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Basing a Magic System on an Existing Religions: Pros and Cons

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Black Dragon, Aug 26, 2019.

  1. Black Dragon

    Black Dragon Staff Administrator

    Would you consider basing a magic system on an actual religion? Do you know of any examples of an author doing this successfully?

    What are the benefits of such an approach? Conversely, what are the dangers?
  2. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Like one of those shamanic things where the divinity grant magic powers to people? I’m not really a fan of that approach. That’s a little to D&D for me.
    I prefer it when magic is more skill-based and draw parallels with other skills like art, chemistry (in the form of alchemy) and what have you.

    I think the big drawback is that it makes the religion less of a religion. Instead of being about salvation, enlightenment or philosophy, it becomes about what kind of spells a follower would have at their disposal.
    And from a character standpoint: what a character can do is generally less interesting than what they believe in or the higher purposes they might strive for.
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I'm not aware of any that does this, particularly since most organized religions I know of do not recognize magic as being real. So there would be nothing on which to base a system. At most, one could base it on popular beliefs and superstitions.

    Just to anticipate: I'm considering Confucianism a philosophy rather than a religion. And I freely admit to a vast ignorance of Hindu and Buddhism in regard to what their various adherents considered magical as distinct from divine.

    I'll be interested to see what others have to say on this.
  4. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

    A lot of xianxia is Taoism and Chinese Buddhism taken to fantastical extremes.
  5. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

    A magic system based on calling up spirits to serve one is essentially religion-based. This would include the fallen angels of Christian tradition, but it is seen in real-life practice in voodoo and so on. Demonic possession, too. Of course, spirits of whatever sort do not have to be linked to a religious belief but it seems they usually are. I think the biggest problem with this sort of thing is that one goes up the chain of command to gods (or God) and there is just too much power to deal with.
  6. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    I have but I try not to. About half the magic system I read when they have a religious facet are a riff off one of the Abrahamic religions.
    When I write I tend to like my gods and faith seperate from my magic. I really don't like the fact there is some [sometimes not so] all powerful being letting my characters do something.
    I tend to think like this is realy life as well...:whistle:
    I think D&L Eddings did this sort of world-building well in the Sparhawk books.
    The Church and Church Knights were basically Catholic.
    The Rendors roughly Islamic and
    The Syrics a jewish equivalent.
    Just with added Magic. I'm not saying it was a good thing to do, but it was well executed.
    There were [5?] Troll gods too. They could be seen as more ancient pagan in origin but that might be pushing the analogy a bit too far.
    The benefits? A lot of the heavy lifting is done for you already. People will usually accept the setup quickly and with little info-dumping.
    The dangers? Offending people. Getting something insultingly wrong. Calls of cultural appropriation. Lazy thinking...
  7. I think if I were to do this I'd try to look at something from the past like Manichaeism, Olmec or old Finnish Paganism as my starting point. The benefit in these is that, by comparison to modern religions, little is known about these extinct practices that it would allow more leeway to use the few known facts as a starting point and build something original from there. The negative? The same, if far lesser, chance of being challenged for "appropriation" I suppose. But I'd use the historical as a general framework and starting point and not a direct transfer to my made up culture. An Olmec based culture might have been driven extinct by the corruption of a magical element that tipped the ecological scales.

    I'm also very much drawn to the period of Egyptian history when Atenism took hold for a brief time. More for the vast scope of how Akhenaten changed a polytheistic culture to a monotheistic one, built a new capital city in the desert and went up against the fury of old temple priests in one lifetime. His growing obsession with his self-made religion after the death of his wife Nefertiti, and how it was all but eradicated by the following pharaohs, including Tutankhamen, his son. That's a story to build an entire book upon.
  8. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

