rllafevers (rllafevers) wrote in enchantedinkpot,

Topic of the Week: Historical Roots of Fantasy

One of my favorite things is to be so transported by a book, that when I am done, I simply must go see if any of it was real. Over the years, I’ve been surprised by just how many of the fantasy elements I’ve read about actually have their roots in history, as either long forgotten religions, cultural rituals, religious practices, oral histories, and ancient man’s worldview. I thought it might be fun to talk about these here.


Interestingly enough, many of the magical traditions from all the various cultures throughout time have remarkably similar sources of power—the forces the ancient priests, mystics, or magicians called upon in order to exert their will on the physical world. These included gods, demons, spirits and the spiritual realm, dead ancestors, and elemental forces.

Whatever the pantheon, Norse, Celtic, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, or Babylonian, calling upon the gods to intercede on one’s behalf is one of the most common sources of magic. Of course, the uncertainty came from not knowing exactly how to phrase the request, or not knowing what incentives or bribes the gods would prefer to receive in order to bring about the desired result. The different methods might include sacrifices, rituals, entreaties, prayer, vigils, dedicating oneself to the god, long years of training, etc. To make matters even more complicated, most gods only held authority over one or two aspects of life or the natural world; thunder, perhaps, or war, the harvest, the wind, or unwed maidens, for example so not only did you have to be certain you were performing the invocation correctly, you had to be certain you were directing it to the correct god.

Spirits and the spiritual realm
In addition to the gods, ancient priests and magicians could also call upon spirits and the spiritual realm. These could either be minor gods or divinities, spirits of dead ancestors, angels, or elemental beings. In the same manner of gods, they could be called upon and either cajoled or coerced by ritual into assisting the magician.

Many cultures, most notably the Asian and Egyptian, believed that once family members or ancestors passed into the Other World, they could then act on the behalf of the living, usually to intercede in their behalf, but occasionally to punish or harass them for some slight or ill, imagined or real.

Elemental forces/nature
Many magicians and priests believed if they studied nature deeply enough they would understand its patterns and nuances and then be able to call upon or influence that power themselves. Elemental forces they might call upon included earth, air, fire, water, thunder, ley lines, etc. Some good examples of this are the Celtic druids and shamans of Siberia and Mongolia. These shamans acted as intermediary between man, the gods, and natural forces.


One of the primary concepts in magic was that possessing the true name of a thing or being gave one power over it. This might involve invoking the name orally, which would bind the magician’s will to the god’s and force it to obey. Or it could be that naming it orally would force whatever it was to manifest itself. In Egyptian mythology for example, when Isis learned the true name of the Sun God Ra, she was able to use it to gain all his knowledge and power. Once she had his name, he had no defenses against her demands.

Priests and magicians were very careful to be very specific and precise when naming the god or power they were calling on to avoid any unfortunate mistakes. The way they said it was important, too, their diction, and syllabic emphasis. By the same token, they tried to avoid saying the name of evil gods for fear the naming would help them to manifest themselves. (This is used extensively in Harry Potter with everyone being terrified of naming Voldemort.)

Magical Writing
Working in a similar way to naming, the mere act of writing something down was thought to contain inherent power and help what was written manifest itself in the physical world. But this was powerful knowledge, not to be shared lightly with those not trained to use it.  Consequently, there were a number of secret, mystical alphabets designed to communicate arcane lore and mysticism while keep its secrets hidden from the initiated. Egyptian hieroglyphs are a great example of this, as hieroglyphs actually means “sacred writing”. Egyptians used an entirely different writing system for actual communications and mundane record keeping.

Spells and invocations and prayers were often written in hieroglyphs (on virgin papyrus with newly made ink, after the priest had undergone ritual purification) and tucked in mummy wrappings for additional protection in the Underworld, or buried underground in certain specific locations (near a temple where the note could absorb heka or good magical energy, or near a plant sacred to Osiris, etc.) Also used in Ancient Egypt, and earlier times, were thin sheets of pounded lead on which prayers or spells were inscribed, then buried in a special place.

Alchemy had its own alphabet as well, meant to keep these earliest scientist’s progress in their quest for the elixir of life hidden from prying eyes.

