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I've long had difficulty trying to put this into words, and trying to find reliable sources that I could look into to inform me on how to move forward with my writing. I'm hoping someone out there more learned than I can point me in the right direction.

I want to create a magic system, but I don't want to create a magic system based on the more cliche offerings you find in video-games or YA fantasy, stuff that hinges on, say, four basic elements, etc. I have two very specific parameters I'm trying to work within to make this system and I hope it helps explaining to you what I will need to move forward:

The magic system is at least somewhat based on the real-world origins of magic, culturally speaking. I am trying my hardest to find some reliable historical accounts that aren't heavily biased or religious in nature that can tell me, perhaps from an anthropological standpoint (or any other scientific one, I'm not picky) that I can base this magic system on. Like, for example, I've found some articles explaining how some formal practices as we know them may have originated in Egypt, and the idea of magic and magicians might have Persian roots, etc., but I don't know how trustworthy they are. This also includes the rationale behind its practice, if possible: like, say, how practitioners used it, why they carried out certain rituals to do it, the context of and understanding behind things like spells, religious connotation, where people actually thought magic came from and what it was, etc. Basically anything that gives me a timeline to work with, and a greater understanding of where our modern understanding of magic came from.

The magic system is not showy, based on visuals, and is almost terrifying. I hesitate to list examples, but I like how some older films used to present the idea of magic, at least visually. I liked, for example, how it was depicted in the movie DRAGONSLAYER, or maybe the better example is in LORD OF THE RINGS, especially in the battle between Saruman and Gandalf: there aren't laser light-shows, it's invisible, it's subtle, it's even scary and transformative, more upsetting and less convenient than stuff you might see in WORLD OF WARCRAFT, etc. I feel like there's more power in the less-is-more depiction here. I don't know that necessarily helps anyone give me an answer, but it is part of my overall process, so...including it here.

I hope I've made it clear enough: if not I'm willing to answer questions to hone in more on a clearer question. Please let me know if you have any other questions that will help you answer the question and I will do my best to answer. Thank you.

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closed as too broad by Mołot, Frostfyre, Ryan_L, elemtilas, SRM Oct 19 '18 at 21:14

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Read into chaos magick. $\endgroup$ – Renan Oct 11 '18 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ This might be a better question for History.SE - it sounds like you have the ideas in place (and they sound like fine ideas), and you need a historical backing for them, and the folks over there will be better at things like obscure primary sources or compilations. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Oct 11 '18 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ Start with looking up "Witchcraft" on Wikipedia and there are numerous contemporary examples. There are sufficient murders each year in Papua New Guinea today for alleged witchcraft that the government has introduced legislation to try to deal with the problem. None of the alleged actions are fireball / lightning bolt effects. The Mau Mau are another recent example. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Oct 11 '18 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ If you want demonic rituals, then you do need to look into religious texts. The bible in particular invokes the idea that names have power and saying the name of a thing gives you power over it. Combine this with a bunch of different demon names and you have your chant. For example, I could use the 72 demons of King Solomon e.g Foras Beleth Valefor Gäap could be part of a chant. Combined with some latin and what other religious mumbo jumbo you can google. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Oct 11 '18 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ On a side note, this question itself is too broad. You want us to generate some ideas for you and I can understand why you would do that, but I don't think its suitable for this site. In addition, the reason games and movies make it flashy is to show that its magic and also highlight the amount of power and gravity of the magic. If I have death magic that just causes people to drop dead, it isn't impressive without a detailed explanation of why it should be impressive. Its just, oh look he fell and he fell and he fell. If I add a picture of the heart being crushed it becomes more impactful. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Oct 11 '18 at 23:51
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Basic Categories of Magic

Magical practices are as varied and diverse as the cultures they come from, and are almost always part of a larger overarching religion. That being said from an anthropological standpoint there are three major categories we see throughout history. (Bear in mind there is a nearly infinite number of variations on or combinations of these examples.)

Theistic Magic: This encompasses the magical practices of a larger organised religion revolving around specific deities, entities, and divine or semi-divine beings. Theistic magic can range from Pentecostal beliefs that one can heal injuries or sickness by laying of hands and praying to the more occult such as one attempting to summon Satan. Theistic magical beliefs revolve around the idea that there are sentient higher powers that can be contacted for requests, bargains, or compelled to carry out actions through specific ritual. For a more modern take on theistic magic look to the deep southern belief that one can summon the devil by placing an old hat at the crossroads at midnight, and that one can then sell their soul to him in exchange for favors (like musical talent or sexual attractiveness.)

Naturalistic Magic: This is the belief that the elemental forces of nature are actual tangible and accessible forces that can be directly harnessed or manipulated through ritual. An excellent example of naturalistic religion is the practice of rain dances. In naturalistic magical systems the forces of nature are being harnessed or manipulated via specific rituals. Another good example of this is the eastern religions that rely heavily upon the belief of a sort of universal energy flows and eddies through everything which can be manipulated or redirected by eating certain foods or performing certain actions. In chinese holistic medicine these energies can be balanced by adding to them with certain foods or herbs that contain"hot chi" or subtracting from them with foods or herbs that are considered to contain "cold chi."

