... now with 35% more arrogance!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Spells and Miracles

Follow-up to the post on combining a spellbook requirement and divine revelation into an explanation of clerical spell preparation: my own approach is similar to the prayerbook or holy scripture explanation that seemed to be pretty popular in the responses. That is, a cleric meditates on a passage that describes an exemplary tale and basically prays “O Lord, part the waters here, even as you parted them for Moses during the exodus from Egypt”, or whatever is relevant to the religion in question. In essence, divine revelation substitutes for Read Magic, but only for the scriptures of the cleric’s tradition.

But should these still be called “spells”, or should the name be changed, as Nathan suggests? I say they should definitely be called spells, since religious “spells” were the original spells. The word “spell” comes from an old word meaning to say or tell, in particular to recite a story. You also see a variant spelling of “spell” in the word gospel (“Good Story” or “Good News”.) Priests invoked blessings and kept the universe running smoothly by reciting the tales of their tradition during holy ceremonies; this practice stretches all the way back to Babylon, where the priests recited the Enuma Elish (creation story) every Babylonian New Years. There’s a lot of that still even in non-religious folk spells: they include stories of the first casting of such a spell, although the story being recited is often fragmentary and incomplete. When someone recited “Bestaberto corrumpit viscera ejus mulieris” as a seduction spell, it’s referring back to some incident when someone named Bestaberto magically caused a woman to feel lust… but who is Bestaberto, and what was the story?

“Miracle”, on the other hand, seems like the wrong word for what the cleric does. A miracle is something that divine forces cause, but which is not under any kind of human control. Saints performed miracles, but really clerics aren’t quite the same thing. The cleric class is sometimes styled as priests or members of medieval religious orders to fit with the pseudo-medieval fantasy setting many GMs used, but is patterned after Van Helsing, a deeply religious scholar devoted to opposing supernatural evil. Van Helsing didn’t work miracles; he just knew how to fight evil, based on divinely-granted insight into the lore he’d collected.

Written with StackEdit.


  1. Epées & Sorcellerie french version calls the wizard splls "sortilèges" and priest spells "invocations"

  2. I enjoyed this post, and I take your point.

    I still think the word "spell" has connotations in our language now that make this seem confusing. Perhaps we could hold on to your point that "spells" were first religious and keep "spells" for clerics and rename what MUs do as "incantations."

    My point was not that the cleric performed the miracle, but that the cleric knew the formula which his god promised to fulfill in miracle. The way the western medieval church would have understood that only God makes the bread and wine the body and blood, but God promises always to do this miracle when the form and words are followed in the sacrament. Hence my suggestion to call them "sacraments," or "mysteries."

    And I do get the Van Helsing connection, of course. But they are called "clerics" not "deeply religious scholars," so . . .

    I won't argue my point too much here. Perhaps they are both "spells." I like the previous comment. I would call MU spells: "incantations," and clerical "spells," "invocations," that is, the invoking of (a) G/god/s promised power down on a situation.

    Thanks for this discussion!