The Natural and the Supernatural Part 2: Magic
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
I hear you say, “magic often fails.”
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.
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’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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