Do you need to invent a magic ritual for your fantasy?
September 11, 2014
DO YOU HAVE A MAGICIAN in your story – perhaps a witch, a shaman, a court wizard or a voodoo priest? Readers enjoy observing how magic works, so flesh out your magic scenes.
All magicians use a ritual for casting spells. Although the details vary, most follow this structure. Everything I write in this article applies to males as well as females, but in this article I’ll use ‘she’ throughout.
The magician reads the instructions, locks the door, dons her robe, gets her tools ready, assembles the ingredients and so on.
2. Casting the Circle
The magician creates a circle, either physically (e.g. by drawing it with chalk on the ground) or mentally (e.g. by visualising a circle of white light around her). The circle serves to contain the power she raises, and also to protect her from harm. Dangerous spirits may be drawn by magic ritual, and the magician may be vulnerable to attack. The circle keeps her safe.
The magician calls on assistance from the spirit world. This may be a prayer to her god or goddess with a request that they lend a helping hand, an invitation to ancestral spirits to join her, or a summoning of a demon. In religious magic, this may be a prayer, or a long and complex rite. In other systems, it may be short or even left out. In high magic, the spirits are usually ‘summoned’; in Wiccan witchcraft, they are ‘invoked’ and ‘invited’. Sometimes, this phase also includes an offering to the gods or spirits, for example, a libation of wine or milk poured at the base of a tree, or – in the case of darker magic – a bowl of blood to welcome the demon.
You can deal with the invocation part in just a few words, for example, >After a brief prayer to Hekate, she…< or >She cast the circle, invoked the spirit of Saint Whatshisname, and…<
4. Altering the State of Consciousness
The magician changes how her brain functions, to make it receptive to magic. Often, this involves going into a trance. Chanting, dancing or drumming work well for this. Some magicians use deep meditation, others take mind-altering drugs as a short-cut.
5. Raising Power
Magic needs energy, and the magician taps into an energy source or creates energy. This is an important phase of the ritual; without it, magic will not work.
6. Speaking the Spell
The magician speaks or chants the words of the spell. In some magic systems (such as ancient Egyptian magic), it’s essential to get the words, pronunciations and intonations exactly right. In others (such as Wiccan witchcraft) the words are merely a vehicle by which the spell travels, and what matters is the intent, i.e. the magician needs to concentrate fully on the purpose of the spell.
The spells are usually short and rhythmical, repeating important words. Readers love it if you include a line or two from the spell. Just resist the temptation to insert a three-hundred-line poem.
In Shamanism, this is the stage during which the shaman travels to the spirit world, and in Necromancy, this is when the necromancer asks questions of the deceased person.
7. Dismissing the Spirits
Once the spell is cast, the magician thanks the spirits for their assistance (if she invited them) or dismisses them (if she summoned them), or says another prayer to her goddess or god.
8. Closing the circle
The magician dismantles the physical circle or visualises the imaginary circle as fading.
The magician needs to come back to reality, especially if the ritual involved journeying to the spirit world. The quickest and easiest is to drink some water and eat a little bread.
10. Keeping Records
Like a scientist conducting experiments, the magician records what exactly she did during the ritual, with which ingredients, what the purpose was, how it felt, and so on. This allows her to keep track of the efficacy of the magic, and learn for future rituals. An alchemist’s record-keeping is probably factual and analytical, while a Wiccan witch’s entry into her ‘Book of Shadows’ is more about emotions and perceptions.
Magic is mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. After working major magic, your character needs a rest. If the plot permits, allow her a nap. If you’re a devious writer, you can make things difficult for her, and let her worst enemy attack just at this moment when she’s weak and vulnerable.
The details of the ritual vary, depending on the system of magic, the magician’s skill level, on her personal preference, and on how much time she has available. You need not follow this model exactly, but can tweak it so it suits your novel’s plot.
Stages 2, 3, 4 and 5 are sometimes carried out in a different order or combined. For example, by drumming and dancing, the shaman can change her consciousness and raise power at the same time.
The ritual can take as little as two seconds or as long as a two days. A public ritual is likely to take longer than a private one, because the magician wants to please the audience.
An experienced magician may use a shorter ritual than an inexperienced one. Ritual helps the magic, and a novice needs all the help she can get. An inexperienced magician gets best results if she adheres to the ritual precisely and takes a lot of time. A veteran mage can do something in minutes or seconds because she has the experience. That’s as with other things: knitting your first pair of socks is going to take a long time, but by the time you’ve completed your hundredth pair, you can produce them really fast.
* What if a magician normally uses an elaborate ritual, but an emergency happens and she does not have enough time?
* What if a magician needs certain ingredients to cast her spell, but she can’t obtain them?
* What if a magician goes into trance for a magic ritual, and something terrible happens which would recquire her full alert consciousness?
* What if a magician desperately needs to work magic, but she can’t concentrate enough to make it work because of scary distractions.
* What if the magician is physically and mentally exhausted after a ritual, and the evil enemy chooses this time to attack her?
In Storm Dancer, the magician Merida is a stickler for correct procedure. She doesn’t believe it’s possible to work magic in any other way. But then she has to do just that – in increasingly difficult circumstances. I’ve had fun making things difficult for her.
Several times in the story, she exhausts herself working magic – and the villain takes advantage of her weak state when she cannot defend herself.
Please click the book cover image to read more about author/editor Rayne Hall and her books.