EDIT: Just to clarify, when I refer to magic, I am referring to the supernatural variety, not the stage variety.
PREFACE: It was recommended to me that I might try and have this answered by the historically inclined by the people over in StackExchange Worldbuilding, so here I am. I would greatly appreciate any real-world insights people might have into this topic.
ORIGINAL QUESTION: 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.
Magical practices are either historical or fictionalized. The former are mixed up with religion, as you noted, and will show a lot of regional and epochal variation. The latter have already synthesized and refocused, but don't generally come with footnotes and historical justifications. For example, the magic system in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" appears to have roots in Anglo-Saxon and Celtic traditions, but saying that doesn't explain why Tim the Enchanter would use explosives or wear ram's horns.
I'm skeptical that any magical practices are or were universal. To create or identify a magic system more strongly linked to historical practices, I think you need to pick a regional/temporal/cultural context as a model and work forward from there. Some of your reading material could include, for example, Magic in the Graeco-Roman world, Magic in the Ancient World, Aztec use of entheogens, and Magical Elements in the Avesta and Nerang Literature. The fact that religion is prominent in magic is an inherent part of historical practices; for your model to be accurate, you might want to incorporate religious elements instead of avoiding them.
You need a copy of Authentic Thaumaturgy, by Isaac Bonewits. He was a modern-day ritual magician, who managed to earn a degree in magic from the University of California.
Authentic Thaumaturgy is his attempt to systematise the underlying rules of historical magic systems: it's written as a tool for creating magic systems for role-playing games. It's available in PDF from its most recent publisher, Steve Jackson Games.
Not to contradict or compete with Aaron Brick's or John Dallman's posted answers, just helping with some additional resources as food for thought.
Here are three sources that explore magic use in ancient Egypt (a potentially rich source for ideas):
- Ancient History Encyclopedia - Magic in Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Origins - The Magic of Heka
- BBC - Ancient Egyptian Magic
Brandon Sanderson (author of The Wheel of Time series) has a blog where he offers Sanderson's Laws of Magic:
- Sanderson's First Law
- Sanderson's Second Law
- Sanderson's Third Law
Also, Mythcreants has a blog with resourceful articles, including creating Rational and Ecclectic magic systems, and Limits on Magic among many others.
Also can recommend Orson Scott Card's book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy which includes a chapter on creating magic systems.
Also also :-) you might wish to peruse the topic of Alchemy
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divination is a fairly common form of 'real magic'.
However you will be sadly disappointed if you are expecting something like Luke and Vader force choking each other.
https://pactwebserial.wordpress.com/ is a story written with a magic system that sounds like what you're describing. In short the magic system is built around the culture and history of the world in a sort of meta way. I feel like the best explanation is reading the first couple chapters.
Experiments With Reality: New Histories of the Magical
Ed Simon is the associate editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and is a regular contributor at several different sites. He is also a contributing editor at the History News Network. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.
Arthur's Seat Coffins, discovered 1836. Photo Kim Traynor CC BY-SA 3.0
"Magic never weakened. Magic never hid."
Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers
About a mile east of Edinburgh Castle, there is an extinct volcano with the rather mythic-sounding name of Arthur's Seat, which makes its gradual and green ascent over the Scottish capital. In 1836, a group of schoolboys who were rabbit hunting discovered some slate pulled over the entrance to a cave. Being curious, they pulled it aside and descended into the earth. There they would find something most unusual &ndash seventeen miniature coffins, professionally carved with brass hinge pieces for the lid, each a little under four inches tall. Naturally, inside of the seventeen miniature coffins were seventeen miniature corpses &ndash wooden dolls with unique faces and clothes stitched perfectly to their tiny bodies. Arranged in two lines of eight, with the final coffin by itself, the oldest was already showing signs of rot, while the latest could have been placed there only the day before. Something so mysterious, so strange, so creepy couldn't help but generate theories. Were they some sort of memorial? Votive offerings? Wooden homunculi? A contemporary editorial in The Scotsman noted that "Our own opinion would be, had we not some years ago abjured witchcraft and demonology, that there are still some of the weird sisters hovering about." Edinburg was a city of the Enlightenment, where a generation before thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid promulgated the stolid, sober, and commonsensical where James Watt invented the steam engine and where James Clerk Maxwell would go on to discover the laws of thermodynamics. And yet in 1836, it seemed like somebody was practicing magic on Arthur's Seat.
The Arthur's Seat burial isn't mentioned in archeologist Chris Gosden's Magic: A History from Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present, but in his career as curator of Oxford University's Pitt Rivers Museum he has handled "a witch in a bottle a slug impaled on a blackthorn to stop the rain potatoes carried by an old man in his picket to help with his rheumatism the tip of a human tongue (no ideas about that one) and an onion stuck up a pub chimney with a piece of paper on which was written the name of a temperance campaigner trying to get the pub closed down." Such magic, Gosden argues, is a good deal more common than is assumed, not a marginal activity practiced by charlatans or gurus, but indeed a universal practice inextricably connected to religion and science, and one that hasn't been eclipsed in the modern world so much as it has been sublimated.