Some writing which appears mystical, the Celtic Ogham script, for example, was actually only used for mundane purposes. All the really important Druidic magic and learnings were passed on orally and had to be memorized. It was never written down at all.

Other scripts were used for both magical and everyday purposes, like Nordic runes. Each rune not only represents a letter, but a strength or trait as well.

The power inherent in the written word also extended to artistic representations. In some ancient cultures, drawing a thing helped it to manifest itself in the world, to both good and bad result. Egyptians tried to avoid actually saying, writing, or drawing the god of chaos, for fear of invoking him. By the same token, they created many pictures and stone carvings of the pharaohs defeating their enemies, believing the artistic representation caused it to happen. Sort of like a very ancient law of attraction. ;-) The reverse applied here also, there was a reluctance to artistically portray evil beings or elements, or if they were shown, they were drawn in tiny form so as to minimize their potential for harm.

Complex Ritual
Rituals served many purposes, to call upon a power, to bend it to the magician's will, to contain the power, and to protect the magician are just a few. Most of the rituals we read about in books today actually came to us through ancient religious practices. Sacrifices, for example, were a way of buttering up whatever power the practitioner planned to invoke. Often sacrifices were only grain or food, incense or something symbolic. a small gift for the god or power being invoked. Darker magic often required darker sacrifices: animals or in the darkest cases, humans. Blood itself seems to be a consistent catalyst for many rites and rituals, from the offering of a small drop to an entire body’s worth. Salt, used in many ceremonies and rituals, has long had purification connotations.


In early cultures, Egytpian, Babylonian, Greek, the earliest magic was performed by priests, usually a form of medicine, or to restore some balance that had been lost (drought, for example) or to assure that things continued in the same pleasant manner with no surprises or upsets. Many of their rituals were a way of serving the gods and keeping the happy.

Later practitioners of magic were often learned men, searching for answers to the universe or spiritual intervention/understanding. Often, scholars were accused of practicing magic simply because they did something the church did not approve of. Alchemists and astronomers were considered by many to be practicing magic, but they were actually laying the foundation for modern day chemistry and planetary travel. Wise men who studied natural history, who tried to learn the skeletal systems of birds and mammals were all considered to be dabbling in unnatural power. The Renaissance scholar and alchemist is actually the prototype for a number of the wizards we see in fiction. Isaac Newton, John Dee, Nicholas Flammel were all great scientists of their time, but also pursued matters of the occult as a legitimate avenue of scientific understanding.

There was a revival of interest in magic during Victorian times, some say as the flip side to the industrial revolution. Many of these revivalist groups based their theories and teachings on earlier schools of mysticism. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for example, incorporated a large amount of ancient Egyptian philosophies and practices in its doctrine. Druids suffered a revival as well, as the Victorians became fascinated with their history and lost teachings and developed an entire neo-druidic movement. Much of what these Victorians perceived to be magical was actually made up in their own century, cobbled together from mist and hearsay, much of which has been debunked by more modern archaeology. Much of what we know of magick comes from these societies.

Many of these later magical philosophies were concerned with trying to lift the participants from the mundane, earthly physical existence to a more highly evolved spiritual consciousness. Many others were concerned with guarding the secrets of the ages or special, hard to acquire knowledge.


Demons have historical roots in a number of cultures and mythologies, including ancient Chaldea, the Hebrew bible, Hinduism, and Islam. Each of these has a slightly different definition of a demonic being. For example, in the Judeo Christian texts, demons are fallen angels who now reside in hell. In many of their incarnations,  demons were a power that could be names and commanded at will. In fact, many branches of magic have magicians entrapping demons and using them as a power source for invoking their magic.

Much of what we know or understand about how to contain and control demons comes to us from the rabbinical literature’s accounts of King Solomon, who was given a ring which gave him power over the demons. King Solomon’s teachings comprise a large portion of the medieval and renaissance grimoires, which were written accounts of how to trap demons and control these beings.

The Greeks had a significantly different take on daemons. They believed them to be more of a spiritual being, and a benign one at that.  They existed somewhere between god and man on the spiritual plane, and were often thought to be minor deities or dead heroes. The idea of daemons originated with Plato.