Shamanistic Magic: Similar to the Theistic practices, except that every day activities and events are somehow caused by or influenced by a vast host of various spirits of good, evil, chaotic, or neutral disposition. This differs from theistic religion because in many cases shamanism does not directly rely on a pantheon of divine or semi divine beings, and could almost be seen as a half-way point between Theistic and Naturalistic practices.

Infinite Combinations Exist Voodoo is an excellent example of a mixed bag sort of practice. In voodoo catholic saints, angels, demons, god and the devil are often all invoked by name regularly as deities. However voodoo practitioners also have rituals that would be considered more shamanistic in which unnamed or vaguely defined more shamanistic spirits are invoked as well. As if it weren't confusing enough, Voodoo practitioners also utilize more Naturalistic approaches like the belief that somehow a metaphysical connection between objects can be made and actions transferred along those (Like the cliche voodoo dolls, though simply possessing some body fluids or hair clippings were used to make the direct metaphysical link just as often.)

Point being, magic is almost always a mixed bag of religion and directly pinpointing any system that didn't use a combination of some or all of these basic categories interspersed with very cultural specific beliefs is nearly impossible. The idea of magic just for magic sake with no attachment to religious practices (like the harry potter series) really didn't exist until fairly recently in history.

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You may want to look at Isaac Bonewits Authentic Thaumaturgy, which abstracts from many actual magic systems.

Another source may be to use the method of GURPS Cabal, where they took a real magic system (hermetic ceremonial magic), focused on a particular obscure subset (the decans) and made the mechanics focus on subtle symbolism. Effects were manipulation of coincidences and perceptions rather than fireballs. The same approach can work on many other magic systems.

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    $\begingroup$ While Bonewits' book seems to have generalized magic systems, it is a Steve Jackson publication, so anthropology might provide more authentic sources. Even James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1922), while considerably dated, would be a good starting point. Your recommendation of abstracted and presumably condensed sources is quite helpful. $\endgroup$ – a4android Oct 12 '18 at 5:42
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    $\begingroup$ I second the recommendation of Frazer's Golden Bough, especially given that it is freely available from Archive.org. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 12 '18 at 8:09
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android - His book is based on his anthropology PhD dissertation, and I seem to recall subsequent books on the same topic. Frazer may have started the idea of some of the laws, but there is a lot more modern (and less wordy) anthropology. $\endgroup$ – Anders Sandberg Oct 13 '18 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the clarification. Frazer is very old school & verbose with it. I agree modern anthropology would be better. I did cite Frazer as a starting point. Witchcraft & Sorcery (Penguin, 1970) gives a reasonable overview of historical & anthropological studies (for its time). I was scratching for more recent sources. The research literature would be best, but too often mired in theoretical interpretations to be easily accessible for the layperson. $\endgroup$ – a4android Oct 14 '18 at 7:59
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What about magic mistaken as science?

Since you're looking for something with real world origins, you can tap on mankind's long tradition of pseudo-scientific beliefs. To be fair to them, our ancestors didn't know any better. They thought it was science, but we know it's actually magical thinking...which is why it suits your needs.

One prime example of this is the ancient practice of alchemy, as typified by attempting to transmute lead into gold, and the philosopher's stone. Alchemy was rooted in a complex spiritual worldview in which everything around us contains a sort of universal spirit, and metals were believed not only to be alive but also to grow inside the Earth. When a base, or common, metal such as lead was found, it was thought to simply be a spiritually and physically immature form of higher metals such as gold. To the alchemists, metals were not the unique substances that populate the Periodic Table, but instead the same thing in different stages of development or refinement on their way to spiritual perfection(description borrowed from this page). This form of magic may initially seem too abstract for your purposes, but you could have your alchemists turn armies of men into stone on the fly or inflict Midas' Curse on anyone who displeases them. That should be pretty terrifying to anyone who is aware of what they can do

Another form is that of blood magic. The ancient (often shamanistic) belief of powerful properties of blood isn't totally unfounded, though unsurprisingly a whole host of magical ideas got associated with it as well. Leech therapy or other therapeutic shedding of blood falls under this category, as does the idea of divine blood or 'la sang real' and also the Holy Grail. In more extreme forms there is resurrection and other voodoo-like practices. The underlying idea of some sort of strength or weakness being transmitted through blood is pretty widespread amongst ancient societies. Your shamans or blood mages could wield this power to heal or harm as they will. Blood magic could ensure the general health and fertility of a land and its people, or it could bring famine upon them and blight entire generations of commonfolk with wasting sicknesses.

PS: If you're into macabre humour, you could have philosopher's stones literally be made out of the gallstones of dead philosophers

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    $\begingroup$ I’m glad you went for gallstones. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Oct 12 '18 at 7:14
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I strongly suggest you read some Alan Garner (Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath in specific) and Susan Cooper (Dark is Rising sequence) - both authors based their writing on extensive research into the mythology of Great Britain and both based many of the partially-complete spells in their works on historical documents recording spells - and both cautiously opted to keep their renditions partial...

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