Within Magic, Gosden provides accounts of phenomena as diverse as witchcraft among the Azande, the Renaissance writings about Hermes Trismegistus, ancient Jewish incantation bowls used to capture demons, and shamanistic rituals of the Eurasian steppe. What these activities share is a view of existence which sees the sacred and the profane as ever permeable, where humans are able to affect not just their environment, but the nature of being itself. Gosden explains that "magic was a humanization of the universe. There is a continuity between the human will or actions and the world around us," for "magic allows the universe to enter us, whether this be through the movement of the stars or the messages relayed by moving stones." Hidden within the book is a more succinct definition when discussing Scythian art, Gosden describes it as a "series of experiments with reality," an adept summation which includes phenomena as diverse as Kabbalah, the I-Ching, and druidic ceremonies.
An expert in ancient Celtic art, Gosden has done field work from Papua New Guinea to Mongolia, and his vociferous interests encompass astrology, alchemy, and divination. At times Magic's focus can seem so vast that it reads a bit like Professor Casaubon's Key to All Mythologies in George Eliot's Middlemarch, and yet Gosden's enthusiasm is well taken. He isn't the first contemporary scholar to take magic seriously (something which he notes), as the past two generations of researchers in fields as diverse as history, anthropology, religious studies, literary studies, sociology, and psychology have all rejected the dismissiveness of previous scholars. Gosden explains that that traditional historiography promoted "the idea that human intellectual culture moved from a belief in magic, to a belief in religion, and then to a belief in science. Each successive belief system was more rational, institutionally based and effective than its predecessor," but that model wasn't only simplistic and disrespectful, it also minimized the ways in which magic has been instrumental in the making of meaning.
Within my own discipline of Renaissance Studies, scholars such as Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), Dame Frances Yates in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972), Ronald Hutton in The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 (1994), and Owen Davies' Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (2009) have all examined the centrality of magic. Davies writes in Magic: A Short Introduction that his subject " provided emotional empowerment&hellip and inspired solutions when alternative sources of knowledge (including science) were inadequate." What magic offered wasn't explanation of how things happened so much as to why they did a science of the symbolic rather than the empirical. Gosden's approach to magic is to understand what it does for those who believe in it, rather than to dismiss it as mere superstition. He writes that "human history is not purely or mainly about a practical mastery of the world but creating a set of close relationships with magical forces," which is to say with ineffable, intangible, transcendent meaning. Magic rituals, be they casting lots, making an astrological star chart, or indeed suturing tiny wooden dolls into small coffins for some inscrutable reason, aren't done for the same practical purposes that planting a field or digging a well are, for magic is about giving shape to a "sense of self and group&hellip Magic is derived from participation, and participation has many dimensions." What Gosden conveys is just how normal magic is, an intractable part of the human experience that's as central to our expressions of meaning as formally organized religion.
Though Gosden is admirably anti-positivist, rightly refusing the fallacy which interprets magic as simply inadequate science, or worse, as mere hucksterism, the book would have benefited by more thorough engagement with philosophical argumentation. Writing with the confidence of Casaubon, Gosden sweepingly argues that "Human history as a whole is made up of a triple helix of magic, religion and science, the boundaries between which are fuzzy and changing, but their mutual tension is creative." This theoretical neologism of the "triple helix" is as woven through the text of Magic as it apparently is through history, and while the broad contours of the concept aren't necessarily erroneous, they can serve to obscure as much as illuminate. The difficulty with the concept is neither that its too sweeping (for academe could benefit from more ambition) nor that it gives weight to divergent epistemologies. Rather the problem is that these terms are inexactly used. Both "science" and "religion" are of course variable concepts with complicated genealogies as deployed by Gosden, however, and the former seems to broadly mean "empiricism" (which is notably simpler than the strict definition of science), and "religion" which he defines as involving belief in deities combined with hierarchical organization. Both of these concepts are, of course, far more complicated than how they're used here, and more variable as well (though he acknowledges that later point). While the spirit of the triple helix is well taken &ndash that any epoch is defined by a complex relationship between ways of understanding that are both literal and symbolic, both rational and aesthetic &ndash the fuzziness of the metaphor betrays its utility.
Regardless, Magic is a welcome introduction, and in collating such a variety of examples from so many different cultures, Gosden provides convincing evidence for his claim that "magic was not marginal or dubious but central to many cultural forms." There is an enchantment to Gosden's enthusiasms, and more importantly to the copious cases which he provides. The technocratic partisans might have it that magic is simply cock-eyed superstition, hoaxes on the credulous, but Gosden rightly elevates it to any of the great explorations of meaning which mark our species, from philosophy, to art, to literature. Most evocatively, he argues that magic might supply an invaluable metaphysic that coolly rational science and technology are lacking, one that could be particularly crucial in the warming days of the Anthropocene, writing that "Magic encourages a holistic view of human beings, linking them to the planet through practical and moral relationship. At a time when we need positive and holistic planetary thinking, magic has much to offer." It's a fascinating claim, and one which I hope that Gosden takes up in some future study.
