Campaign of the Month: January 2012
Star Trek Late Night
Most ‘magic’ is really just advanced technology that is misinterpreted by primitive races. True Magic does, however, exist and it is so rare that fewer than 1 in one-billion people possess the aptitude to use it. In certain cultures and species, we have seen higher incidents of magical skill develop. Magic is the ability to Summon, Control, and Manipulate extra-dimensional energies, also called Mana or Chi. In many places these energies have other names and they are often mistaken for the Force and vice versa.
Common Features of Magical Practice
Magical rituals are the precisely defined actions (including speech) used to work magic. Bronisław Malinowski describes ritual language as possessing a ‘high coefficient of weirdness’, by which he means that the language used in rituals is archaic and out of the ordinary, which helps foster the proper mindset to believe in the ritual. S.J. Tambiah notes, however, that even if the power of the ritual is said to reside in the words, ‘the words only become effective if uttered in a very special context of other action’. These other actions typically consist of gestures, possibly performed with special objects at a particular place or time. Object, location, and performer may require purification beforehand. This caveat draws a parallel to the felicity conditions J.L. Austin requires of performative utterances. By ‘performativity’ Austin means that the ritual act itself achieves the stated goal. For example, a wedding ceremony can be understood as a ritual, and only by properly performing the ritual does the marriage occur. Émile Durkheim stresses the importance of rituals as a tool to achieve ‘collective effervescence’, which serves to help unify society. Psychologists, on the other hand, describe rituals in comparison to obsessive-compulsive rituals, noting that attentional focus falls on the lower level representation of simple gestures. This results in goal demotion, as the ritual places more emphasis on performing the ritual just right than it does on the connection between the ritual and the goal. However, the purpose of ritual is to act as a focus and the effect will vary depending on the individual.
Another example of Ritual is the use of Katas in martial arts. Katas are initially taught to create muscle memory, but when the Master gains enlightenment he can see that the Katas are actually rituals through which magical feats may be attained. Throughout Terran history, their have been thousands of stories of mystical martial artists who performed feats far beyond that of normal men. These feats were performed through the use of Rituals called Katas, and they allowed the Master to withstand blows that would kill another, or to fly, or to walk on water, or even become invisible.
Magic often utilizes symbols that are thought to be intrinsically efficacious. Anthropologists, such as Sir James Frazer (1854–1938), have characterized the implementation of symbols into two primary categories: the ‘principle of similarity’, and the ‘principle of contagion’. Frazer further categorized these principles as falling under ‘sympathetic magic’, and ‘contagious magic’. Frazer asserted that these concepts were “general or generic laws of thought, which were misapplied in magic”.
The Principle of Similarity, also known as the ‘association of ideas’, which falls under the category of sympathetic magic, is the thought that, if a certain result follows a certain action, then that action must be responsible for the result. Therefore, if one is to perform this action again, the same result can again be expected. One classic example of this mode of thought is that of the rooster and the sunrise. When a rooster crows, it is a response to the rising of the sun. Based on sympathetic magic, one might interpret these series of events differently. The Principle of Similarity would suggest that since the sunrise follows the crowing of the rooster, the rooster must have caused the sun to rise. Causality is inferred where it might not otherwise have been. Therefore, a practitioner might believe that if he is able to cause the rooster to crow, he will be able to control the timing of the sunrise. Another use of the Principle of Similarity is the construction and manipulation of a representation of some target to be affected (e.g. voodoo dolls), believed to bring about a corresponding effect on the target (e.g. breaking a limb of a doll will bring about an injury in the corresponding limb of someone depicted by the doll).
Another primary type of magical thinking includes the Principle of Contagion. This principle suggests that once two objects come into contact with each other, they will continue to affect each other even after the contact between them has been broken. One example that Tambiah gives is related to adoption. Among some American Indians, for example, when a child is adopted his or her adoptive mother will pull the child through some of her clothes, symbolically representing the birth process and thereby associating the child with herself. Therefore, the child emotionally becomes hers even though their relationship is not biological. As Claude Lévi-Strauss would put it, the birth “would consist, therefore, in making explicit a situation originally existing on the emotional level and in rendering acceptable to the mind pains which the body refuses to tolerate… the woman believes in the myth and belongs to a society which believes in it”.
Symbols, for many cultures that use magic, are seen as a type of technology. Natives might use symbols and symbolic actions to bring about change and improvements, much like Western cultures might use advanced irrigation techniques to promote soil fertility and crop growth. Michael Brown discusses the use of nantag stones among the Aguaruna as being similar to this type of ‘technology’. These stones are brought into contact with stem cuttings of plants like manioc before they are planted in an effort to promote growth. Nantag are powerful tangible symbols of fertility, so they are brought into contact with crops to transmit their fertility to the plants.
Others argue that ritualistic actions are merely therapeutic. Tambiah cites the example of a native hitting the ground with a stick. While some may interpret this action as symbolic (i.e. the man is trying to make the ground yield crops through force), others would simply see a man unleashing his frustration at poor crop returns. Ultimately, whether or not an action is symbolic depends upon the context of the situation as well as the ontology of the culture. Many symbolic actions are derived from mythology and unique associations, whereas other ritualistic actions are just simple expressions of emotion and are not intended to enact any type of change.
The performance of magic almost always involves the use of language. Whether spoken out loud or unspoken, words are frequently used to access or guide magical power. In ‘The Magical Power of Words’ (1968) S.J. Tambiah argues that the connection between language and magic is due to a belief in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe. Bronisław Malinowski, in ‘Coral Gardens and their Magic’ (1935), suggests that this belief is an extension of man’s basic use of language to describe his surroundings, in which “the knowledge of the right words, appropriate phrases and the more highly developed forms of speech, gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action”. Magical speech is therefore a ritual act and is of equal or even greater importance to the performance of magic than non-verbal acts.
Not all speech is considered magical. Only certain words and phrases or words spoken in a specific context are considered to have magical power. Magical language, according to C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s (1923) categories of speech, is distinct from scientific language because it is emotive and it converts words into symbols for emotions; whereas in scientific language words are tied to specific meanings and refer to an objective external reality. Magical language is therefore particularly adept at constructing metaphors that establish symbols and link magical rituals to the world.
Malinowski argues that “the language of magic is sacred, set and used for an entirely different purpose to that of ordinary life”. The two forms of language are differentiated through word choice, grammar, style, or by the use of specific phrases or forms: prayers, spells, songs, blessings, or chants, for example. Sacred modes of language often employ archaic words and forms in an attempt to invoke the purity or ‘truth’ of a religious or a cultural ‘golden age’. The use of Hebrew in Judaism is an example.
Another potential source of the power of words is their secrecy and exclusivity. Much sacred language is differentiated enough from common language that it is incomprehensible to the majority of the population and it can only be used and interpreted by specialized practitioners (magicians, priests, shamans, even mullahs). In this respect, Tambiah argues that magical languages violate the primary function of language: communication. Yet adherents of magic are still able to use and to value the magical function of words by believing in the inherent power of the words themselves and in the meaning that they must provide for those who do understand them. This leads Tambiah to conclude that “the remarkable disjunction between sacred and profane language which exists as a general fact is not necessarily linked to the need to embody sacred words in an exclusive language".