So, imagine a world where magic is a real, quantifiable energy. It has real, visible effects, and can be used by humans to mold reality as they see fit (with varying degrees of finesse). The beginning for my story starts with my protagonist who is especially gifted in magic such that weird things manifest themselves without her even trying. She accidentally caused a little bit of a scare in her home town, and because of that, she is being sentenced to die. She escapes and starts on her journey to tame her power, reclaim the lost arts, and ultimately kickstart an age of magic.

Not terribly original, but the real problem is that I'm having a hard time believing that world with real magic could produce a civilization that's scared to death of it. That'd be like a civilization on Earth killing anyone who could run backwards, or start fires, or make tools. It's just a part of reality. You'd think humans would just use magic like they would any other tool at their disposal.

How can I justify a society that's fearful of witches in a world where magic is measurable?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Mołot, JohnWDailey, James Oct 23 at 15:47

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  • The biggest thing this question needs is constraints. The situation you have set up is interesting but any one of a million answers could solve the problem. If you can provide some constraints, basically we need items/requirements on which we can judge one answer versus another to see which is best. – James Oct 23 at 15:53

15 Answers 15

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Violent people are part of society too. Arguably, an accepted part for thousands of years. Sometimes the capacity of an individual for violence is a tool which can help that person or his family or his society.

Why then would a violent man be sentenced to death?

Because he cannot control his violence.

Potentially dangerous abilities require control on the part of the individual. I think of Lennie in Of Mice and Men. A big huge simpleton - capable of great strength and immense amounts of work, but not in control of his powers and so doomed. I thought the same thing about Elsa the ice princess in Frozen - she realistically could have (would have) wiped out her country accidentally. Her lack of control meant she was too dangerous to let live. The same with the mutant Phoenix in Xmen.

Your society is not scared of magic. It is scared of an individual with the power to do great harm, and without the ability to control it.

  • The same reason we don'T allow people to build their own little nuclear plants in their garage. It is very dangerous and hard to control. The powerful (state, church, rich) will always strive to control anything that is powerful/dangerous. If today some people would develop a magic ability which could destroy whole buildings, they would be treated akin to explosives and probably be imprisoned. – Falco Oct 23 at 11:24
  • @Falco: Hardly the same thing. Fission plants are not going to be little enough to fit in a garage. The best you'll get is a dirty bomb. The smallest viable ones are in the several hundred MW range. – nzaman Oct 23 at 12:29
  • I'd argue that the problem isn't that the person is out of control of their own ability (violence, magic, nuclear physics, whatever), it's that society is out of control of that person. Witches represent The Threat Within, people with ability that extends beyond what merely locking them up or the threat of force can control. Or they're the Wild Women who live outside society and therefore are unknown and frightening. These people are in full control of themselves, without the checks and balances of society, and that frightens people far more than any destructive maniac. – Ruadhan Oct 23 at 14:36
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    @Ruadhan - "and that frightens people far more than any destructive maniac." Well, sure. Are you suggesting that people should not be afraid of those with the power to harm them and with no obvious defense? Have you ever read "It's a Good Life" ciscohouston.com/docs/docs/greats/its_a_good_life.html, or watched the TV adaptations? From the story, "'Bad man,' Anthony said, and thought Dan Hollis into something like nothing anyone would have believed possible" Malice which drives magic is immune to questions of physical evidence and alibi. How can a justice system, or a society, function? – WhatRoughBeast Oct 23 at 15:12
  • I think your comment and mine put together kinda make a complete answer :P Magic is a mystery even to its users, it's unchecked power in the hands of people who Walk Amongst Us or live on the fringe, unregulated, uncontrollable. Who knows what a witch is capable of? If that doesn't make people nervous I don't know what will! – Ruadhan Oct 23 at 15:25

The original reason we used to burn witches was competition. The church (insert denomination here) saw witchcraft as a threat. There is even some historical evidence to prove that the depiction of the devil as a red horned creature (as opposed to the beautiful angel of light he's described as in the Bible) was to make him look like Pan, a common nature god popular with certain forms of Wiccan belief. This was ultimately the first ever retrospective copyright case to convince the flock that witches worshipped the devil.

Even Nicola Tesla ran into persecution by offering to make electricity free to all.

Magic ultimately makes at least some forms of commercial industry obsolete and challenges the orthodoxy of belief that many are invested in. In such a case, burning witches is just another way to maintain the established power bases.