For the casual reader, it might be hard to see how seventeen dolls in Scotland have much to do with planetary survival, but a reading of Magic will show how the most varied of practices &ndash painting a buried Neolithic body with red ochre, divination from the stars, erecting circles of stones on a green field somewhere &ndash are connected to an understanding of life, consciousness, and reality where humanity is not separate from the wider world, but an intrinsic part of it. "Magic offers the possibility of a communal life &ndash a life lived together with all the cosmos," he writes, and indeed the disenchantments of rationality have alienated us from the wider universe, making us observers rather than agents (even as we irrevocably destroy our environment). Gosden writes that a "truly open community is hard to obtain or sustain, but the need to cool the planet and live in a greater state of equality is urgent&hellip Magic allows for a sense of kinship with all things, living or not. And with kinship comes responsibility."
As a model for that sort of perspective, consider a site some five thousand miles to the east of Arthur's Seat, on an arid plateau in Turkey named Göbekli Tepe. There, in 1994, archeologists discovered one of the most astounding of prehistoric sites, a complex of stone columns, pillars, and altars at least eleven thousand years old. Anonymous artists rendered stone depictions of lizards and birds, bulls and foxes, in a structure which some have argued is the earliest temple. The nature of the faith of those who worshiped here is hidden beyond the veil of deep history, and yet the sculptures rendered seem to evidence an almost transcendent sense of humanity's place in nature. Amazingly, Göbekli Tepe predates agriculture, the temple constructed by nomadic hunter-gatherers. There is evidence that local agriculture developed specifically to feed and house those who built and then visited Göbekli Tepe, so that magic was a prerequisite for the emergence of civilization itself. A certain irony that magic inadvertently led to the system of organization which eleven millennia later pushes us to the precipice of ecological collapse, so much so that there is a poetic justice if some modern version of the faith of Göbekli Tepe &ndash which understands humans as being both in and of nature &ndash is responsible for our environmental redemption. Magic may yet protect us from our own blasphemies against nature's sacred order.
Native Americans to J.K. Rowling: We’re Not Magical
The author has come under fire for equating Navajo religious beliefs with the world of her fictional Harry Potter characters.
In Peter Pan, Tiger Lilly and her tribe are part of the magical landscape of Neverland. In Twilight, some Quileute people are born with the ability to turn into wolves (just ask anyone on “Team Jacob”). Now, in J.K. Rowling’s new digital story collection, History of Magic in North America, Navajo traditions are placed in the same fictional world as Harry Potter.
Rowling’s new collection equates “skin walkers”—a Navajo term for people who turn into animals—with Animagi, the type of witches and wizards who morph into animals in her Harry Potter series. These details were first revealed when Rowling released a promotional trailer this week the entire story collection is now available online.
Immediately, many scholars and fans responded with criticism, just as people did three years ago when Johnny Depp played Tonto in The Lone Ranger, and in past instances when white writers and actors have employed stereotypes of Native Americans in storytelling.
The first issue, says Leanne Howe, a Choctaw Nation citizen and co-editor of Seeing Red—Hollywood's Pixeled Skins, is that Rowling attributes the tradition of skin walkers to all Native Americans of the pre-Columbian era, as though they were a monolithic group with one set of beliefs.
The second problem is that Native American traditions are equated with magic. This is part of a long history of white Americans and Europeans trivializing native beliefs. (Rowling’s publisher, Pottermore, told National Geographic that it has no comment on the controversy.)
“I would never, never use the term ‘magic’ in relation to native practices and belief,” Howe says. Native people “simply cannot be respected and given respect in the 21st century” when their history and traditions are trivialized.
Fantasy is an important part of children’s literature, but problems arise when a race of people is constantly portrayed as magical, and therefore fictional.
“We are … fighting everyday for the protection of our sacred sites from being destroyed,” scholar Adrienne Keene writes on her blog Native Appropriations. “If Indigenous spirituality becomes conflated with fantasy ‘magic’—how can we expect lawmakers and the public to be allies in the protection of these spaces?”
There is another, more subtle, layer to the depiction of Native Americans as magical, fictional beings—they end up being portrayed as though they don’t exist. Howe refers to this as “the trope of the vanishing Indian.”
“The vanishing American Indian is in art, it’s in stories—we’re the so-called Last of the Mohicans,” she says. “We exist in the minds of mainstream America as dead and forgotten because the white Americans won the American West.”
When native traditions are constantly depicted as relics, it gives the impression that those traditions—and the more than 5 million native people in the United States—don’t exist anymore. Think of the Native American characters you’ve encountered in books and movies. How many of them were portrayed as characters from the past, and how many of them were depicted as people in the modern world? (Modern characters that are also magical don’t count—I’m still looking at you, Twilight.)
On a more basic level, the stereotypes of the “vanishing Indian,” the magical medicine man, or even the noble savage dehumanize the people they profess to represent. Children read books to learn, but also to identify with the characters. For native children, this presents a problem if most of the images they see of themselves are otherworldly, long gone, or sports mascots.
“These stereotypes hurt us in terms of our human rights,” says Howe. “You cannot have civil rights, you can’t really have human rights or be thought of in a significant way, if you are invisible and you’re dead. So the trope of the vanishing American Indian is in a way undermining the humanity of native people because the assumption is we’re dead, or there’s just a few of us left.”
