The Rules of (Ancient) Magic

Not too long ago I was perusing a post by the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin about magic in fantasy. (The post is from several years back, but it only came to my attention recently—it’s well worth reading both the post and the comments after, if you’re interested in fantasy writing.) Jemisin takes issue with contemporary writers who obsess over rules and systems for magic rather than letting magic be the strange, unpredictable, sometimes frightening force that it often was in older fantasy by authors like Tolkien and Le Guin.

Naturally, being a historian of the ancient Mediterranean by training and a fantasy fan and author by inclination, it got me thinking about how magic is used in ancient Greek and Roman literature. The first problem is how to define magic. Lots of strange things happen in classical myths, but most of those are the action of gods, to whom turning people into peacocks or birthing fully-armed daughters out of their heads comes naturally. Ancient societies also widely believed that humans had the ability to invoke the gods to take action on their behalf through rituals including offerings, prayers, curses, and dances. I’m taking a more limited definition of magic, however: supernatural powers and events produced directly by humans at their will without requiring the aid and participation of gods or other superhuman entities. Using this definition, magic is actually quite rare in ancient literature, but here are a few examples.

In the Odyssey by Homer, the witch Circe uses enchanted food and a magic wand to transform Odysseus’ crew into animals. The god Hermes points Odysseus to a special herb which protects him from Circe’s magic as long as he is holding it, which allows him to overcome Circe and force her to restore his crew. (As a side note, this part of the epic may ultimately derive from Babylonian myths about the god Marduk, who held a sweet-smelling herb to protect himself from the poisonous blood of the dragon Tiamat and her monstrous children.)

In Euripides’ drama Medea, the sorceress Medea, abandoned by her husband Jason, sends a poisoned robe and crown to Jason’s new bride, Glauce. When Glauce dons the poisoned gifts, they cling to her body and burn her to death.

In Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses (often also called The Golden Ass), the narrator Lucius learns that his friend’s wife dabbles in magic and can transform into a bird by rubbing a magic potion on her body. Lucius wants to try the same and steals some of her potion, but by mistake he gets the wrong one and is turned into a donkey. From the lady’s maid, Photis, he learns that the secret to reversing his transformation is to eat rose petals, but roses are not in season and the rest of the novel follows Lucius the donkey from one misadventure to the next as he tries to find roses to eat.

From these examples, we can notice some patterns about how Green and Roman authors thought about and used magic. On one hand, there is no sign of a magic system, as described by Jemisin. There are no universal rules and no explanation for how or why magic works. Every individual case is different. It depends upon secrets known only to its users, never shared with the audience, and its results often shock and terrify those who encounter them.

At the same time, even though we cannot call this magic systematic, there is a consistency to it. It tends to require special objects or substances, such as enchanted food, magic flowers, poisons, and potions. Those who are initiated into its powers can use them with confidence: Medea knows that her poison will be effective, just as Circe knows she is defeated when she sees Odysseus carrying the plant that makes him immune to her power. When the effects fail or go awry, it is because of ignorance or ineptitude on the part of the wielders, like Lucius using the wrong potion.

Despite this general consistency, the magic remains narratively powerful. It does not become dull and predictable or divert the stories away from the characters’ choices and their consequences. In fact, magic makes possible the human stories that are at the center of these narratives, from Medea’s calamitous vengeance to Lucius’ comic wanderings. How does it achieve these things? A few observations:

The stories include magic; they aren’t about magic. Magic is a MacGuffin. It sets things in motion or presents characters with choices to make, but once the magic has done its job, it disappears into the background and lets the characters get on with things.

Magic does not solve or circumvent the crucial problems. The human issues and choices at the center of these stories are ones that magic cannot touch. Odysseus is trying to get home. He deals with magic and monsters on his way, but it isn’t magic that gets him where he wants to go. Medea’s magic gives her the power to deeply hurt Jason in a way that a mundane woman in her position could not, but the story is about how she makes the choice to use that power. Lucius’ magical mishaps drive him to rethink his unsatisfying life and resolve to be a better person. Magic presents these characters with challenges and choices they wouldn’t otherwise face, but their stories are still about what happens in their hearts and minds.

We know only as much as we need to know. Apuleius does not list the ingredients in Lucius’ donkeyfying draught, nor is there an appendix at the end of the Odyssey to explain how Odysseus’ magical plant disrupted the mystical ether currents that Circe manipulated with her wand. Medea does not take time out from her revenge plot to give the audience a primer on fiery poisons. The magic simply works the way it is supposed to, and that’s all we need to know.

Thoughts for writers

There’s room in fantasy literature for many kinds of magic, from complex and internally consistent systems to strange and unpredictable effects. There’s even a place for fantasy with no magic at all. Whatever kind of fantasy you feel like writing, though, remember this: the story comes first. Whatever you do with your magic, don’t let it get in the way of your characters and the choices they have to make.

Image: Circe flees from Odysseus, with animal-headed crew, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Metropolitan Museum of Art; c. 440 BCE; red-figure vase; by the Persephone Painter)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.


Recommended Reading: Medea

160407MedeaOne of the hallmarks of modern storytelling is toying with the conventions of a genre. Familiar stories get retold with surprising twists and the tropes that everyone can see coming are turned upside-down and inside-out. It’s not just a modern game, though. Older stories can be just as cunning with their twists. When I’m trying to think about how to do something different with a familiar tale, one of the examples I look back to is Euripides’ tragedy Medea.

Medea is one of the classics of ancient Greek theatre. There are plenty of good translations available and it’s not hard to get your hands on one. If you’re looking for an online edition, here are a few. I discussed the play before in comparison to Star Wars, so I won’t bore you with summarizing the whole plot again (check the link if you want a quick reminder). Rather, I want to talk about two interesting things Euripides does with the story.

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