the correct location, if the proper ratio of Yin to Yang was assured, and if astrological calculations were accurate, prosperity, good luck and happiness would come to the descendants of the dead regardless of the reverence shown or not shown to the ancestral spirits themselves.


Manipulation of the supernatural through the ancestor’s remains in China is but one example of magic, but there are untold numbers of such examples in all times and cultures.  Magic never fails, and thus it forms a special link to the supernatural by allowing people to control the otherwise uncontrollable. 


“But,” I hear you say, “magic often fails.”




The magic is infallible.  If it does not work, it is because the ritual or other necessary action was performed incorrectly.  As exemplified by the burial and reburial of the dead in China, if good fortune did not come, it wasn’t the fault of the chi, it was the fault of the fung shui Master who made an error when he chose the place where the body should be buried.  And, most important of all, where magic is concerned, one success makes up for innumerable failures.



If you are building a historical, fantasy or speculative world in your fiction writing, reference to beliefs about the supernatural can be very helpful.  Concern over the supernatural is to be found everywhere, and it will very likely be something familiar to your readers, although they may not see it for what it is.  But by describing some of the ways in which the inhabitants of your world interact with the supernatural, and attempt to influence and control it, you will provide insights into your world, and help to explain your characters’ behaviour.


If you are setting a story in a historical period where magic was far more a part of daily life than it is today, it would, in fact, detract from the authenticity of your writing if magic were not at least mentioned.  That does not mean that the entire system of magic and its rituals has to be shown, but there should be references to it as required. 


Fantasy worlds are sometimes magical at their very heart, and to describe them at all is to describe their magic – that’s often their fascination.  You can provide a sense of reality, even to a speculative world, by referring to issues of magic and the supernatural. 


However, important as magic is, it is only one of the social and cultural features or elements you can use to build your world.  For the purposes of your story, it may not be necessary to mention magic at all, but if you do, it has a number of benefits.


To begin with, magic is fascinating to many readers.  The very mystery of it can draw readers into your story.  Not all magic is  evil or malicious, but such “black” magic, with its spells, curses and mutterings, is often the most interesting to readers.  Mentioning magic can add to the attraction of your tale.


Secondly, most readers will have some familiarity with concepts of magic, and thus they will be able to relate to your characters as they deal with magic and the supernatural.


And finally, since magic is ubiquitous in human societies, describing systems of magic, rituals, spells, incantations and what have you, you can add a solid sense of reality to your world.  If it’s a historical world, have a look at the beliefs in magic which were prevalent at the time.  Ask questions such as: How was magic defined?  Were people afraid of it?  What, if anything, happened to individuals caught practising it?  And what was its relationship to religion?


Next month, in the third and final segment of our discussion of the supernatural, we’ll have a look at superstition, and how you can use descriptions of it to help build your world.  So, until next month, don’t break any mirrors!


Write on,



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