A Guide to Ancient Magic
Call it a happy accident: When a group of Serbian archaeologists recently uncovered a cache of 2,000-year-old skeletons, they unearthed a set of mysterious scrolls covered with Aramaic curses, too. As Reuters reports, the tiny scrolls were contained in what are thought to be ancient amulets and are covered with spells used in “binding magic” rituals of yore.
While the archaeologists work to decipher the scrolls (a process that could never be complete), why not take a moment to catch up on what historians already know about ancient magical rituals?
Spells were everything
In ancient “binding magic,” it was all about the spells. Unlike modern-day magical phrases like, say, "bippity boppity boo," practitioners of magic in ancient Greek and Rome used spells to “bind” people up to different outcomes in sporting events, business, and personal affairs related to love and even revenge.
As Greek and Roman magic expert Derek Collins writes, binding spells had known formulas and named involved parties, like gods and people, and then connected them to actions or results. You could use a binding spell to invoke an upcoming athletic victory or ensure your happy marriage to a new partner—and to do so, you’d use powerful strings of words passed on by magicians or ordinary people.
Amulets were a must-have magical fashion accessory
Spells weren’t just said in the ancient world—they were written down. And like the objects found in Syria, the spells were often carried around with a person until they came to pass. Amulets designed to carry spells became a must-have fashion accessory and are regularly found in Ancient Greek and Roman grave sites and digs.
Though other ancient cultures, like that of Ancient Egypt, favored amulets with symbolism, Ancient Greek and Roman amulets were designed to carry spells, themselves. In 2011, archaeologists uncovered an amulet in Cyprus that was engraved with a palindromic spell, and in 2008, Swiss archaeologists found a gold scroll in a silver amulet capsule thought to have belonged to an ancient Roman child. Amulets may have looked decorative, but their contents felt like life and death to believers, who paid magicians to give them scrolls and talismans that put their intentions into physical form.
Curses and revenge were very much a thing
One of the more charmingly bitter traditions of ancient Greece and Rome were “curse tablets”—spells written on lead, wax or stone that laid out the ways in which people had been wronged. Think of curse tablets as the takedowns of the ancient world: If someone disrespected or harmed you, you could head to your local magician and pay to curse them. People cursed people who hurt their family members, but they also cursed them when they committed crimes or even entered into court cases against them. Large caches of curse tablets have been found in Roman digs in the modern-day United Kingdom.
One such tablet invokes the god Mercury to bring down a curse on Varianus, Peregrina and Sabinianus, whom the curser thought had brought harm on their animal. “I ask that you drive them to the greatest death, and do not allow them health or sleep unless they redeem from you what they have administered to me,” cursed the aggrieved Docilinus. Ouch.
And then there were the curse dolls
Of course, if someone dissed you, you also had the option of creating a tiny effigy to do harm to. Though sometimes compared to modern-day voodoo dolls, scholars still aren’t entirely sure what the tiny figurines used in binding magic in ancient Greece and Rome were for. What they do know is that the word “binding” was taken literally when it comes to these figures: They have been found in tiny coffins with bound hands and feet or mutilated bodies and seem to have been molded along with binding spells.
Not everyone in ancient Greece and Rome was into magic
The descriptions above might make you think that everyone in the ancient world was into binding magic. But that wasn’t true: Historians now believe that magic was quite separate from ancient religion. Though both involved the gods, magic involved manipulating gods whereas other rituals relied on supplication and offerings in the hopes that the gods might favor the person doing the asking.
Anti-magic legislation existed in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome, even before the days of Christianity, but often such laws only covered magic that actually killed, as when a stepmother was sued for administering a fatal “love charm” to her stepson’s mistress. Lesson learned: If you only use your ancient curses, spells and charms to inflict mild harm instead of death, you should be okay. Now where did that curse tablet go?
So How Do We Avoid Appropriation?
- Know the difference between open and closed systems, and respect if a system is closed.
- If a system is open or only partially closed, try to find a teacher or mentor who is already a part of that system. If an in-person mentor isn&rsquot possible, try to find books and other resources created by people who are actually part of that culture.
- Only use items or practices in your witchcraft if you have a good understanding of their cultural, religious, and/or spiritual significance.
- If a member of a culture or magic system tells you their system is closed and asks you to stop using it, listen to them.
- Educate yourself on how cultural appropriation contributes to systemic racism and other social issues.
- Don&rsquot try to sneak around culture appropriation. If you burn white sage to cleanse your space, you are still appropriating Native American spiritual practices (and contributing to the overharvesting of an endangered plant), even if you don&rsquot use the term &ldquosmudging&rdquo or appropriate the entire smudge ceremony. If something is not yours to practice, leave it alone.
- Learning about other cultures is not the same as cultural appropriation. Here&rsquos a personal example: I live fairly close to New Orleans, and I think New Orleans Voodoo is a fascinating tradition. When I visit, I like to speak to local Voodoo practitioners and learn from them about their practice. That being said, I recognize that I am not a part of that practice, and I&rsquom not about to start incorporating elements of Voodoo into my personal practice.
As a white woman, my track record is not perfect when it comes to cultural appropriation. When I first started my witchcraft journey, I burned white sage and worked with the chakra system. I didn&rsquot know any better, and these things were presented to me as if they were open to anyone. But now I do know better, and I&rsquom making a conscious effort to avoid appropriation in my practice.