    Actually, basing magic system on religion is quite good choice, if you understand religious symbolism. That way, you could have magic be directly connected to religion. For example, Christianity is based around salvation of the soul, and Christ was a healer. So a Christian-esque country would utilize magic that is based around healing, protection from the undead, ghost and other supranatural things. Mithras was born from a rock in a stream of water, and once fired a bow at a rock to make water come forth. As such, a country whose religion is based on Mithraism would have affinity for water-based magic (I actually utilized that in my setting). Zoroastrianism holds fire as a symbol of purity, and in Zoroastrian temples you had permanent fire going. So you have a country with religion based on Zoroastrianism, they would utilize fire magic. And so on.
    Radav likes this.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I'm going to set this out here, not trying to argue with anyone or to steer the OP in any particular direction. Consider it yet another perspective.

    According to the medieval Catholic Church--I'm less sure about more modern times--magic was not real. Some writers said it was all just illusion and trickery, while others allowed there might be supernatural events but at the instigation of Satan or his minions. At least in the earlier MA some writers pushed back hard on that one, arguing that God alone caused supernatural events, denying such power to the dark angel. The danger, recognized at the time, was that if you granted supernatural powers to Satan, you wind up with dualism--the Bogomil or Cathar heresy, with two gods co-eternal. So, according to the official teaching, Satan could deceive and lie, but could not directly make miracles.

    Therefore, there's nothing on which to base a magic system. Magic, if it can be said to happen at all, is in fact the divine will acting upon the world. At most it might be prayed for (there was a whole literature on that one). Now, a culture could build a whole system of beliefs that claimed magic, but the "reality" would be that it was God or gods at work.

    I think much the same logic applies with Judaism and Islam. There is the divine will, which can manifest in the physical world, but there is no actual magic.

    That's where I became curious about other religions. With Hinduism with its many gods, is there room for non-divine, human-invoked and controlled supernatural events? Or is it all just humans calling upon the spirit world? It's even murkier with Buddhism. Murky to me, anyway.
    Aldarion likes this.
  10. Aldarion

    Aldarion Sage

    skip.knoxskip.knox But I know that people were often accused of magic. Witch hunt were famous, of course, but even in more level-headed societies (e.g. Roman Empire) you had kinda-sorta Inquisition, as well as (popular) belief in magic. Were those merely throwbacks to pre-Christian era? At any rate, even if one religion is against magic theologically, there is still room for magic in popular belief based on that religion.

    The Occult Sciences in Byzantium
    Black Gate » Articles » Byzantine and Early Modern Greek Magic
  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    In Christianity it can be kind of complicated and dependent on the time and region. It also depends on what you're doing as a lot of modern Christians enjoy the angel v. devil stories, unless they're told in a way that's mean-spirited towards the faith.

    Witch trials were mostly a post-Reformation thing. After the Reformation people often had no idea what their neighbors honestly believed, which made things ripe for paranoia. And it opened the door for a lot of superstitions and other beliefs (the Church says there's no magic, but I see magic referenced in the Bible, so that means there was magic....). Even in Catholic regions, the image that we have of the Pope as a dictator king among the clergy is way off, and a lot of things happened that were surprisingly local and bottom-up, including inquisitions. So as belief in magic became more commonplace, the Church wasn't equipped to combat it. While locals wanted to burn the witches who could use magic to torture them, the bishops often wanted wrist-slaps by comparison because at worst, the delusional person might think she was a witch.

    I also understand that letting a Muslim or Muslim-inspired character do magic is a huge no-no in Islam. But it does openly state the existence of djinn, a group of somewhat-specific creatures which are mostly from pre-Islamic beliefs. Hence, you have stories like Aladdin, where the djinn does all the magic.

    I'm not familiar with a Jewish perspective on this stuff.