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    There was a section on this at the witchcraft museum in Boscastle, UK. The competition was direct as well, as the church offered healing via votive offerings while witchcraft offered healing via sympathetic magic (Which are very similar to each other). – Matt Hollands Oct 23 at 9:27
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    @MattHollands and both had about the same effectiveness, so even the quality argument was not enough to sway the masses. – Mindwin Oct 23 at 12:35
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    "... Pan, a common nature god popular with certain forms of Wiccan belief" You mean paganism (Wicca is a subset not a synonym for paganism), specifically Greco-Roman paganism. This shouldn't be surprising considering that Christianity started in the Roman Empire. Either way, Wicca didn't even exist back then. I know what many Wiccans claim, but it's modern reformulation (1940s and later) of European folk magic and Hermetic mysticism that was partially co-opted by the subsequent New Age movement. – CircleSquared Oct 23 at 13:49
  • While this answer is nicely historically based, it does overlook the fact that the established power bases have always been quick to recruit new sources of power. If magic existed, it would be a central part of the ruling classes and the basis of industry & commerce. – a4android Oct 24 at 5:01

Just make magic corrupting. Several books use the premise that the source of magic comes from other world beings which slowly cause madness.

The Wheel of Time series, the male wellspring is corrupted/poisoned so whenever men touch the source they slowly go mad.

Finally magic is power and power itself is corrupting. Even if magic doesn't actually affect you mentally or physically, suddenly you have a rare young person handed unlimited power and virtually nobody can stop them once they get the hang of it. It doesn't take too many blood thirsty conquering warlocks to make the peasants want to set fire to anyone that has the ability.

Just make it rare. Rare enough that most people wouldn't have direct experience with it. Then the situation wouldn't be any different from our own history when people thought that witches/magic was real even though they didn't ever actually see it.

And even if you can't make it rare... well, just look how fearful people can be of people of different skin colors, also not rare, and that doesn't even impart any potentially destructive abilities!

Basically you don't need a whole lot of justification to make people fearful irrational xenophobes (alas.)

  • Unfortunately, for a future plot point I need it to be relatively common. And I'd argue that racism exists not only because it's an easily identifiable difference, but because the first encounters with different skin colors would've been novel and foreign. Magic's always existed in my world, and it exists everywhere. – Lispy Louie Oct 22 at 23:00
  • @LispyLouie : Nope. History shows that first encounters usually happen to involve mostly trade, and no fighting. Conflict arises later, as conflict always arose between different groups of people through all of human history. Even between people of the same skin color. But if they had a different skin color or different religion, today it's easy to say "Aha! That's why they fought!", while ignoring the countless other wars where both sides had the same skin color, same religion, etc. – vsz Oct 23 at 4:39

Think nuclear accidents. In a world where magic is measurable that's not different from our world where we can measure nuclear effects like radioactivity, capture cross-sections, and chain reactions.

If magic can manipulate or modify reality in the vicinity of a magic user this would be the equivalent of persons in a medieval society being able to build their nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons. If their understanding of magic and its effects was imprecise or poorly based, this could easily have the same catastrophic outcomes as a medieval society where random individuals where building their own nuclear reactors and weapons.

Reimagine this scenario as a world where the magical equivalents of Chernobyl and Fukushima or the fallout from the Bikini Atoll weapons tests were commonplace and well-remembered. A world where almost anyone can be their own nuclear bomb-maker or backyard nuclear reactor operator without the necessary knowledge or practical experience to run them safely.

For reference a List of Nuclear Disasters and Radioactive Incidents

Because she, and other witches before, became a source of danger.

Perhaps it's mentioned somewhere in the myths or prophecies. Or perhaps it's happened before, and quite commonly. Maybe what they're scared of isn't magic inherently, but something, a certain quality in her magic, that she and only she (and maybe another rare handful of witches) has.

You mentioned that she was so powerful she lost control and caused things to manifest. This is pretty nice to build on. Perhaps an excess of uncontrolled magic can cause far bigger issues as she grows stronger?

Perhaps it will attract some of the darker forces hungry for her mana, or perhaps her leaking magic can mess with the natural mana too much, inviting disasters and misfortune, or ruining crops and natural weather cycles. Or perhaps her magic is so unusual that they saw her as cursed rather than gifted. Darker still, perhaps there were cases when such unchecked magic has costed the lives of people around it...

Uncontrolled magic in itself sounds like a fearsome thing, and people are easily afraid of powerful things beyond their understanding.