I&rsquom also trying to do better for new witches just entering the world of alternative spirituality. It&rsquos important for us to talk about things like cultural appropriation so that baby witches know from the beginning what the issues are and why they matter.
Anth 4340: Magic, Witchcraft and Religion
How can witchcraft be defined so as to apply cross-culturally, and still respect uniqueness of each society?
Witchcraft/witches: socially unimportant totally uncontrollable destructive powers blamed for misfortune, death accused, punished
In werewolf form, ate corpses, made poison from dried flesh, especially of children
Anthropologists call hybrid creature "the Sorcerer" or "The God of the Hunt"
Focus on fertility: humans, animals, earth herself
350 BC had priestly class, Druids
Druids understood nonphysical world refined knowledge
Healers, midwives, ritualists, weather specialists, law and astrology specialists saw the future
All designed to inflict maximum pain, damage
*heretic: Christian whose beliefs, practice differed from accepted doctrine
Some put to death
Avatar: The Last Airbender's world never felt tokenizing because it drew from Asian history
Almost a decade and a half after it finished airing on Nickelodeon, Avatar: The Last Airbender quickly reached the top of the streaming chart within a few days of its Netflix debut on May 15. Back in 2005, when it premiered, Avatar garnered critical acclaim and, while initially geared toward kids, was popular with a wide range of viewers who were drawn in by the unique blend of Eastern influences. The show’s popularity even led to a live-action movie in 2010 directed by M. Night Shyamalan that is still derided to this day. The main critique leveled at the film was its white-washing of the characters, as one of the key appeals of the animated series was that it focused on a non-white fantasy world.
Yet a quick perusal of the creators, the writers, and the voice cast reveals that for all the pan-Asian dressing of the animated series, the show itself was largely white-washed behind the scenes to begin with. The showrunners, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, are both white men, as was the head writer, Aaron Ehasz, and the majority of the writers for the series. Certainly these facts influence how we understand the show, particularly as its mass appeal is in its non-white representation. The question is what makes it work, this blend of cultures that never seems forced, offensive, or careless. It takes a myriad of factors, but the majority of the answer lies in history.
For most viewers, fantasy and any world with a magic system tend to be based on elements in the Western tradition. J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental contribution to medieval fantasy through the Lord of the Rings trilogy set the standard for most fantasy tropes in circulation today. A significant swath of fantasy writing still inhabits a similar, generic European landscape — Game of Thrones and the Netflix original series The Witcher being the most recent, popular examples. Avatar undercuts the Western fantasy genre by beginning from a wholly different foundation, offering a look at what a fantasy world could look like if we began with a non-Western context.
It does this by drawing from events in world history, rather than relying wholly on cultural stereotypes to define the four distinct nations within the show. While the creators made it clear that they were drawing on Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Inuit aesthetics — for the Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Air Nomads, and Water Tribes, respectively — the individual nations within the world of Avatar are generally not reduced to stereotypes. This is particularly true for the Fire Nation, built on a blend of identifiable aspects from the Meiji and Taishō eras of Japanese history.
The Meiji Era (1868-1912) is a key moment in the modernization of Japan, beginning with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which reinstated the Emperor after two centuries of the shogunate during the Tokugawa Era. The Meiji era is defined by large scale social and political change, along with a widespread push for Westernization, a movement called 文明開化 (bunmei kaika) or civilization and enlightenment, and a push toward industrialization. Avatar reflects this moment in history, as it seems that the Fire Nation experienced a similar rapid industrialization. Unlike the other nations it invades, the Fire Nation uses industrial machinery for infrastructure and weaponry.
However, the clearest inspiration for the Fire Nation comes from the era immediately following the Meiji. The Taishō Era (1912-1926) was marked by heightened militarization, along with the Empire of Japan’s encroachment into and colonization of other Asian countries leading into the events of World War II, which fell under the Shōwa Era (1926-1989). From the voiceover in Avatar’s opening sequence, we find out that the Fire Nation began a war 100 years ago and has been attacking the other nations since, decimating them and conquering them in a bid to control the entire world. The Fire Nation is militarized and structured around a totalitarian monarch, the Fire Lord, as the head of the nation.
Even the language the Fire Nation uses for its conquest of other nations echoes that used by the Empire of Japan. In one scene, Fire Lord Sozin, who began the war a century before the events of the series, praises the wealth and innovation of the Fire Nation to Avatar Roku, who is also a member of the Fire Nation. Sozin says:
"Our nation is experiencing an unprecedented time of peace and wealth. Our people are happy, and we’re so fortunate in so many ways…We should share this prosperity with the rest of the world. In our hands is the most successful empire in history. It’s time we expanded it."
Sozin’s reasoning is strikingly reminiscent of the rationale behind the Empire of Japan’s invasion of the Asian mainland it too couched its imperialism in terms of prosperity and sharing of fortune, dubbing it the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The intention was to create cultural unity between Asian countries in a bid to resist the increasing encroachment of Western imperialism. However grandiose the language, the effects of these military campaigns are clear: Throughout Avatar, the main characters see the desolation and destruction of nations that came from Sozin’s pontification, just as the effects of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere resonate in many Asian countries to this day.