Dwarves appear in both Germanic and Norse mythologies and while their talents have nearly always been associated with dark underground spaces and metallurgy, other characteristics have evolved considerably throughout the centuries. Early sources suggest that they were once thought to be of human height, have dark hair, and corpse like pallor. In the Norse tales, dwarves sprang maggot-like from the rotting flesh of the slain giant Ymir. Because of their habit of whispering behind rocks in the mountains, echoes became known as dwarf’s talk.

Another subterranean being is the gnome, first named by Renaissance alchemist and occultist Paracelcus. Gnomes were an elemental being associated with earth. There were actually four elemental beings, each associated with one of the four alchemical elements. Salamanders were the fire elementals, Undines water, and sylphs were the creatures of the air.

Faerie have their roots firmly anchored in the Invasion Cycle of Ireland, which is a historical accounting of the early history of Ireland. Some of the history and myths are also confirmed by a second history The Second Battle of Maige Tuiread.

The most often mentioned of the mythical races are the Firbolgs, the Formorians, (or Fomorii) the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Milesians, but there are others who are also mentioned in these cycles, namely the Parthonians, and the Nemedians.

The Formorians are probably the least clearly documented or understood; the accounts of who they were the most disagreed upon. Some think they were one of the races that came to Ireland, whereas others believe they were always there, perhaps as elemental/nature type gods and forces who inhabited the land or posed a challenge to man’s survival; bogs, deep water, fog, storms, drought, etc.

Another theory says they were wild, savage raiding sea pirates, from their name, which means giant pirate.

However, they are also thought to be a race of inhabitants, albeit a darkly powerful, deformed race with many having the head of a goat or only one arm, leg, or eye. Although mostly misshapen and demonic, some were rumored to be beautiful. There is no account given for this wide variation in appearance.

Whichever version you choose, they were generally agreed upon to be The Big Bad of the Irish races, the one who plagued and preyed on all those who tried to settle there.

The Fir Bolgs, or bag men, were another race that invaded Ireland. They were called bag men because in their native land, Greece, they were enslaved and carried dirt in leather bags from the valleys up to the barren hills. According to myth, they refashioned these leather bags into boats and used them to sail to Ireland. That explanation of their name is sometimes disputed.

The most well known of all the races, the Tuatha de Danaan, or children of the goddess Danu, arrived in Ireland, stepping out of the mist rather than coming by boat. Whereas the first three races prepared Ireland for agriculture, and the Fir Bolgs laid foundations for government and more complex settlements, the Tuatha were said to bring arts and crafts and medicine and philosophy and music, in addition to their otherworldly powers. They were worshipped by early pagan Irish as gods.

Because of their superior fighting abilities and magic, they defeated the Fir Bolg, who were unwilling to share the island with them. They then went on to defeat the Fomorians, once and for all, and drive their influence from Ireland. 

Eventually, they themselves were conquered by the Milesians. Well, not conquered so much as driven back. The Milesians came originally from Scythia, then Spain, then sailed to Ireland. An original scouting party of Milesians had a misunderstanding with the Tuatha de, and were killed. When news of this reached the main party of Milesians, they were intent on revenge.

But the Tuatha did not leave Ireland, instead they retreated to the far corners of the island, and used their magic to make those corners invisible to man. They also created great earthen mounds or sidhe, barrows, and cairns, that they inhabited also. Two worlds now existed side by side, the surface world inhabited by the moral Milesians, and the underground, in habited by the Tuatha de.

As their status diminished, they became known at the people of the sidhe, or what we call faerie. They further evolved into trooping faeries and court faeries, or the Seelie and Unseelie courts.

Here are some of my favorite resources for this subject. If you have others, feel free to share them in the comments. Or if you have any other historical sources of various fantasy elements, feel free to share those too!

Medieval Folklore – a Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, by Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, and John Lindow

The Dictionary of Ancient Deities by Patricia Turner and Charles Russell Coulter

The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P Hall

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects by Barbara G. Walker


Tags: r. l. lafevers, topic of the week
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