Projection

Magic may be easily quantifiable in your world, like rain or sunshine, but people are still free to project their own cultural biases on it. All it takes is a handful of magic-users, or even a single individual to use their powers for less than honorable purposes, to create a lasting belief that Magic-User = Bad Person, therefore Magic = Bad. It doesn't even need to be something flashy like razing a farm, simple brigandry and charltanry would do.

Given the medieval mindset and the simple human desire for repetition, people born after this possibly apocryphal negative history with an aptitude for magic would be burnt at the stake or run out of town at the very least simply as a matter of standard village procedure to Ward Away The Bad Things. It doesn't matter what the new magic-user intends or whether s/he has done anything at all with magic, because the regular folk have been conditioned to believe that Magic = Bad

A patriarchal society afraid of woman who can challenge men.

Other answers have described witch-hunts in our world as due to challenging the church, which is partially correct. What it misses though is that it was predominantly women who were accused. Midwives were naturally all women, back then, and knowing enough to help a woman give birth will also follow through to knowing first aid too. Or vice versa. Knowing how to keep someone alive puts you in a position of authority amongst the people who need you.

That creates tension with the male rulers and priests. Not only is there someone else who your people are looking up to, but that person is (horrors!) a woman! Misogyny is baked deep into the Christian church - many of the Epistles teach it as doctrine. But other belief systems also discriminate against women, often related to menstruation.

These people had never heard of matrix management. They didn't know that creating tensions between management goals can give a better outcome. (Some managers still don't!) So their only answer was to get rid of their opponent. The next generation of babies and mothers would likely die in childbirth, and all kinds of people would die or be maimed due to inadequate first aid, but they didn't care. Getting rid of opposition was more important.

Now look at your world. The power of a true witch extends well beyond first aid. They may have fighting powers, be able to control the weather or animals, and all the things which were originally claimed for witches. Given that challenge, how could any ruler let them live?

Note that this was actually the argument used sometimes, back in the day. Back then though, I doubt anyone in power truly believed it. Their priority was simply that they should not be opposed.

Not terribly original, but the real problem is that I'm having a hard time believing that world with real magic could produce a civilization that's scared to death of it.

I'll cite the words of Arthur C. Clarke, two possibilities exist: either it's magic or sufficiently advanced technology, and something about morality hijacked by religion.

Think a minute about your smartphone. If you don't have one, think about somebody else's smartphone. We may not know how it really works, but we understand this is a Chinese-made machine that does a set of task it is designed to do. There is a number of people that are thoroughly addicted to it though, it emits and receives EM waves which can cause cancer, it can be used to spy on you even if you turn it off.

Some people are scared of it. Maybe not scared like panic attack inducing scared, but enough that they think it is so detrimental to their lives that it will drive them off smartphones, or technology in general. There is a very real movement of people living off the grid, whether it's to be closer to nature, to flee the woes of modern life, because of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or some other reason.

"Where is he going with that?" says the reader.

My point isn't to say these people are lunatics, because we're possibly the lunatic ones blinded by technology, but to say these people made a choice. Despite all the benefits of science, research, despite thousands of years of civilisation driven by some technology or another, these people made the choice to cast their technology off and go backwards. That thing you think is so great and you take for granted, they reject it out of principle.

Magic and technology aren't that different. Why wouldn't a medieval peasant be willing to cast off magic if they felt magic was bad?

And it's so very easy to justify too, and that's also where morality and religion come into play.

You hear something enough times and it becomes truth. It's that much faster when said by someone you regard as authority. With a powerful Church and an entranched fear of God, you can convinced villagers rather easily. They might be skeptical at first, but just wait and hear the stories of evil mages propagate.

They'll believe it. They'll believe all of it. They'll believe magic is wrong. They'll believe even more if it's the will of God. Eventually the hatred of magic will be so entranched you'll just have to point your finger and say "this one made kids stay up past bedtime" and they'll burn a witch down.


I'll add that it doesn't have to be global and universal. In fact, that justifies burning witches in some place just as easily as it justifies people loving magic in other places, which might be something interesting to explore.

Not terribly original, but the real problem is that I'm having a hard time believing that world with real GMO's could produce a civilization that's scared to death of it. That'd be like a civilization on Earth fearing/hating anyone who could vaccinate their children, or propose electronic ballots, or 3D print gun parts. It's just a part of reality. You'd think humans would just use subdermal chips like they would any other tool at their disposal.

How can I justify a society that's fearful of kinder eggs in a world where technology is a thing?

See what I did there?