    For one of my settings I have a magic system based on Dhaoism. It's not Dhaoist but has similar principles. In my setting there are six gods who are each responsible for an aspect of the magic system, which includes concepts derived from those such as chi, honor and karma, reincarnation, and feng shui. For example, when a person or region lived in a way that maximized the feng-shui-inspired beauty it would manifest in a protective spirit. To conquer a city you'd also have to defeat it's protective spirit which is as strong as the city is beautiful. The definition of beauty is up to the corresponding deity and changes subtly every few centuries or so.
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  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    The middle one was interesting. Bit of a slog, but he makes some good observations, so I'll forgive him for relying on Thorndike.

    We moderns tend to draw a line between magic and religion and science that simply was not drawn in the Middle Ages. Or, to be more precise, there were so many lines drawn that it's difficult to say what anyone believed. Humans are wonderfully inconsistent. What was magic? The theologians of the 9thc said something different from those of the 15thc. Less learned writers varied more. And what scraps of evidence we can gather indicate that Joe Peasant or Jacques Proudhomme had still other ideas.

    Rather than "based on" I'd prefer to go in the direction of "inspired by." Hollywood is able to get away with all sorts of things by saying they were "inspired by" real people or events. Inspiration over construction, ftw.
    Aldarion likes this.
  13. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    Replacing miraculous elements with magical elements within existing religious scriptures would easily achieve the goal of combining magical elements with an existing religion.

    Jesus Christ the Great Mage whose magic included turning water into wine, feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, raising Lazarus from the dead and disappearing from a burial tomb is quite plausible from a fantasy perspective.

    Instead of prophets who performed miracles we have mages gifted with the ability to cast magic by God as a reward for their faith and good works. One could rewrite the dictionary so the term Prophet means Mage and Messiah means Great Mage.

    In many countries existing religions have been fused with local indigenous or traditional beliefs. In New Zealand the Ratana faith merges Christianity with indigenous Maori beliefs. In Haiti Voodooism merges Christianity with traditional African beliefs. So why not merge a belief in magic with existing religions?
  14. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

    For some insights into how this works in real life, have a look at Hermes Trismegistus. Some historians believe the word magic is derived from his name.

    Hermes Trismegistus - Wikipedia
  15. Nirak

    Nirak Minstrel

    Not exactly what you're looking for, but the Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz had a church that was very heavily based on the Catholic Church, and magic that was used in conjunction with some who were faithful. Might be worth checking out, although I haven't read them in a long time.
  16. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    Magic abounded in the old line religions, including early Christianity. Without exception, all of the miracles attributed to Jesus were considered to be within the capacity of a competent pagan magician (Apollonius of Tyana reputedly did duplicate most of them.) The Jewish rabbi's were regarded as potent sorcerers; they too duplicated most of the miracles attributed to Jesus (or more likely, the other way around). The 'Diadache' - a very early church text, gave pointers on how to tell true prophets fro false ones. Divination's and prophecies were big among all the old religions - the Oracle at Delphi being a prime example.

    A key element of this that lingers in song and tradition to this day is the power of names, specifically 'True Names' that grant the would be wizard a measure of control over the demon or god that name is associated with. Moses and the burning bush: first thing he did was ask for the name of the spirit in question - which is exactly what a competent Egyptian trained wizard would have done (and Moses was counted as 'learned in the arts of the Egyptian's' -aka magic. In Christianity, this transmuted to being 'filled with the spirit.'

    Healing, or more accurately 'faith healing' was another biggie in the early church. But faith healing requires faith to work - in the bible, even Jesus failed to heal those in his home town, though the gospel authors tried to gloss over this.

    Early Christians who faced persecution sometimes resorted to laying magical curses against their enemies (scribed on lead tablets that sometimes turn up at archaeological sites. The practice was more common among pagans, though.)
  17. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    Wiccan is a religion that deals with the belief in Magic. But most Religions I've seen don't seem to accept magic even though most of what they believe happened seems magical to me.
    You have the con of people joining a religion just to get the power, them abusing the power and giving that religion a bad name.
    GIDEON likes this.
  18. GIDEON

    GIDEON New Member

    Sounds like Christianity.
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