Avatar’s worldbuilding is unique in that it draws from concrete elements of world history outside of the European context, creating an original fantasy world by superimposing and fusing key eras in Japanese history as the foundation for the Fire Nation. What results is a fictional nation that isn’t reliant upon stereotypes, which is often the case when white creators try to draw on non-Western cultures for their fictional realms. What makes the Japanese inspiration for the Fire Nation identifiable isn’t the clothing, the food, or inclusion of a geisha analog — which is usually how "Japan" is signified to a non-Western audience. Instead, the creators drew on Japanese history, which creates a more grounded and compelling foundation for an original world. The Fire Nation doesn’t directly represent Japan any more than the kingdoms of Middle-earth directly represent England. But each draws elements from real-world nations and histories to create something new that feels decidedly real.
It’s this focus on history, rather than on stereotype, that makes Avatar an example of non-Western worldbuilding done well, even by those outside of the tradition they are emulating. Yet there is always the danger of tokenizing, stereotyping, and even oversimplifying characterizations when drawing on unfamiliar cultures or histories. This is why it is so crucial to include a wide range of writers on a project that draws on series like Avatar that are trying to develop a new fantasy world. Even in the depiction of the Fire Nation there are moments, as someone deeply familiar with and invested in Japanese history, where I wonder whether the creators thought through some of the implications of how they depict the Fire Nation’s story arc, particularly in Book Three. Fire Prince Zuko’s gradual realization about the insidious nature of the Fire Nation comes to a head when he confronts his father, Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko says:
"Growing up we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history. And somehow, the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was. The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation! They don’t see our greatness, they hate us. And we deserve it. We’ve created an era of fear in the world. And if we don’t want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness."
While Zuko’s sentiments work well for a clean narrative arc, it also seems like a highly sanitized solution to the main tension within the series, as it implies the sins of an entire nation are essentially erased if a problematic leader is removed. There is historical precedence for this in immediate post-World War II Japan, with the American occupation’s line being that the Japanese people had been duped by the military into going to war. Rather than own up to the atrocities committed during the war, Japan has historically elided responsibility for much of its imperialism. South Korea, in particular, has called for the Japanese government to apologize for Japanese atrocities committed under imperialism, pointing out how many official statements tend to minimize Japan’s active role in colonialism. These same criticisms have been raised as recently as 2018.
In many ways, Avatar presents a similar resolution for its fictional war it isn’t clear that the Fire Nation takes concrete responsibility for the wide-scale destruction of a number of cities and villages. There is only a call for the end of war and a move toward a peaceful future.
It could be argued that because the show was intended for a younger demographic, this neater, simplistic ending works best. But, on the other hand, the series had never shied away from complex and serious topics throughout its run. Within the first season alone, audiences grapple with war, totalitarianism, and genocide — all heavy topics for a children’s television show. If we are working within the realm of an original world, why not explore alternative historical outcomes? Why not explore the fantasy-world ramifications of these very real-world atrocities?
While Avatar offers a well-crafted fantasy world based on Eastern influence, the blind spots of its creators become apparent in moments like this, where the story falls short of the influences it relies on. Bringing in more writers familiar with the themes and histories that the four nations are built on would have fleshed out moments that lack depth.
But the show was unique, particularly at the time, for the way it went about non-Western representation and deserves credit for the creative and narrative risks it took. In an interview with tor.com, show creator Michael Dante DiMartino said: “In order for the story to feel epic, and to feel like there were real stakes involved, we had to go darker, more serious in places at times, and I am thankful that Nickelodeon gave us that creative freedom."
The hope now is that Avatar acts as a precedent for non-white creators who want to do similar genre-bending explorations in their own shows and that these non-white creators will get the same creative freedom the creators of Avatar did. Avatar’s lasting popularity over the past 15 years shows that there is a clear market for fantasy that pushes the bounds of genre and that imagines new worlds outside of the standard medieval fantasy format.
13 Answers 13
As you referenced the size of your Planet to be Earth-like, let's look at some Earth Population Data!
In 4.000 BC, there lived an estimated 28.37 million People on Earth. Lets just put them all in your
sized area. That'd mean, everyone would have around 1km² to himself! That's huge!
Now 4000 years passed: In the year 0, Earth's Population was at an estimated 188 million. We can go even further:
You have 4 major races. Let's assume there are 188 million of each! Except for Dragons, as 188 million Dragons sounds terrifying (and would be a massive drain on available resources)
You now have a population of 564 million Elves, Dwarves and Humans. That's a population density of
So yes, big, unpopulated areas are perfectly valid, depending on the age of your overall population and their Tech-level.
What could be in those uninhabited regions? Adventure! The mother of all Dragons, where she gives birth to all of them? Perhaps! Basically anything that fits your story.
Edit: it was not calculated above that the Dwarves don't need to be counted as they don't live above ground ("Rarely even come outside") so that math is a bit more cramped than it should be where
2/km² Dwarves, but Math wasn't my strong point, feel free to correct it.
