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In a lot of stories to cast a spell one must say some words or draw symbols on the ground etc. Now it seems like logically, in order for such things to work something has to ever presently watch for these symbols (or listen for them), interpret them when they appear and then execute the actual magical spell.

I'm wondering if there has ever been any classical explanations as to what that something is (gods, demons something else)? And, more importantly, what reason would it have to consistently obey such commands?

This question is similar to In the magic==math trope, how do "they" know when we're doing spells? but my focus is less on how would they know and more on the nature of the entity and reasons why it does what it does. And I'm specifically talking about systems of magic that are fairly predictable:

i.e. if I say vingardium leviOHsa it works every time, but if I say levioSAH then it doesn't

So it isn't the case of otherworldly entities being impressed by a human possessing knowledge or solving a theorem and thus doing something, but rather acting like terminal shell executing command as long as they're types.. er.. said correctly. On the other hand certain spells, like healing or repairing stuff require a certain amount of "thinking" and understanding of the problem (the spellcaster doesn't consciously rearrange each molecule to repair something, the spell sort of "knows" what the thing is supposed to be and does it automatically)

So, what sort of entity is smart enough to execute complex spells with some degree of knowledge and creativity, yet still obeys symbolic commands about 100% of the time?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by sphennings, L.Dutch, Azuaron, Rob Watts, Mark Jul 20 '17 at 23:48

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ One possibility is there is an ancient civilization that built a planet wide automation system with language processing and that is what processes and makes the magic happen. The symbols can all be cryptographic in nature and the words spoken could really mean "siri, do my laundry". $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Jul 20 '17 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ It is known. Ra executes magical spells. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jul 20 '17 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ What entity makes things fall to the ground? $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Jul 20 '17 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ One of the challenges with worldbuilding: how to phrase questions where "there's no consensus" is a valid answer! I do have one thing which might help you: spells don't have to work as directed 100% of the time. Mathematical logic is often far more precise than you need for a reasonable magic system. The other thing that's fun to look at is "how does an infant learn to interpret symbols." $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 20 '17 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ Qabalistic Angels. $\endgroup$ – Michael Jul 20 '17 at 22:22
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  • It has to do with intent.

There is a strain of thought in the Hermetic Tradition in which spells, symbols, formulas and rituals are merely procedures to focus the mind. (Alan Moore seems to hold with this view of magic, which he has studied comprehensively. Promethea may be taken as a thesis on the subject.)

It's a fairly common idea, especially once you have post-modernism, and you can find it reflected in authors who have made a serious study of Hermeticism (as opposed to authors who use magic as a device, but have not made serious study of the concepts, which includes the Western Hermetic Tradition, certain Buddhist ideas on the nature of reality, and Frazer.)

  • The ritual, spell, symbols can be manifested without intent, as practice of preparation, but the manipulation of reality requires will.

It is the magician themselves who executes magic.

Agents, in the sense of entities as you suggest, may be utilized, but ultimately they themselves are just symbols for various elemental/fundamental forces, which may also be psychological (See Jung on Alchemy). Such forces would be archetypal, and need only be restricted by the limits of your imagination.

Agents that are autononic might resemble like a Star Wars conception of the force, some sort of aether that binds the universe. Agents that are conscious and rational might be more like djins, gods or angels.


You may also be interested in The Free Will Theorem for an understanding of how will (intent) connects to reality in regard to transformation.

This theorem is pretty out there, but, if, for instance, the magician wanted to create a crystalline structure such as a palace or prison, the magician would would have to exert their will over the quantum particles, because crystalline formations are a macro phenomenon subject to quantum indeterminacy. The same probably holds true for directing lightening, and anything having to do with electricity.

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The One. Gaia. The Universe in itself. The Pythagorean mathematical underpinnings of existence. The Divine Providence (of which the Greek name is pronoia, literally "favourable mind"). The uncountable multitude of demons and minions. The operating system of the computer which runs the simulation we call the world. Pick what works best for the story.

Yet the program construct, unlike the poet's words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.

(Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., The Mythical Man-Month, 1975.)

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I don't think you need an entity or intelligent being.

What entity makes sure gravity works? Who makes things fall when dropped? Who makes magnets work? Or the strong and weak nuclear forces?

In our world we understand all these things as universal constants. There is no being making them work, they just work.

In a universe where magic such as that you describe exists than presumably the same could also be said. Instead of figuring out the right angle and force with which to fire a projectile so gravity brings it where you want it to be, you are figuring out what combination of words creates a desired effect. And the 'force' of magic does the rest.

If you want an entity to be behind this then I would imagine the only real answer is an omnipotent and omnipresent God who is everywhere at once and making magic work, but in practice the results are exactly the same.