Uneducated people tend to be fesrful of what they don't understand. And medieval times, just like the 21st century real world, has plenty of uneducated people.

Othering, Racism and Anti-*ism

Simply put, some people need very little encouragement to dislike someone else because of what they are. Depressingly, it's only a few more steps to lynchings, forced relocation, opression and more serious horrorific crimes born of racism and bigotry.

Your villains may honestly believe that the Witches are responsible for all sorts of villainy, just like many real-life antisemites. They're an easy target as well, significantly "other", easy to blame for all sorts of calamities, and those in power can manipulate hatred much easier than you'd think. Bonus points if your powerful villains are themselves magic users or know the truth.

For there to be lynching there needs to be a majority of "muggles", people who cannot use magic. It needn't be so bad as to make magic rare, but think about our medieval times and renaissance, how many people were actually scientists or engineers?

Depending on how powerful, people may just fear them based on how dangerous they can become. A normal drunk can be handled by a few guards without much issue. A drunken wizard may take an entire company to subdue (or kill) and only after he burned the tavern and some of its patrons down...

Think of a world where firearms were uncommon but part of the population could spontaneously produce them?

If your magic users aren't nearly as powerful as that, even better! You now have a minority who isn't necessarily capable of facing down a mob with a fireball! A wizard turns farmer and uses his powers to ensure a better harvest for himself? Other farmers will shout how unfair it is and try to either get him kicked out or force him to "magick" their own fields for free! After all, it would only be fair since they cannot use magic!

Might even be a religion based on this, like the Chantry in Dragon Age, which teaches that magic exists to serve man and thus wizards cannot use their powers for themselves, only for the benefit of mankind.

Taking from the same source, the established view on magic was made after the country managed to overthrow a magocracy, where mages ruled and non-mages had to take whatever was given to them.

Look to the X-men for your inspiration

They are set in a similarly modern world, but the vast majority of the population are 'normal' and they are afraid or jealous of the mutants (In your world - magic users).

Then you get some mutants who feel superior to the normal people, they feel like they should rule. Normal people don't want this and the battle becomes that whatever grants these powers means they are not 'human' anymore and are either ill, or a different species with different rights.

It is mostly fear and jealousy, led by a large majority that are able to keep those with more power suppressed.

A single enlightened person might wonder how their fellow man can be so irrational, but similar things based on far less obvious deviations from the 'norm' get people killed all over the world every single day (In their thousands in some countries).

Religion. Have some church-like institution declare magic to be forbidden and tainted (or an art of the devil or some such). Most readers will probably accept that people burn witches "because the church said to" without even justifying why the church said to.

for real world references people have been hung by the church for suggesting maybe the earth is round and not the center of the universe. I'm not sure why they did that, but I wholeheartedly believe they did.

Especially in middle-ages settings, the churches power over people is easy to exaggerate without breaking immersion. I believe this solution to be superior to others because it gives you the most narrative freedom. you just don't make everyone atheist.

Witch-Kings

Power corrupts, so the maxim goes.

Magic in your world is not uncommon, which means that the people who have it vary wildly from being of a kind disposition all the way through to terrifying sociopaths.

The natural result? Witch-kings.
People using their magic to dominate and rule the rest.
Possessing awful personal power, unnaturally long-lived, this scenario could go for a long time before the wheel turns and they are deposed.

Now I assume your society doesn't have that, but the memory of a dark time when this happened, or even multiple occasions where it happened may colour modern perceptions of magic and witchcraft.

Anyone who is perceived to be dangerous and magical is far too much of a risk to be left alive.
A few might get away with it, provided they're surrounded by kinder and more forgiving souls and do nothing alarming, perhaps you might encounter a court wizard. But anyone dangerous, anyone reaching for any sort of power while they are seen to have magic on their side is put to death out of fear of another Witch-King rising to power.

Examples of Witch-kings in Fiction:

  • Eragon - The principle villain Galbatorix is one of the magic-imbued Dragon-riders using his power for personal gain and to rule the world.
  • Star Wars - Sheev Palpatine, Galactic Emperor, Dark Lord of the Sith
  • The Foundation series (Asimov) - The Mule - a Psychic who rose to prominence as a galactic conqueror by bending people's minds to his will.
  • Lord of the Rings - Sauron (not to be confused with one of his minions, actually called "The Witch King of Angmar" who also probably fits the bill)
  • The Evil Queen in Snow White probably qualifies given her use of magic against Snow White to maintain her position.

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