Also, I'm not sure, but did they accidentally include Dragons in their Math? If so, instead of my earlier
5/km² (factoring a size factor of *4 to a population factor of /8, ⅛ the population but 4× larger than average Humanoids), maybe even
4.5/km² due to food limitations of the Dragons.
Generally speaking, lacking water supply is a good reason for having unpopulated areas (just look at our earthly deserts).
However, you can still have unpopulated or scarcely populated areas thanks to one of the following reasons:
- too much water: swamps and permanently flooded areas are generally not healthy places to permanent live
- sacred places: the walking gods claimed those areas as their personal retreat and forbid other races to access it.
- intense vulcanism: well, a lava fountain is not exactly the most nice place to live close to, considering it would burn and cover in ashes everything (in addition to the toxic gasses produced)
- remoteness: some areas are simply too far away from other civilized places to make it worth the effort of building something there.
Is this genuinely empty, as in no-one lives there at all, or has ever lived there?
Is this empty like the Alps? No-one lives on the tops, but there are people living in all the valleys, and the higher slopes are a traditional part of transhumance agriculture.
Is it empty like north Africa? There are fairly wide areas where no-one lives, because there's not much water there, but there is regular traffic between centres of population (which are founded around sources of water), and it is still considered "owned" by the tribes/countries who cross it.
Is it empty like the larger forests in the US or Europe? You can go quite some distance without seeing anyone. But forests have edges, and where a forest is entirely within a country, that country owns it, even though no-one may actually live there.
Is it empty like the mountains between India and Pakistan? It's a dead zone as far as humans are concerned, but there is a strategic and political importance to it which means actually there are people there for military purposes?
Or is it empty like the central Sahara, where the place is basically a killing zone for anything larger than insects and small lizards, and there's no strategic or political importance for anyone to be there?
All these areas could easily be called "empty", and certainly there aren't any great centres of population in those areas. So the answer has to be "yes, it's possible". In many of these examples though, they are still owned by a state or tribe, or people use these areas or travel through them. So you'd need to decide whether there are reasons for them to be genuinely empty, or whether it's only that there are so few people there that they're not worth counting from a tax/resources/defence perspective. And whether, in spite of their "emptiness", they should still belong to someone.
There are large areas of desert in real Earth, taking up a bit of a contenent.
Look at pre-industrial populations, and you see they are not huge cities. They are spread out, with farmland and villiages. It might be a day's journey to the next settlement.
After keeping that in mind, I think adonies is right: have unknown areas, not uninhabited. Set up natural barriers, such as deserts and mountains. You can have trade with peoples on the far side while being vague as to what’s actually there: think of the Silk Road for example.
I think one important aspect to this question is: how long ago was your world created?
If all races evolved over a long time frame then it's VERY likely that most of them are present in the empty space (unless the shore line AND the mountains are completely impassable - humans on earth made it too Canada during the Stone Ages). Their cultures, languages(!) and technological level should all be different from the main area you're focusing on (think the America's or Asia before anyone from Europe arrived there). Maybe the races there are at war with each other, maybe it's just a few tribes in the grasslands. The area could also have their own gods, magic or no gods at all same thing for agriculture.
If your world was created not too long before 'the onset of agriculture', it's reasonable that humans and elves never made it across the mountains - especially if the gods kept them 'occupied' in their territories. However, I would argue that dragons & dwarves should still live in that part, since they could easily go around (through the sea) or through the mountain range. (Similar differences in culture as above, just less extreme)
I'm gonna throw out a more unconventional one here. You mention that the tides are three times stronger in your world: I think that would lead to quite a few unpopulated coastal areas.
Cities are usually built on coasts to act as ports, for trading or military purposes (or both). However, if the difference between high tide and low tide is too extreme - and it will be in quite a few places on your continent, depending on the local geography - it would be completely impractical to build a city there:
- You build a city near the low tide mark. At high tide, the entire dockyard is underwater.
- You build a city near the high tide mark. At low tide, the city is completely inaccessible from the ocean.
Either way, the dockyard would only be usable at certain times of the day, and that's so disruptive to business that you might as well not bother. There are ways around this (a floating jetty that raises and lowers together with the tide, for example), but how practical this is depends on your world's tech level.
Generally speaking, though, ports would be located at specific areas, where the difference between low tide and high tide is not too extreme, and everywhere else would be uninhabitable because twice a day the sea comes half a mile inland and floods everything.
On the plus side, when the tide goes back out again, you'd have some spectacular beaches.
Since you have magic in your world it could be areas blighted by hostile magic in some way, maybe it works like radiation would or something more direct such as zombies or magical monsters. These areas could be naturally occurring or the legacy of past magical wars. Either way it explains the situation.
Just going to throw out something from the real world that may have an impact on your world.
In the southwest United States there are huge areas that are un-populated or very very sparsely populated. You can look up the wikipedia entries on Chaco Canyon In New Mexico or Mesa Verde in Colorado. these are examples of areas that had civilisations there, then nearly nothing in the area for thousands of years. Technically there are people there, but the populations are very sparse. If you visit, you see why. Though beautiful, there is little water and travel would be extremely difficult.
These are places I have personally been to, and I understand there are many such similar places all over our own planet.