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    $\begingroup$ It doesn't need to be unaware being like a god. It could be like a virus that's not aware but programmed to do certain things in response to other things in this case each individual spell produce a certain response in Magic that creates an effect or result. $\endgroup$ – Bryan McClure Jul 20 '17 at 18:02
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I'd suggest that the entity executing the magical spells is the speaker of the words; more specifically, the soul of the speaker.

My sense is that there's a long tradition of identifying the soul with breath, human life with the presence of breath in the body, and language as an extension of breath into the world. And I'd suggest that's where our idea of magical words and magical spells comes from.

Consider the concept of Ātman, "a Sanskrit word which means 'breath, soul, essence'". It's a word with cognates in other Indo-European languages; for example, German "atmen", "to breathe".

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    $\begingroup$ Very nice. This is consistent with the "western" conception per the Greek Psuke (psyche) and pneuma, and the Latin anima. (Breath as spirit.) I take it another step and include the idea of the "will" directing the spirit in this context. This is consistent with the concept of spirit as volitional. $\endgroup$ – DukeZhou Jul 20 '17 at 19:46
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This is what my ArchMage Instructor told me...

The higher dimensional beings whom we interact with when we cast, do not hold our simple 3-dimensions plus time in the reverence that we do. To them, it is a simple aspect of existence; a very small part of what life really is.

Imagine a child listening to music on her stereo earphones. She doesn't understand the laws of cadence and rhythm. She doesn't understand the role which each instrument fills in producing the orchestral sound. Her understanding of music is limited to her own opinion. She either likes it or she doesn't.

...And when she likes it, she adds her part to the performance by dancing and singing along.

This is what magic is...

A child singing along with a song.

The musicians who perform the song do not know why it makes the young girl sing.
We do not know what makes our particular scribbles, gestures and incantations affect the higher beings the way they do.

It is magic. It is a mystery, and that is all there is to it.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to correct effect to affect. But then I thought you might actually mean effect. Which I like, and so I danced and sang and upvoted this. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 20 '17 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Will, Thanks for catching the error. Even though you liked it, I went ahead and fixed it in preparation of other, less forgiving readers. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jul 20 '17 at 23:37
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If the symbol(s) intended to use are invoking named entities, they are usually gods. Gods tend to be at least one of two things: A.) Omniscient (all knowing) B.) vain.

In the former case the entity is aware of the invocation because it's aware of everything all at once so it knows it. In the latter case, it's because you said the entity's name and it's so greatful for the recognition it responds right away. If you want to be really funny about it, liken it to how certain politicians are almost always likely to tweet something after a News Paper puts his name in big headlines. Like the politicians, the gods are flattered that you think they have all the best spells and will be more than happy to make your magic great again. Also like politicians, people should be careful doing this.

Alterantively, if having an intelligent source of magic doesn't work, think of magic like a big lake and your spell as a rock. If you do something wrong, your rock will make a big splash and sink and nothing interesting will happen (unless your goal was to make a big splash). Accept for ripples... they can be small... but sometimes a small ripple in the right spot can be bad... But if your rock is smooth and you throw it in just the right way, the rock will skip across the lake. Does the rock know how to do that? Nope. Its a rock... Does the lake? Nope... it's just a big puddle. Rather, the intelligence is the person who cast the rock and knew how large bodies of water and rocks work enough to get the desired outcome. To translate that to spell logic, the symbol will interact with magic in a certain way, causing magic to produce a certain reaction (Newton isn't just the deadliest SoB in Space). From a storytelling perspective, this could be a goldmine for potential conflicts: If magic is a reaction to it's invocation, than even wrong invocations must do something and this can cause all sorts of problem.

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A wizard cast a spell long ago that created an omnipresent being that listens all the time and makes things float when you wave a wand and say "Wingardium Leviosa".

He used a linker demon to combine a parsing demon with a gravity modification spell. His own spell, of course, was also parsed and linked by more ancient demons.

Using raw elemental magic to do work is possible, and is of course how the first primitive demons must have been constructed by prehistoric shamans, but in this age of sophisticated magical toolkits you can create much more complicated spells with less effort by combining existing spells and using demons to manage the tricky parts.

Most of these spells were made a long time ago, which is why they are often controlled with words from dead languages, although a few of them are in really really bad Latin because they were made more recently by wizards who didn't speak Latin well but thought it sounded cool.

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    $\begingroup$ Linker demon and parsing demon :) $\endgroup$ – Maxim Jul 21 '17 at 14:41
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Magic is a semi-conscious force not quite self-aware but sort of living entity it's aware enough to understand the commands but not aware enough that it can move on its own or interpret the intent of the commands. So you have to be clear what exactly you want if you mess up the spell you could easily end up dead.

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This is very similar to the effectiveness of prayer, for which the Wikipedia offers a wide range of classical and other studies of potential mechanisms.

For the purpose of world building, you simply have to imagine that one of these mechanisms actually works.

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