Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Witches and Wizards and Shamans, Oh My!

Do you believe in magic, magic?

Mage, magus, enchanter, sorcerer, shaman, kalku, bomoh, wizard, warlock.

With so many synonyms for essentially the same thing, a magic-user, it can be overwhelming for a writer to know just how to choose!  Spell-chuckers are great, because they bend and break rules that otherwise requires a Keanu Reeves-level of suspension of disbelief to occur. 

Need a rainbow bridge to span a bottomless chasm to get to the treasure room on the other side?  That’s a job for an enchanter!

How about a bit of sourceless glowing to light the gloom of a dark labyrinth?  Lumous!  A kindly wizard will guide your way.

How about asking a pile of bones the blind spots and safety points of a lair so your ragtag band of heroes can tiptoe past a sleeping dragon and through the Portal of Times?  Necromancy is your goto house of magic!

Really, spell-chuckers can be called whatever the writer wants them to be.  Names can be important, especially to give the story a bit of flavor for the archaic.  But really a magic-user by any other name would still defy the laws of physics. 

Still, it might help to have an etymological/traditional breakdowns of some of the major power-wielders who hang out at the docks, waiting for a quest:

You could have just used the door.
Witch is taken from the Old English wicca for a male practitioner of the magic, and wicce for a female. In modern use, "witch" is for female magic-users and "warlock" for males, but really there's no difference.  They both need weigh less than a duck and need to be burned at the stake.

Wizard is from Middle English "wys" meaning "wise" and "ard" meaning "art".  Those clever junior high classes!  At one point a wizard was considered someone (usually a man) very learned in a vast number of studies, such that he (bastard) probably seemed to have (or claimed to have) magical abilities.  Really, what he (bastard) was just blinding the unwashed masses with SCIENCE.

Magician comes from the Greek "magos" and Persian "magush" as priests, by definition, have power derived from the gods/goddesses. This developed into the Latin "magus" (singular form) and "magi" (plural), and later dropped the religious aspects except for that O. Henry story where the wife totally pulls one over on her husband.  Hair will always grow back, you fool!

Sorcerer/sorceress is derived from their use of "sorcery" (obviously) which comes from the Latin "sortiarius", specifically someone who tells fortunes from lots.  Not the vacant kind, but the ones you would cast made from sticks, bones, bits of rubbish.  Whatever. Because of the use of other powers then the Christian god, sorcery generally has negative connotations, which is why today David Copperfield is called a “magician” and not a “sorcerer”.

How?  With magic . . . mutha'f*&$#@!
Shaman is actually a Russian word, which was derived from the indigenous people of Siberia.  It means “to know” which seems to be a running theme with all our spell-chuckers.  These folks are thought “to know” more than the average citizen about the natural world and the spirit world.  Basically, they know what the seven herbs and spices are in KFC’s secret recipe.

Necromancer is actually one of the easier ones, which may or may not gross you out.  It comes from the Latin necromantia, which means “divination from dead bodies” which comes from the Greek nekromanteia, nekros meaning “dead” and manteia meaning “divination”.  Pretty straight forward.  If it’s dead, these folks have power over it.  Which does nothing to explain the Necromongers from that Riddick movie.

Lord, don't it feel good to be a Necromonger!
Obviously, that’s not all the types of magic-users available.  There are alchemists and prophets and druids and wandering Hobbits with Rings of Power around every corner.  There are aes sedai and avatars and sympathists from The University.  There are rune masters and shadow lords, sun priests and Gaians.  Masters and apprentices of magic practically fall out of any tree shook hard enough.

That’s what makes it all so much fun.


  1. Who do you consider to have it all? The sorcerer? The magician? Male aes sedai?

  2. Tricky, considering the myriad of systems that exist out there. If we look at some of the major ones, like Rowling and Jordan: both claim that death can't be healed. It's a permanent state. But for D&D enthusiasts and the worlds inspired by them (like Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame), death isn't so permanent. It's possible, though extremely rare, to overcome it. In such a case, then, I'd have to go with a cleric having the greatest potential source of power; with heavy emphasis on "potential'. After all, this is someone who is in direct communication with their god.

    But I'd certainly be open to debating the question.