The things I think are critical to create that kind of environment are the following: Lack of readily available water, and very difficult travel. In the places I mention they kind of play off of each other. to get to Chaco canyon, there are significant distances with no water that Make travel hard. Mesa Verde in in some mountainous terrain.
All I know is that they are Beautiful, Timeless, and Empty. You have no problem at all imagining you are the first person to have ever been on that part of the planet.
Considering that first off, Magic already exists, in multiple formats no less, and it's taken Time and Effort to produce these Methods, that is an important factor, another important factor is that you already answered your own question, Dragons already Live up to 3× the Time Frame in question, the Dragons could have easily already visited the other side of the Mountains for 2,000 Years before the Humans set up their Nations, which brings me to the World Building Parent Topic of this Post:
I was recently reminiscing about one of my old favorite Games (Tales of Symphonia), and in it, the Civilization is in a very Low Tech Era, this turned out to be due to Magic Shortages primarily, whereas the Second Planet had a VERY abundant Magic supply, and as a result, their Tech Levels were significantly more advanced (Steam Ships compared to Ion Propulsion Personal Multidimensional Planes to be precise).
The reason this is important is because at one point, both Planets were not only Equal in their Tech-level, but they were actually more advanced back then as well! Which begs the question What Happened? This Technology doesn't simply disappear! It's evidenced in the few Ruins that weren't purged by the Bad Guys (who are also Hoarding Magic as well).
The results of the two ruling Nations fighting caused the bad guys to split the World in two, quite a catastrophic event I would assume, and from there, the decline began, which when translated to your World, means that perhaps whilst the current Civilization is only 1,000 Years old, the Dragons might remember amazing City-scapes with Magi-Tech far more Advanced than anything today, you know, before The Great Cataclysm, which wiped out almost everything, and probably helped form the very Mountains which divided the areas.
There's even a possibility of an Old Elf or Two that might know a few things, perhaps they might know why everything and everyone vanished from that area, maybe not, or maybe they will even have their own Agenda to spread.
There's also of course the given possibility of the Dwarves discovering this area as well, and utilizing the terrain for their own purposes (I'm thinking Refineries, Ventilation, Storage, Mining, etc.)
As you are the Creator, the answer is clearly up to you, but it is very possible to discover Advanced Ruins in uncharted territories.
Spirals and circles are much more commonly found in nature than straight-edged shapes like triangles and squares. As such, people today tend to associate spirals with the natural world as opposed to the constructed, mechanical and urban world. Spirals are primal, raw, and unrestrained by man.
Moreover, ancient people were acutely aware of cyclical forces of nature: monthly lunar patterns, yearly solar and seasonal patterns, which in turn affect yearly patterns in plant growth and animal husbandry.
It has been suggested that at least some of the ancient spirals represent the sun, so it is sometimes described as a solar symbol. However, solar symbols are strongly male-oriented, so its use in modern beliefs is limited.
Can we contain the virus without vaccinating children — or convincing the vaccine-reluctant?
The question is how many more people need to be vaccinated before the United States sees the striking decline in case numbers experienced by Israel. If Gandhi’s 60% figure is accurate, that equates to an additional 66 million more residents who need to be vaccinated if it’s 70%, then 100 million more need to step up for vaccination.
Some, of course, are not yet eligible — in particular, children younger than age 16. (Pfizer has shown that its vaccine is 100% safe and effective in children between the ages of 12 and 15 — and has applied for emergency use authorization [EUA] for that cohort.) Assuming that EUA is granted, that still leaves 49 million children under the age of 12 — about 15% of the U.S. population — who are not yet eligible for vaccination. “I do think we’re going to reach herd immunity without vaccinating younger children,” Gandhi says, citing a recent Israel-based study that shows for every 20-point increase in vaccinations among adults, the risk of transmission in younger children halves.
Notably, about 20% of the population has no plans to get a vaccine , with another 17% in a wait-and-see pattern, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking public sentiment around COVID-19 vaccination. That includes large numbers of health care workers, but it also includes those who are younger and politically conservative.
And convincing at least some of them to be vaccinated will be necessary. Topol thinks more young people will be vaccinated when they are the ones being hospitalized — a trend that is already starting to play out in some states. “We’re going to get reports about younger people getting sick and being hospitalized and even dying. It’s awful, but it’s going to be one way that younger folks realize they’re not immortal.”
That happened in Israel, he says, and it was one catalyst that helped propel that country to population-level immunity. (Topol prefers that term to herd immunity.) “Israel has population-level immunity. We’ll get there. But it will take a good part of the next three months to get to or exceed where Israel is right now. The difference is we have 330 million people and they have 9 million.”
Gandhi is hopeful we’ll be able to reach some level of virus containment even sooner. “If I thought herd immunity had to happen at 90%, which we were thinking four months or even a week ago, I’d be more worried. But now that we see it’s not going to be that high, I’m not as worried,” she says.
But she does advocate for better messaging around vaccine uptake. “As someone who did a lot of research around masks, I couldn’t stand the messaging that said, ‘Wear a stupid mask,’” she says. “A lot of people who don’t want to get the vaccines are anti-mask. So, if they get the vaccine, the masks will go away. Let’s talk about that to generate confidence in the vaccines. Just like any public health message, we need to be gentle and try to meet people where they are.”